Cooking is one of the things that brings friends and family together. And smokers are right at the center of gadgets that make the magic happen. The best smokers under $500 will give your meats, vegetables and bread a rich flavor that can only be extracted through the smoking process. When it comes to smokers, even cheaper smoker varieties can give you a similar flavor to that of the award-winning, luxurious restaurant servings. So price is not a determinant of quality as such.
Owning a smoker allows you to prepare an individual flavor of smoked foods. With regular use, you’ll discover your signature taste and what combination of wood and marinade to use to achieve it. If you harbor ambitions of participating in BBQ competitions, the journey starts with owning a smoker. We break down the essentials for you, showing you how to choose a smoker, why things like size, material, maximum temperature, and power source are important and how they affect the food you prepare. We came up with the 6 top picks, where the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker ended up being the best of them all.
More features: heat-resistant nylon handle, individual vents on bowl and lid
If you love the smell and taste of charcoal smoked food, you won’t get enough of the Weber 731001 Smokey Mountain Cooker, a classic, flavor-retaining charcoal smoker.
You are to control how much heat is retained inside the smoker and how much air is circulating in there at all times. That task is easy with the help of the vents. You will need to determine when to open the vents and when to close them. The Weber 731001 has three damper vents at the bottom. Open them as you begin cooking and as the temperature increases, close them one at a time so that the temperature is not undesirably high. Opening all the vents will help you reach 200 degrees quicker. You can then close the vents as appropriate once you’ve reached the desired temperature. If it gets too hot in there, open the top vent on the lid to let out some of the hot air and regulate the heat.
The built-in thermometer will let you know when the smoker hits the golden temperature. The water pan also helps in maintaining the temperature, so make sure you have it in the smoker whenever you are cooking.
Reviewers have warned us that in some models there are gaps in the door, which let the smoke and the heat escape, but fear not, just use self-stick tape to remedy.
This item’s warranty is amazing – for any troubles you might have – ten years of manufacturer’s service is guaranteed.
Will the Masterbuilt 20071117 suffice when you have dozens of mushroom dishes or pounds of meat to smoke? Maybe not because it’s designed to hold a smaller amount of food, but it’s big enough to make family meals. And when you need to smoke more food and have got the time, you can schedule several smoking rounds.
The manufacturer says it can hold 2 whole turkeys, 6 whole chickens, 8 racks of ribs, 4 pork butts, 24 burgers, and 68 sausages. Not bad, huh? For most folks, this capacity is more than enough.
That said, the quality of food it produces is superb. If it’s your first time using an electric smoker and you’re a little apprehensive about the quality of smoke you’ll get, relax. It does a fine job. We must warn you, though, that it does not give as much smoke as you may get from a charcoal smoker. And if you don’t turn the temperature all the way up, you won’t get any smoke at all. Hit at least 200 degrees to kick start the smoke flow. If you need to slow roast, you can turn down the temperature after a few minutes.
More features: electronic pulse ignition system, offset firebox
For slow cooking at a great price, nothing could be better than a Dyna-Glo DGO1176BDC-D. It’s affordably priced and lets you enjoy the easy-going, assured pace of an offset firebox. You don’t have to worry about burning your meat or the smoky flavor being too strong. The offset design gets it right, allowing only controlled amounts of heat and smoke to filter through to your barbecue.
Dyna-Glo combines the best of manual and auto operations by issuing an electronic pulse ignition system with this model. It’s just like turning on an electric smoker, but with the joy of using actual charcoal to smoke your food. The electronic ignition definitely makes turning the smoker on quick and easy. Who wants to spend minutes waiting for the smoker to heat up?
Offset smokers are notorious for losing heat through the door, especially low-cost ones. The door does not close completely in this Dyna either, but you can use self-adhesive gaskets to seal it up. As if anticipating the possibility of heat loss through the door, Dyna-Glo made this model in a dual door design, which allows you to add your charcoal or briquettes without opening the cooking chamber and, therefore, losing heat.
The beauty about owning a smoker is that you can often use it anywhere, and when it’s gas-powered, you can use it even in places without an electric power source. You can take it with you when going camping or bring it near the pool for a pool-side BBQ. The Smoke Hollow 38202G is an affordable, propane gas smoker that allows you to enjoy all the above scenarios for a little under $200.
It quickly ignites via a push button for smooth operation, but you will go through a few steps to get it ready for use. You’ll need to season/cure the smoker before using it for the first time, which involves coating the smoker with oil and allowing it to smoke for a couple of hours with no food in it. Thereafter, your smoker should be ready to use with food.
Before putting your food in the smoker, add liquid to the water pan and wood in the firebox. Connect the gas and push the ignition button. Let it heat up to the preferred temperature and then add your food and continue to monitor the smoker temperature as it cooks.
The gas control system allows you to regulate the temperature as you like throughout the cooking session. By making this model in a two-door design, the manufacturer ensures that the heat enclosed in the smoking chamber is not lost when you need to add water or wood to the smoker. You don’t need to open the top chamber to add both water and wood. Add these through the bottom chamber.
Another champion propane gas smoker going for a great price. This is the 18″ Camp Chef Smoker, a large, robust unit that, far from how it looks, can be lugged around with quite some ease.
For portability, it ticks all the boxes, and even though it doesn’t come with wheels, it does have legs that make lifting it a breeze. It’s also quite big and will comfortably roast enough food for 10 adults in one go.
This smoker has a door thermometer that can read temperatures between 50 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit, making it one of the smokers with the highest temperature range.
Camp Chef could have given us more racks in this model (it has three, two of which are adjustable) but you can overlook this given how efficient the smoker is and what evenly-done food it produces. We especially like that you can convert the smoker to use natural gas because, who doesn’t like options? Head over to the Camp Chef website for a step-by-step guide on how to do this.
More features: built-in viewing window with internal light, RF remote control, side wood chip loading system
The only thing that’s better than knowing you can treat family and guests to smoked food in only a few hours is not having to sweat and work extra hard to prepare it. And the Masterbuilt 20077515 Electric Smoker makes sure of it. Just plug it in your power source and it kicks to life; no propane tank to connect and no charcoal to get your hands or gloves messy.
This 30-inch unit offers 730 square inches of cooking area and is big enough to hold 2 whole turkeys, 12 whole chickens, 4 pork butts, 4 racks of ribs, 2 dozen burgers, 4-dozen sausages or 4 large vegetable casseroles. It may not feed a community, but it has enough capacity to keep a small party well-fed. And since it carries no risk of overheating, you can smoke your food in batches as needed until you have had enough. There are 4 adjustable racks on which you can cook different types of food at a go.
To give your food that tantalizing smoky taste it has an efficient wood chip loading system. The wood loader is conveniently located on the side of the smoker, so you won’t need to open the door to add wood. No risk of the flavor or heat escaping. Both are concentrated inside the smoker throughout your cook time.
There is also a water pan located between the wood chamber and cooking chamber, which in addition to keeping the food moist, helps to absorb excess heat and keep your food from burning. Some of the reviewers found this pan too small for a big amount of food smoking, so be sure to check it regularly in your cooking process.
To end up with a qualitative and reliable smoker, you should be able to distinguish between the different types of smokers in the market and know which one better suits your needs. You should understand why you need the smoker, what are you going to use it for, and the results you can expect. Let’s look at each of these closely.
If it’s your first time buying a smoker, you may be worried about the low price tag. Understandably so. We often think that a higher price on cooking equipment indicates quality and better results. This isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes smokers cost less because they’re smaller, not because they’re inferior in quality or made from poor materials. The mechanism behind the workings of the smoker is the same, whether you’re looking at a $100 piece or an $8,000 charmer.
Thus, a $500 smoker can perform just as well as a more expensive unit. As you’d expect, the more expensive smokers will have higher quality shells and be made from higher gauge metals. But this doesn’t make the lower cost models insignificant. The $500 won’t have gold etchings and stunning chrome buttons and details, but it gets the job done.
Some $500 will be sturdier, better insulated, more efficient, and give more smoke than others. That leaves you to use your judgment wisely when choosing between models. But when it comes to how well it smokes your food, you can expect acceptable to above par results, depending on model.
Here now, we look at the specific features that are important in a smoker and the properties that distinguish the best smokers from the not-so-great ones.
Cheaper smokers are largely made from stainless steel. However, stainless steel comes in a range of grades, and this makes all the difference. Look for industry-standard stainless steel as it is thicker and stronger. Lower gauge stainless steel will be thinner and more prone to losing heat, which can affect the efficacy of the smoker.
Where possible, choose coated steel over plain stainless steel and its alloys. It retains heat better than stainless steel and may not rust if done well. It’s also cheaper. Anytime you’re choosing between two materials, pick the material that is thicker for greater durability and heat retention.
The common sources of energy in smokers are gas, charcoal and electricity.
Most gas powered smokers use propane gas, but there are models that also use natural gas. Some manufacturers have designed their smokers for use with both propane and natural gas, which can be an advantage if you lean more towards using natural gas. One such example is the Camp Chef Smoker.
Charcoal smokers are touted to have the strongest flavors. You’ll have to try this and come to a verdict. In our experience, the type of fuel doesn’t really dictate how great the flavor is. Remember that the type of wood you use plays a bigger role in releasing the kind of smoky flavor detectable in smoked food. Charcoal smokers are also the slowest of the three types.
Electric smokers are the no-fuss queens. Their easy plug-and-go system of operation makes it a welcome alternative for anyone looking for a stress-free way of cooking.
Pick the power source you feel is best suited for your lifestyle. If you’ll be using the smoker out in the woods most of the time, it makes sense to go with a gas or charcoal smoker. If you plan to use the smoker in your backyard where you can easily connect it to a socket, an electric smoker may a good choice.
It helps if the temperature range is big. That way, you can easily sear your foods at high temperatures and tune it up to the high degrees needed to caramelize and sizzle dishes. Likewise, you can bring it to a low for a slow cook.
If the smoker does not have a wide temperature range (above 250° F, for example), it won’t be possible to cook some meals in it.
How big the smoker is determines how much food you can cook in it at once. Bigger smokers can hold as many as 12 whole chickens or 2 whole turkeys or up to 4 large vegetable casseroles. In smaller smokers, you may be able to smoke a whole turkey, which would mean you can do the same with 5 or 6 whole chickens. Bigger smokers can hold four racks of ribs with ease.
Look at your smoking needs when choosing the size of your smoker. If you’ll need to smoke lots of food often, go for a bigger smoker with a higher capacity. Most smokers come with adjustable racks, which gives you leeway to move them around to create the space you need for bigger cuts of meat, or whole pieces like chicken and turkey. Some may also come with a hanging rack for sausages, and this frees up your racks for other foods.
Majority of smokers for home use are lightweight and can be moved from place to place with ease. Be warned, though, that a few are quite bulky and don’t make good portable smokers. Always check the weight before buying. You wouldn’t want to end up with a smoker that can only be set up in one location because moving it is impossible. Some smokers have wheels to ease the task of relocating them, like Masterbuilt 20077515.
The fuel box or firebox is where your wood chips, pellets or charcoal goes. The best smokers are built in such a way that you can add wood or water to the water pan without opening the cooking chamber and thus allowing heat to escape. This typically happens in two-door designs, so check if you can find one. Some models like the Masterbuilt 20071117 have a side wood loading mechanism that allows you to load wood chips without opening the smoker door.
The water pan goes between the heat source and the cooking chamber and is typically filled with water. It acts as a go-between, absorbing heat when it’s excessive (so it doesn’t all go into the food and burn it) and maintaining the heat at optimal temperature when the heat from the source dampens. It also keeps food moist. The better the water pan, the more efficient it is.
You need vents to control how much air is coming and going out of the smoker at any given time. The best smokers have a minimum of three vents at the bottom and at least one vent at the top. The bottom vents allow air to make its way into the smoker, fanning the fire to keep the heat going. When a lot of heat accumulates, opening the top vent lets the hot air escape, helping to regulate the temperature inside the smoker.
Go for a smoker with a thermostat. Many come with a built-in thermostat that lets you know the temperature in the smoker during cook time. Some may also have a thermometer affixed to the door. The thermometer may not be precise, and it’s advisable to use a third-party thermometer just to ensure that you get the temperature range right when cooking.
It’s important to buy a unit that’s covered by a warranty. Many of these warranties don’t go beyond 3 months, but short as they are, they can be a lifeline when something like the heating element malfunctions or the racks sag and get warped. Still, you come across rare gems with a 10-year warranty, like the Weber 731001. If you intend to smoke your foods for a decade, this is a steal.
Take caution. Just as you wouldn’t turn on your outdoor grille as the snow falls heavily, it wouldn’t be wise to do so with a smoker. If you have to use the smoker during harsh weather, ensure that it is not out in the open. Keep it sheltered from the rain and wind.
Smoked delicacies taste so much better when cooked at home. And with the right smoker, you should do grand dishes in no time.
The Weber 731001 is our top choice for those mouthwatering meats you love. It’s a premium model that will serve you for years, and with its 10-year warranty, you have no reason to worry about any kind of defect. None of the other models we tried had such a lengthy warranty period, so it’s a double plus in our view.
The Masterbuilt 20071117 is our Budget Pick. Its low-cost price, the amount of smoke it releases and the uniform way it cooks food won us over.
The Dyna-Glo DGO1176BDC-D is an offset smoker with an electronic pulse ignition system that heats fast and distributes the heat evenly.
We hope this list of best smokers under $500 inspires you to find a model that perfectly suits your cooking style and requirements.