Getting Started: What is a Smoker Grill?

If you're here reading the Kick Ass Grills blog, it's a safe bet you're a fan of flavor, and the rich taste of smoke that you find in traditional barbecue cooking is one of the best out there. You've probably got a favorite local joint that serves up delicious ribs, brisket and chicken, but it's easier than you'd think to get that kind of flavor at home with a smoker grill.

A smoker grill, or rather, just a smoker - we use the term 'smoker grill' as many people often still refer to "smoking" as "grilling") is an outdoor cooking appliance that combines low cooking temps and the burning of hardwood to create smoke in order to add complex flavors to the cooking process.

Today's market is scattered with smokers of all styles and sizes - so this guide will walk you through the various types of smoker grills, other similar products and the various accessories and materials you'll need to start smoking in your backyard.

Fuel Options for Smokers

With all the different brands and types of grill on the market, it can be tough to know where to start. Smoker grills are not the only way to add the rich flavor of smoke to your food, so to be sure you're getting the right item, we're going to break down the differences between smoker grills and their cousins, the pellet grill and charcoal grill. In addition, if you're looking to get that smoky flavor with the gas grill you already have, check out this post on how to do that.

There are 4 main fuel options when it comes to smokers:

Charcoal & Hardwood Smokers

Charcoal & hardwood smokers are the best choice for barbecue of the purest form. Though they come in a variety of forms that we'll get into later, the general idea is always the same: a firebox full of burning hardwood and/or charcoal channels smoke into a larger chamber, cooking meat low and slow while imparting that distinctive flavor and color. They often require more hands-on attention than other fuel types, but the payoff is more than worth it. While burning 100% hardwood was the original design, using a combination of natural hardwood lump charcoal in addition to a variety of hardwood chunks or logs create a more balanced smoked flavor.

Pellet Grills / Smokers

Pellet grills are the high-tech, low-maintenance option for when you want that smoky flavor without all the fuss. They use an electronically controlled hopper to feed hardwood pellets into the fire, giving you precise control over the cooking temperature and requiring less attention than a traditional smoker. While the flavor profile & texture results will be darn-good, a pellet grill won't produce quite the same results as the charcoal & hardwood smokers mentioned above. We often anecdotally say, pellet smokers will produce 95% the quality as their hardwood competitors but with 50% the effort - which makes a pellet smoker an excellent intro into smoking barbecue.

Gas Smokers

Gas smokers are a modern twist on the classic smoker design. While gas grills are the most popular grill for most Americans, they lag behind when it comes to smokers. This is mainly due to gas' inability to produce the same flavor that charcoal, hardwood, or pellets can create. However, some manufacturers have created ways to incorporate the wood flavor by creating a gas-powered smoker that still utilizes a wood chip tray or burner of some sort - like this Sonoma gas smoker by Lynx. So, while the overall flavor & results won't compete at the same high level as natural smokers & pellet grills, the Gas Smokers are still a viable option for those who want more control & efficiency.

Electric Smokers

Electric smokers are very simple in design & operation: they utilize an electric heating element and often feature a combination of a wood chip burner and a water tray to create both smoke and moisture in a heating chamber to simulate the smoke of a real wood-burning fire. As such, an electric smoker doesn't produce the same complex, delicious flavor profile of a live fire, but will still be capable of producing a fine facsimile. These are often designed in a cabinet-style with several racks for your food and are relatively easy to control, temperature-wise, making them a good choice for someone who wants to dip a toe into the barbecue world.

Styles & Designs of Smoker Grills

Now that we've taken a look at the different fuel types available to smokers, it's time to delve into the styles of smoker grills and see the available types and their features. The general principle is the same across all styles, but each of them has its own specific strengths.

Vertical / Cabinet Smokers

This tried-and-true design has been the smoker of choice for meat lovers for centuries. The firebox is at the bottom, and food can be set on racks above, soaking up all that good smoke flavor. This Broil King model is a perfect example of this type of foolproof design. Vertical smokers are often the most affordable type, and their straightforward mechanics make them an excellent entry-level choice without sacrificing performance. The downside to a vertical smoker is having the firebox below the smoking chamber doesn't create a true indirect cooking process.

Offset Smokers

Offset smokers offer an iconic pit-master look with a design that ensures high-quality results every time as seen in this model from Oklahoma Joe's. As the name suggests, the firebox is set off to the side of the cooking area, and strategically placed vents pull air and smoke through. This creates a true indirect cooking process and ensures even exposure on all surfaces of the meat. An added benefit of this design is that the firebox can also be used for direct grilling, giving you the flexibility to meet your needs.

If you've got a bigger budget and are looking to get a high-performance offset smoker, you can also check out this model from The Good-One. It uses a slightly different form factor, placing the firebox behind the cooking area, allowing a larger capacity for longer cook times and less fire maintenance. It also features an astoundingly large cooking area, making it perfect for tailgating or other large get-togethers.

Drum / Barrel Smokers

The utilitarian form factor of a drum or barrel smoker has a lot in common with the vertical models described above. The major difference is that most drum models, like this one from Oklahoma Joe's, feature a set of internal hooks for hanging meat vertically above the smoke source. The option to hang the meat helps ensure full smoke coverage and even cooking throughout the process, giving you deep flavor every time.

Wood & Charcoal Choices

Once you've decided on the type of smoker you want, the next choice to make is the fuel you'll be using. The nearly endless array of fuel choices on the market can be daunting, but if you know what kind of meat you'll be cooking, you can quickly narrow it down and make the decision a simple one.

Wood TypeFlavor ProfileGreat For
AlmondNutty and sweet with little ashPoultry
AppleSweet and fruityPoultry, Pork, Ribs
CherrySweet and fruityPoultry, Pork, Ribs
HickorySweet and strongBeef, Pork, Ribs
MapleSweet and subtlePoultry, Fish, Pork
MesquiteStrong, earthy and smokyBeef
MulberrySweet, tangy and berry-likeBeef, Poultry
OakTraditional smoky flavorBeef
PecanSweet and mildBeef, Poultry, Ribs
WalnutStrong and bitterBeef, Pork, Ribs

Ready to Take the Next Step?

If your mouth is already watering, and you want to get started smoking your own meat as soon as possible, then we can help. Our product experts can help you find the right smoker grill to meet your needs and your budget. Give us a call at 319-246-2468 to speak with a product specialist today. You can also contact us by email, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.