Published July 1, 2010. From Cook's Illustrated.
Though plenty of rib and brisket enthusiasts convert their grills into makeshift smokers, proper lower-temperature smoking is best achieved with a designated appliance. Right?
Though plenty of rib and brisket enthusiasts convert their grills into makeshift smokers—we’ve made do with an indirect fire, a pan of water, and soaked wood chips—proper lower-temperature smoking is best achieved with a designated appliance. Giant truck-towed smokers can run as much as $5,000, so we shopped for more affordable alternatives and came home with a trio of significantly cheaper (between $60 and $750) “bullet” models: smaller, cylindrical-shaped vessels, about the size of a kettle grill, that feature a large cooking surface atop a charcoal pan.
Other than introducing wood to the fire, smoking is all about holding the heat at a low, steady temperature for a long time—a full day, in some cases—a process that not only bathes the meat in smoke flavor, but also helps tenderize it by breaking down its tough connective tissue. The appeal of a smoker over a rigged kettle grill is its promise of prolonged, steady heat retention. Smokers typically have the advantage of a larger fuel capacity (for a longer-burning fire), a water reservoir (to absorb and retain heat and produce moister results), and more vents (to control the air flow and temperature within a smaller, more precise range). According to manufacturers, these features keep the ambient temperature in the necessary 225- to 250-degree range for up to 24 hours with little tending of the fire.
We settled for a 12-hour temperature test, recording the temperature of each model every hour while smoking turkey breasts, ribs, brisket, and pork shoulder. Design flaws in one model immediately became apparent. This smoker had neither air vents to control temperature nor an ash grate for its charcoal pan, so that burnt charcoal bits continually smothered the fire. Even with constant tending, its temperature plunged below 200 degrees after only three hours. Furthermore, the charcoal pan was accessible only by removing the 17-inch cooking grates and water pan first—an awkward and potentially hazardous maneuver. One other gripe: Its imprecise thermometer read “hot,” “cool,” and “ideal,” instead of exact temperatures.
Meanwhile, two others hovered comfortably in the 250-degree range from start to finish. One not only boasted exceptionally precise temperature control, but due to the excellent heat retention of its ceramic construction and vents that opened all the way, it was able to reach temperatures as high as 700 to 800 degrees, allowing it to double as a grill and brick oven. However, it came up short on the basics: The single, 18-inch grate was cramped. It also lacked a water reservoir, so that meats turned out drier across the board. In the end, a mid-priced competitor smoked out the competition. It included twin 18.5-inch grates, which provided ample room for four pork butts, two whole turkeys, or four rib racks; a water pan; and a multitude of vents for excellent temperature control. Our only complaint? A lack of handles made transport and cleanup difficult.