A “hot” meat smoker is a slow-cooking grill, like a dry crockpot. They impart a smokey flavor, while tenderizing the meat, making even cheaper cuts of meat taste good. They are suitable for turkey, chicken, fish, beef, pork, burgers and vegetables.
Some can also function as a “cold” smoker, for sausages, ham, cheese and salmon. The food is not heated to a temperature that is high enough to cook the food.
Prices range from under a hundred, to a few hundred dollars. Brands include Bradley, Masterbuilt, Brinkmann, Meco, Weber, Smokey Mountain, New Braunfels, EZ Smoker, Smokehouse (Little Chief, Big Chief), Cookshack and Char-Broil.
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How Electric Wood Smokers Work
Smokers are used outdoors or on the patio.
Raw meat is placed on racks in the smoker (after rubbing, marinading or salting). Water-soaked wood chips are placed over or around the electrical heating element. They produce the smoke. A pan of water is placed under the meat, to supply moisture to the air and to catch grease drippings. This is why smokers are sometimes called “water smokers.”
The smoker is switched on and the meat is cooked for a few hours (3 to 12 or more, depending on the type of meat and the smoker’s temperature). Chips and water are replenished every few hours. Automatic smokers have an electro-mechanical feed system for wood briquettes, to automatically add new wood.
Both the smoker’s temperature and the meat’s internal temperature should be monitored. The USDA has a list of “safe minimal internal temperatures” for different types of meat (http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/Smoking_Meat_and_Poultry/), ranging from 145 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the type of meat.
After the meat is ready, it can be finished in an oven to crisp the skin, or the skin can be removed. Smokers usually aren’t hot enough to properly crisp skin.
Sealed smokers do not need their wood chips or water to be replaced during the smoke. As their name implies, sealed smokers do not allow the smoke to escape. The smoke is trapped inside for the duration of the cooking and is not replenished. Moisture is also trapped inside.
Sealed smokers are easier to use but some reviewers say that the smokey taste in the meat is less strong. A sealed smoker can be converted to a conventional smoker by leaving the lid open a crack. An example of a sealed smoker is Old Smokey.
Electric Smokers: Advantages and Disadvantages
Compared to charcoal and propane smokers, electric smokers are easier to use. Temperature control is usually, but not always, better.
The main disadvantages are:
- Low maximum temperature, typically below 250 or 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This is enough for smoking, but not high enough to crisp the skin. If crispy skin is desired, the meat will have to be finished off in a grill or oven.
- Not rain resistant. Smoking will have to be interrupted if the smoker is placed outside and it rains. Even “outdoors” models aren’t waterproof.
- No “smoke ring” in the meat.
- Short lifespan. Warranties are typically one year, compared to up to ten years for a charcoal smoker.
Features and Specifications
The most important specifications are the power of the heating element, and the size of the smoker.
Powers range from 350 to 1500 watts. The power required depends on the size of the smoker, whether or not the smoker is insulated, and the outside temperature (more power is needed in winter). About 1000 watts is probably a good compromise, as a 1500 watt heater can trip some household circuit breakers.
The average smoker is about 16 inches across (whether round or square) and 30 to 40 inches high. If only one measurement is given (for example a 30 inch smoker), it refers to the height.
The number of racks varies from two to four. Some 30-inch smokers have two racks, others have four. The number of racks therefore is not a good indicator of size.
Useful features for a smoker are:
- Thermostat control. Surprisingly, some smokers don’t have a thermostat.
- Adjustable power output. This is important if there is no thermostat. More powerful 1500 watt smokers, especially, can run too hot if the power cannot be throttled back.
- Insulated walls. This helps the smoker maintain a high temperature, and recover more quickly after the door is opened, especially in cold weather. Insulated smokers are also safer as they will not burn if accidentally touched.
- Stable temperature. Some smokers have a large temperature swing (over 20 degrees) between the maximum temperature (when the thermostat cuts off the power) and the minimum temperature (when the thermostat cuts in again).
- Wheels. For moving the smoker around the backyard or patio.
- Front-loading design. Allows easy loading and unloading, especially for multiple racks. It’s sometimes necessary to swap racks halfway through, to ensure even cooking. The door seal needs to be better than with a top-loading design, so a top-loader might be better for a budget model (is less likely to have problems).
- Separate doors for replenishing water and wood chips. Reduces heat loss because the main door doesn’t need to be opened. However depending on the design, this might not be practical (food on the rack can block access, location is too far inside the smoker to be easily reached).
- Adjustable vents. Opening up the vents makes the wood chips burn faster, and increases the smokey taste in the meat. Vents are more convenient, but the lid or door can also be left partially open.
- Built-in smoker thermometer. If not provided, an oven thermometer can be fixed to the side or the top of the smoker.
- Built-in meat thermometer. If not provided, a separate meat thermometer can be used (the wire can be fed in through the top vents, or a hole drilled in the side).
- Rust resistance. More expensive smokers are stainless steel, followed by enameled or porcelain-coated smokers. Painted smokers are cheaper. The paint can peel off but the smoker can then be seasoned with vegetable oil, like a cast-iron skillet.
- Snag-free interior. Some smokers have exposed bolts to support the racks. These can scratch your hands when loading or unloading the smoker.
- Remote control. This is more a display than a control; showing elapsed time, meat temperature and smoker temperature. A separate remote thermometer can be used instead.
- Separate smoke generator. Most electric heaters have one heating element, for heating the food and smoking the wood chips. Some have two heating elements, a smaller one for smoking the chips and a large one for heating the food. If the larger heater is switched off, the smoker becomes a cold smoker.
- Cold smoke adapter. Instead of a separate heater for the wood chips, another way to cold smoke is to use a cold smoke adapter. It is a horizontal pipe that directs smoke but not heat, from the hot smoker to another container.
- Glass window. Allows monitoring of food without having to open the door and letting the heat escape. However smoke will block much of the view, and the window needs to be cleaned otherwise it will soot up.
- Internal light. Like a glass window, an internal light will need to be cleaned regularly.
- Cover for outdoor storage. Used to protect the smoker from rain when not switched on. This can be bought separately.
- Long power cord. Many are short, only a few feet long. An extension cord can be used but needs to be heavy-gage, otherwise the smoker’s power might be reduced.
- Availability of replacement parts, especially the thermostat/controller and the heating element. These are the parts that fail the most often. Depending on the design and the manufacturer’s policy, the entire unit might need to be replaced if one part fails.
Digital smokers have an electronically-controlled thermostat. They can be more precise, but sometimes don’t work well in cold weather (a hair-dryer might be needed to warm up the control unit). Some are programmable, allowing different temperatures to be set for different times.
Automatic smokers, such as the Bradley BTIS1, have an electro-mechanical autoloader for the wood. They use custom wood briquettes that need to be purchased from the manufacturer. They combine the hands-off simplicity of a sealed smoker, with the heavier smoke penetration of a non-sealed smoker.
The main disadvantages are more expensive briquettes, and potential reliability problems with the autoloader.
The smoker’s user manual should have useful hints on how to get the best results from a particular smoker. Some general hints are:
- Try different types of wood, for different flavors: mesquite, apple wood, hickory.
- Soak wood for at least an hour before smoking. This increases the amount of smoke.
- To avoid direct contact with the heating element, wrap wood chips in aluminum foil or place them in a cast iron box. This also protects the wood from drippings, which will stop the wood from smoking.
- Use the fat drippings in the water pan to make gravy.
- Wrap as much of the inside of the smoker in aluminum foil, as possible. This will make clean up easier. However the racks should not be wrapped as doing so will reduce air circulation.
- If the heat is uneven in the smoker, use aluminum foil as a heat shield to deflect some direct heat away from the bottom rack.
How to Choose the Right Meat Smoker
Based on user reviews of electric smokers on Amazon.com, home electric smokers have an uncertain reputation. Reviewers do talk about great results, when the smokers perform as expected. It’s best to read a few reviews, looking out for problems with reliability and temperature control, before deciding to buy a smoker.