Smoking is when you cure or preserve meat, fish, cheese, and other foods by exposing them to smoke with the use of a smoker.
The history of smoking food is not certain. Many say that it dates back to the time of the cavemen, where food was hung in the caves away from insects and other pests.
Later, it was established that smoked food acquired a different taste to food that was simply hung to dry. The smoking process can be done in various ways and this has been made increasingly easier thanks to the modern smoker.
As with all products, smokers have evolved significantly since their beginnings. Because they now come in various shapes and sizes, all with their own set of benefits, we’ve created this comprehensive guide.
In it, you will learn about what a smoker is as well as the difference between smoking, barbecuing, and grilling. We’ll also tell you how a smoker works, the various benefits they have to offer, as well as the various types available.
We’ll then tell you how to use a smoker, explain how to maintain your smoker, and then share some information on the most reputable manufacturers in the industry today.
So, let’s get started with the basics:
A smoker is used to smoke food. It is an appliance that cooks meats, fish, cheese, and other ingredients in a smoky environment at a very low temperature.
While there are many different types of smokers, powered via various sources, they all have the same objective: maintain a stable cooking temperature of approximately 110 degrees Fahrenheit. As the name suggests, the process also has to involve the use of smoke.
Basically, any cooking appliance that maintains the same steady temperatures and uses smoke to cook food is a smoker. But, the smoking process is not the same as that of barbecuing or grilling.
While many believe barbecuing, grilling, and smoking are all the same, they’re not. The main difference between the three is the temperature at which they cook ingredients and the time they cook them for.
Smoking involves cooking ingredients at a very low heat of anywhere between 68 and 176 degrees Fahrenheit. The smoking process can take between one hour and a couple of days depending on the chosen temperature.
Grilling is done at high heat between 400 and 550 degrees Fahrenheit for a matter of minutes. It typically involves meats rather than other ingredients and involves searing the surface in order to seal in all the juices.
The key to barbecuing is slow and low. A barbecue typically reaches temperatures of 190 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, most cook meat on their barbecues but most recently they have been used to cook vegetables as well as other ingredients.
There two common forms of smoking, cold and hot smoking. Cold smoking is typically used for various meats and cheeses and involves using temperatures of 68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. It allows for a smoky flavor while keeping the ingredients moist.
The hot smoking process is about cooking the ingredients at approximately 126 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit and then recooking them later. These ingredients are, however, safe to eat straight away.
Smoking is a unique way of cooking that has a massive number of benefits, some of which include:
Depending on the type of wood used, the smoking process can add very distinct, interesting flavor to the ingredients being cooked.
In Europe, alder and oak are most commonly used, while in North America, hickory, mesquite, maple, and fruit tree woods are more popular. Other parts of the world use corn cobs, manuka, and uncooked rice as well.
Smoking meat kills bacteria and slows down the growth process of other bacteria once the cooking process is complete.
There are numerous wood smoke compounds that act as antioxidants, thus slowing the rancidification of ingredients, more specifically animals, and slowing the growth of germs and other infectious bacterial growth.
More often than not, people salt cure their ingredients before cooking them in order to better preserve their food. The salt curing and smoking process can preserve ingredients such as meats and fish without refrigeration for weeks, if not months.
Basically, smoked products have a longer shelf life. Smokers prevent fats on food from developing a rancid taste and also stop mold from growing on fermented sausages in particular. Smoked ingredients also often look more appealing.
While smoked foods should be consumed in moderation, they do have some health benefits. They are typically high in nutrients and because smoked foods are often meats, they’re high in protein.
Lastly, although meat can have a high fat content, during the smoking process, a percentage of the fat drips out of the meat. The smoking process doesn’t require any additional fats or sauces during the preparation.
Smokers now come in all shapes and sizes. Different styles are made from different materials and these can all be powered via various sources. That said, all smokers use the same technique of keeping the ingredients being cooked away from the fire or heat source.
Here are some of the most common types and sizes, as well as the various fuel or heating sources used for smoking today:
Vertical and cylinder smokers are among the most popular. The charcoal is stored at the bottom and the meat or other ingredients are stored at the top.
There is a bowl of water between the two which helps maintain the temperature, adds humidity to the smoker, collects any drips from the ingredients, as well as adds flavor.
Modern models come with vent controls at the bottom, a vent at the top, and a thermometer to keep track of the temperature.
Green Egg Smokers have a sealed design and are ceramic. They act in the same way as cylinder ones thanks to their small vent at the top. The main difference is that they can also be used for grilling, barbecuing, cooking pizzas, and even baking.
While cabinet smokers may look the same as vertical smokers, they’re not. Cabinet smokers are larger and come with multiple racks, allowing the user to cook multiple ingredients at the same time.
Cabinet smokers use the same concept as vertical ones as the charcoal and water are stored below, but they have more vents in order to better control the temperature.
Offset firebox smokers are perfect for those of you who want to be able to grill and smoke ingredients from the same appliance. These types of smokers typically come with two cylinders.
The main chamber is where the ingredients are cooked. The second one is a small firebox chamber which is loaded with charcoal and wood and then lit on fire. The heat and smoke move from the offset chamber to the main chamber, thus smoking the ingredients.
Smokers are usually divided into 4 fuel categories:
Electric smokers are by far the most convenient and easy to use. They’re great at keeping the temperature stable and can normally just be left to their own devices. All you’ll need is a power outlet, a weatherproof extension cord, and a timer.
Similarly to with electric models, these types of smokers just require a tank of gas or propane which can last up to 15 hours. They also offer a high degree of control over the cooking temperature and are just as simple to use.
Charcoal smokers require you to be a lot more involved with the cooking process. You will have to fill your chimney starter as well as manage the oxygen and temperature throughout the process.
Charcoal smokers are known to give the best flavor, produce the best smoke ring, and allow you to achieve the best crust. You will need to make yourself more readily available to achieve the best smoking results.
Pellet smokers have become increasingly popular in recent times. Pellet smokers are easy to use and just require you to set the thermostat to your preferred temperature. The smoker automatically feeds the right amount of pellets, meaning you can just sit back and relax.
Smokers now come in various sizes and it is important that you take this into consideration when looking at the different models now available. The size of your smoker will depend on the amount of space you have and the number of people you are planning to feed.
Even the smallest smokers can provide enough food for a very large party. Larger smokers could generate enough food to feed a small town. If you’re buying one for business purposes, bigger is better. If it’s for personal use, you probably don’t need a huge one.
The way you use your smoker will completely depend on the type you have. We’re going to take you through some of the basics. Bear in mind that electric and gas smokers normally cook ingredients more quickly than other types.
Before you start smoking your ingredients, you need to clear your smoker of contaminants and bacteria. To do so, start a fire in your firebox or base of your smoker. Try and get it to approximately 400 degrees Fahrenheit and then turn it down and let it be for a few hours.
Gas and electric smokers just need to be switched on. On the other hand, wood and charcoal smokers need to be lit. You will need to open up all the air vents and let the smoker heat for up to half an hour.
Remember to add moisture to the smoke so that the meat can really absorb all the flavors of the wood. Some smokers have specific water bowls, others don’t. You can also just add a water pan on the grate. For extra flavor, put herbs in the water.
Aim to get your smoker anywhere between 68 and 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Once, you’ve reached the adequate temperature, you just need to put your ingredients on the rack. The time they take to cook will depend on the size, weight, and type of ingredients you’re smoking.
Feel free to marinade your ingredients before placing them on the smoking racks. Once your ingredients are in, it’s a waiting game.
During the smoking process, remember to check on fuel, wood chips, water, and charcoal. Try and avoid opening the smoker too often as the heat and smoke escape every time you do.
Now that you know how to use a smoker, let’s check out how you can smoke meat. With meat, you will need to consider the weight, type of meat, and the type of smoker you are using to get the temperature right.
Aside from following the steps mentioned above, there are certain do’s and don’ts to smoking:
The most important part of smoking meat is buying the best quality ingredients. While this is true with other forms of cooking, you will be especially disappointed with the results if you skimp on quality.
You’ll notice that your smoker may come with a bag of wood chips or pellets. While these are great for a first smoke, it is important that you experiment with various woods to give your meat the flavor you desire.
Just because you are getting flavor from the wood chips, does not mean that you shouldn’t add your own spices in there. Add a dry spice rub to your meat before putting it in your smoker. You can also add herbs and spices to the water. This will leave subtle herby tones in your meat.
The key to smoking meat is maintaining a level temperature throughout the process. As mentioned above, your smoker should remain between 68 and 176 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature goes above this, your meat could cook too quickly.
To get the best results when smoking meat, you need to set aside the right amount of time. Don’t do it during the week when you’re busy with work and the kids. Choose a day that you have off so that you can dedicate your time to doing the job properly.
Smoking meat is a waiting game. A spout of impatience could completely change the temperature you have worked so hard on regulating. Continuously lifting the lid or opening the door will lead to a loss in temperature, so hands off!
As with any appliance on the market today, some manufacturers are known to be more reputable than others. If you want to dip your toes into smoker territory we recommend you opt for a brand that knows its stuff.
With the right smoker, you’ll not only get the best results but also rest assured knowing that your equipment will last for the foreseeable future. We recommend you consider some of the following:
Masterbuilt started back in 1973 with the McLemore family which later became Masterbuilt Manufacturing, LLC. Since then, the company has lead the way in the cooking appliances industry with innovative, unique and quality products.
Masterbuilt’s core values are faith and family. They do their utmost to offer world-class customer service around the clock and strive to create an all round positive work environment that encourages its team to be dedicated to manufacturing fairly priced, high-quality merchandise.
The company considers it customers its most important asset and aims to provide caring and friendly service to them, thus encouraging not only long-term relationships with customers but also with employees, suppliers, and communities.
Over 50 years ago, Weber was created with the aim of bringing high-quality grilling and smoking to families across the world.
All the company’s products are built with innovation and durability in mind. Since its beginnings, Weber has created Flavorizer Bars, Handle Lights, and Built-In Buckets for charcoal, among other amazing products.
While its main focus is grills, Weber also creates some of the best smokers on the market today. Packed with features, their smokers are built with the highest-quality materials to ensure families and friends from across the world can enjoy delicious meals together.
Traeger was Founded in 1985 when Joe Traeger developed the first pellet grill. The company now designs, manufactures, and markets some of the best outdoor cooking equipment in the world, all of which offer grilling, smoking and barbecuing features.
Aside from outdoor cooking appliances, Traeger now sells hardwood, a variety of sauces, dry rubs and spices, as well as numerous other accessories and recipe books. Traeger is focused on providing innovative and easy to use products to food enthusiasts across the globe.
What started as car boot business back in the early 50’s has now become one the biggest outdoor appliance brands in the world.
PK Grills designs, produces, and manufactures charcoal grills and smoker that offer precise air and temperature control as well as superior heat retention.
All the company’s products are created with durability in mind and come portable so that families can take their appliances with them whenever they go on an outdoor adventure.
Because of the greasy, smokey nature of smokers, they can be challenging to clean. That said your smoker will require very regular maintenance if you want to make the most of it. Most smokers need to be seasoned and all need to be cleaned after every single use.
Before you start cooking, fire up your smoker with no food in it. This will kill any bacteria, contaminants, and residue leftover from manufacturing.
Coat your smoker with oil and heat it up to approximately 250 degrees Fahrenheit without surpassing 300 degrees. This will allow your smoker to repel water, and of course, rust. Read your manual to find out the best way to get your smoker ready for action.
As we mentioned above, you need to clean your smoker after every use. Make sure you do not scrub off any paint when cleaning your smoker and try and maintain a thin layer of oil of grease on it to stop it from rusting.
When you are cleaning your smoker, check it for any rust and look for creosote build up. Creosote is found in badly ventilated areas and is a carbonaceous chemical, something you really don’t want in your smoker.
If you do find rust forming on it, scrub it out with a wire brush or sandpaper. Then clean the area and paint over it with heat proof barbecue paint.
You should also remove any larger chunks of grease as these could trap water against the paint, thus increasing the chances of further rust formation.
Outdoor cooking appliances such as smokers can reach up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, its is crucial that you use them with caution, especially if you are new to smoking or if you have young children and pets around.
Always be cautious and make sure to read every page of the manufacturer’s manual before starting. With that in mind, here are some basic safety tips to always be aware of:
Choosing a smoker is challenging. You must think about the type of smoker you need, the ingredients you’ll be smoking, as well as all the safety tips mentioned above. You also need to choose one that is easy to maintain and is made of high-quality durable materials.
If you’re still struggling to make your final decision, check out our buying guide for more detailed information about smokers.
In it, we’ve highlighted some of the key features you should bear in mind when making your final decision as well as summed up what customers really think about some of the best products on the market today.