Diving into the craft of barbecue always starts with that single, paramount question: What smoker should I get? For example: If you’re hoping to smoke like your favorite barbecue joint, you’re probably considering an expensive offset stick burner. In one of these, food is smoked in a chamber heated by a wood-fueled fire burning off to the side (or offset) in a box. For more convenience, you may opt for the pellet grill, where food is smoked by a fire underneath that’s fueled by small wood pellets that you feed into a container. Everyone has their preferred smoker, of course, but the main point is to get something that is going to work for your needs and goals. To make that decision a little easier, we’ve pulled together your best options, courtesy of our marvelous meat masters:
Brett Jackson. Arguably the Houston area’s most innovative pitmaster and owner of Brett’s BBQ Shop in Katy
Russell Roegels. 25 years of experience smoking meat for the public, most recently at his Roegels Barbecue, which does everything from beef to whole pigs
Chris Shepherd. James Beard Award-winning chef, founder of the nonprofit Southern Smoke, owner of the steakhouse Georgia James
Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker $439, weber.com
If Roegels wants to cook meat on high heat for a shorter amount of time, he opts for the tried-and-true charcoal-fueled Smokey Mountain. “You can do anything on it,” he says. “There’s been more barbecue competitions won on that Smokey Mountain than anything else.”
The Smokey Mountain comes in three sizes (16, 19, or 22 inches wide), but it’s smaller than an offset, so it’s great for folks feeding no more than a small family. Since maintenance is relatively simple (removing ash, wiping grates, emptying the water pan) and it can cook food fast, this one makes for a great primary smoker.
Franklin Barbecue Pit $2,950, franklinbbqpits.com
Yes, Shepherd and famed Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin have collaborated on various projects over the years and the former has even called the latter for help when smoking food at home. Disclaimers aside, Shepherd swears by this luxury offset pit, created by Franklin to bring folks a replication of what he uses at his smokehouse.
That being said, this smoker is best for serious backyard cooks and gadget nerds who already have a good handle on brisket and other big-money meats. “It’s expensive,” says Shepherd. “But that thing is never going to warp. It’s never going to rust out. It’s perfect. I stare at it and think, ‘Man, what am I gonna cook next?’”
Traeger Pro Series 34 $699, traegergrills.com
“If you’re really getting it for the craft of barbecue, I highly recommend getting a nice offset pit,” says Jackson. But that means shelling out thousands and having the ability to man a smoker that you likely intend to haul to a competition.
For the rest of us, however, there is a way to re-create the offset’s low-and-slow method of smoking meat without all the babysitting: a pellet smoker. “You’ll cook 20 times more than if you get an offset,” Jackson says. “It’s just a lot more ease.”
Roegels agrees. He likes the Traeger Pro 34 because it’s got capacity—it can cook eight chickens or seven rib racks at once. But brisket-lovers beware: “You don’t get the bark on a brisket like you would on a stick burner,” Roegels advises, “but for chicken, ribs, sausage, things like that, the pellet grills work great.”
More toys ...
Dalstrong 6-Inch Shogun Filet Knife
This stainless-steel carving knife is, according to Dalstrong, “ruthlessly sharp,” so no matter how tender your meat ends up, you’ll slice it like butter. “I’m a big fan of those knives,” says Jackson. “That’s a really good brisket slicer that’s fairly cheap.”
Yeti Tundra 75 Hard Cooler
“The biggest tool you can have is a small Yeti,” says Shepherd. “It’s about wrapping the meat, throwing it in the Yeti, and letting it sit.” After letting your meat sit in the cooler, throw a bunch of ice in it and chill some beers. Now we’re talkin’.
Lavatools PT12 Javelin meat thermometer
It’s half the price of the well-loved Thermoworks Thermapen (which starts at $79), but, says Roegels, “Holding it in my hand, it’s a great little product. It reads fast and it’s very durable.” Plus, it’s digital, a must for getting a precise reading.