Finding the ideal smoker
Most smokers (sometimes called BBQ smokers) aren't as versatile as grills, and the best ones cost more than $150, no small price to pay for what many outdoor cooks see as mostly a summertime hobby. As long as it's not too windy or rainy, however, you can use most smokers year-round. It's a great cooking method for boosting flavor and tenderizing meat and vegetables without adding fat or calories. Experts say properly smoked food is rich, juicy and tender, with a balanced smoky flavor.
Barbeque connoisseurs aren't shy about identifying smokers that can really cook and calling out the ones that leave them feeling burned. We found plenty of owner-written reviews at retail websites such as HomeDepot.com, Cabelas.com and Amazon.com, as well as at dedicated user-review site Buzzillions.com.
Overall, AmazingRibs.com is the most credible review source for smokers. The website's founder, Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn -- a frequent barbeque judge, former food columnist and culinary school instructor -- bases many of his reviews (he covers dozens of smokers) on personal use and observation. Chefs at Cook's Illustrated magazine rate indoor and outdoor smokers on usability, design and overall food quality. Barbeque veteran Konrad Haskins weighs in at ProPitmaster.com. Haskins' wife, Phyllis, offers reviews and advice in a seven-part article for TheNibble.com. Finally, Derrick Riches, About.com's guide to barbecues and grilling, recommends the best smokers in the under-$400 and over-$400 price ranges based on his analysis.
Avoid the Char-Broil H2O Smoker, unless you like a challenge
Some smokers, like the dirt-cheap Char-Broil 06701289 Charcoal H2O Smoker (*Est. $60), simply aren't recommended. It takes plenty of flak from reviewers posting at AmazingRibs.com and Amazon.com. "It has a lousy thermometer, no top air vent or damper, and no door for adding water or wood," complains AmazingRibs.com's Goldwyn. Owner reviews at Amazon.com complain that this Char-Broil vertical smoker doesn't retain heat effectively and that ash buildup actually chokes out the fire. Some say that drilling holes through the bottom of the firebox improves airflow and helps keep the fire burning, but it's a bit ridiculous for owners to have to pull out tools and modify the product just so that it actually works as advertised. Unless you're willing to tackle such a project, you should avoid the Char-Broil 06701289 Charcoal H2O Smoker. Note that this model is no longer available at Amazon.com (though reviews there are still posted). You'd have to order it directly from Char-Broil.
Recent smoker recalls
Another Char-Broil model was voluntarily recalled by Char-Broil and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in August 2010. According to the CPSC website, Char-Broil's 07701413 Vertical Gas Smoker allowed gas to build up when it was operated at low temperature, and several consumers reported that their smokers exploded as a result. The recall involved about 18,500 of the vertical gas smokers sold between March 2008 and August 2010.