Smoking your favorite food is something everyone would like to be able to do. The truth is, great smoked food can take years of practice. If you start your journey learning how to smoke good food with a beginner-friendly smoker you can decrease that learning curve and make great food while you take your skills to the next level.
What is a good smoker for beginners?
I have a shortlist of important things to consider when selecting a beginning smoker. When you purchase your second smoker, you will have the experience to decide what factor is more important to you. When selecting your first smoker should take all of the following factors into account.
Easy to use smokers are key for the beginner. If you choose a smoker that is difficult to set up and tough to clean, it may lower your confidence. A smoker that is easy to load and operate will make your cook an easy and enjoyable experience.
Most beginners are not planning on spending a lot of money on their first smoker. If you don’t have confidence in your ability to smoke great food, you will be less willing to buy in the $500 range. A budget-friendly option is usually a great place to start.
There are a few different options for generating smoke. The main ways of generating smoke are electric, gas, charcoal, and all-wood fire. All the smoke comes from some form of wood, but in most cases, wood chips are heated until they smoke.
Getting your temperature right and holding it can be a challenge that most beginners struggle with. Some of the newer smokers have digital and Wi-Fi control options, but your classic wood or charcoal smokers are controlled by fuel and air.
Size is an important factor that can affect your experience in a few ways. First, it can be hard to deal with a large smoker for someone without prior experience. Second, if your smoker is too small it can be hard to cook enough food for a party. So, it is best to get a smoker just big enough for your needs.
Gas smoker vs. Electric smoker
Some people say it is a matter of tasting the gas in their food, but I have not noticed that in a smoker. In a grill, there is a big difference between gas and charcoal or even pellets.
I think the reason you can taste the fuel when using a grill is that the flame is direct cooking your food. In the case of a smoker, your heat source is indirect and meant to generate smoke.
The biggest differences between gas and electric smokers are temperature control and temperature range. In most cases, electric is far easier to deal with and has a more stable temperature.
Masterbuilt electric units can be set to run up to 270 degrees, but have a hard time getting above 250 degrees. Big Chief smokers are said by the company to run at 165, which I have found accurate. With a few hacks like using the box to insulate the smoker or an insulating blanket, you can push that up
Gas smokers like the Masterbuilt MPS 230s have a burner that kicks out up to 15,400 BTUs. The temperature in the smoker can have a top range of 400 degrees plus. The downsides to this can be that it is difficult to adjust the temperate manually with the dial. Also, cold smoking with gas is impossible because it is hard to get gas to run at low temperatures.
For your wood chips to smoke, they must reach a minimum temperature of around 150 degrees for small dry chips. I always suggest using a smoke generator or an Amazing Smoke tray that will fit in the bottom of your smoker.
Difference between horizontal and vertical smokers
Horizontal smokers (aka off-set) look a lot like a grill that has a box attached to the side. The box on the side is known as a firebox. In some models you build a fire with charcoal or hardwood, and other models burn pellets or smoke woodchips.
Most of the professional cooks use horizontal smokers, with wood like pecan. The ability to control every aspect of the cook makes it a hands-down winner for the pros. The downside is how much tending it takes to maintain constancy in smoke and temperature.
Vertical smokers are a simple box or drum with a way to generate smoke at the bottom. Most electric smokers are a vertical design with a heating element near the bottom where you rest a pan of wood chips.
However, vertical smokers are available in every fuel type, including combination units that burn with gas or charcoal. Most of the fuel units have a spot for the burning and a separate spot for the wood chips.
Some of the higher end vertical smokers have smoke generators attached, like the Bradley wood puck smoker. Also, it is easy to add a smoke generator to your unit, like the smokehouse products unit, for cold or low-temperature smoking.
If you want to take your smoked food on the road, you may want to think about a portable smoker. When I think “on the road,” electric smokers are the first thing to cross off the list. It is too hard to guarantee that you will have electricity available.
Another factor to consider is packing up your smoker. If you have a wood or charcoal smoker, you will need to wait for your fuel to burn out or unload it so you can cool off your smoker.
My recommendation for selecting a portable smoker is to choose a gas smoker. There are a lot of advantages to using a gas smoker when camping. The first advantage is that most people have propane around for a camp stove or lantern. The second and bigger advantage is that you can turn it off. After turning your gas smoker off you can discard the wood chips, and the smoker can start cooling down. Wood chips are normally in a removable tray that you can dump into a bucket of water.
Click here for our article on How To Select A Gas Smoker, with reviews
The best meat for beginners to smoke
There are two solid meat choices to practice your smoking and keep it simple. Deciding which meat you want to start with could make a big difference in the choice of your first smoker.
For red meat I would go with pork ribs for several reasons. The price of pork ribs is very affordable at $4.50 a pound and half that price on sale.
Additionally, pork ribs are very forgiving. They stay juicy and take smoke and seasoning very well. Red meats require a smoker that can run at a temperature of 225 degrees or more.
Salmon is a great beginner fish because it has a reasonable fat content that helps it stay moist during the smoking process. You can eat salmon without adding seasoning because it has good natural flavor. Also, you can add a variety of seasonings to get your desired taste.
Fish is normally a slow smoke, which means eight hours at 170 degrees for a large salmon. You can hot smoke salmon, like red meat, but that is similar to baked salmon with smoke added.
The best seasoning for beginners
Keeping your seasoning simple is the best way to start. For smoked salmon you can always stick to a dry brine of 1 cup salt, 2 cups brown sugar and a tablespoon of pepper. Spread the dry brine on your salmon in a large container then put it in the refrigerator for six hours. Rinse off the brine before smoking your salmon.
For ribs, I like to use a rub mixture of ¼ cup salt, ½ cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons pepper, and 1 tablespoon smoked paprika. Spread it evenly over the ribs and put them straight into the smoker. Smoke your ribs four to five hours at 230 degrees.
Beginner tip: never go over on the salt, too much salt can make your food inedible.
Picking your beginner smoker:
Now that we have covered all of these topics, you should have all the information on each type of smoker. Your decision for a beginner smoker could come down to which one of the topics is more important to you.
- Do you want your smoker to be portable?
- What kind of meat do you prefer to smoke?
- What temperature do you want to smoke at?
If you plan on doing fish or jerky, I am going to recommend a Little Chief smoker. The consistency of this smoker is hard to match for long slow smokes. You will get good results and learn a lot about smoking.
For smoking red meats, starting with pork ribs, a vertical gas smoker like the Masterbuilt MPS230S is a great choice. Gas makes this unit very portable, and it has a hotter temperature range than electric smokers. Vertical smokers are easy to load with a door and pull out shelves. Check out our review here
If you want the best versatility, you should buy the Masterbuilt MES 130. This electric smoker has digital control, making it is easy to use. Another bonus feature that I love is a chip loading tube that slides in from the side. The one downside of this unit is that it has a hard time reaching the maximum temperature setting of 270 degrees. I can rarely get my unit above 240 degrees, so I completely avoid smoking pork roast or stuffed poultry, it is just not hot enough to be safe. Check out our review here
Of course, I own all of the smokers that I have covered. I started with the Little Chief and still use sometimes when I am doing a large batch of fall chinook salmon. Day to day I use my Masterbuilt MES 130 because of how easy it is to use.
Little Chief and Big Chief smokers
I have a little back story on these smokers to share. The first smoker I ever saw used was a standard Little Chief smoker. My Father’s buddy and roommate had one that he smoked smelt in every year.
He put the smelt in a bucket of saltwater for a few hours, then in the smoker, they went until they dried out. They were smelt jerky, but they had a great smoky taste that went well with crackers and cream cheese.
Fast forward to the first smoker I bought, and it was a Little Chief. I smoked rainbow trout in it every chance I had. Rainbow trout is such a mild fish, and smoking them was the best way to prepare them. I cut holes in that smoker and attached a gas burner to it so I could take it camping. The Little Chief smoker would not die.
Finally, I bought a Big Chief smoker from a friend’s family estate sale, and I used the heck out of it. I still have that smoker somewhere in the garage, and it is one of the best things I ever bought in my life. I recently bought a brand-new Big Chief that will get seasoned after a few more uses, but today the old one still makes better tasting smoked salmon.