The Best Electric Smokers for Fast BBQ at Home
Mention smoked foods, and many people immediately think of American BBQ. Tough, often cast-off cuts of meat are magically transformed into tender jewels, unearthed by breaking down gristly connective tissues and rendering fat trapped in the muscles. In reality, it's one of the oldest means of cooking and food preservation known to humans and an extension of the slow roasting process that happens over grills or in ovens every day.
Smokers run the gamut of sizes, shapes, and heat sources. Since they tend to be smaller than their charcoal or gas counterparts, electric smokers can be a good entry point for newcomers to the world of smoking or a good alternative for those with outdoor space limitations. They may also provide convenience to home users and professionals alike.
Tank Jackson, pitmaster of Holy City Hogs in Charleston and founder of the new Smoking University, and Rebecca King, pitmaster of The Bad Jew in LA, are both electric smoker adoptees. Jackson cites the possibility of spontaneity as one of the main reasons. "If I want ribs, I can turn on the smoker, and it's ready to go before I've even got the ribs out of their package and seasoned. I set the temperature and come back when they're done."
App connectivity is another must-have for both chefs, allowing them time away from the smoker, unlike wood-burning models. We considered these factors and more in our search for the top options on the market, ultimately dubbing the Char-Broil Deluxe our winner. Ahead are the best electric smokers.
Our Top Picks
- Best Overall: Char-Broil Deluxe Digital Electric Smoker
- Best High-Tech: Traeger Pro 780
- Best for Beginners: Royal Gourmet 28-inch Electric Smoker
- Best Analog: Char-Broil Analog Electric Smoker
- Best Non-Conventional: Smokin-It Smoker Model #1
- Best Alternative Fuel: Bradley Smoker Digital 4-Rack Electric Smoker
- Best Value: Pit Boss 3-Series Analog Electric Vertical Smoker
Best Overall: Char-Broil Deluxe Digital Electric Smoker
Best High-Tech: Traeger Pro 780
Best for Beginners: Royal Gourmet 28-inch Electric Smoker
Best Analog: Char-Broil Analog Electric Smoker
Best Non-Conventional: Smokin-It Smoker Model #1
Best Alternative Fuel: Bradley Smoker Digital 4-Rack Electric Smoker
Best Value: Pit Boss 3-Series Analog Electric Vertical Smoker
Electric smokers have come a long way over the last 25 years, from single temperature "plug it in and watch" units to app-compatible digital controls. The choices depend on what level of complexity you want in maintaining the process or the mechanics of the smoker. The Char-Broil Deluxe Digital Electric Smoker provides a balance between the two schools, while the Traeger Pro 780's connectivity and fuel management take much of the intuition and guesswork out of the equation.
Factors to Consider
This will primarily be a weighing of pellets vs. wood chips. Many pellet smoker manufacturers recommend only using their brand of pellets, which puts limitations on their accessibility due to limited numbers of retail outlets. Chips are available in most grocery, home improvement, and outdoor stores. The tradeoff is that chips are allotted less space in the smoker and tend to burn quicker even after soaking. In contrast, pellets typically have a higher-capacity delivery mechanism that allows for a more hands-off approach to smoking.
Smoking must be done outdoors for safety reasons. If your outdoor space is limited to a small patio or balcony, the physical dimensions of the smoker should be a strong consideration when deciding what to purchase. Smaller electric smoker models have a heating element in the bottom of which chips or pellets burn. Larger models can have an offset smoke delivery system independent of the smoking chamber that increases their footprint.
Then there is the capacity and shelf arrangement. You need to consider what you want to smoke. Briskets, ribs, pork loins, and vegetables don't consume a lot of vertical space, while pork butts or poultry do. Some of the models reviewed here have large weight capacities that can decrease by the shape of the food that goes in them.
This is an entirely personal matter. Jackson prefers the hands-off approach to digital controls and connectivity after many years of tending smoker fires overnight. You might enjoy the interactiveness of tending to the smoker. Neither is the wrong choice.
We thoroughly researched this topic, consulting two experts to get their thoughts on what makes a great electric smoker, and then scouring the market for the best options. After combing the market for volumes of online reviews for these products, we weighed them against several criteria, including the factors listed above, how long the smoker had been on the market, and whether problems had been resolved.
Pro Panel Q+A
Q: How do smokers work?
A: To the curious, smoking may seem a highly technical process that borders alchemy. In truth, it's simple: Hardwood smoke infuses the ingredient with smoky flavors and terpenes from the specific type of wood used, while the low heat and slow cooking bring about physical changes in meats, poultry, and fish. Connective tissue breaks down, luxuriously tenderizing tough, often fatty cuts.
The process is relatively simple: Place seasoned food onto racks that allow the smoke to flow freely around them, put the racks over or next to a heat source, and allow hardwood to smolder on that heat source.
Q: What's the difference between a pellet smoker and an electric smoker?
A: Rather than wood pellets, propane, or charcoal, electric smokers rely on electricity to heat and cook meat. These smokers typically use a thermostat to control the temperature, heating up a coil inside the chamber to smolder a bowl of wood chips typically placed at the bottom. The wood chips in turn create the smoke that's infused into the meat.
Pellet smokers, meanwhile, use hardwood pellets as their main fuel source. To operate these smokers, a pitmaster will pour the pellets into a burn pot and light a fire over them, which is sustained over time as more pellets are constantly added. This provides the indirect heat that's circulated throughout the smoking chamber.
Q: What can you cook in an electric smoker?
A: Many cultures smoked fish, poultry, and meats not just to prepare dinner but store away food in times of plenty to ensure sustenance for leaner times. Ham, pork ribs, smoked salmon, and brisket are all born of the same basic techniques; it merely depends on when they are for dinner. Being the curious sort, contemporary chefs have extended the method to apply to fruits, vegetables, butter, cheese, yogurt, and much more.
King utilizes her electric smoker for smaller caterings and dinner parties, explaining that it makes more sense from the labor involved in smoking a few pork chops or pieces of fish versus firing up their charcoal-burning counterpart.
Q: Can you use wood pellets in an electric smoker?
A: Both Jackson and King point out that pellet-burning models cannot use wood chips. However, the inverse is not true. Many people use pellets in their chip-burning smokers to increase the burn time between refills with great success.
Q: Can you cold smoke in an electric smoker?
A: Cold smoking is done at low temperatures (120°F or less) and is a means of imparting food with smoke flavor rather than a cooking method. Many of the models reviewed here have the built-in ability to cold smoke. In others, it may be possible to lower the temperature by adding a pan of ice between the fuel and the food to lower the ambient temperature inside the smoker. In all cases, follow recipes exactly to reduce the chances of foodborne illnesses.
Q: How do you clean an electric smoker?
A: Cleaning any smoker is a must; creosote and grease buildup creates a fire hazard, while accumulated grease and drippings present food safety issues. Removal of burnt ash and drippings is a must for both the safety and longevity of the unit. Jackson then scrubs his smoker with a garden hose and balled-up aluminum foil to keep the racks and interior of the unit clean. King prefers to address the walls of her smoker with a bench scraper to remove any buildup.
Greg Baker is an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and food writer with decades of experience in the food industry. For this piece, he interviewed pitmasters Tank Jackson and Rebecca King to find out what the pros look for in a smoker. He then used their insights and his own expertise and market research to curate this list.