Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore

Smokers are defined by their orientation (horizontal vs. vertical/bullet-style) and their fuel source (charcoal, wood, pellets, gas, electric). Offset smokers are horizontally oriented, and run on wood pieces or charcoal. Pellet smokers are also horizontal, but their fuel source is manufactured wood pellets. We’ve tested all types, and recommend different models based on available space, skill level, and budget. 

But First, How Smokers Work

Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore

Smokers use indirect heat—smoke—rather than direct heat (flame) to cook meat. In a smoker, the meat is placed adjacent to the heat source, rather than on top of it. This results in a cooking process that is much slower, but worth the wait: Properly smoked meat is fall-apart tender and infused with a (you guessed it) smoky flavor. Adding a pan of water to your smoker will help regulate the cooking process, maintaining a consistently low temperature. Again, this differs from a grill, which is meant to operate at a high temperature and to make use of the flame for optimal results. 

What Makes a Smoker Different (and Sometimes Better) than a Grill

If you plan on smoking meat, it’s worth investing in a smoker. Although it’s possible to smoke with a traditional kettle grill, the technique requires a lot of babysitting, and the results are less consistent. Both grilling and smoking can produce meat with a smoky flavor and an attractive char. But even the most tricked-out grills struggle to replicate the slow-and-steady pace of a smoker because the fuel grate is often very close to the cooking grate. Some grills offer moveable grates that allow you to increase the distance between the two, but that’s not typically enough to produce the indirect heat required to smoke. What’s more, smokers are designed to accommodate larger formats of meat, like brisket or ribs. Depending on the size and shape of your grill, that may not be possible without portioning the meat first.

Pellet vs. Offset Smoker: Which Should You Buy?

Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore

First, some simple definitions. When we say, smoker, by default, we’re referring to a piece of low-and-slow equipment that uses indirect heat (smoke) to cook. Smokers can be horizontally or vertically inclined. Vertically inclined smokers are sometimes called bullet smokers; a great example is the Weber Smokey Mountain, which is accessible to most budgets and easy to master if you have experience grilling. These smokers look like miniature spaceships, which is fitting because they produce barbecue that’s out of this world (sorry).

Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore

An offset smoker has a horizontal orientation and may be what you picture when you consider “serious” barbecue setups. An offset smoker has a firebox or heat source adjacent to the cooking chamber: this setup, which runs on wood chunks or charcoal, is meant to mimic real-deal barbecue pits, where the fire is located in one room, and the meat is cooked slowly, through smoke, in a separate room. Offset smokers aren’t as space efficient, because they take up a larger footprint, which should be considered not only when you’re using it, but how and where you plan on storing it, too. They take longer to reach a target temperature and can be trickier to master than vertically oriented smokers. On the plus side, they got a high score in efficient heat distribution. Because heat rises, vertical smokers can produce meat with variable tenderness or juiciness, based on where in the smoker the meat was placed. A horizontal, or offset, smoker eliminates that problem. 

Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore

Now, onto pellet smokers. This term refers to the type of fuel used, rather than the orientation of the grill. But all pellet grills are oriented horizontally: although “pellet” and “offset” don’t have the same definition, when it comes to smokers, they’ll both bring you to the same place. Pellet smokers are temperature-controlled, like a more accurate version of your oven. In other words: these smokers self-regulate, so you don’t have to constantly monitor and adjust the fuel level. The most well-known pellet smokers are made by Traeger (we recently tested almost all of them, and highly recommend a handful, at various price points).

Although fuel source isn’t universal across the board, most bullet-style smokers use charcoal. Offset smokers traditionally use wood chunks, but are sometimes designed to work with charcoal. Pellet smokers only work with wood pellets. There are a variety of brands to choose from when it comes to pellet smokers, although the most common and well-known is Traeger. Indeed, the brand is sometimes used when describing the generic style of smoker (it’s a facial tissue vs. Kleenex issue.) A quick aside: although some smokers are designed to use gas, they’re less common.

So, down to brass tacks: How can you choose the right type of smoker for your needs and barbecue goals? First, you have to choose between orientation and fuel type. Vertical smokers are great for beginners, owing to their quick learning curve and space-efficient design. 

Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore

Offset smokers can offer larger real estate and better control over the cooking process and final product. Charcoal smokers will be familiar to cooks used to grilling with charcoal, and of course, the fuel is easily accessible and cheap. Smokers that run on logs can offer more nuanced, “real” barbecue flavor, but they’re trickier to master.

Pellet smokers are incredibly easy to start up, monitor, and maintain a steady temperature: just set it and (mostly) forget it. Some barbecue enthusiasts note that pellet smokers produce meat with slightly less superior smoke flavor than offset smokers.

The Best Offset and Pellet Smokers

An authentic offset smoker comes with a steep learning curve for even seasoned grillers; this is due to the quantity and quality of smoke, which can impart either sweet or bitter flavors. But if you’re serious about smoking like the pros, we have a solid recommendation for getting started.

In our test of charcoal smokers, the Dyna-Glo blew us away. It was well-constructed, easy to assemble, and simple to move (thanks to its wheels). It also seared and smoked exceptionally well. Plus, it had spacious cooking racks and responsive dampers.

Price at time of publish: $400.

Key Specs:

Cooking area: 1,382 square inchesDimensions: 45.5 x 24.9 x 58.8 inchesExtra features: Fuel box includes grates for searing; the unit is wheeled
Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore

We’ve tested dozens of pellet smokers, and have chosen top performers in every category. Read the full results in our review here. But for a quick overview, here are a few pellet smokers we confidently recommend. This grill is a pleasure to use, thanks to its detailed yet intuitive user interface. It can grill and sear, which means you can use it as both a smoker and a basic backyard grill. But the results when smoking was unparalleled, with an impressive quarter-inch smoke ring on a pork butt after an eleven-hour-smoke session.

Price at time of publish: $3,300.

Key Specs:

Cooking area: 880 square inches Dimensions: 35 x 59 x 25 inches Warranty: 10 yearsExtra features: Bluetooth probes; touchscreen display; induction cooktop; bamboo cutting boardSerious Eats / Russell Kilgore

This pick, from a brand known for its competition smokers, has amazing heat retention thanks to a 10-gauge steel cooking chamber. It produced a large amount of smoke, which could be directed with complete left-to-right adjustment using a damper on the smoke box. Slightly less expensive than the Traeger Timberline, this produced barbecue with an enviable smoke ring and attractive medium-dark bark.

Price at time of publish: $2,399.

Key Specs:

Cooking area: 640 square inchesDimensions: 55 x 61.3 x 36.1 inches Warranty: 10 yearsExtra features: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity; two integrated cooking probesSerious Eats / Russell Kilgore

Although it’s technically a pellet grill, this compact model moves nimbly between grilling and smoking, with a moderate, non-aggressive smoke level for even longer cooking sessions. During testing, we were impressed with both the penetration of the smoke ring and the texture and color of the bark. It’s not the highest-end model you can buy, but if available space and/or budget are stopping you from buying a smoker, this is an attractive option.

Price at time of publish: $530.

Key Specs:

Cooking area: 300 square inchesDimensions: 36 x 37 x 18 inches Warranty: 3 yearsExtra features: Cooking probeSerious Eats / Russell Kilgore


How does an offset smoker work? 

An offset smoker has a fuel box that is adjacent to the cooking chamber. This allows smoke to slowly seep into the cooking chamber and indirectly cook the meat. 

How does a pellet smoker work?

Pellet smokers work in a variety of ways, whether they’re oriented vertically or horizontally, with offset cooking chambers. But the important part is the pellets: in pellet smokers, uniformly shaped and sized manufactured wood pellets are used as a fuel source, rather than chunks of wood or charcoal. Wood pellets are easy to ignite, and produce predictable, consistent results.

Are pellet smokers and pellet grills the same? 

Sort of. Both are defined by the variety of fuel used. But pellet grills are more versatile because they can be used as both grills and smokers. Pellet smokers are only smokers, but they have a higher edge when it comes to performance.

Why We’re the Experts

Rochelle Bilow is a food writer, novelist, former professional cook, and Serious Eats contributor.Rochelle has written extensively about, tested, and reviewed smokers that use a variety of fuel sources (including electric smokers).Rochelle worked in restaurants and attended the French Culinary Institute.

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