OK, I'm about to make the fateful leap into the world of smoking my own meats.
I need some insight into the subject and some suggestions on smokers that offer the best value for the dollar. I'm looking to do pork, brisket, turkeys and sausage. I'd like to try to keep it under $300 if at all possible but I don't want to buy something that I will replace in 2 years.
My son and I each bought the Bar-B-Chef Offset Smoker by Barbeques a Galore early last year and we could not be happier. We each used them once a week all last Summer and they are still in like-new condition. The trick is to use warm water and dish soap on the outside to keep them clean. The construction, IMO, is better then most other smokers for even twice the money. I noticed the number of bolts which hold the offset fire box to the smoker and the thickness of the metal used and that was what sold me. I know that this fire box will NOT be falling off due to rust any time soon. During the evening hours last Fall we actually used the fire box to burn wood, just as if it were an outside fire pit, while we sat around it to keep warm. The fire box is just the right height off the ground to put a long in while sitting on a chair.
A really good feature of this unit is that both the offset fire box and the barrel can also be used as a grilling surface.
The only change we made to ours was mounting some bigger iron wheels so that we could more easily move them across the lawn. The wheels that come with it are OK but this unit is so heavy that it was worth it to us to add the two bigger wheels in the center of balance so that it is easy to move. One small issue was that the first time I used it I got is reaql hot and some of the balck paint burned off on the bottom. No problem! I went to Home Depot and bought some Bar-B-Que flat black paint and have never had to repaint since then. I recommend that when using it that the bottom of the cooking barrel be lined with extra wide / extra heavy foil. After cooking just allow the fat (from the three pork shoulders) to cool / solidify and that will make clean-up is so easy.
Note, this is a wood / coal burning unit. My boy and I like getting up at 3:00 or 4:00 am to start the fire and continue burning logs for the next 8 hours. It has allowed us to spend some time together and at other times to just sit alone next to a fire -- something natural and human about that. However, there was that first time when my Son's neighbor smelled smoke at 3:30 am, opened his window and confirmed that the whole back yard was deep in smoke, and called the Fire Dept. We had so much extra pulled pork later that day that we took some over to the fire dept.
Bar-B-Chef Offset Smoker by Barbeques a Galore
I also didn't want to spend a lot of money when I first started so this is what I did: I bought a used New Braunfels Black Diamond for 20 bucks at a local swapmeet. This is an offset smoke the looks like a SmokeN Pit. I made some modifications to it buy adding a baflle and extending the stack to the grill surface and built a charcoal box. I also bent the metal a bit to get the tightest seal I could. I can load it with pork butts around 11pm, light the charcoal box that is 50/50 chuck charcoal and wood, go to bed and it's still hot at 8am when i get up so I I then restoke the box. Ribs can be done as 3/2/1 method which works well for a beginner and then tweaked with experience. The advantage to the kind of smoker is that you can also use it as a grill. Once you're hooked and the wife agrees, then there are lots of more expensive options, but this is a good way to start. -Karl
Unless you want to stay up all night refueling your smoker for llloooonnnnggg sessions, you can't go wrong with the Weber Smokey Mountain. I've owned 4 smokers in the last 10 years. A veritcal two horizontal offsets (one being the New Braunfels Black Diamond) and the WSM. The vertical works great but didn't have the capacity to to large briskets without cutting them up. The NBBD works fair, but you have to keep stoking the fire every couple of hours to maintain heat. That really blows when you're trying to do a twenty hour smoke. Can't tell you how awful it feels to fall asleep at the Thanksgiving table because you were up all night tending the smoker.
The WSM can get fueled up and run for >13 hours with almost no tending. It's the only one I use any longer.
You mention meats that smoke quickly (sausage) as well as ones that can take 16 hours or more (brisket). I'll expand on Chimayo Joe's rec and advise you get a cooker that will run for the whole 16+ hour session without refueling. If all you cared about was the stuff that'll cook in 5 hours, then any ol' cooker will do.
I'll ditto the rec for the Weber Smokey Mountain (commonly called a WSM). IMO, it's the best of the water pan buffered, bullet type smokers. It's got a firebox that will easily go 20 hours on a single load of charcoal. Similar cookers like the Brinkmann don't have the charcoal capacity, and you'll have to reload fresh charcoal at some point, which sucks because you lose heat, kick up ash, and bottom line, it's a PITA.
Cookers that use a gas or electric element for heat will obviously run for that duration without tending to it. But you may have to reload smoke wood a chunk at a time for the first few hours of smoking, depending on the cooker design. Here again, opening the cooker means you're losing heat, which you should minimize. Once the meat hits 140F internal, you won't increase the depth of the smoke ring, but you will keep building up the smoke flavor on the meat.
Designs with a firebox on the side where you burn charcoal and/or wood come in a vast range of sizes and prices. The ones with a firebox big enough to burn split logs will also accomodate enough charcoal for a long burn, but they tend to be more than $300. "Stickburners" tend to be very hands-on cookers, so you may be adding wood chunks / charcoal every hour. Not a big deal for the fast cooking stuff. PITA for brisket & other big chunks of meat which cook overnight. I speak as someone who uses a low-maintenance WSM and an even lower-maintenance Komodo Kamado, and I value the sleep they give me on overnight cooks. The stickburner partisans will disagree, of course, and to each their own.
re: Professor Salt
Couldn't agree more. Stick burners are awesome - but not for under $300. You can find some, sure, but they're worse than worthless. You'll buy it and wonder why smoking is so dang hard to regulate temperature. If you want a good stickburner, you want one that has a really heavy gauge material and is very well built. Those are going to run you three times the price you are looking for.
For it's money, nothing beats a weber smokey mountain. I just did a cook on it this past weekend. It ran for 19 hours on one load of charcoal. After a quick vent adjustment about 30 minutes into the cook (which took 5 second), I didn't touch it again for the next 15 hours. And it's got good capacity on it too. Easily fits 4 large pork butts (in the 8+ pound range). IF you want to get creative you can fit 6 on there if you really want. I've done 2 turkeys, I've done 2 big 14-pound hams. I've done 6 whole chicken, I've done 8 racks of spare ribs. Good capacity, no maintenance and it's under $250.
Before you commit, you might want to try an inexpensive electric or charcoal smoker first in order to see if you really want to do this. The big box stores sell very effective $30 smokers -- provided that it is not a really cold winter day, as the thin outside makes the temperature a little hard to maintain in January. We tried the electric model, which was really easy and did not require fire "tending", and had great results for years before making a bigger commitment. Only drawback with electric versus charcoal is that you shouldn't use electric in the rain. If it tends to be wet, go with the charcoal version. Why invest so much money and backyard space if you have never tried it?
I agree with this advice. I recently bought the Brinkmann Gourmet which was $50 ($60 electric) at Lowe's. I had tenuous approval from the wife to buy a WSM but neither of us was too keen on spending $200+ on a new "hobby" that I had never even tried. For $60 I felt much better about giving it a shot with no big loss if I don't end up doing it very often or find that I hate doing it. I went home and looked for some reviews first and the consensus I got was "You can get better smokers. You can't get a better $50 smoker, though."
At $50-$60 you don't have much to lose, so it seems like a good way to get started. I have so far used mine twice with excellent results. I chose the electric model because I did not want not having any charcoal or not wanting to tend the fire all day to be a barrier to actually using the thing. I'm really glad I got it now. In fact if I were to later upgrade to something better, I would probably either keep the electric one around or get one with a gas or electric option so that I can still do things the "easy" way when the mood suits.
The only negatives so far is that the wood chunks seem to throw out more smoke than they should...most places I read say smoke should be barely visible but if I drop 2 chunks in at once, there will be a period of roughly 20 min (out of about an hour) where there is quite a bit of smoke. It hasn't resulted in a bitter flavor, though I am a bit concerned about my neighbors getting annoyed. Next time I may try letting the whole thing get up to temp before putting the wood chips in...that might help. If I put just one chunk in at a time, the smoke does not get too thick.
You would be able to regulate this better with the charcoal model.
The electric model has no temp. control. I checked mine with an oven thermometer the first time I used it and it pretty much stuck right around 250 degrees, which is probably fine for most "standard" applications.
I have a set of long grill tongs and I've been able to use them to drop wood chunks in during the smoking process without taking the whole thing apart. You just have to be careful not to let them touch the electric element.
I HIGHLY recommend the New Braunsfels Bandera. I got mine for $200 at Academy, then added a good $30 professional temperature gauge and a $20 cover. There are a few minor modifications you can make (I added a small heat baffle, and will probably add a customized charcoal basket in the near future - but you certainly don't need to do this).
Basically, its a large vertical box, with a smaller fire box on the side. It has more cooking space than basically any other smoker out there (over 1000 square inches - which is good enough for over 200 lbs of meat), but takes up far less room than drum-style smokers, due to the vertical alignment.
It's extremely strong, and can handle full log burning - other than one chimney-starter load of charcoal to get the fire going, I only use logs for smoking.
Oh yeah, and the fire box doubles as a decent-sized grill.
I did a lot of research before buying mine, and short of spending several thousand on a large professional-grade smoker, this was by far the best smoker I could find - much better than a lot of units that are twice the price (or more).
There's also a Yahoo group dedicated to the Bandera, which can offer you a lot of helpful hints for using it. I've had nothing but great results with mine.
I'll add to the chorus of folks who've suggested the Weber Smokey Mtn. I had a Bandera that I've replaced b/c it was just too much fire tending to do long cook sessions. Tightness with respect to air is the key to controlling your fire (and not going through a bootyload of fuel). The Bandera is far from that, even with lots of time spent on aftermarket modifications. The WSM is the least-expensive option that gets you there.
Here is a resource I used when I bought a smoker recently. http://bbq.about.com/od/smokers/bb/aa... I ended up buying the cheapest Cookshack smoker, and I've been very happy with the results. The forum on the Cookshack site also has a lot of recipes and helpful information. A lot of people like the charcoal smokers, but I really wanted something that would be so easy that I'd use it often. So far so good...