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.
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...
If you want a smoker that you wont get tired of in a couple of years and that will last a lifetime go to cookshack.com and read some of the post on their forum. You might have to spend 400 to 500 for a stainless steel smoker but you wont regret it, they are very high quality.
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.
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.