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Electric smokers are safe and low-maintenance

The smoking process used by gas and electric smokers is virtually the same. Like propane smokers, electric models are "set-it-and-forget-it" smokers that require very little tending and are inexpensive to run. They also have the advantage of being generally lightweight, and unlike gas smokers they work well on windy or cold days (they can't be used indoors, however). Electric smokers have lower fire and explosion risks than gas smokers, so they're considered safer than propane models as well. However, while electric smokers are very effective at keeping food moist, they don't get hot enough to brown meat. Experts consider them inferior to charcoal-fueled smokers in terms of food quality.

Among electric smokers, a standout is the Bradley Original Smoker (*Est. $250). About.com's barbecues and grilling guide Derrick Riches says of the Bradley Original, "Of all the electric smoker appliances this is the best." This electric smoker is relatively compact; in shape and size it resembles a mini-fridge. Instead of wood chips, it uses pucks of compressed wood called bisquettes, which are automatically fed onto the burner and then extinguished in water once they're spent. The Bradley Original Smoker can hot or cold smoke, slow cook or roast food. It's also a low-maintenance smoker, Riches says, operating for eight hours "without human intervention." Like the Brinkmann Vertical Gas Smoker, the Bradley electric smoker has four cooking racks, so you can prepare a lot of food at once.

The Bradley Original Smoker has accumulated close to 90 reviews at Amazon.com, most of which are positive. Owners give it a high average rating, 4.1 out of 5 stars . At retailer Cabelas.com, about 120 owners give the Bradley Original similarly good feedback. They praise the fact that not only is it much easier to use than a charcoal smoker, it's also easier to clean: the removable racks are dishwasher-safe. Most owners say food smoked in the Bradley Original is tender, juicy and flavorful. The fuel bisquettes are expensive, though, costing 30 to 40 cents each, and they may be difficult to find in stores (although Walmart and other retailers carry them). Like most smokers, the Bradley Original Smoker cooks at a low temperature and therefore can't crisp chicken skin or brown chops, and one user suggests that you brown the meat in a pan before you put it in the smoker.

Another standout among electric smokers is even less expensive. The Old Smokey Electric Smoker (*Est. $125), which resembles a large metal coffee urn, is included among the top 10 smokers under $400 by Derrick Riches of About.com. The Old Smokey also gets good reviews on Amazon.com from nearly 70 owners, who tout its easy assembly and use. They give it an average rating of 4.5 out of 5. Meat reportedly cooks evenly and turns out with a nice, smoked flavor. The bottom section of the smoker holds wood chips, which provide the flavor; an electric heating element provides the heat source. The few complaints we read focus on the rudimentary thermostat and an owner's manual containing inaccurate information. Overall, however, the Old Smokey looks like a good choice for beginners or for those who use their smokers only occasionally.

Pellet smokers

A pellet smoker runs on standard household electric current, which drives an auger, a rod and a fan. The auger automatically feeds small hardwood or sawdust pellets into the firebox, where they're ignited by a superheated rod, which turns off on its own after several minutes; the fan circulates the smoke created in this process.

Pellet smokers have a couple of advantages over other electric smokers. They are among the easiest to use because fueling is automated and refueling is generally unnecessary, and after they complete their start-up phase, they don't use much electricity, so running them isn't costly. The main drawbacks are high purchase prices, heavy weight (generally upwards of 100 pounds) and a general inability to create enough heat to put a good crust on steak. Moreover, fuel pellets for electric smokers generally cost about $1 per pound, and in some areas they may be difficult to find in stores.

Reviewers call the Traeger Lil' Tex (*Est. $700) a very good pellet smoker/grill combo that cooks food evenly and cleans up easily, and it's less expensive than many pellet smokers. Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com writes that it is "a great starter for people interested in pellet cooking." At 49 inches tall and 40 inches wide, it's around the size of an average barrel-shaped grill. The Traeger Lil' Tex offers a large cooking area (owners say it can handle two turkeys at once) and it doesn't need much tending during the smoking process. Reviewers call the Lil' Tex a sturdy device -- it weighs 135 pounds -- though a couple of them note that the build quality has declined in the past few years.

Owners posting reviews at Epinions.com say the Traeger Lil' Tex can run for as long as 16 hours on a single hopper of pellets (about 14 pounds), but it doesn't produce the same level of smoky flavor as dedicated, smoke-only units can. Despite being a smoker/grill combination, the Traeger still doesn't get hot enough to sear meat, either. Still, its ease of use and dual functionality make the Lil' Tex worth considering, reviewers say. Owners also report that Traeger provides excellent customer service. Note, however, that the more versatile charcoal-fueled Big Green Egg (*Est. $750) carries a similar cost and excels at both smoking and grilling.

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Vertical Gas Smoker (Discontinued by Manufacturer)
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from Amazon.com
New: $199.99 $149.99   
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Traeger Lil Tex Pellet Grill
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Old Smokey Electric Smoker
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New: $129.00
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