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After 50 hours of testing 13 charcoal smokers, we found four favorites.
Ask 50 people what their favorite type of smoker is, and you’ll get nothing that resembles a consensus. Some prefer the ritual of a stick-burner, while others want the hands-off approach of a smart pellet grill. Somewhere in the middle lies the charcoal smoker.
Charcoal smokers aren’t as involved as building and maintaining a fire, but they require tending and monitoring. This lets you be an active participant in the process, an element not found in smoking on a smart grill. As the name implies, the primary fuel for these smokers is charcoal, but that doesn’t limit your choices. Once you’ve established your coals, you can add chips, chunks, logs, or branches of various woods to add flavor and aroma beyond that of the charcoal to your food.
With the range of designs, construction, and price points of charcoal smokers on the market, how do you decide which is the right one for you? That’s where we come in. We gathered 13 top-rated charcoal smokers and spent 50 hours putting them through a series of tests to rate their performance, ease of use, and overall value for you. Keep reading to see our top picks, the close seconds, and the also-rans based on the results.
Best Overall: Dyna-Glo Signature Series Heavy-Duty Vertical Offset Charcoal Smoker & Grill
The Dyna-Glo is easy to use, highly responsive to heat adjustments, and easy to clean.
Assembly and fuel consumption are two big considerations, and adding more fuel according to directions was challenging.
The Dyna-Glo is an intimidating-looking smoker at first glance. Truth be told, it’s a gentle giant. At about 125 pounds, the physically imposing design leads one to believe this is a smoker best left to the experts, but we found it easy enough for a beginner to use and get great results. The expansive smoking space means you can easily cook for a large crowd, and we found it highly responsive to temperature tweaks via the baffle system as the cook went on. It consumed considerable fuel, but that’s the norm for a large smoker. Wings earned a so-so rating, while the ribs we cooked on it came out smoky and tender with just enough pull.
Setup was the Dyna-Glo’s biggest stumbling block. Due to its size and the need to line up heavy parts, enlisting help in the process is advised. Still, even with one person handling the assembly, it was ready to use in under an hour. Because of its straightforward design and responsiveness that won’t challenge a beginner but will provide results in line with an experienced smoker, the Dyna-Glo took our best overall rating.
Price at time of publish: $400
Type: Vertical offset barrel
Cooking Area: 1,382 square inches
Dimensions: 46 x 25 x 59 inches
Best Overall, Runner Up: Pit Barrel Cooker Co. Classic Pit Barrel Cooker Package
The Pit Barrel is easy to assemble and clean, and it gave the meat excellent smoke flavor.
Finding the right fuel load and airflow combination took some time. We don’t recommend this as a beginner-friendly model.
The Pit Barrel smoker was a significant step up in complexity of use. It was lightweight and easy to assemble, taking less than two minutes to complete. Adding more charcoal during the cook proved difficult, as it involved removing the cooking grate, so it took some trial and error to load enough charcoal for a single load that wouldn’t burn too hot. It only has one damper at the bottom, so it took a few attempts to get the airflow right. But when we reached that goal, the results impressed us.
Although the cooking area seemed small, it accommodated a half rack of ribs and 20 chicken wings at once. The chicken was flavorful and moist, not rubbery. The ribs had a consistent ¼ inch smoke ring and a pronounced smoke flavor up front, without an acrid, lingering aftertaste in the juice-laden meat. This is not a beginner’s smoker by any means, but the Pit Barrel delivers great results for those with the experience to work with the highly particular design.
Price at time of publish: $400
Type: Vertical barrel
Cooking Area: 269 square inches (more if hanging food vertically)
Dimensions: 36 x 25 inches
Best Splurge: Masterbuilt 40-Inch Digital Charcoal Smoker
The Masterbuilt is very easy to use and the app connectivity makes it even more beginner-friendly, while still appealing to more experienced smokers.
The grill depends on on-hand electricity. Also, the drip pan could be a little bigger, and the glass doors require extra elbow grease to clean.
Masterbuilt’s entry into the set-it-and-forget-it charcoal smoker arena fared pretty well in our testing. Setup, although it took a little over 45 minutes, was relatively easy for one person to accomplish. It’s solidly constructed in all areas, from the body to doors to drip pan. While weighing 110 pounds, it was easy to move thanks to locking casters at all four corners. The charcoal hopper held enough to avoid refilling it during cooking, and the grates were large enough to hold a half rack of ribs and 20 chicken wings on a single grate.
The app connectivity allowed us to monitor the cooking process without constant hovering over the smoker, and the food it produced rated well. The chicken wings had a pronounced smoky flavor, and the ribs had a clean, slightly smoky flavor, though they were a little chewy from faster cooking than we’d prefer. Everything was easy to clean, though the glass in the door required more scrubbing to remove smoke residue.
Price at time of publish: $446
Type: Vertical Cabinet
Cooking Area: 1,320 square inches
Dimensions: 29 x 50 x 26 inches
Best High Volume: Dyna-Glo Vertical Wide Body Offset Charcoal Smoker
The Wide Body Vertical is sturdy and easy to manage once you understand the fire control.
It’s heavy and highly unwieldy to move.
The Wide Body Vertical Offset is a deceivingly sturdy smoker. First impressions were that the construction was notably thin, but the assembled weight and stability showed that to be untrue. It was cumbersome and difficult to relocate, should that be a consideration for you. As the category suggests, it had plenty of room for food on the racks, with a ½ rack of ribs and 20 wings easily fitting on just one of them.
At the full, manufacturer-suggested fuel load of 95 pieces of charcoal, temperature control went out the window after an hour, which forced us to remove coals to lower the temperature. Starting with about half of that amount would have yielded more easily managed heat, and the Wide Body was one of the easier smokers to add more fuel to during the cooking process, should you be conservative and start with too few coals. Both cooking tests yielded promising results, with the ribs slightly edging out the wings in terms of smoke flavor and tenderness. The removable ash pan helped make cleanup easy, with the rest readily handled with a quick scrub, and a wire brush took care of the grates.
Price at time of publish: $280
Type: Offset Vertical
Cooking Area: 1,890 square inches
Dimensions: 21 x 43 x 50 inches
The Dyna-Glo Signature Series Vertical Offset Charcoal Smoker remains our favorite for its ease of use for all levels of experience without compromising results. For those with more heat-management experience, the Pit Barrel Cooker Classic Package is an equally good option and offers more portability.
Our testing mimicked the consumer experience as much as possible by working through the steps the average person would take upon buying the product. First, we removed the product from the box and worked through the assembly process, noting the ease or difficulty of the task and the time required to complete the assembly.
Next, we performed the initial burn-in steps, if required by the manufacturer. After the burn-in, we re-lit the smoker, noting the time it took to come to temperature and stabilize for cooking. As smoking is time-consuming, many people smoke more than one food item at a time, so in our next phase, we smoked ribs and chicken wings, noting the smoker’s capacity, the time to complete the process, and overall impressions of appearance, texture, and flavor.
Finally, we rated the smokers on how easy or difficult they were to clean, noting any difficulty in dispensing spent ash, cleaning the grates, and the like. We rated each category on a scale of one to five, then averaged them with setup carrying 15%, design, ease of use, and performance, each counting for 25% of the score, and cleaning accounting for the remaining 10%. We then took the final weighted average scores to determine our top-rated models.
Factors to Consider
Type of Smoker
Just within the realm of charcoal smokers, there’s considerable variation in design and type. A barrel smoker can be horizontal or vertical. A horizontal (drum) smoker typically has a flip-up lid to access the smoke chamber, whereas a vertical is most often top-loading, requiring you to reach inside the smoker to access the cooking space. A cabinet smoker is often vertical and has a door to access the cooking area. Any top-loading model will require you to reach inside to load or remove your food, which is not a con, just worth considering.
There are a few categories that fall under build. The first is the construction. Consider how heavy it is, how easy it is to move, and how well it retains heat. When looking at a metal smoker, the gauge of that metal is typically (but increasingly not always) a good indicator of the smoker’s heat-retaining capacity. Also consider the number and placement of dampers, which are the heat-controlling pieces of the smoker.
Equally important is how easily you can access the smoker's charcoal tray or charcoal-holding portion. Most designs place the charcoal tray at the bottom of the smoker because heat rises. Where they differ is in how you access that tray. An offset design sits low to the side of the smoke chamber and typically allows you to open the firebox to access the charcoal. Some vertical smokers have doors or panels that give you the same access, and others require you to top-load the charcoal, which also involves removing the food and the drip tray to refuel your smoker.
Smoking food is a time commitment. Many people figure that if they fire up the smoker, they might as well put multiple items inside to make it worth their while. You may or may not see things in the same way. So, consider what you’ll typically smoke and how much of it, and judge your capacity needs based on that.
This is one of the most significant considerations for a charcoal smoker. Ideally, you want a smoker that can quickly achieve your target temperature without overshooting it, and maintain it within 5 or 10 degrees for hours. Cooking too hot or cold will result in poorly rendered fat, oddly textured exteriors, and dry meat, to varying degrees.
To address this need, most charcoal smokers have baffles, typically at the top and bottom, that you manipulate to create convection, drawing cool air into the bottom, which heats as it passes your coals and before it rises across the food. The design and responsiveness of these baffles are key to keeping your temperature in line, and any smoker worth considering has an effective design for this.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are charcoal smokers better than electric?
There are pros and cons to each type of smoker. The first is temperature control and the work you must do to achieve it. With an electric smoker, you set a temperature, a heating element controls it, and you feed it chips or other fuel for flavoring. On the other hand, a charcoal smoker involves building a fire and managing the temperature throughout the cooking process. There’s rarely a set-it-and-forget-it situation with a charcoal smoker. Electric smokers are more portable than charcoal, but they depend on a power source wherever you take them. There’s also the amount of smoke generated to consider. Charcoal tends to create more smoke, which can be good or bad, as too much smoke results in an acrid taste in your food. Final decision? It really depends on what you prefer after thinking through these factors.
Do charcoal smokers need lighter fluid?
You can use lighter fluid in a charcoal smoker. But you first have to ensure that all the fluid burns off before even approaching the smoker with food, as the lighter fluid has a foul taste, and many of the ingredients, such as benzine and butane, are toxic. A firestarter block or a chimney lighter are preferable for lighting your smoker.
What is the best charcoal to use for smoking?
This question is the stuff that blood feuds are made of, as it is highly subjective. We have burned a considerable amount of charcoal in our test kitchens, however, and we currently recommend Cowboy Hardwood Lump Charcoal ($26 at Amazon) for smoking, though you may prefer a different type or blend of woods for flavor.
Other Charcoal Smokers We Tested
Char-Broil Bullet Charcoal Smoker, 20-Inch ($200 at Amazon)
The Char-Broil Bullet came close to making our Top Picks list, but got edged out due to the difficulty of adding more charcoal while cooking and the need to tweak the temperature via the dampers more frequently than other models.
Oklahoma Joe’s Bandera Vertical Offset Smoker and Grill ($650 at Ace Hardware)
Consider the Bandera an opportunity to develop your smoking style, not a smoker for beginners. It’s a heavy consumer of fuel, which requires adding significantly more than the amount recommended by the manufacturer, creating some temperature fluctuations that require management and fine-tuning. Those issues aside, it’s a good-performing, high-capacity smoker.
Broil King 28” Vertical Charcoal Smoker ($649 at Home Depot)
The Broil King was easy to use but wasn’t what one would consider fuel efficient, and the results of our smoking tests had a pronounced acrid flavor.
Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker 18-Inch Charcoal Smoker ($419 at Amazon)
The Smokey Mountain Cooker is, in essence, a buoy-shaped version of Weber’s classic kettle grill. Still, something didn’t translate, to our disappointment. Compared to other models tested, the thinner construction didn’t retain heat as effectively, requiring us to add more fuel than expected during the cooking process, and the cooking results were a mixed bag of good and not-so-good.
What Didn't Make the List
Not every smoker we tested could be a winner, and some had notable shortcomings. Some suffered from a problematic assembly process and heat-management issues, like the Cuisinart Vertical 18-Inch Charcoal Smoker ($126 at Amazon). The stainless steel Meco Americana Charcoal Vertical Water Smoker ($185 at Lowe’s) required constant monitoring and tweaking to reach and maintain temperature and required creativity to add more fuel without lowering the already struggling temperature. The Orion Cooker Large Bullet Smoker ($500 at Amazon) also suffered from heat management problems, with the lid not forming a complete seal and possibly warping during the test, requiring constantly tweaking the baffles while the meat still cooked too quickly. We’d summarize testing the Realcook Vertical 20-Inch Steel Charcoal Smoker ($140 at Amazon) as a battle from start to finish, again, because of heat management issues. Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco Drum Smoker ($449 at Amazon) had airflow issues, which were problematic in getting all the charcoal to ignite, and the cooking tests yielded very unappealing results.
Greg Baker is an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and food writer with four decades of experience in the food industry. His written work appears in Food & Wine, Food Republic, Serious Eats, Tasting Table, and other publications.
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