Which outdoor cooker is right for you?
No matter your needs or your budget, find what you need to get cooking.
As grilling season approaches, many of us will find ourselves eager to leave the kitchen behind and cook delicious meats in the great outdoors – or at least our backyard. And as with any job, cooking something well requires the right tools. But with all the options available to backyard chefs these days, which one is right for you? Well, that probably depends on what you want to cook, how you want to cook it and how much time and money you’re willing to dedicate to your grilling and smoking game.
The good news is that whether you’re looking to flip some burgers or make pastrami from an amazing corned beef brisket, there’s likely a grill or smoker out there that will fit your needs well. And this list featuring many of the most popular options should give you a good idea of which one might be for you. So let’s dig in, shall we? Grilling season is coming, and you need to be ready!
Gas grills are a backyard staple, and for good reason. If grilling is your game, gas grills offer the ultimate in ease and convenience. They light instantly, come up to temperature quickly and are adjustable with the turn of a knob. If ever there was an outdoor equivalent of your kitchen range, this it. And when it comes to grilling steaks, burgers, chicken and the like, they’re great. But they do come with one big drawback.
If you’re looking to slow-smoke something like a brisket, pork butt or ribs, it’s going to be a challenge on this style of grill. Because they burn gas, these grills impart very little smoky flavor into whatever you’re cooking. And because they’re designed for direct, over-the-fire cooking, low and slow smoking just isn’t something these do well.
For many cooks, that isn’t a big concern. These are obviously very popular cookers that a lot of backyard chefs love. But if you aspire to cooking anything beyond burgers and dogs or the occasional whole chicken, you may want to consider other options.
Easy temperature control
Fast, convenient high-temp cooking
Can be expensive
No charcoal or wood flavor
Grill only – not the best for low and slow smoking
An inexpensive, easy-to-use classic that’s been in American backyards for decades. Cooking on a charcoal grill is fairly simple and easy. Simply place lit charcoal in the bottom of the cook chamber, then place a metal grill rack over the top and get cooking.
Seasoned cooks use a two-zone setup on these grills. Piling all your coals to one side creates a hot zone for searing. Alternatively, you can use the cool side of the grill to warm food more slowly over indirect heat. This is perfect for melting cheese on burgers, toasting buns or slow-cooking large cuts like ribs or tri-tip.
Like gas grills, traditional charcoal grills are primarily built for direct, high-heat cooking. But some indirect smoking is possible. But buyer beware – if you want smoking to be a major part of your cooking repertoire, this may not be the setup for you.
Easy to use
Versatile, with the right accessories
Takes longer to light than gas
Charcoal costs slightly more per cook than gas
Smoking possible but not ideal
The ultimate in easy BBQ and modern convenience, pellet grills are the barbecuer’s equivalent of our Beef Stew Meal Kit – packed with everything you need to easily make a meal you’ll love.
These cookers work by burning small pellets of compressed sawdust that are automatically fed by an auger onto an electric heating element. They’re as easy to set as an oven; just choose your temperature and desired smoke level, and these machines will run automatically for as long as you need. So whether you just want to grill some chicken or are settling in for a long smoke on a brisket, you can rest assured that this machine will be running just as you desire. Some models even come with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and companion apps that allow you to monitor and adjust your cook from your mobile device.
All that tech does come at a price, though. Full-size pellet grills can run $1,000 and up. And because they only cook using specified wood pellets, you have to know where to buy those – they’re a little harder to find than charcoal and can be more expensive, too. They also require a power source to operate, making mobility at a tailgate or campsite an issue. And if you ever dream of participating in a competition, these cookers are strictly off limits.
But if your friends and family are the only folks you’ll ever be cooking for, a pellet grill is a convenient and popular option that will help you get classic BBQ dishes like ribs, brisket and more on the table more often. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Easy to use
Simple, hassle-free operation
Some models feature mobile connectivity
Can be expensive
Power source required
Not competition friendly
People have been cooking in earthenware vessels for centuries, and for good reason. It’s extremely durable and great at retaining heat efficiently and evenly. That’s why the kamado, which is made today with a porcelain or ceramic glaze, performs well as both a grilling and smoking setup.
Kamado cookers work much like a traditional charcoal grill, with the charcoal at the bottom and meat placed over top. But it differs in a few key ways besides just the material it’s built from. The two-zone setup you see many cooks use on charcoal kettles isn’t really doable in these taller, narrower chambers. Instead, cooks using kamados rely on stone diffuser plates and air circulation to control their cooking temperature.
The diffuser plate is a stone disc placed between the charcoal in the bottom of the cook chamber and the grill grate at the top. Once over the hot coals, this disc heats up and provides an even, radiant heat source, ensuring your food cooks evenly.
To raise and lower temperatures, vents at the bottom and top of the grill can be opened or closed. The more open the vents are, the hotter your coals burn. And closing the vents has the opposite effect – less airflow and lower temperatures.
Kamados can run at almost any temperature, from 225 degrees for something like a Salt & Pepper Beef Brisket all the way up to 700 degrees for searing steaks or cooking homemade pizzas. And because the air allowed into the cook chamber is so regulated, those coals will burn consistently at your desired temperature for hours. It’s not quite as high-tech as a Wi-Fi-connected pellet grill, but it’s nearly as hassle-free.
As for drawbacks, there are really only a couple. While great at retaining and distributing heat, the thick earthenware walls on these cookers make them HEAVY. So even though they often come with wheeled stands, you won’t want to move a kamado around very often. These grills can also be fairly expensive, with full-size setups often costing $1,000-$2,000.
Cooks well at any temperature
Holds temperature for hours
Grills and smokes equally well
Earthenware = heavy
Can be hard to move
A recent addition to the barbecue scene, drum smokers are a cheaper, more DIY alternative to a traditional kamado. Like the kamado, a drum smoker is a vertical cooker with charcoal in the bottom, cooking grates on top and often a diffuser plate in between. They also use vents in the bottom and top of the cooking chamber to regulate airflow and temperature. And they can hold a wide range of temperatures reliably for hours. But as the name indicates, drum smokers aren’t made of earthenware.
Instead, they’re built using 55-gallon steel drums and a few spare parts you can find at most any hardware store. Now, there are precautions to take – mainly sourcing a food-grade or unlined barrel, and not one with a heavy lining or chemical residue inside. But for a handy person with the right plans and tools, all it takes is a few hours and a couple hundred bucks to turn a pile of parts into a competition-quality smoker.
As drum smokers have grown in popularity, many brands have started offering UDS kits for a few hundred bucks and prebuilt options that can run up to $1,000. And if DIY isn’t your cuppa joe, they are great options. But if you decide to build it yourself, a UDS can be the most affordable way to get into serious barbecue smoking outside of finding some old, rusted-out cooker on Craigslist.
Cooks well at any temperature
Holds temperature for hours
Can be built on the cheap
Sourcing a barrel can take some effort
Build quality may vary based on your handiness
Pre-built models can be expensive
Offset smokers are just about the most traditional and widely used smoker setup around. This style of cooker is available from a wide range of stores and builders. And it can help you achieve absolutely delicious slow-smoked flavor – if you know what you’re doing and have plenty of time on your hands.
Unlike the previous entries on this list, offset smokers are built to move heat horizontally, not vertically. They do this using a two-chamber setup. One chamber, called the firebox, is your heat source. Attached to the side of the firebox is a larger cooking chamber with a smokestack on the end opposite the firebox. As you light your fire and it starts producing heat, that heat moves from the firebox into the cooking chamber, then makes its way across your food and up and out the smokestack.
Like a kamado, this heat is regulated largely using diffusion and air regulation. The diffusion happens via the vented metal wall between the firebox and cook chamber. The air regulation happens via vents on the firebox and smokestack. Just like on the kamado, open vents equals hotter fire and closing vents cools everything down.
That said, regulating temperature can be a little more complicated, as there’s an additional variable: the fuel. While a kamado uses charcoal, which can burn slowly at a very even pace, offset smokers are built to burn pure wood. That’s what gives BBQ cooked on an offset its trademark flavor. But wood is a little more unpredictable than charcoal. Depending on type, size or age of your wood, it can burn hotter or cooler, provide a lot of smoke or a little, and can impart good flavor or bad.
Learning how to select your wood, and how to adjust your smoker to accommodate different kinds of wood comes only with time and experience. But once you start to master those skills, the results can be unbelievably delicious.
Peak BBQ flavor when done right
Wide range of options available
Can be relatively affordable
Cooking with wood can be unpredictable
Requires the most time and attention
Smoker only – no direct grilling possible on most models
Well, we saved the most controversial option for last. Many seasoned pitmasters will tell you that an electric smoker doesn’t impart smoke flavor to food, and won’t even leave a smoke ring. And that’s not wholly incorrect. HOWEVER: There are perfectly good reasons to go with these little cookers. But before we get into them, let’s briefly go over how electric smokers work.
Essentially, they’re portable electric ovens. Most feature an electric heating element at the bottom with slide-in grill racks positioned at different levels above it. Often there will be a small pan at the bottom for wood chips that can help impart a hint of smoky flavor to whatever you’re cooking.
Not the most traditional BBQ setup? Sure. Will it achieve the absolute finest results? Probably not. And might some of the electric parts break down and require maintenance over time? Most likely. But here’s the thing: These little guys are cheap. Basic models start at just $100, and $250 should get you one large enough to fit something like a Texas Recipe BBQ Beef Brisket. So if you’re just getting into BBQ and don’t want to commit hundreds and hundreds of dollars to the hobby yet, this is a great place to start.
And if you live in an apartment, condo or rental where cooking with fire isn’t allowed, a flameless cooker like this is a great solution.
Flameless, for cooks with fire restrictions
Won’t impart a lot of smoke flavor
Maintenance often required over time
Some old, salty BBQ nut might call you a dirty cheater!
That’s it for now, fellow backyard chefs. If you like this post, check out The Second Helping for even more about how to feed the ones you love the meal they crave. And if you’d like to get your hands on the meat for your first cook of the spring, feel free to check out our handy product finder.