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The best charcoal smoker does something that even the best grills on the market can’t — fill the meat with an incredibly delicious, smoky flavor. Charcoal smokers have plenty of space to cook large cuts of tough meat and come in vertical and horizontal designs.
Charcoal smokers burn using charcoal lumps and feature multiple racks to accommodate more meat. You’ll also find smokers with grill and oven features incorporated in them, perfect for those who want to prepare a variety of different foods.
It takes a lot of prep work to get the meat ready using a charcoal smoker, but if done right, you’ll get to relish some distinctly flavorsome meat. Keep reading to learn about what makes the best charcoal grill smoker, why it’s right for you, and what you should keep in mind when making the purchase.
Award: TOP PICK
WHY WE LIKE IT: With four cooking grates, this system captures the smoke flavor and saves space. It has a removable ash chamber for simple maintenance and a porcelain-enameled charcoal chamber for durability.
The Dyna-Glo DGX780BDC-D 36-inch charcoal smoker features four cooking grates, offering up to 784 sq. in. of cooking surface. It has a charcoal and ash management system with a large charcoal chamber. This model is compatible with a premium cover (sold separately) to protect it from the elements. A stainless steel temperature gauge helps users cook with the optimum heat for flavorful treats. However, this system is bulky and difficult to transport.
This smoker has a vertical design that captures the smoke flavor and saves space. The grates are height adjustable, offering flexibility. A porcelain enameled charcoal chamber stands up to abuse and it keeps briquettes stacked tightly for efficiency, while a removable ash pan accommodates large amounts of ash, so users can prepare meals without worrying about emptying. This smoker system has sturdy legs that provide stability and it features high-quality metal parts, which offer lasting durability.
Award: HONORABLE MENTION
WHY WE LIKE IT: With a sleek exterior, this device offers a pleasant look that will catch attention. It boasts a stacked design with two wire racks, accommodating plenty of food in one go.
Featuring a sleek black finish, this Cuisinart COS-118 charcoal smoker offers a pleasant appearance. It has up to 510 sq. in. of cooking space, allowing users to prepare plenty of food in one batch. A porcelain enameled water bowl provides durability. This charcoal smoker has top and bottom vents to facilitate free air circulation and if it has a latching base. The smoker boasts two wire smoking racks for accommodating food. However, this model doesn’t get very hot.
With a versatile design, this system is suitable for a wide variety of foods, including meats, vegetables, and cheese. This device allows users to control the heat and smoke for precision cooking and it has a temperature gauge that simplifies monitoring. This model comes with two canister handles and another handle on the lid for hassle-free operation and transportation. It has sturdy legs that keep it off the ground and an included lid locks in the flavors, delivering great food.
Award: BEST MONITORING DOORS
WHY WE LIKE IT: This smoking system has two access doors that enable checking on the progress of the food easily. It has an air supply control system and an integrated thermometer for customized cooking.
This Realcook 17-inch charcoal smoke uses an advanced built-in thermometer to help users prepare meals at precise heat levels. A porcelain-enameled water pan supports even heating and allows preparing slow-cooking recipes. This device has heat-resistant bakelite handles to simplify moving it from place to place. It has an adjustable air supply system, enabling enthusiasts to control the cooking conditions. However, these vents are located on the top and this model lacks bottom vents, which makes adjusting temperature difficult.
A sleek exterior with black and stainless steel parts adds a new focal point to the outdoor kitchen. This unit has two cooking grids with a total of 453 sq. in. of cooking space, preparing family-sized meals fast. A crossbar and four handles inside the lid provide extra spaces for meats. This smoking system has a latch locking system for safety and it’s quite versatile, supporting deployment as a grill or smoker. With two access doors, this device simplifies monitoring.
Award: BEST TEMPERATURE MONITORING SYSTEM
WHY WE LIKE IT: A two-grate smoking system with silicone temperature grommet monitors helps users to keep tabs on the heating. It has an aluminum fuel door and dampers for increasing and reducing the heat easily.
The Weber Smokey Mountain 731001 22-inch charcoal smoker uses a porcelain enameled system that provides durability and locks in heat for great results. This device has premium parts that stand up to the elements. With two cooking grates, this device provides adequate space to prepare large quantities of food in one go. An aluminum fuel door enables adding charcoal or wood mid-cooking, although it’s a bit flimsy for heavy-duty use.
This smoking system has dampers for adjusting the temperature, and the smoker is especially suited to slow-cooking meals such as pulled pork. It features high-quality steel construction that provides durability. This Weber smoking system has a sleek black finish that blends in easily with most outdoor kitchen color schemes. It’s easy to install and operate and features high-quality metal parts that prevent corrosion and rusting. A silicone temperature grommet monitor enables keeping tabs on the internal temperature without a hassle.
Award: BEST SMART CHARCOAL SMOKER
WHY WE LIKE IT: A digitally controlled fan enhances airflow and allows controlling the temperature. This model has built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for simple monitoring and operation. It has a gravity-fed charcoal hopper that keeps it running for up to 8 hours.
Reaching an incredible 225°F in just 10 minutes and 700°F in 15 minutes, the Masterbuilt Gravity Series 1050 XL MB20041220 1,050 sq. in. the charcoal grill cooks fast. It has a digital control panel for changing the temperature and features built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and works with the Masterbuilt app, allowing remote operation and monitoring. This cooking system has a gravity-fed hopper that holds up to 10 lbs. of charcoal or 16 lbs of briquettes, offering up to 8 hours of uninterrupted use.
This model has wheels that simplify moving this device from place to place. It has a fold-out cord with storage space at the back of the smoker. Featuring a folding stainless steel shelf, this device provides space for preparing food and storage. This model has a stainless steel shelf and an extra side shelf, providing plenty of cooking space. A digital fan facilitates airflow from the hopper to the cooking chamber, helping to control the cooking temperature.
Award: BEST COMPACT SMOKER
WHY WE LIKE IT: This portable system can be attached to select grills, converting into an offset smoker. It has dual dampers for controlling airflow and has a compact design, so it’s easy to transport.
Featuring a versatile design, this Char-Griller E82424 18-inch charcoal smoker can also be used as a grill, taking care of the various food preparation needs. It has heavy-duty cast-iron grates that offer lasting heat retention for sumptuous food. A removable ash pan on this device enables hassle-free cleanup, and this device features thick steel construction that stands up to regular use. However, this unit lacks a built-in temperature gauge.
Dual dampers enable controlling the airflow and temperature on this device. This unit features high-quality handles to simplify moving it from one spot to another. It works as a firebox for select Char-Griller barrels or dual-fuel grills, converting into a Texas-style offset smoker easily. With 250 sq. in. of space, this device provides enough room for 12 burgers and it weighs just 38 lbs for hassle-free transportation. This unit has a powder coating that provides a sleek appearance.
A charcoal smoker or smoker grill is a cooking tool that indirectly cooks meat using burning charcoal. Unlike grills that heat meat rapidly, charcoal smokers heat food over many hours, softening tougher meats and imparting a wonderful smoke flavor. This slow cooking process also breaks down collagen in the meat and enhances the overall flavor.
A charcoal smoker differs significantly from other grills because it doesn’t grill food at all like other grill types. Instead, it cooks meat using indirect heat. This heating process maintains a steady temperature for several hours until the meat’s internal temperature matches that of the external air in the cooker. The heat from the charcoal also contributes to creating the signature flavor that BBQ lovers adore, something you will not get from gas grills, electric grills, or even the best griddler.
Gas grills are the most common type of grills you’ll find and they are used with portable liquid propane tanks or a natural gas connection. Unlike even the best charcoal grill smoker, you can control the heat intensity in a gas grill and you don’t have to wait for hours for your food to get ready. You can heat up and grill your meat within a few minutes (depending on the type of meat). If you have multiple burners on your gas grill, then you can divide the cooking surface into different heating sections and have a two-zone cooking system (or more) to prepare dishes simultaneously.
A standard charcoal grill also uses charcoal briquettes or wood chips, producing direct heat on which the meat is cooked. Instead of using a slow cooking process as the charcoal smoker does, a charcoal grill is much faster at preparing food. Like its smoker counterpart, a charcoal grill takes some time for setup and cleanup, but it is swifter than a smoker. Although a charcoal grill is faster at food preparation, a charcoal smoker infuses more flavor into the meat.
A gas grill is significantly faster and easier to use compared to a charcoal smoker, but the food isn’t as flavorful as with charcoal smoking. Gas grills are more convenient than smokers and charcoal grills because they don’t require much effort during setup and the cleanup is simple, too. However, you may need additional fuel tanks when operating a gas grill.
But for maximum convenience, you’re looking at electric grills. These portable grills need just an electrical outlet to be set up swiftly and don’t require an elaborate setup and cleanup, like with charcoal smokers and grills. Since gas grills and charcoal grills and smokers are strictly not allowed indoors, electric grills are a smart and safe choice for indoor grilling. A drawback of these grills is that they don’t offer strong cooking flavors like charcoal smokers and grills do.
A charcoal smoker works by heating the meat at a constant temperature for several hours at a stretch. Unlike standard grills that rely on high-heat grilling to cook within a few minutes, a smoker takes many hours to cook the meat at consistent temperatures. This indirect cooking fills the meat with a strong smoky flavor.
The best vertical charcoal smoker essentially has four parts: firebox, water chamber or water pan, cooking chamber, and lid. You fill the firebox with charcoal and it generates heat. Most lump charcoal products will give you between 3 to 6 hours of burn time, and with briquettes, you can bump that up to 8 to 10 hours. To add more interesting flavors to the meat, you could add wood chips, like cherry and alder wood, to the coal.
The water chamber or water pan sits on top of the firebox and directly below the cooking chamber where the meat is kept. It ensures that the meat doesn’t receive direct grilling, and three-fourths of it is to be filled with cold water. Since it takes more time for the water temperature to alter, the cold water serves as temperature control and keeps the meat soft and moist. And once it heats up, the steam from the water further aids in cooking the meat. You could also add oregano or rosemary to the water to add another layer of flavor to the meat.
The cooking chamber sits atop the water chamber and contains the meat. You can place the meat on a cooking grate here, similar to what you see on grills. Above the cooking chamber, you’ll have a lid to cover the meat and keep the smoke inside. There’ll also be adjustable air vents at the top and bottom of the smoker to regulate airflow.
Buying a charcoal smoker is an excellent decision if you’re a fan of the traditional BBQ flavor. Charcoal smokers add a unique flavor to the meat while softening it considerably, and you can’t replicate this even with the best 2 burner gas grill. So, if you’re looking to expand your cooking repertoire to wow your friends at the next cookout, let’s look at why a charcoal smoker may or may not be a fit for you.
Due to improper maintenance, people often end up replacing their smokers and grills within 3 years. But with good care, your charcoal smoker can last you between 5 to 15 years. The durability, however, primarily depends on the material it’s made of.
If it’s made of stainless steel and is rust and corrosion-resistant, it’s likely to last for 10 years or longer. You’ll want to clean it properly after each session and store it well when it’s not in use. Leaving it outdoors can subject it to harsh elements, thereby lowering its lifespan. It always helps to check the smoker’s user manual to learn maintenance and safety tips.
Don’t forget to repair the smoker’s grill grate on time if there are any damages. Not fixing these damages early can worsen the smoker’s condition and reduce its lifespan considerably, and eventually, it can cost you more to repair it than buy a new smoker.
Lastly, ensure to check the warranties that different companies are offering. While most charcoal smokers offer between 1 to 3-year warranties, it’s not hard to find products that come with 5-year and 10-year warranties.
When it comes to purchasing an excellent charcoal smoker, you’ll want to keep several factors in mind, like the size, type, and budget, among other things. Let’s look at these below to help you narrow down your selection.
There are two types of smokers — vertical and horizontal. The vertical smoker stands vertically straight and has the heat source at the bottom, so the smoke and heat travel upwards. They occupy less space and may have multiple cooking racks to accommodate more meat. You’re likely to find a portable smoker in this design. Kamado smokers and Bullet smokers are among users’ favorite charcoal smokers.
The horizontal type of smoker or traditional top-rated offset smoker is more spread out and doesn’t stand vertically. The burning charcoal is kept in the heating chamber to the side, so the smoke and heat circulate through the different chambers horizontally. If you’re serving four or more people and have plenty of space in your backyard or patio, it makes sense to go with a horizontal smoker. You also won’t have to cram racks of ribs or a pork butt inside thanks to the extra inches of cooking area.
If you’re smoking meat just for your family or a small group (4 or 5 people), a leading electric smoker with 300 to 400 square inches of cooking space will be enough. For a bigger crowd, you’ll want a charcoal smoker that offers 400 to 500 square inches of cooking surface. Horizontal smokers generally offer more space, but if you’re looking only for vertical smokers, check for ones that have extra racks. You’ll also want to ensure your patio or backyard has ample space to accommodate your desired smoker’s dimensions.
If you’re into smoking and grilling, pick a charcoal smoker that also has grilling components. Charcoal smokers that can grill are more expensive than regular smokers, but it’s likely a more cost-effective option than purchasing a smoker and grill separately. And for those who are into pizza baking, you can also find some types of charcoal smokers with ovens. For enhanced precision during cooking, you’ll want to find models with a built-in thermometer to adjust the cooking temperature as needed.
You’ll find charcoal smokers across a wide price range — between $90 to $600. The price of a smoker depends on factors like its size, the material it’s made of, and whether it offers grilling features.
On the lower end, you have compact charcoal smokers with an affordable price tag of $90. But an inexpensive smoker generally won’t have much cooking capacity and will not come with a charcoal grilling component. At $150, you’ll find smokers that have grill and oven features too. As you go higher up the price ladder, you have additional features like temperature control, a built-in lid thermometer, stainless steel racks, and options to grill, smoke, sear, roast, and more.