Smoking and grilling are as American as apple pie or that Thanksgiving turkey.
Many would argue you haven’t really lived until you have tried low and slow cooked pulled pork.
Being cooked for 16 hours over a selection of aromatic woods gives a flavor that nothing else comes close to.
It’s not just about the pork.
Brisket just melts on the smoker and it raises chicken to the next level. Even seafood and fish will benefit from the added aromas of a charcoal smoker.
Last Updated: July 27, 2019
By William Clay: This article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information regarding charcoal smokers available for those who are interested in smoking a perfectly smoked meats. The best 5 available have changed, and information has been added to assist individuals in finding the best charcoal smokers currently available on the market. The FAQ has also been updated.
Originally released in 1981, the Weber Smokey Mountain is regarded to be the best all-round charcoal smoker by many grill enthusiasts.
With the usual Weber quality construction, it has an enameled steel body with porcelain and chrome coated parts.
We looked at the 18.5-inch model, but you can also get the Weber Smokey Mountain in a choice of 14-inch or 22-inch models too.
The 18.5-inch model tends to be the best choice for most people, but everything in this review applies just as much to the other models too.
The 18.5-inch Weber Smokey Mountain features 481 square inches of cooking space over two nickel plated 18.5-inch cooking grates. Standing nearly 3.5 feet tall, the Smokey Mountain comes in three sections: a firebox base, a center cooking section and a domed lid.
At just under 40 pounds when assembled, it’s not unthinkable of breaking it down into the three pieces to transport in your trunk.
The Smokey Mountain uses a combination of charcoal and wood to create the heat and smoke in the lower part. The aluminium-lined basket features three adjustable vents to control the airflow and hence regulate the temperature of your smoker.
Above the firebox is the middle section, which features a water bowl, and the two cooking grates with a trap door on the side for refuelling.
The water pan, which sits between the fire and the grilling grates, is where the magic happens. The water bowl not only adds humidity to the smoke chamber, but also helps to maintain a more stable smoking temperature.
With the two nickel-plated racks and large cooking area, you could easily smoke two Boston butts in this smoker. The domed lid features a thermometer with easy-to-read temperatures and a smoke zone indicator for ease of use.
The side compartment door seal is known to be a problem for some, with smoke and/or heat escaping. When smoke escapes, it’s not too much of a problem and normally means the chamber is completely filled up with smoke. But heat escaping can be an issue, with a whole side industry of replaceable gaskets popping up online.
Other customers have complained the temperature gauge is unreliable, although you can get a third-party thermometer. Personally, when smoking or cooking for longer periods, I would advise investing in an additional probe, whatever smoker you use.
If you are looking for a simple smoker that you can just set up and leave to do its job, the Weber Smokey Mountain range is ideal. If set up correctly, this could continue to smoke for up to 10 hours and longer.
Being one of the best-loved smokers available, there are many online resources to help you get the most of your Smokey Mountain.
These include websites like The Virtual Weber Bullet and a linked discussion forum.
At under $200 for the 18.5-inch model, you are getting a quality smoker featuring a cooking space that rivals competitors costing twice as much. With the industry-leading Weber 10-year warranty, you can rest assured your Smokey Mountain cooker will last for many years.
Standing at 49 inches tall with legs attached, the 36-inch cabinet of this vertical smoker provides space for four grill racks.
This adds up to an impressive 784 square inches of cooking space, with each grate able to accommodate up to 25 pounds of food.
Below the powder-coated steel smoking chamber is a porcelain enameled steel charcoal box.
A heavy-gauge enameled wood chip box can be slid over the hot charcoals for smoke.
It’s recommended you add at least 4 pounds of charcoal, or about 75 briquettes, for a smoke session. The front of the unit features a double door design, one for the charcoal box and the other for the firebox.
Both are double-lined for better insulation and the top door also features a stainless steel temperature gauge. The unit is durable and weighs over 56 pounds when empty.
The larger capacity of this smoker makes it ideal for small businesses or cooking for large groups. This would be ideal for those larger BBQ tournaments, but being solid in one piece, and without wheels, it’s not as portable as other designs.
Although the enamel charcoal chamber may look small at first, it’s been designed this way for a reason. A tighter packing of the briquettes ensures an efficient and steady burn while smoking your meats.
The double door design allows for adding foods much easier than designs that need you to remove the top grates first. The lower door for the firebox aims for refuelling or adding wood chips without too much heat escaping.
It may be easy to set up the smoker and add the meats, but controlling the temperature can take more practice. The Dyna-Glo will need tending more often than the Weber, as each time you open that door, heat escapes.
Some users have commented on the thinner steel used on the smoke chamber compared to the thick gauge steel of the firebox. Heat can easily be lost when cooking.
And finally, the closed design with no removable lid means this smoker can’t be used as a grill. It is also rather bulky for transporting, and probably best in a fixed location in your backyard.
An additional cover is available from Dyna-Glo to protect it from the elements. At 56 pounds, you won’t want to be carrying it indoors too often.
The Dyna-Glo DG780BDC-D offers an affordable vertical smoker with a huge capacity for those large smoking sessions. Many users have commented on how well it smokes food, often with results comparable to cabinets costing 10 times more.
It’s easy to set up and tend to, with the double door design, although keeping the correct temperature will take practice. If you are willing to put the time in to learn, this smoker will provide professional results for larger quantities of food.
This Char-Broil Bullet smoker uses a similar design to the Weber Smokey Mountain we looked at earlier.
This bullet uses three parts with cool touch handles either side of the main chamber.
Retailing for just over $100, it’s about half the price of the Weber.
Two 16-inch diameter grill plates offer 370 square inches of cooking surface and are porcelain coated.
Standing at 31 inches tall, it is shorter than the Smokey Mountain but still weighs a similar 41 pounds.
The Char-Broil bullet features an ash pan which can be lifted with handles when cool for an easy clean up. A lid-mounted temperature gauge allows for quick and easy temperature monitoring with airflow controls on the base of the unit.
Just like the Weber, this bullet smoker is very easy to use and can be virtually forgotten once set up.
Although it doesn’t feature a water reservoir, the dripping pan can be filled with water for a similar effect.
Rather than have multiple adjustable dampers, an innovative airflow control features a numbered lever which simplifies the temperature regulation. The fire access door is actually cut from the steel body, instead of just being an aluminum hatch.
Again with a removable lid, this can be used as a grill, with the 16-inch grill grate providing enough surface for 12–15 burgers. However, remember that smoking normally involves a lower temperature and you will need to refresh the coals for a decent sear.
On paper, this looks like a Weber-beater at half the price. As a bullet smoker it is one of the best you will find for under $200. But the lack of third-party accessories or online resources make it not as versatile as the Smokey Mountain as an all-round smoker and grill.
The fire access door may seem of better quality but can be awkward to add wood chips or more charcoal. The location is just slightly too high up the main body, with little access to the firebox.
For somebody wanting to try experimenting with smoking meats at home, the Char-Broil Bullet 16-inch Charcoal Smoker ticks all the right boxes.
You don’t always want to lay out several hundred dollars when starting out. This bullet smoker has many of the same features as the Weber but at over half the price.
The Char-Broil Bullet smoker is a great introduction to backyard smoking at an affordable price. Just don’t expect it to be as durable. It only features a one-year warranty rather than the 10 years of the Weber.
If you are looking for the best value smoker on the market, this compact bullet smoker from Masterbuilt can often be found for under $60.
Although it is the most compact smoker we have looked at, it still features 395 square inches of cooking space over two porcelain coated grill racks.
At just 15.6 pounds in weight, this smoker stands 31 inches tall and is 22 inches at its widest point.
This would be the ideal smoker for fishing trips, camping weekends or tailgate parties.
For beginners, bullet smokers tend to be the easiest to learn to use. Simply place some charcoal in the bottom, fill the water pan with boiling water and add your meats to be smoked. Wood chips placed on top of the burning coals can provide that extra smokiness.
For quicker and shorter smokes, this small smoker is ideal. Many users have modified the unit and put on extra legs, or drilled holes for more airflow.
The limited charcoal space may not get as hot as other smokers. But, with a little more attention, they will smoke for two to three hours at a time.
The two shelves and a spacious interior can accommodate meats of different sizes, but you may struggle with a full brisket or rack of ribs.
To get the most from this bullet smoker, you will need to make a few modifications. The firebox doesn’t include a charcoal grate, which causes ash and wood chips to smother the burning embers.
Additionally, the fire box doesn’t feature ventilation or an air flow system like other bullet-style smokers.
Most of these issues can be fixed with a simple drill or purchasing a grate that fits the firebox and attaching brackets. What can’t be fixed is the thin metals used, which means more heat escapes from the smoker body.
With a limited charcoal box and the heat which is lost through the use of thinner metals, you would struggle to use this as a grill. The Masterbuilt generates enough heat to add that smoky flavor, but rarely goes above 300 degrees Fahrenheit in practice.
If you are new to the world of smoking, this Masterbuilt Charcoal Bullet smoker is an ideal starting point. What’s incredible about it, other than the low price, is the compact size and lightweight portability.
The less expensive metals used in the construction may not last a lifetime, but many of my colleagues still have this smoker.
It’s what they call their guilty pleasure; they wouldn’t be seen with it at a competition. However, for that odd fishing trip or camping weekend away, the small size is ideal.
This latest model of Weber’s iconic grill features a 22-inch diameter porcelain-enameled bowl with a cooking area of 363 square inches.
All Weber kettles include a one-touch cleaning system which removes the charcoal and debris out of the bottom of the grill.
This model adds a high-capacity ash catcher that can be removed for easy cleaning, rather than the usual steel plate.
With a total of 782 square inches cooking surface this smoker from Royal Gourmet is the largest we looked at. It’s actually a combination of a charcoal grill with an offset smoker attached to the side which comes on a trolley.
Measuring nearly 4-foot long and 49 inches high, the Royal Gourmet grill weighs in at 58.4 pounds. Fortunately, those sturdy wheels make it easy to move around your backyard.
The expansive cooking area consists of a main chamber with 440 square inches of grilling space and a 180 square-inch warming rack. The offset smoker provides an extra 182 square inches with the charcoal pan capable of holding 5 pounds of charcoal.
Many grill enthusiasts will argue a vertical smoker tends to give a better smoke as the smoke travels upwards, not sideways.
How more expensive offset smokers deal with this is reverse flow technology. A baffle plate forces the smoke back up over the surface of the meat on its way out of the chamber.
This Royal Gourmet grill has placed the offset smoker slightly lower than the chamber, causing the smoke to rise.
Side doors on the main body allow you to add more fuel or remove ash while cooking. Additionally, a lifting handle allows you to adjust the height of the charcoal bed while cooking.
Being one of the less expensive offset smokers on the market, the materials used are thinner and don’t hold the heat as well. Temperatures can fluctuate wildly when smoking, although the height-adjustable charcoal bed can compensate sightly.
One of the major complaints with this grill/offset smoker combo used to be the paint chipping. Royal Gourmet claim to have fixed this problem, but ensure you get the 2018 edition of this grill, the CC1830F, not an earlier model.
Many of my friends like the Royal Gourmet for the manly good looks it brings to their backyard. Short of an Ugly Drum style of grill you don’t get more macho than this and professional looking too.
Although the materials may not be of the highest quality, if you look after this grill correctly it should give you two to three years of backyard grilling season.
The extra large cooking area makes it ideal for those larger backyard parties or smoking your briskets en masse. Next Thanksgiving everybody knows who will be smoking those whole hams.
Electric and gas smokers may be able to create a smoke flavor, but for grill enthusiasts it doesn’t come close to charcoal.
More complex organic molecules, including cellulose and lignin are found in combustible gases when charcoal is burnt. These gases mix with the smoke from wood chips or chunks to give that distinctive flavor of Southern barbecue.
Many enthusiasts, like myself, like to customize their grilling equipment and none more so than the charcoal smoker.
Adding extra vents or shelves can significantly alter how you use your smoker. More tech-filled gas or electric grills don’t offer the facility to customize unless you are a technical wizard—even then it can be dangerous.
With a charcoal smoker, there’s no need to lug those larger cylinders of propane around. You will need larger tanks, as most smoking sessions tend to last six hours or more, often overnight.
Trying to find an electric power source in the wilderness can also be difficult and a smoker will just zap your generator.
The size of your smoker will obviously affect how portable it is, but many of the bullet smokers tend to be more compact nowadays. You can even use compact kettle grills for a short smoke when on weekend camping trips.
Most of the smokers we have looked at can also be used as grills. For that perfect sear on your smoked meats, you can’t get better than the high temperatures of charcoal.
You can also get attachments for many charcoal smokers that convert them into a pizza oven, or other styles of ovens.
Using a few household tools, a cardboard box and some metal duct pipes, you could quite easily turn your bullet smoker into a cold smoker.
Cold smoking is a great way of finishing cured seafoods and smoking some traditional cheeses. The Virtual Weber Forum shows just how easy it can be here.
The wood you use when smoking can either come in the form of wood chips, large chunks, or even dust.
Each manufacturer includes guidelines of which type will work best with their product.
As a general rule, bullet smokers will work better with wood chips, due to the limited space in the fire basket. Presoaked and placed in a foil parcel or wood chip box, a handful of chips will give three to four hours of smoke.
Offset smokers or vertical smokers will have the space for larger chunks, although they will need tending to more and adding more frequently.
The woods traditionally used in smoking were hickory and mesquite, the same you find in the flavors of liquid smoke. However, these can often be overpowering and leave a bitter taste to the food.
More subtle flavor can be obtained by mixing a variety of woods such as oak, alder, pecan or maple and the wood of fruit trees like apple or cherry.
Wood chips can also be obtained from old barrels which have been used to age brandy or bourbon for that extra flavor.
Try experimenting to find the mix which gives the best smoky flavor for you.
For a more detailed look at which wood goes best with each type of food, try looking at our BBQ 101 article here.
The type of smoker you choose to purchase will often dictate the size of it. Offset smokers are normally larger, with a barrel style grill or square chamber being longer, with the smoker attached at the side. Ugly Drum smokers can also be quite large and unsightly to many people, hence the name.
Bullet smokers and vertical cabinet smokers will have the smallest footprint of any type of charcoal smokers.
Most of the popular bullet smokers of today stand about 40 to 50 inches tall and have a diameter of anywhere between 14 and 22 inches. Vertical smokers will normally be taller, but still not have too big a surface area.
If you want something you are going to just leave in the backyard, the larger the better. If backyard space is limited, then a vertical charcoal smoker or larger bullet smoker can be the answer.
Directly related to the actual size is the cooking area the charcoal smoker offers. Remember, most of the meats which are best for smoking also tend to come in big chunks. Racks of ribs, Boston butts of pork shoulder and cuts of brisket aren’t normally small.
A vertical smoker or bullet smoker will often have more than one cooking grate or shelf. Most of the bullet smokers have at least two, which effectively doubles up the space.
Try to avoid anything with a diameter of less than 16 to 18 inches, as you will struggle to fit a brisket or rack of ribs in. Height adjustable shelves allow for more versatility with your cut of meat.
Offset or kettle grills will normally have one large cooking area which is measured in square inches. Sometimes, the manufacturer will also add the warming shelf or wood chamber of an offset smoker to the total cooking space. Some manufacturers like to express the cooking area size of how many burgers will fit.
If you intend to smoke every weekend, then by all means go for a more expensive, dedicated smoker. Normally a high-end smoker will be more durable and withstand the longer cook times of a 16-hour smoke.
If you will only smoke once a month or so, choosing a smoker which can double up as a grill can be ideal. Why have two large pieces of cooking equipment taking up space on your patio? If you are going to smoke even less frequently, a kettle grill can easily be adapted for smoking, as shown in YouTube video below.
There’s nothing better at the end of a day’s camping than to smoke your own meats. You could even sit around the smoker at night, smoking the bacon for the next morning’s breakfast.
Bullet style charcoal grills will be the most portable, with many breaking down into three sections for easily storing in the trunk. Less expensive bullet smokers are lightweight enough to carry down to the river, and smoke the fish as you catch them.
If you do intend to take your smoker out on the road, always consider the size of your trunk, or whether you have access to the bed of a pick up. Larger, offset smokers will definitely need a pickup or even an RV to transport, with added wheels a bonus to move them.
The cost of a charcoal smoker will determine the quality of the materials used. More expensive brands will use thicker and often enameled metals, which will retain the heat better.
Thinner metals will mean the temperature will fluctuate more, and a less even smoke will be achieved.
A well-made smoker should have stable legs and a good sealed construction. They are going to be smoking for long periods of time and the last thing you want is it toppling over mid-smoke.
Doors on the smoking chamber or firebox should have solid seals to prevent smoke and heat escaping—additional gaskets can be fitted to many charcoal smokers.
The length of warranty offered with a new charcoal smoker can often be an indicator of how well-built it is. Some cheaper smokers will only offer one-year warranties while the better known brands offer three-year, five-year or even 10-year warranties.
As with all grilling equipment, how easy it is to clean not only affects how long the smoker will last, but how often you use it. Smokers are used for much longer periods than traditional grills. Ash, debris and grease soon builds up.
Removable ash pans can make cleanup much quicker, with some removable while cooking.
The easier a charcoal smoker is to break down, the more simple it will be to clean.
And at least with a charcoal smoker you don’t have to worry about electrical components or gas pipes in the way.
Let me start by saying we are not endorsed by Weber in any way.
Like most grill enthusiasts, Weber grills and smokers tend to my preferred go-to brand.
However, any of the other smokers we have looked at will do an equally good job of smoking your meats, it’s just a matter of personal preference.
If you have always wondered about dabbling in the world of home smoking, there’s never been a better time. There are now many charcoal smokers available that are aimed at the beginner. They are both affordable and easy to use.
With a little practice and the best charcoal smoker, you will soon be smoking meats like a pro.
Next Christmas or Thanksgiving, your friends will know what to expect as a gift. There’s nothing like a home smoked ham or pastrami to show somebody you care.
This post was last updated on January 10th, 2020 at 09:12 pm
William Clay is a BBQ enthusiast dedicated to sharing his grilling (and overall cooking) expertise with FireFoodChef's readers.