For keen barbecuers who have mastered steaks and snags and are looking to up their grilling game, smoker barbecues are the latest trend. While people have been cooking outdoors using smoke and fire for most of human history, these days there's an array of sophisticated grills and smokers that are specifically designed to impart that delicious smoky flavour to everything from slow-cooked briskets, succulent ribs and pork shoulders to whole smoked chickens or fish and vegetables.
CHOICE experts have recently put a few smoker barbecues through their paces in our labs and here they outline the pros and cons of smoker barbecues and grills to help you decide if it's time for you to fire up.
Instead of putting your food over direct heat to cook as you would in a traditional barbecue, a smoker barbecue burns wood or charcoal to produce a low heat that, combined with smoke, slowly cooks food and imparts a unique smoky taste. The 'low and slow' cooking method means food is cooked more evenly and retains more moisture to give maximum juiciness and succulence.
This form of indirect cooking is great for slow cooking larger or tougher foods that might burn if they were grilled directly
Generally, smoker barbecues work more like a conventional oven than a barbecue, as they cook indirectly within an enclosed space with the hood closed, using a fan to circulate the heat for a more consistent smoke flavour. This form of indirect cooking is great for slow cooking larger or tougher foods that might burn if they were grilled directly. Smoker barbecues may not heat up as quickly as conventional gas or electric barbecues, but most can be set to a specific temperature and are great at maintaining a more even temperature once they're hot.
There are various types of smoker barbecues available, including charcoal smokers, wood smokers, pellet grills and offset smokers.
These are smokers that use charcoal as a fuel source. The food is placed next to, not directly over, the heat, which cooks food slowly and more evenly.
Vertical wood smokers
Vertical wood smokers have shelves that allow you to smoke a range of meats. They burn either wood or natural hardwood pellets to create the smoke and heat for cooking. You can use different types of wood, such as maple, hickory or cherry, all of which will give different intensities of flavour to the food you're preparing.
A pellet grill works by automatically feeding wood pellets into the grill through a hopper to provide a consistent source of heat, so they're great for cooking low and slow. However, you need to factor in the ongoing costs of the wood pellets which can be expensive - around $40 for 9 kilograms - and some pellet grills also specify certain brands to be used.
The portable pellet grill by Traeger was put to the test by CHOICE experts.
Either wood or charcoal smokers may also be offset smokers which means they have a separate compartment at the side of the smoker, called a firebox. The firebox burns fuel to create the smoke and heat which is then fed into the chamber where your food sits for cooking. This allows for better temperature control. They're often quite large and bulky so you need to have a good outdoor space to operate them in, however they can cook a large amount of food at once.
The variety of foods you can cook in a smoker barbecue is almost endless. In most smokers, you can cook almost anything that you can cook in a conventional oven. You'll get the best results from foods that benefit from cooking low and slow, and could be enhanced by a delicious smoky flavour.
Think large cuts of meat such as brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, and whole chicken. Whole fish and seafood, such as salmon and prawns, can also be cooked in a smoker, as well as vegetables and fruits such as corn on the cob, capsicums or even apples or summer fruits such as peaches and pineapples.
Think large cuts of meat such as brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, and whole chicken. Whole fish and seafood, such as salmon and prawns, can also be cooked in a smoker...
Part of the fun of owning a smoker is experimenting with all the delicious new things you can cook - some people smoke cheese or nuts, or you could give things such as baked beans or even smoked desserts such as sweet pies, brownies or cookies a whirl.
"Detailed instructions for assembly and use, and perhaps an app that comes with recipes, are excellent features to look out for when you're choosing the smoker that's right for you," says CHOICE kitchen expert, Fiona Mair.
"This is because it can take a bit of trial and error to get the cooking method right with some models. Once you've nailed it though, the results can be really unique and exceptional.
"Some manufacturers provide 'how to' videos on their app or website with step-by-step instructions on useful things like igniting the smoker and controlling the air flow, or tutorials on indirect cooking and slow cooking, which can be very helpful," says Fiona.
Some smokers have multiple shelves which allow you to cook more foods at once.
The model and the type of smoker barbecue you choose will determine how big it is and whether or not it is easily portable. Some models CHOICE has reviewed, such as the Traeger Ranger Pellet Grill, are specifically designed to be compact and portable so they are able to be taken camping or on holidays. The model specification says it can fit one rack of ribs, six burgers or 10 sausages.
The Everdure by Heston Blumenthal Fusion Charcoal Barbecue uses electric ignition to get the charcoal burning.
"The Traegar Ranger Pellet Grill has a lockable lid so it's designed to be portable, however it's still quite large and can be awkward to carry. Remember wherever you're using it, you'll also need access to 240V AC power for the ignition," says Fiona.
If you are not set on an enclosed smoker, but you still want that wood-fired flavour on a portable barbecue, there are several smaller portable charcoal grills you could try, like a Japanese-style table hibachi grill or other portable charcoal grills such as the Everdure by Heston Blumenthal Fusion Charcoal Barbecue or the Weber Go Anywhere Charcoal Barbecue.
Other smoker barbecues we tested, and particularly offset smokers, can be very large, bulky and heavy, so they're definitely not portable. But their larger cooking chambers do offer you lots more versatility in regards to the amount of food you can cook and the cuts of meat you can smoke.
CHOICE tip: When you're considering if you have space for a smoker or where to put it, keep in mind it should be positioned a few metres away from your house, or your neighbour's house. If it's too close, the heat and smoke could discolour your awnings or exterior walls. It should also be positioned in an area that doesn't get too windy, so it's easier to light.
There are many accessories spruiked by manufacturers to enhance your smoking experience, but which ones do you really need? According to CHOICE experts, when working with a smoker barbecue, a digital meat probe is a must to ensure you get perfectly cooked meat. Some models come with an integrated meat probe that monitors temperature during cooking (and some even send an alert to your smartphone once the food is cooked). However, if your model doesn't come with one, it's a good investment.
CHOICE test expert Fiona Mair uses a digital meat probe to test the temperature of the meat during the smoking process.
A meat probe that has pre-programmed settings for various meats and degrees of doneness is useful. Some probes can even be inserted into the meat and remain in place during cooking, so you can check the temperature regularly via a smartphone app without opening the hood.
"I'd also recommend investing in a cover for your smoker barbecue," says Fiona.
"Most brands have tailor-made covers available. This will help keep it out of the elements, protect your unused fuel and will likely extend the life of the barbecue."
It's probably also worth buying a trolley or a stand for the portable smoker to sit on, as it will make transporting and using it a lot easier.
Other accessories and items CHOICE experts recommend you'll need when using a smoker include:
- A good set of long tongs and oven gloves if you're working with charcoal or wood.
- Aluminium foil to cover the meat when standing and to protect vulnerable areas of chickens and turkeys.
- A storage bin for your fuel to protect it from moisture and make it easier to access.
The smoker barbecues available to buy in Australia at the moment are quite expensive. One of the brands most associated with smoker barbecues is Traeger, and they have several smoker barbecue models available, ranging in price from $900 for their portable smoker up to several thousands of dollars for models in their 'pro' and premium ranges. Weber has two models in the Weber Smokefire Series, with prices starting from $2499. Kamado Joe smokers start from around $1500 and the Everdure by Heston Blumenthal 4K charcoal grill and smoker we tested comes with a hefty price tag of $2999.
A good tip to save money on pellets is to load the smoker with only the fuel you need for that particular cook - then top it up as neededFiona Mair, CHOICE test expert
Another thing to consider in addition to the purchase price is that smokers fuelled by wood pellets are relatively expensive to run, as you need to purchase the pellets as well as use electricity. They can cost around $40/9kg and some brands specify that you should only use their specific brand of pellets as they're designed in such a way to optimise performance with their particular model.
Cooking something like brisket at a low temperature of about 110°C for 4.5 hours can use up to 1kg of pellets, and if you are cooking at high temperatures you are likely to go through the pellets a lot quicker. If you use your smoker a lot, that cost can quickly add up.
"A good tip to save money on pellets is to load the smoker with only the fuel you need for that particular cook - then top it up as needed," says Fiona.
Cleaning your smoker barbecue is just as important as cleaning your regular gas or electric barbecue.
Once the smoker has cooled, it is a good idea to remove the ash (throw it on the garden) and, as for any type of barbecue, brush the grill plates to remove any residue. Wash stainless steel grill racks, and clean drip trays, wiping any build-up of accumulated fat.
If you have a portable pellet grill, you will need to remove the pellets before transporting, so ensure you don't overfill the hopper with pellets, as they're difficult to take out.
After around three of four uses, it's a good idea to scrape away any carbon build-up inside the smoker and under the hood. If you leave this to accumulate for too long it will affect the flavour of the food you're cooking.
As part of our CHOICE reviews of the best barbecues, we give each barbecue a score on how easy it is to clean and make notes on anything you need to be aware of before you buy.
CHOICE experts demonstrate how to feed wood pellets into a smoker pellet grill.
Yes! Making a homemade barbecue smoker box can turn your everyday hooded gas or electric barbecue into a smoker.
Fiona explains how: "Wrap wood chips in aluminium foil, and pierce a few holes at the top of the foil pouch to let the smoke out. Place the packet directly on the grill plate above a burner while the barbecue is preheating and it will start producing smoke that will infuse the food you cook. Avoid opening the hood too much during the cooking process, and remove the wood chip parcel halfway through the cooking time."There are also various accessories you can buy, such as wood-smoked grilling planks, that you can use in a standard barbecue to give a subtle smoky flavour to your foods.
The CHOICE labs have reviewed almost 40 barbecues currently available in Australia, including several smokers, barbecues with smoking features and charcoal grills. We give each barbecue a CHOICE Expert Rating based on their performance in our cooking tests and other factors such as how easy they are to clean and use, to help you find the model that suits your needs and price range. CHOICE members have exclusive access to our detailed reviews. Log in or sign up to find more.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.