The smoke and flavors from charcoal smokers add a distinct taste to meat. There are loads of ‘set-and-forget’ smokers on the market that are easy to use and require little work, but most of these smokers don’t come close to the taste of charcoal.
The best charcoal smokers are kamado grills, and the Weber Smokey Mountain. The best of the affordable charcoal smokers are kettle grills and Ugly Drum Smokers. Charcoal smokers are the most widely used meat smoker, and are a popular choice for beginners and loved by experienced pitmasters.
Some cookers don’t get hot enough, so the meat ends up with soft, rubbery skin. Charcoal smokers cook at high temperatures, which gives you more control over meat textures like bark on a brisket or a crispy turkey skin.
Charcoal smokers require a little work, but are simple enough to produce wonderful smoked meat. If you want meat smoking to be a hobby, then charcoal smokers will keep you busy most of the day. Smoking on charcoal is a labor of love and ‘babysitting’ a fire is part of the enjoyment for many pitmasters.
1. Kettle Grills
Weber Kettles or similar grills are one of the best ways to dip your toes into meat smoking. You can buy a secondhand kettle for $50 or buy a new Weber for around $200.
Kettles can smoke ‘big meats’ such as brisket, pork butts and ribs, although it takes a bit of work. Kettles don’t exactly fall into the ‘set-and-forget’ category of smoker, but they are still simple to use.
Briquettes and the Best Fuel
Charcoal briquettes work well on kettles and are the recommended fuel source. The Snake Method and the Minion Method are the best way of arranging briquettes for long cooks like brisket or ribs. These briquette methods can hold stable temperatures between 200°F to 250°F for 8-hours with minimal adjustments.
How Much Charcoal for a Weber Kettle?
For a long cook, build a snake on one or both sides of the grill. Light the first three coals in the snake and spread a few chunks of wood along the briquettes for consistent smoke.
Smoking on the Weber
To generate smoke on a kettle, all that’s required is a couple of wood chunks on top of the briquettes and it will produce a steady flow of smoke.
Smoking meat on kettles is a good way to learn, but they aren’t easy. Kettles can be difficult to control temperature and take a while to hold the required 225°F to 250°F range.
Hard to Control in Bad Weather
Kettle grills can be difficult to control if it is cold or windy. Consider using a wind deflector or place the kettle in an area that is protected from the elements. Some people use welding blankets as an insulated cover on their smokers.
Kettle grills have a smaller cooking chamber when compared to other meat smokers. If you regularly cook for large crowds, then a kettle probably isn’t the best choice. The grill space on a kettle will only hold one brisket.
How to Set up Two-Zone Cooking on a Kettle
- Remove the cooking grate and place a full chimney of lit briquettes to one side of the kettle grill on the bottom rack.
- Place water in an aluminium pan opposite the lit charcoal.
- Place two chunks of wood on top of the hot coals.
- Put the cooking grate back on and attach your temperature probe to the grill.
- Close the lid and wait for the smoker to come up to the target temperature.
- Adjust the vents and wait for the good smoke to roll out of the top vent.
- Place the meat on the grill. Position the meat above the water/drip pan on the opposite side to the fire.
Slow ‘N Sear – The Best Weber Accessory
One of the best accessories for the Weber Kettle is the Slow ‘N Sear. Basically, a Slow ‘N Sear is a stainless steel charcoal basket with a water reservoir. This accessory creates the perfect two-zone cooking setup.
The direct and indirect zones provide different cooking methods. The direct side of the Slow ‘N Sear creates one of the hottest searing zones you will encounter. The indirect ‘cool zone’ allows you to smoke, bake and roast as well as any top-grade smoker.
On the indirect convection heat side, you can bake or smoke roast food that rivals the output of a big rig for thousands of dollars. On the direct radiant heat side, the Slow ‘N Sear creates a searing zone that rivals steakhouse temps. It creates the hottest sear zone we’ve ever tested on any grill.
The Slow ‘N Sear can cook for 10 plus hours at 225°F. The water reservoir provides steam for about 5-hours.
How to Light the Slow ‘N Sear
- Lay the Slow ‘N Sear on one side of the Kettle charcoal grate (below the cooking grate).
- Light 10-15 charcoal briquettes and place them on one end of the Slow ‘N Sear.
- Fill the other side of the Slow ‘N Sear with unlit charcoal.
- Lay two or three wood chunks on the coals.
- Fill the reservoir with water.
- Close the kettle lid.
- Open the top vent all the way.
- Open the bottom vents half way.
- Wait for 20-minutes for the kettle to reach the target temperature.
- Once the kettle is over 200°F, adjust the top vent to 1/3.
- Close the bottom vent to 1/4.
- Wait for some nice clean smoke to roll and the temperature to stabilize at 220-230°F.
2. Weber Smokey Mountain – The Best of the Bullet Smokers
The Weber Smokey Mountain is the best affordable charcoal smoker on the market and can cook just about anything. This smoker loved by pitmasters and is used by competition meat smoking champion Harry Soo. The WSM can produce the same quality smoked meat as a thousand-dollar pit.
This Smoker is Compact
One of the best features of the Weber Smokey Mountain is they are compact. Some smokers will take up half your yard, but the WSM will fit nicely in a corner of your patio.
The WSM is available in a small 14.5″, a mid-sized 18.5″, and the big 22.5″. The 18.5” has enough space to smoke about 4 pork shoulders.
The WSM is Simple to Use
A Weber Smokey Mountain can smoke meat for 16-18 hours with no trouble and they are easy to use. Simply fill a charcoal basket with charcoal, light it up, throw some wood on the fire and set the vents. Once you stabilise the temperature, there’s not much more to do other than mop, wrap or add more wood. The WSM won’t give you the half the headaches of other charcoal smokers.
This Smoker Gets Hot
One charcoal chimney of briquettes will get a WSM up to 300 ° F. There are three bottom vents to control the temperature and one top vent.
Automatic Temperature Controller
Another option is to turn your Weber Smokey Mountain into a true ‘set-and-forget’ smoker with an automatic temperature controller. This will eliminate having to adjust vents so you can sit back and relax like you would if you had a pellet smoker. This attachment is in the $150 price range.
As with most smokers, the WSM will require extra charcoal and time in the colder months. If you need a weatherproof smoker, look towards a ceramic egg cooker or a drum smoker.
The WSM is has a bullet-shaped design and also known as a water smoker because of the water bowl between the fire and cooking grate. The water bowl helps regulate the temperature.
Smokey Mountain’s hold steady temperatures for hours on end. Weber makes quality grills and smokers, and the WSM is well constructed and is a sturdy cooker.
How to Use a Weber Smokey Mountain
Using a Weber Smokey Mountain is very straightforward.
- Light a chimney of charcoal
- Fill the water bowl.
- Place the lit charcoal in the charcoal ring.
- Lay two chunks of wood on the hot coals.
- Adjust the vents until the smoker reaches your target temperature.
- Once some nice, clean smoke is rolling, add the meat to the cooking grate.
3. Ugly Drum Smokers
A drum smoker is a cheap and versatile smoker that can handle just about any meat you throw at it. You can build a new UDS for $200 with parts from a hardware store. Search online for “UDS parts lists”.
UDS High Temperatures
Drum smokers are virtually indestructible and can handle all weather, meaning you can smoke year-round. A big basket of coal will burn in a drum for 10-15 hours with ease. I’ve heard stories of a UDS lasting 20-hours.
Drums Get Too Hot
Sometimes the biggest problem with a drum is lowering the temperature. The temperatures on these smokers can get out of control fast. You need to move fast when opening the lid because the big intake of oxygen will cause a huge temperature surge. It’s a good idea to close off the intake valves before opening the lid and keep the vents closed for 2-minutes after the lid is back on.
UDS Meat Capacity
A UDS has a large capacity and will allow you to smoke multiple ‘big meats’ at a time. Drums have a more depth than any other smoker which also is handy for hanging meat such as ribs.
How to Light a Drum Smoker
- Light your smoker 1-hour you plan on cooking.
- Fill the UDS charcoal basket with unlit lump charcoal. Leave a gap in the middle (for the lit coal).
- Take some more lump charcoal and fill a charcoal chimney. Light the chimney and wait for about 20-minutes for the coals to glow hot.
- Pour the chimney of lit coals and pour them into the gap in the UDS charcoal basket. Make sure the lit coals are poured into the gap and are surrounded by the unlit coals. This method is called the Minion Method.
- Attach one of your digital thermometer probes on the grill grate of the UDS.
- Close the UDS lid and open all the dampers/vents.
- Wait for the temperature to reach 250°F.
- Close off the intake vents to about 1/4 open.
- Open the top exhaust vent all the way.
- Throw in two chunks of wood just before adding the meat. Wait for some nice, clean smoke to roll.
Drums smokers can get hot quick and are difficult to pull back. Start slowly and raise the temperature gradually.
Three Things To Control Your UDS
- Adjust one thing at a time and wait 10-minutes before altering anything else.
- Avoid opening the lid, try to leave the UDS alone. Only open the lid for wrapping and basting.
- Move fast when the lid is off. It’s a good idea to remove the rack while the smoker is heating.
- Lay out the meat on the rack so it’s ready to go and the meat probe is in place. If you do this, the lid will only be off for 10-seconds.
Hanging Ribs in a Drum
Drum smokers are deep enough to hang ribs. Find some metal hooks and attach them to the top cooking grate. This method of ribs is much faster than the traditional method.
4. Ceramic Kamado/Egg Smokers
Ceramic smokers are the most expensive in the charcoal smoker category. However, Kamado smokers can do things no other smoker can do. Eggs/Kamado smokers are dome-shaped ceramic ovens that can not only be used for smoking but also baking pizzas, grilling and roasting. Kamado’s are an ancient design andhase been used in Japan for thousands of years. Ceramic smokers are unbelievable heat insulators and can stay hot for hours.
The biggest advantage of Kamado smokers is we can use them year-round in all weather. Almost all other charcoal smokers struggle to maintain a high temperatures in bad conditions, but ceramic smokers can hold temperature in the snow.
Eggs Retain Moisture
The dome-shaped design of ceramic grills can help meat retain keep. The kamado design enables air to circulate, which keeps the atmosphere moist inside the cook chamber.
Eggs Are Super Efficient
Egg/ Kamado smokers are very fuel efficient. They can cook for 14 to 16 hours without having to add more charcoal.
Eggs Retain Heat
The ceramic material can hold heat like no other smoker. Even if you have to open the lid to baste the meat, the ceramic materials don’t lose heat like other charcoal smokers. They’re able to maintain a consistent temperature.
Kamado Smokers Are Versatile
Kamado style grills are the only all-in-one cooker. They can grill, smoke and roast like most other pits, but the great thing about ceramic cookers is the ability to turn it into a wood-fired pizza oven and bake at 600°F. The only way to get a crispy crust on a pizza is to cook at high temperatures.
Use A Heat Deflector in an Egg
Kamado cookers have a heat deflector which protects the meat from the fire. This allows for an indirect style of cooking, which is important for low-and-slow smoking. The heat deflector give you the flexibility to cook direct or indirect.
Indirect cooking should sit in the 230-400°F range. It will take a few cooks to figure out the right amount of charcoal you will need to reach those temperatures, which is why a smoke journal is recommended when starting out.
Controlling Vents on an Egg
Eggs can get hot quick and can be difficult to bring down. Never leave the vents all the way open while heating the egg. Only open the vents 1/4 when heating, then adjust them to 1/8 once you’ve reached your cooking temperature.
The Best Fuel For An Egg
Lump is the best fuel for egg smokers because briquettes produce too much ash and can choke out the fire. Kamado smokers don’t need much attention once they have a stable temperature, and they are fuel efficient and don’t have to keep adding charcoal. Lump charcoal burns hotter, cleaner and tastes better. You don’t need to worry about lump choking out the flame on long smokes.
Eggs Have a Steep Learning Curve
Ceramic cookers take some getting used to. Once you learn how to control the temperatures, then you should be confident to tackle a brisket. Start small and smoke some smaller, cheaper cuts of meat like whole birds or a turkey. Kamado smokers can get dangerously hot, so be cautious.
What’s The Best Ceramic Cooker?
The most common Kamado ceramic cookers on the market are:
- Big Green Egg
- Kamado Joe
- Pit Boss Kamado
Big Green Egg
Big Green Eggs are manufactured in Mexico and popularized ceramic cookers. Big Green Eggs are popular ceramic smokers but they are very expensive and you have to purchase all the accessories separately. Other ceramic cookers like the Kamado Joe come with everything included and work just as good as the BGE.
What Are the Kamado/Egg Cons?
One problem with Kamado grills is you can’t cook indirectly. Only the oval-shaped Primo’s can be set up for two-zoned cooking. The Big Green Egg sell attachments for indirect cooking, but they are costly.
Kamado’s Are Too Heavy
The major criticism you will hear related to ceramic cookers is they are too heavy. We can move most meat smokers or grills around the yard, but kamado’s are way too heavy to move. Once you’ve found a spot for it, that’s where it will stay.
How Much Charcoal for a Kamado?
Ceramic smokers are fuel efficient, so a 15 pound cut of meat will require only 5 pounds of lump charcoal for the cook.
How to Light a Ceramic Kamado for Smoking
- This method is for bringing the kamado to the 230-400°F range.
- Take some lump charcoal and fill a charcoal chimney. Light the chimney and wait 20-minutes for the coals to lite.
- Put some unlit lump charcoal in the charcoal basket in the kamado.
- Once lit, dump the hot coals on top of the lit charcoal in the charcoal basket.
- Throw some wood chunks on the fire.
- Close the lid and open the vents 1/4.
- Allow 30-minutes for the temperature to stabilize.
- Wait for the temperature to reach 250°F.
- Close off the intake vents to about 1/8 open.
5. Cheap Charcoal Smokers (Brinkman)
So many people start out with a cheap charcoal smoker that looked fantastic in the shop for under $100. We know these smokers as Brinkman’s or El’Cheapo’s. The moment you light a Brinkman, you will realize you’ve made a mistake. The temperature will fluctuate and it will be a nightmare to control. You will see leaks everywhere.
Cheap bullets smokers like the Brinkman are okay as an entry-level smoker if you make some modifications. With a few mods, you should be able to maintain 250-275°F for 2.5 hours.
Here are some suggestions if you have a cheap charcoal smoker:
- Use a thermal blanket to retain heat. You could use a welding blanket or a hot water heater cover.
- If too much air is getting in underneath the smoker, remove the legs.
- Use a sealant and seal as many cracks as possible.
Cheap Smokers Waste Fuel
The better the quality of the smoker, the more fuel efficient it will be. Cheap smokers are made of thin metal and aren’t sealed well. This increases oxygen flow through the smoker which causes the fire to burn quicker, therefore use more charcoal. That’s why ceramic cookers and drum smokers are extremely fuel efficient. They are well sealed and are made from thick materials.
Charcoal Chimney – A Must Have Accessory
- If you have a charcoal smoker, then a chimney starter is a must. A chimney will make starting the fire so much easier. Lighter fluid isn’t recommended when smoking meat. Not only is it dangerous, it can affect the taste of the meat.
- A chimney is a metal tube with a handle. The metal tube contains lots of holes so air can flow through the coals as they are igniting. It only takes about 20-minutes to light a full chimney of briquettes.
- Chimneys are simple to light. They have a compartment at the bottom where you can stuff newspaper. After lighting the coals, place the chimney up on the grill of your cooker or rest it on top of a grate and paver.
- Chimneys are a safe way to light charcoal, but still take precautions. Make sure you light it in an open area away from anything that could catch fire, because lots of embers will fly around if it’s windy.
- Chimneys come in a few sizes, but the standard chimney will hold about 75 briquettes. It will take about 20 to 30-minutes before the coals are fully lit.
- Chimneys serve as a fantastic measuring tool, just like a measuring cup in the kitchen. Chimneys are an invaluable fire management tool. After a while, you will know how hot a full chimney will bring your smoker.
- You can buy a chimney in the barbecue section of your local store or purchase from Amazon. Weber make a good chimney starter, and it’s the one I recommend. Check the latest price here.
Lump vs Briquettes: Pros and Cons
- Lump has a nice flavor compared to briquettes.
- Burns hotter than briquettes.
- Lump contains no binders, so burns cleaner.
- Lump burns hotter and faster than briquettes.
- Produces less ash and won’t choke out the flame.
- Lump burns unevenly.
- Bags of lump have different sized pieces and need chopping.
- Better for long cooks.
- Good for the Minion and Snake Method.
- Identical sizes. More predictable and even cooking.
- Ash can choke out the flames. Buy quality briquettes.
- Some cheaper brands contain additives and binders.
- Produces a smelly smoke when igniting. Don’t add meat until the dirty smoke clears.
What Briquettes Are The Best?
This video tested four of the most popular charcoal briquettes. The test involved lighting the four different brand charcoals in four different chimney starters. There was some interesting observations. The four brands tested were:
- Royal Oak Charcoal
- Kingsford Charcoal
- B&B Charcoal
- Embers Charcoal
The experiment tested for several things, and the findings were interesting. Here were my observations.
- They placed a grill grate on top of each chimney and they measured the temperature to see what charcoal burns hottest.
- They measured the charcoal after it had burned out to find which briquette had the least amount of waste.
- The experiment tested which charcoal produced the cleanest smoke.
- After 10-minutes, B&B had the clearest smoke of the four charcoals. Embers was producing the thickest smoke. Royal Oak and Kingsford were burning clean.
- After 10-minutes, Royal Oak had the most flames and Kingsford had the least. Embers and B&B had some flames.
- B&B was the first charcoal to show signs of ashing.
- After 15-minutes, B&B had the most flames and was burning faster than the other three brands. Royal Oak was a close second, Third was Embers, and Kingsford was the slowest to light.
- B&B also had the least amount of shrinkage.
- B&B burned the longest, followed by Kingsford. Royal Oak and Embers burned out faster.
- In summary, the B&B performed better than the other charcoal brands. It burned cleaner, faster and longer than the other brands.
- Although this test was interesting, often with charcoal, much depends on the price. All four brands are suitable.
Minion Method with Charcoal Briquettes
- The minion method can cook from 5 to 15 hours without having to add more charcoal. Here’s how it’s done.
- Fill half the charcoal basket with unlit briquettes.
- Light half a charcoal chimney of briquettes.
- Once briquettes are fully lit, dump the chimney on top of the unlit coals in the charcoal basket.
- The unlit charcoal will slowly catch fire throughout the cook and provide an even temperature.
- Lay two or three chunks of wood on the fire.
Traditional Method of Lighting Briquettes
Unlike the Snake or Minion method, the traditional way of lighting briquettes is straight forward.
- Fill a whole charcoal chimney and set the bottom coals alight.
- Wait for the whole chimney of coals to glow red with fire.
- Dump the hot coals into your smoker.
- This will give you a hot smoker immediately.