Beef Up Your Barbecue With a Smoker

Tom Lange
Written by Tom Lange
Updated February 19, 2016
Meat in a smoker
Smokers slow cook food for hours at low temperatures. They can be fueled by charcoal, propane or electicity, and use wood to flavor your food. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

If you want to serve tender ribs or brisket at your next barbecue, consider using a smoker.

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You can’t always be in a hurry if you want to prepare great barbeque.


Smoker temp: 225-240 degrees

Time: 12-20 hours

Meat temp: 190-200 degrees

Sure, it’s easy to throw an impromptu gathering in the backyard with burgers, hot dogs and brats. But if you have company coming and a day to prepare, you’ve got time to slow cook brisket or ribs so tender they’ll fall apart with the touch of a fork.

One way to accomplish this is with a smoker -- a piece of grilling equipment that cooks meat for hours at low temperatures, enhancing the flavor with smoke.

“Low and slow is the motto,” says Steve Pulone, vice president of operations for O’Malia’s Living in Carmel, Indiana.

What is smoking?

Smokers can be fueled by propane, charcoal and electricity. You can use a smoker to quickly prepare a round of burgers, but they’re intended for those willing to put the time and effort into crafting the perfect brisket, or ribs that will fall off the bone.

Big green egg with ribs
A Big Green Egg is one of the more popular smokers on the market. (Photo courtesy of Frank Espich)

Smokers can get as hot as 700 degrees, but you typically want to keep temperatures low. The USDA recommends maintaining a temperature between 225 and 300 degrees, but it can vary depending on what you’re cooking.

For some meat, you’ll want the temperature as low as 140 degrees, Pulone says.

Time and consistency are essential when smoking meat. As opposed to grilling, where you can lift the lid to check on the food, smokers need to be kept shut so they remain at a constant temperature during the cook.

Pulone says lifting the lid for even 30 seconds can drop the temperature between 40 and 60 degrees. “If you’re looking, you’re not cooking. Because if that lid is not closed, you’re losing heat,” he says.

The cost of smoking

Like any habit, smoking can get expensive.

Low-end smokers cost as little as $130, while higher-end models can run as much as $2,000. Before you invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in a smoker, think about how often you’ll use it, and what you intend to cook, Pulone says.

Beef ribs

Smoker temp: 225-240 degrees

Time: Four to five hours

Meat temp: 185-190 degrees

“When someone is shopping for a smoker, they need to have an idea what they want to do,” Pulone says.

If you throw infrequent barbecues and only plan on cooking burgers and steaks, you don’t necessarily need a higher-end smoker. But if you regularly smoke meat, paying several hundred dollars can be worth the investment, Pulone says.

The biggest risk with a low-cost smoker is that it won’t maintain the heat. A smoker with a kiln-fired body, such as a Big Green Egg, could cost between $800 and $900. But it will also hold a constant, low temperature, and should last at least 20 years, Pulone says.

“You almost have to fall asleep for hours and miss your window to screw something up,” Pulone says.

Finding the right flavor

Smoker wood comes in several forms, including pellets and wood chips, so check before you buy to see if your smoker needs a specific type.

Popular wood species used for smoking include cherry, hickory and maple. You can combine the different flavors with various meats and marinades for different entrées.

Finding your groove

Once you decide on a smoker, take the time to find your style.

Pork butt

Smoker temp: 225-240 degrees

Time: 14 hours

Meat temp: 205 degrees

Smoking tips courtesy of

An online search will turn up dozens of slow cooker recipes for ribs, chicken, burgers, steaks pies and pizzas. None of these are right or wrong, and it’ll take time to use the smoker to prepare food the way you like it.

“They have to be willing to put in the time. It’s a hobby. You don’t pick up a golf club and hit 64 on your first round,” Pulone says.

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