You’re in the market for a smoker but you don’t have enough information to make a decision as to which one is the best for you? We can help with that. Let’s talk about heat and smoke sources.
The most common heat and smoke sources offered by smoker manufacturers are: natural chunk charcoal with or without wood chips or chunks; all wood; wood pellets; gas; and electricity with wood chips or chunks. There are pros and cons to each one and we would love to discuss them with you.
Gas (Not Recommended):
Propane or natural (city) gas produces clean heat. You must use wood, wood chips, chunks or pellets to produce smoke for flavor. Gas is not so bad when used in an open grill to cook steaks and burgers. The problem occurs when you slow cook BBQ for an extended period of time in a closed environment like the chamber of a smoker.
Propane and natural gas has no smell; so for safety reasons, the industry is required to add Ethyl Mercaptan, a chemical that has a smell similar to rotten eggs. Some of this smell will accumulate on your slow cooked meats…So…that’s the reason we don’t recommend gas smokers.
Most gas smokers use propane tanks. If you want to adapt your propane smoker to natural gas, we recommend calling a professional to help.
Gas smokers should not have open burners. Radiants over the burners are needed to vaporize the drippings and divert any excess drippings to prevent flare-ups and fires in the cooking chamber.
Gas burners are easy to use and easy to maintain. You can control your cooking temperature precisely. If you have other things to do, propane smokers allow you to do a lot of hands-off work.
Ethyl Mercaptan. Need I say more? Using gas is inconsistent with the definition of “real barbecue” and is not allowed in competitions.
Also, in my experience, gas burners are more prone to fires.
Like gas, the appeal of electricity is that it provides clean heat and is easy to use. Unlike gas though, there is no combustion necessary to provide heat. You may be fortunate enough to locate an electric smoker with intentionally exposed elements or elements with radiant plates directly over the elements. Radiant plates allow the drippings to fall down on an electric element or radiant. The drippings will vaporize into smoke, which is precisely the type of smoke that approximates the flavor of real North Carolina barbecue.
If you like that flavor, there is no need to use additional wood for developing smoke. This is because the smoker has exposed elements or metal radiants covering the elements. Smokers with hidden or enclosed elements will require the use of wood, chips, pellets or chunks for flavor.
Electric smokers are especially good for low-temperature smoking of fish, peppers, sausage, nuts and cheese. Most electric smokers use small vents to help maintain temperatures. This is great when retaining moisture is critical.
One pro to an electric smoker is that there is no need to check the fuel supply periodically. The internal temperature is infinitely controllable. Exposed or radiant covered electric burners can mimic real North Carolina barbecue. There is no ash accumulation if you aren’t using wood and the smoker is easy to operate. Allows for setting and forgetting…for a few moments anyway.
You can also use electric smokers for cold smoking and when a delicate smoke is needed.
It is difficult to locate smokers with exposed element; however, it is somewhat easier for those with radiants. There is a possible need for suitable heavy duty or extra heavy duty extension cords. We recommend you do research on supported extension cords that are heavy enough for your situation.
Electric smokers are not suitable for wet or rainy conditions. Electrical elements may need to be replaced more frequently if exposed to direct contact with drippings.
Like gas, using electricity is inconsistent with the definition of “real barbecue” and is not allowed in competitions.
Cooking with wood or coals derived from wood as the only heat and smoke source…now we’re talkin’ my language!
Whether it’s those newfangled wood pellets, natural chunk charcoal, wood chips, chunks, dust or disks or larger ‘sticks’ of live or seasoned wood; these smoker fuels are all combustion-based. They are directly responsible for the food’s distinct “smoky” flavor, smoke ring and pink-tinted flesh as well as providing the heat for cooking.
Natural Chunk Charcoal (N.C.C.):
Purchase a high quality charcoal with a low ash residue, a high BTU output and made from a single species group of hardwood like oak or hickory. The charcoal should be easy to light, contain a minimum of small pieces and dust and not send off lots of sparks when lit, coincidentally just like the Ozark Oak charcoal we sell at Buz and Ned’s.
There are no chemical taste as you will get with most briquettes. By itself, it imparts a light smoke flavor and smoke ring. When paired with smoking woods, it will act as the heat source to smolder these more intense flavors.
Lasts a long time especially when the burn is controlled with dampeners. It burns hotter than briquettes so less is needed to produce the same temperature. Finally, natural chunk charcoal can be extinguished and reused if any is not completely burned during cooking.
Charcoal needs to be tended to more than electricity or gas. If you choose to smoke with charcoal, be prepared to camp out on the patio with beer in hand and your special squeeze in the other. You need to monitor the smoke quantity and quality, the amount of charcoal in the firebox, the chamber and meat temperatures and the air supply to the fire.
That’s not so bad if it’s your favorite beer and that special friend who likes to watch. Don’t forget to come up for air every once in a while.
In order to juggle all this, you need to practice. Some smokers are easier to control than others. Make sure the smoker has a good quick-response thermometer built in and always have a hand-held quick-response, instant-read meat thermometer at your side. What you do with your squeeze is a personal issue.
Pellet smokers are in a class of their own. They are fairly new to the BBQ scene, but they are coming on strong…
You want convenience? You got it. You want good taste and control? You got that too. You want to set it up and forget about it? No problem. Pellet smokers are all about easy, conventional outdoor cooking. Some even boast that the smoker can be used as a grill too.
Pellets are small and look like rabbit food. There are no fillers or additives in the pellets, which allows them to combust completely and burn cleanly, leaving little ash for clean-up.
Pellet smokers offer a lot of things to its fans and supporters. They provide indirect heat, which is perfect for smoking turkey, salmon, ribs, pork chops, and brisket and other long smoked foods. It also has the potential to do a good job of cold smoking. The pellets produce almost no ash, which means easy clean up.
It provides good heat and good flavor if you don’t care for heavily smoked food.
The behavior of a pellet smoker can be counter-intuitive. The hotter the pellets get, the less smoke they produce. This can be great if you are trying to bake a cake or pie – or make any other dish that doesn’t require much if any smoke.
Pictured: Big Green Eggs are a popular and efficient commercial smoker.