The Three Best Starter Smokers for Aspiring Pitmasters
Charcoal, propane or electric: Which one is the best fit for you?
Last summer, I ditched my grill, bought a smoker, picked the brain of Chef Hugh Mangum (the proprietor of Manhattan pit-BBQ joint Mighty Quinn’s) and began my own personal journey into the art of low and slow.
Here’s the first and most important thing I learned: smoking meats is really, really, ridiculously simple (even a cyborg can do it!). Because the cooking process is so gradual, the margin for error is massive — a slightly overcooked pork shoulder is still smoky and delicious in a way that, say, a burger left on the grill for 90 seconds too long is not. You really just need to be patient, dutiful and able to read a clock and a thermometer.
You’ll also need an actual smoker, obviously. Below, our three favorite starter kits (one charcoal, one gas, one electric), along with some notes from Chef Mangum on which one is best suited for your needs and applications.
Weber Kettle Grill
“In terms of what I use at home, it’s a Weber kettle grill,” says Mangum. “To me, it’s the most utilitarian, the best bang for your buck. If you need to replace the grates on it, it’s 20 bucks at a hardware store or from Amazon. And you can build it into a smoker as well.”
To do that, you just have “work it offset,” as Mangum puts it. Start a fire in a chimney and set it off to one side of the grill. Then add some wood chips and place your meat far over to the other side so it’s not over direct heat. Once that’s done, put the lid on and set the air ventilation — that spindle that turns on top of the Weber kettle — to the side where the meat is. That way, it “draws” the smoke and the heat over your meat. From there, you simply replenish your coals and wood as necessary to maintain a consistent heat (215-250 degrees, depending on the cut of meat and how soon you want to eat it).
Masterbuilt 2-Door Propane Grill
The two-door setup means you can replenish wood and coal without opening the compartment where the bounty is. “Temperature fluctuation, whether it’s up or down, is the biggest killer and what hurts the meat the most,” says Mangum. Be forewarned, though: as with your grill, propane can introduce unwanted flavors for diners with discerning palates.
If you really want to turn off your brain and let the smoker do the work, you can’t beat an electric. It regulates the heat automatically, and also goes places where others smokers simply cannot … like, say, the balcony of a New York City apartment. “I personally would go for an electric over a propane,” says Mangum. “One, it’s not combustible. And while you’re not getting any [flavor] enhancement other than the smoke, you’re also not getting any bad flavor from your heat source.”
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