Best Charcoal Smoker in 2020

How to choose the best charcoal smoker for your needs
Mark Orwig

A smoker that uses charcoal or wood for its fuel is one of the best smokers available, in my opinion. It’s because of the tenderness, and the robust flavor that cannot be recreated any other way.

What may be best for me may not be best for you. Therefore, I’m going to provide you with the information you need to see if a charcoal smoker is the right one for you.

Buyer’s guide

The most important piece of advice I can give you is to invest in a high-quality charcoal smoker. However, high quality doesn’t always mean the most expensive.

To choose the best charcoal smoker for you—you need to know a few things first:

  • The basics of a charcoal smoker
  • Who should have a charcoal smoker?
  • How this smoker compares to others
  • Basics of operation
  • Features: What you should look for and why
  • What to consider before purchase
  •  Considerations for your budget
  • Any additional tools or accessories you might need

Knowing this information will make the process of choosing a smoker easier.

What is a charcoal smoker?

You probably already know about these amazing smokers. However, if you aren’t familiar with charcoal smokers, I will give you a general rundown.

A charcoal smoker, in short, is a device that is used to smoke meat using charcoal as the fuel. With the right temperature, the indirect heat will smoke the meat to perfection.

There are four components you will find on any style of charcoal smoker:

  • The firebox
  • The water pan
  • The cooking chamber
  • The lid

I will tell you how each of these components plays a part in smoking a little later. First, let’s find out if a charcoal smoker is right for you.

Who is the best fit for a charcoal smoker?

While charcoal smokers are best suited for individuals familiar with meat smoking—these can be used by anybody. In fact, there are entry-level charcoal smokers for those who want to learn.

It would help if you had a willingness to learn, as they’re not easy to work with at first. However, once you get the hang of things, that will change.

Charcoal smokers are best suited for:

  • Meat smoking competitors
  • Caterers
  • Experienced smokers (Unless you’re willing to learn)
  • People who enjoy the act of smoking meat, since this is an incredibly involved process
  • Purists, who believe there’s no other way than the charcoal way

To know if this is the best fit for you, I’ve made a list of advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

  •  Provides a smoky, tender taste to your meats. This taste cannot be recreated with an electric or gas smoker.
  • Better smoke distribution
  • Smoked by use of indirect heat produced by the fire
  • Wide range of sizes available
  • Better insulated to keep the heat high and the smoke ongoing.

Disadvantages

  • You cannot use them inside.
  • Temperature control can be difficult when it is windy.
  • There’s a learning curve associated with the use of this smoker.

To me, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Yes, there is a learning curve; you must understand the correct way to tend the firebox.

Once you learn how to tend the firebox, you can control the smoke and heat output that flows into the cooking chamber.

When people think of charcoal smokers, they think of the classic horizontal offset style smoker. However, there are many other styles out there. Just as well, you have various sizes to choose from.

Why choose a charcoal smoker?

It all comes down to taste. For many chefs, and especially those in meat smoking competitions, the taste factor is vital.

That’s not to say that an electric or a pellet smoker can’t produce excellent flavor. They can, although it’s not the same. Charcoal smokers take that flavor to the next level.

Besides taste and competitions, there are a few other reasons you would want charcoal versus different types:

  • Manual temperature control
  • They are reliable
  • Decent in all sorts of weather
  • Relatively inexpensive in comparison to quality for value.
  • Once you learn how to operate one, all the other types are easy in comparison.

The manual temperature control, for me, is the most appealing element of a charcoal smoker. You need to master the art of adjusting the baffles, vents, and the dampers. This will control the amount of oxygen to the fire so you can:

  •  Increase or decrease the temperature
  •  Control the amount of smoke that goes into the cooking chamber
  •  Also, control of the intensity of the smoked flavor of your meats.

Other types of smokers can be great too. If you need something that you can use inside, obviously, a charcoal smoker is not a great choice. Many smoker enthusiasts have multiple types of smokers.

The other types don’t allow for the same finished product as a charcoal smoker.

Basics of use

Step 1: Get the fire going.

The best way, hands down, to light the coals is by using a chimney. In the chimney, there are two compartments: an upper and a lower. Set your coals in the top chamber and some newspaper in the bottom.

Light the paper, and in 15 minutes you will be ready to start cooking.

You can achieve the same goal without the use of a chimney, though. Except, it makes it a little more challenging.

Step 2: Prepare your smoker.

Set your coals and the water pan that is ¾ full in the designated areas. Place your wood chips on the coals as well.

Once the smoke starts forming, place your meat on the rack in the cooking chamber and put the lid on it. Set the vent of the cover over your meat. Doing so will allow the exhaust vent to pull the smoke over your food. This is the best method to disperse the smoke evenly throughout the cooking chamber.

Step 3: Control your temperature.

The most important thing to master during this process is controlling your temperature. The bottom of the vent will allow you to give your fire some fuel.

This step takes some fine-tuning on your part. You want to have a thermometer to monitor the temperature. Your temperature should consistently stay between 225 and 250 Fahrenheit.

Features to look for and why

Thick metal and good seals

A quality smoker is going to have the right material. Steel is a great one to start, as it helps to regulate the temperature. It’s also an excellent insulator against colder weather and wind.

You will want to check the seals and the thickness of the metal as well. The point of a smoker is to keep your meat in a smoky environment. If you have seals that are not doing an adequate job, this can be a problem.

Reliable structure

The last thing you want to have happen is a smoker full of hot coals tip over on you, or someone else. Check the material that was used to create the legs.

If you find that the smoker’s metal portion is excellent, but the legs are not, you could invest in a smoker stand. This will help ensure your smoker does not tip over if that coals shift or a hard breeze comes along.

Warranty

You should always seek a warranty on your products, especially the ones that require a more substantial investment. As with anything, there may be a defect in your equipment.

Choosing a smoker that includes a warranty will protect you from out of pocket costs for something that is not your fault. Without a warranty, the company has a right to reject your request to fix it.

Built-in thermometer

Find a smoker with a built-in thermometer. This keeps you from the hassle of opening your lid to test the temperature. Each time you open your cover, you’re letting the smoke escape.

Not only does the smoke escape, but the heat does as well.

Easy access to the firebox

Easy access is a must for me when smoking with charcoal. There will be times where you need to add wood to your coals or add hot coals.

The ease of accessing your heat source also decreases the risk of an accident happening. Not to mention, you won’t lose the temperature or the smoke inside of your cooking chamber.

Budget considerations

Affordability is essential when you’re looking to purchase a smoker.

The good news for you is that charcoal smokers tend to be on the cheaper side without sacrificing quality.

However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be weary or careful of where you buy yours.

Figure out exactly how much you want to pay for a smoker, and stick to your budget. I cannot stress this enough. A higher price does not always mean more top quality.

Attachments you may need

Here is a list of several attachments you may want to purchase in addition to your new smoker:

  •  Fire and heat resistant gloves
  • A griller/smoker set of utensils
  • Smoker stand
  •  Charcoal
  •  Wood Chips
  • Chimney
  • Attachable firebox

Of course, you’re going to need fuel sources and utensils. The chimney and attachable firebox are both optional. This may help to assist if you if you’re having any issues lighting the charcoal. However, they’re not necessary.

Frequently asked questions

Do you soak woodchips before smoking?

You don’t have to, but that’s how I do it. I find that soaked wood chips produce more smoke over a more extended period. The water keeps them from catching fire, so they last longer.

However, this is all up to you and your preferences.

Is the smoke from charcoal dangerous?

If you bring your charcoal smoker inside, yes. Charcoal produces carbon monoxide. However, if you are smoking your meat outside, this is not an issue.

What’s best for you?

What is best for someone else does not mean that it would be great for you, too. Do your research and weigh your options.