The Best Charcoal Smokers of 2017
This is an article for the purists out there. For some people, there’s no smoker that can impart that flavour better than a good old traditional charcoal grill.
I actually prefer wood pellet smokers myself, they work really well and leave a nice flavour on your grills. However, I’ve always been curious about charcoal grills, after all, everyone says they’re the best.
In this review, I’m going to take a look a number of charcoal smokers on the market right now. Will I be converted to a charcoal life? Read on to find out.
Pit Barrel Co.
|Pros||Versatile cooking barrel, affordable. Countless positive reviews.||Household name. Great materials, water pan, built-in thermometer||Cast-iron cooking surface. Mobile with locking lid.||Large cooking surface. Ash management system. Surprisingly light.|
|Cons||Temperature control not optimal.||None. Only issues with shipment.||Quality control is lackluster.||Questionable materials|
|Cooking Surface (sq/inch)||726||726||314||784|
|Shipping Weight||63.93 lbs||68 lbs||98 lbs||56 lbs|
Best Charcoal Smoker of 2017
Charcoal grills are a staple in the BBQ community. Read on to find our top 5 choices for 2017.
Pit Barrel Cooker Package
Our Rating: (4.9/5)
|Dimensions||22.01 x 32.99 x 22.01 inches|
|Material||30 Gallon Porcelain coated steel Drum|
|Item Weight||63.93 lbs|
About as simple as it gets, the Pit Barrel is basically a smartly designed barrel for true old school cooking. It’s quite expensive for what is essentially an upturned oil barrel, yet I soon discovered that my initial thoughts were so, so wrong!
The Pit Barrel relies on a method of lighting charcoal called the Minon effect. Basically, you start the charcoal off by lighting the top, rather than the bottom. This means that the fire burns down, slowly igniting fresh fuel and maintaining a slow, steady temperature.
The Pit Barrel comes with a standard grill, hangers for fish and chicken plus clever hanger hooks to allow almost anything to be placed inside the smoker.
Setting It Up
One word, simple! Fill the barrel with charcoal and start your fire at the top of the pile, rather than below. The instruction manual is really useful for this and give good pointers on how to get a nice, even burn.
There’s no electrical plus, no propane and no pellet hoppers. This is about as simple as smoking gets and there’s something really nice about cooking out in the old-fashioned way.
It takes a little while to get a fire burning in the bottom of the barrel. I would say about 20 minutes for everything to settle down. This is pretty much par for the course with charcoal smokers and is similar to traditional BBQ grills.
The Pit Barrel is simple to use and realistically you can’t go wrong. The lack of settings mean that you have to follow the instructions to get everything working properly. One piece of advice I would give, is to find a friend who already owns a Pit Barrel. Your learning curve will be far shallower if you have someone to guide you.
I cooked chicken wings, thighs and ribs on the Pit Barrel, and boy was the flavour good! There’s nothing like charcoal smoke flavour and I doubt much can come close to a traditional barrel for smoking in.
Cleaning up is pretty simple, any fat created by your cooking simply falls into the charcoal fire. At the end of your smoke session, simply allow the coals to cool before tipping them out.
A quick hose down with some washing up liquid and you’re done!
On the plus side, you can’t get much more “low tech” than a barrel. On the negative side that same barrel is large and you’ll need to put it in a van or truck for transport.
The entire unit weighs about 70 pounds too, a little large for one person to carry it.
Pros: The simple, traditional ways are often the best.
Cons: A bit bulky to carry and a little “rough and ready” for some people.
22-inch Charcoal Smoker
Our Rating: (4.8/5)
|Material||Porcelain-enameled steel, heat resistant nylon handle|
|Cooking Area||726 Sq/in|
|Product Warranty||10 Year limited Warranty|
A more modern style smoker from Weber comes in the Smokey Mountain model. It’s a nice-looking unit and the lack of open flames makes it a bit safer.
This smoker comes with its own thermometer, tripod stands and vented port to the bottom. It boasts a total of 726 square inches of cooking space and also has quite pleasant gloss black finish. Weber is known for their simplicity. We have reviewed a number of weber grills, and this one as well as the Weber e310 are solid.
Setting It Up
I tested the 14-inch model, which for small family gatherings would seem to be more than enough. I’ve a feeling that the 18 and 20 inch models would be too big for most uses.
The Weber is really easy to get set up. It takes about 10 minutes to get a fire going and probably another 10 again for things to get ready for cooking. It takes a little practice to adjust the bottom vent to get the temperature you want. My advice would be to try out the smoker without food first, you can adjust the vent periodically to get a feel how open it needs to be to hit certain temperatures quickly.
For chicken, you’ll probably only need to fill the fire ring about 1/3 full. For ribs, you’ll probably want to double that amount.
As with any charcoal grill, patience and trial runs will help you get better!
I cooked chicken and ribs on the Weber and it worked really well. The temperature gauge on the top is a welcome addition over the Pit Barrel, sometimes it pays to have one or two modern pieces of kit available!
One of the great things about the Weber, is that you can fill it with enough charcoal to keep it ticking along all night. Some charcoal grills just don’t have that level of capacity.
As I said before, the vented bottom port takes a little while to get to grips with. Once you master it you’ll be king of the grill though!
The version I tested was the smallest 14-inch model. At this size, you’ll be able to carry the smoker around with no bother. The tripod feet are very sturdy which will make this grill perfect for camping out.
I’m not completely sold on the small plastic handle on top of the Webber; however, hundreds of positive reviews serve as testament to long term quality – who am I to argue with them?
Pros: One of the original and best smokers out there.
Cons: The larger models are huge! Be careful when ordering and select the correct size for your needs.
Char-Griller 16620 Kamado
Our Rating: (4.2/5)
|Cooking Area||314 Sq/in|
|Material||Cast-iron cooking surface|
Rounding out our top 3 is the best pellet smoker that Camp Chef offers, this Kamado style grill, when you factor in quality, price, size, and overall value. This is an excellent choice. If the Traeger, our 2nd top pick, is a bit too small and you’re looking for something with a few more features, that’s still within the same price range, you’ve found what will likely be ideal for you.
Arguably the best value overall, it’s a great middle-point between both of the best pellet grills we’ve featured thus far. It’s not overkill, but it’s got plenty of room and some very useful features.
First of all, this unit includes a temperature probe that plugs into the front and allows you to accurately determine the temperature of whatever you’re cooking. This ensures the center of your meats are getting enough heat and are safe, and that everything is working optimally in general. In addition to that, you’ve got an excellent temperature control with a thermometer that’s accurate to about 10 degrees, so between that and the probe you’ll know exactly where you need to be and exactly where you’re at.
The hopper holds 18 pounds, and the cooking area is 429 square inches. It’s less than some units offer, more than others, and generally a pretty happy medium if you aren’t really sure how big or small to go. You can fit a couple chickens or turkeys on here, a handful of racks of ribs, a brisket or two, and more.
The overall dimensions are 51x21x45 and it weighs about 130 pounds. This unit has some great features that help with cleaning and maintenance, as well. This is an excellent place to start if you’re a beginner, this pellet grill will definitely hold your hand through the process, but don’t get the wrong idea – it’s far from being an “entry level” unit.
Generally, we’d advise you against anything “entry level” since you’re going to have a worse experience and it could turn you off of the art of smoking your foods in the first place. Something in the $500-$1000 range seems like a huge investment upfront, and frankly it is, but when you consider that you’ll have it to enjoy incredible meals for years that’ll blow the socks off all your buddies, and prove to your family that you really can cook after all, it’s a small price to pay.
36″ Vertical Charcoal Smoker
Our Rating: (4.0/5)
|Charcoal & Ash Management|
|Total Cooking Area||784 Sq/in|
A handsome looking beast, the Dyna Glo wouldn’t look out of place in a hipster’s street food van! 36 Inches gives this grill a massive capacity and fit and finish look good. This model by Dyna-glo, made our top offset smoker reviews, and we also reviewed Dyna-glo grills in another article. Be sure to check those out. To note, that’s how much we like this smoker.
As you might expect from a 36-inch smoker, the Dyna Glo has a large 784 square inches of cooking space, ask removal pan and integral temperature gauge.
The look of the Dyna Glo is deceptive. You’d think the weight was more like 90 pounds rather than the 50 it actually is. This means setting up and placing the grill where you want is easy, partly thanks to a pair of decent carry handles at the top.
The charcoal burner is really easy to use and actually has its own door at the bottom. This is a great idea as it helps to keep heat in whilst cooking.
The feet at the bottom are pretty sturdy, although it’s missing wheels which detract from the portability aspect. Then again, it looks so good as it is – perhaps wheels would spoil it!
The separate charcoal burner door makes things really easy. I was able to get a fire going in about 5 minutes, a solid 5 quicker than my other tested smokers! The removable ash pan also helps with clean ups.
As far as cooking, the temperature controls are easy to use and in my mind slightly subtler than the others tested. I was able to maintain a temperature much easier, even though this was the first time I’d set eyes on the smoker.
Of course, this could be because I spent all week grilling and just re-discovered my knack for it. Whatever the reason, the Dyna Glo made things easy.
The quality of the design and build are amazing. I’ve read some interesting comments from people who are still using the same stainless steel racks after 4 or 5 years – I can understand why. Everything has a tactile quality on the Dyna Glo, from the temperature gauge to the ash trays.
It weighs 50 pounds which is a positive; unfortunately, that’s as far as portability goes I’m afraid. The lack of wheels and a pair of grab handles that work okay, yet are quite thin mean you won’t enjoy taking this grill anywhere with you.
There’s also the issue that this grill will look sweet on your patio. To take it anywhere else and risk it getting scratched would be a crime!
Pros: A lovely piece of kit that looks good and goes everything perfectly.
Cons: You won’t carry it too far without hurting your hands on the rather thin handles.
Picking a true winner wasn’t easy. I felt that it was a tie between the Pit Barrel and the Weber. I can’t really tell you which way to go because it’s going to be down to personal preference.
For those who don’t mind their cooking a little rough and ready, and quite like the old-school approach, then the Pit Barrel is going to be your purchase. It’s a lovely, authentic smoker and would look cool cooing away almost anywhere.
If you want something a bit more modern and/or you have competition ideas in your mind, you’ll probably want the Weber. It’s a tried and tested rig that’s worked for professional cooks and weekend warriors alike.
The price point of both grills is similar, $300 seems about right for both and they do excel, just in different ways.