Outdoor smokers are built to last for years, and many high-quality models are backed by long warranties. They can be heavy and expensive, however, as well as difficult to use in inclement weather.
Charcoal smokers require careful tending and don't refuel automatically, but they're generally less expensive than pellet smokers. An advantage of charcoal smokers, however, is that they get hot enough to brown food. This makes them the preferred choice of many barbeque enthusiasts, who say the complex chemical reactions produced through the burning of hardwood charcoal results in a deeper, more satisfying flavor.
If you've used a charcoal grill before, moving to a charcoal smoker should be an easy transition To light it, you fill the firebox or fuel chamber with charcoal and top it with paraffin chunks. A water pan absorbs heat and helps keep the smoker's internal temperature low. Once the paraffin is lit, wait for the charcoal to become covered in ash before topping it with several chunks of dry hardwood. The smoldering hardwood bathes your food in smoke, and you control the temperature by opening or closing vents in the lid. When fuel runs low, add charcoal and then check your water level, topping it off it when it runs low.
The bullet-shaped Weber Smokey Mountain is clearly the most popular charcoal smoker among BBQ enthusiasts, and it earns praise from reviewers as well. Two sizes are available: 18.5 inches (*Est. $300 for 18.5-inch size) and 22.5 inches (*Est. $400). The Smokey Mountain popularity is such that it spawned a dedicated fansite, VirtualWeberBullet.com. AmazingRibs.com's Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn lauds the Smokey Mountain's cooking ability, build quality, ease of use and overall value. When it's in action, Goldwyn says the Smokey Mountain maintains a "remarkably steady temperature for hours." Goldwyn is particularly impressed with the Weber Smokey Mountain's porcelain-enamel finish, which carries a 10-year guarantee against rust and burn-through.
About.com's Derrick Riches describes the Weber Smokey Mountain as "easy to use, able to maintain temperatures for many, many hours, and capable of producing great barbecue." Meanwhile, at Amazon.com, more than 125 users have posted ratings and reviews of the 18.5-inch Weber Smokey Mountain, and 112 of them give it a perfect score: 5 out of 5 stars. One owner who competes as part of a team in BBQ competitions writes, "Our WSMs regularly allow us to win Grand Championships even when we go up against other smokers costing over $15,000."
It's expensive, but the 18-inch Big Green Egg (*Est. $750) is a thick-walled Kamado-style cooker that also excels as a smoker. With high marks from Fine Cooking magazine's Charles Miller and owners posting reviews at Epinions.com, the Egg's strong points are its lifetime warranty, overall versatility, wide range of cooking temperatures and ability to maintain a constant temperature. It also uses very little charcoal, which saves money and is better from an environmental perspective. The Big Green Egg's heavy-duty exterior is its secret weapon. When fueled properly, testers say it can maintain a consistent cooking temperature for as long as 24 hours with little fluctuation. And smoking foods is only part of its repertoire; the Big Green Egg can also bake bread, cook pizza and sear meat. Once it's fired up, the Big Green Egg can hit temperatures as hot as 700 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few minutes, according to Miller. While our focus here is on the 18-inch Large Egg, the Big Green Egg also comes in mini (9-inch cooking grid), small (13-inch grid), medium (15-inch grid) and extra-large (24-inch grid) sizes. Prices range from about $200 to more than $1,000.
Cook's Illustrated magazine includes the Big Green Egg in a smoker test that also features the Weber Smokey Mountain. The chefs who performed the evaluations say the Big Green Egg "boasted exceptionally precise temperature control," but they feel it's not roomy enough. Additionally, the lack of a water pan means that meat smoked in it can come out dry. Owners posting reviews to Epinions.com give the Big Green Egg very high overall ratings, but we saw a few complaints about the Egg's bulk and inaccurate thermometer.
There are other considerations as well and they can add to the Egg's already substantial cost. The Big Green Egg needs to be placed on a sturdy, fireproof surface, as these cookers weigh anywhere from 65 pounds (small) to more than 200 pounds (extra-large). Since the Egg is ceramic, the exterior can chip, too. The manufacturer also offers wheeled stands, or "nests," that are a perfect fit, but they're sold separately and add another $125 or so on top of the purchase price for the Egg alone.