There is no smoker design that will give you a more authentic smokehouse flavor than a charcoal smoker design. There are lots of different designs out there that all aim to offer ease-of-use, consistency, and durable design. However, some smokers are simply better than others. We'll give you a guide to our favorite designs and the best charcoal smoker products on the market for 2021 to help simplify your search for your next smoker.
Who Are Charcoal Smokers For?
There are essentially three types of smokers out there: pellet smokers, charcoal smokers, and gas or electric smokers. Each has benefits and drawbacks inherent in the design. Charcoal smokers require a little more patience and skill to get great results than other designs, so they aren't ideal for someone who is looking for a "set it and forget it" smoker. A charcoal smoker is the perfect choice for someone who enjoys the process of cooking and is looking for maximum versatility.
Pros and Cons of Charcoal Smokers
A charcoal smoker gives you many options for how you want to smoke food. You can use charcoal briquettes, hardwood lump charcoal, wood chips, chunks, or pellets, or any combination of these products to create the ideal smoke flavor profile for the type of meat you are smoking. Charcoal smokers give you more control over the amount of smoke flavor you are adding. They can also be operated at very low temperatures for cold smoking.
There is one major downside to charcoal smokers: they require near-constant attention. Temperatures in the smoker can quickly fluctuate and you'll need to make adjustments to the vents during the smoking process to maintain temperature. Most of the time, you'll also need to add coals to the firebox during a smoking session which requires heat-resistant gloves and plenty of caution.
Our Top Picks – The Best Charcoal Smokers For 2021
Big Green Egg
The Big Green Egg is a kamado-style charcoal smoker based on an ancient Japanese design. It features heavy ceramic walls and a clever hinged ceramic lid. It has cast iron grates that are durable and easy to clean. The BGE uses a ceramic heat diffuser plate to provide indirect heat for slow cooking. You can remove the plate and use the BGE like a charcoal grill. They are available in a wide range of sizes from massive eggs large enough for a feast to portable designs you can take tail-gating. The egg smoker design means you'll add enough charcoal for the entire smoke without needing to add more.
- Wide range of sizes to fit any need
- Excellent fit, finish, and quality ensures you'll get years of use with few problems
- Almost any accessory you can think of is available
- One of the most entertaining and informed online communities
- Price is higher than many competitors
- Most BGE smokers require additional parts to be usable, including a stand
Our runner-up is the egg charcoal smokers from Kamado Joe. Looking much like the BGE (and with a similar skill set required for use) the Kamado Joe egg is an excellent, high-quality charcoal smoker. The heavy ceramic lid opens with a special hinge design and the lower ceramic is thick and high-quality. Kamado Joe uses a special grill grate design called Divide and Conquer. It essentially allows you to have multiple heat zones for perfecting the temperature with a variety of items. We like that the Kamado Joe comes ready-to-use out of the box, but we wish the vent system was as intuitive to use as the BGE.
- Comes with everything necessary to get started
- Air Lift hinge is a pleasure to use
- Divide and Conquer grill grates are useful for smoking and grilling
- Vent system is a little fussy
- Higher initial cost than some competitors
- Not as many cool accessories on the market
Dyna-Glo Signature Series Upright Smoker
This is an offset vertical charcoal smoker from Dyna-Glo. The signature series offers five 17" stainless steel grates in the heavy-duty steel main body. The offset fire box provides indirect heat to the main chamber and a removable water pan dissipates heat without obstructing smoke. The fire box has a removable ash pan that makes clean up easy. A grill rack lets you use the firebox for grilling, but it isn't good to use while you are smoking. This is a classic design of reasonable quality, with basic features, and simply works well. Vertical smokers require hanging large cuts, while height adjustable cooking grates give you lots of room for tall items. To get the best performance, you'll want to add sealant to the fire box and a rope seal to the main door and back vent.
- 1,382 square inches of cooking space
- Simple and basic vent system is easy to master
- Steel body is the same thickness as high-end pellet smokers
- Requires the addition of seals to be efficient
- Requires hanging large cuts like beef brisket due to limited width
- Exterior paint doesn't resist scratches
Weber Smokey Mountain Charcoal Smoker
Bullet smokers are a popular style that is best exemplified by the Weber Smokey Mountain. This popular charcoal smoker is available in three sizes. It uses a ceramic-coated steel body, mid-section, and firebox for a compact smoker design. A water pan provides indirect heat and it can be removed to be used like a charcoal grill. Vents are simple but easy to master. The charcoal grate sits in the bottom of the bullet and has an ash catching tray. The fire door is removable to make adding lump charcoal or wood while smoking. Two stainless steel cooking grates let you smoke multiple items at once. The fit and finish of the Smokey Mountain cooker is excellent, but the design is more fussy to use in cold weather. Adding lump through the door opening is kind of a pain.
- Basic and simple design that doesn't weigh very much
- Excellent fit and finish
- Ideal for smaller cook outs
- Adding fuel during the smoking process is dangerous
- Only the largest size is capable of smoking a brisket
- Light-weight construction isn't as efficient as other designs
UDS – The Ugly Drum Smoker
Sometime in the past, someone realized that a 55-gallon drum would make an excellent pit barrel cooker and smoker. Affectionately known as UDS' these designs can be purchased or built at home for the ultimate, authentic experience. Essentially, a UDS works using an oil drum with an insert fire box and a diffuser to provide indirect heat. One of the great things about UDS smokers is that you have the freedom to customize to your own desires. From a humble, basic drum design to one that uses a fan-controlled offset smoker fire box, or even a horizontal design that provides plenty of real-estate for the largest brisket, UDS designs are the most flexible option out there.
- Tons of options – from custom air vents, special racks, to offset fire box add-ons
- One of the lowest cost ways to get into smoking
- Authentic smoky flavor
- Looks like an oil drum
- Requires the skill and knowledge to custom-build with metal unless buying an expensive, assembled product
The Differences in Design and How They Work
Kamado grills like the BGE and Kamado Joe above are designed to be loaded up with enough coals at once to handle 20+ hours of smoking, making them among the easiest to use. The unique features and tons of accessories give you lots of flexibility to make interesting dishes with enough control over temperature to smoke cheese if you want. With that said, if your charcoal runs out in the middle of a smoke, it can be incredibly difficult and dangerous to add more coals. The cooking chamber design limits the amount of cooking space that you can use.
A cabinet smoker like the Dyna-Glo offer you the ease of a large door and an offset fire box that makes adding coals easy and relatively safe. Some vertical cabinet smokers are larger than the one above, but are not as portable. A vertical charcoal smoker can deliver lots of flavor efficiently simply by controlling the top vent. An offset smoker won't hold heat as well as the kamado smokers, so you may need to add insulation, seal leaky areas, and wrap a fire blanket around the main cooking chamber during cold or windy weather.
Bullet and UDS designs share many features, like the use of a charcoal basket, the ability to do high heat grilling or to just smoke meat, and tons of versatility. Offset barrel smokers are one of the top choices by competition pit masters because of the excellent results that a custom smoker will give you. The obvious downside is that cutting and welding metal are not skills everyone has, and the cost of paying someone to build a UDS for you might not be worth it.
So Which Charcoal Smoker Should You Buy?
Our overall top choice is the Big Green Egg. We have used the BGE for many years and love the performance it provides. It gives us adequate cooking surface space for large cuts of meat and a great air circulation system makes low and slow cooking in a BGE as nearly effortless as possible. Offset smokers like the Dyna-Glo offer lots of cooking space and the ability to hang meat from stainless steel hooks – perfect for making your own bacon. A cabinet charcoal smoker is probably the best point between an egg and a drum smoker.
One of the main reasons BGE is our favorite is that we know from experience that it is a durable, high-quality charcoal grill smoker combo with add-on features that we actually use. Many steel-body charcoal smokers will require periodic painting and maintenance. Failure to properly care for these designs will lead to a rusty, gross, and inefficient smoker. That's why, if we had to pick just one, the Big Green Egg is our first choice.
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