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The Best Smokers Less Than $500

Ready to get serious about making barbecue at home? These entry-level smokers are your best bets.

By Published Feb. 1, 2022

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See Everything We Tested

What You Need To Know

You can smoke food really well on a charcoal or gas grill, but if you love barbecue and make it often, there are a few reasons to invest in a dedicated smoker. Most good smokers can maintain lower temperatures than a grill can—from 225 to 250 degrees, the low-and-slow temperature range barbecue experts recommend for turning tough cuts of meat tender without drying them out. (On grills, smoking temperatures range from 275 to 325 degrees.) In addition, most smokers allow you to maintain temperatures more consistently and precisely than you can on a grill. Many also have larger fuel capacities (unlimited with electric models), so you won’t have to worry as much about running out of heat during long cooking times. 

 Smokers are generally categorized by the type of fuel they use: charcoal, gas, or electricity. On a broad scale, they all work similarly. The fuel provides the smoker with heat, turning it into a vented oven. You add wood chunks or chips directly on top of that fuel or contain them in metal pans suspended over the heat. The wood heats up, producing the smoke that is essential to barbecue flavor. 

Each type of fuel has different advantages and disadvantages. To learn which smoker best fits your needs, read on.

Charcoal Smokers: Great Barbecue, a Little Work

Pros: Of the three types of smokers tested, charcoal smokers produced the best-tasting barbecue, hands down. No matter what we cooked, tasters unanimously preferred the food cooked in charcoal smokers; it was consistently deeper in flavor than food cooked in gas or electric smokers. It wasn’t just smoky, it tasted of the fire—rich and woodsy, with extra charred and caramelized notes. 

This is because charcoal makes more—and better—smoke than gas or electricity does. It burns wood at hotter temperatures, creating a greater volume of smoke with a more varied, aromatic array of flavor molecules. And as author and barbecue expert Meathead Goldwyn hypothesizes, charcoal itself may serve as an additional source of flavor, as it contains complex organic molecules that contribute new aromas when burned. 

Another plus: Charcoal smokers are usually simple metal vessels, so they’re easy to assemble and maintain. They also have fewer parts that can break or get damaged. 

Cons: As a fuel source, charcoal is messy and fussier to use. With many charcoal models, you’ll need to adjust the air intake vents periodically to maintain a low heat. Depending on the length of your cooking time and the weather, you may need to configure your charcoal and wood in different ways to achieve the temperature you want or occasionally add more charcoal and wood midcookin...

Everything We Tested

Good : 3 stars out of 3.Fair : 2 stars out of 3.Poor : 1 stars out of 3.

Highly Recommended - Charcoal

Recommended - Gas

Recommended with reservations - Electric

*All products reviewed by America’s Test Kitchen are independently chosen, researched, and reviewed by our editors. We buy products for testing at retail locations and do not accept unsolicited samples for testing. We list suggested sources for recommended products as a convenience to our readers but do not endorse specific retailers. When you choose to purchase our editorial recommendations from the links we provide, we may earn an affiliate commission. Prices are subject to change.
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Reviews you can trust

Reviews you can trust

The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing. We stand behind our winners so much that we even put our seal of approval on them.

Miye Bromberg

Miye is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She covers booze, blades, and gadgets of questionable value.

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