Never had I had a hobby that the wife was so quick to get behind! I absolutely love BBQ. The idea of taking less than stellar cuts of meat and turning them into stellar treats has always been a fun and tasty pastime in my family.

Getting into BBQ and smoking can be a little nerve racking however. Even with the simplest of smokers and grills there is still plenty of room to screw up that brisket or rack of ribs.

With the right BBQ or smoker and BBQ accessories your chances of successfully wowing the neighborhood with your soon-to-be famous pulled pork just got more likely.

BBQ Basics

BBQ’s can be separated into two basic categories. Grills and smokers. Grills are primarily used for faster and hotter cooking. Things like burgers, steak etc. This does not mean they cannot be used for slow cooking but they typically are not designed to do so. Smokers are designed to slowly cook and smoke the food. Primarily used with large cuts of pork, beef, chicken etc, smokers take their time in breaking down tougher meats and fats to turn them into tasty meaty treats.

Types of Grills

Grills can vary by being standalone, table top, built in or portable. Standalone grills are the most popular. You see these grills at any department store and they can vary in price from under $100 to over $10k depending on what brand and features you want. Table top grills are typically used on a table in smaller grilling areas such as apartment patios, small porches or when you need something more mobile for camping. They typically come in under $200 even for very nice units. Built in grills are usually placed into a nice outdoor cabinet or counter setup. These grills can range in price similar to the standalone units but typically start around $500. Portable and table top grills are very similar and some what say interchangeable. Portable grills are typically just a bit smaller as they are mean to be moved more often than table top units.

Grill Fuel Types

Grills typically come in 5 fuel types. Charcoal, wood, natural gas, propane and electric. Each fuel type comes with its own trade offs may it be taste, ease of use or expense. Many grills of these various fuel types have features added to them to help mitigate the downsides of that particular fuel source.

Charcoal grills

Charcoal is one of the more popular fuel sources for grilling. Grilling with charcoal is basically the oldest way to grill food and has been around forever. Grills like the Weber Kettle brought charcoal grilling mainstream because of its ingenious design, low cost and relative ease of use. One of the strongest suites for charcoal grills is the ability to buy the fuel anywhere and the flavor profile that charcoal puts out. Charcoal is preferred by many over electric or gas simply because the food generally taste better. This can be subjective but charcoal naturally infuses a nice smokey flavor that gases or electric cannot do…without the help of added wood chips. The downside to charcoal is you have to light charcoal briquette ahead of time and then preheat the grill with them. This can take 20 minutes depending on altitude and temperature.

Wood grills

Wood grills are not very common and almost exclusively setup as mesquite style grills. Mesquite grills are open style grills with a large grate that raises and lowers over the bed of coals. The benefit of mesquite grills is the grilling surface is usually massive. It excels with thin meats, burgers and vegetables such as corn on the cob. The downsides are you have to wait for a wood fire to ember up before grilling. This can easily take 45 minutes. The other downside is you cannot cook thick cuts very well since there is no way to apply heat to the top since it is an open grill.

Natural gas grills

Natural gas grills are nearly always stationary or built in units. These grills usually hookup to a dedicated gas line on the property. Benefits to natural gas is you never have to fill up your tank…because there is no tank. Fuel is basically a non issue as long as you are paying for gas at your home. Another benefit is there is very little wait time before you can start grilling. Just turn on and ignite your grill and give it about 10 min to preheat to your desired temperature and you are good to go. Downside to natural gas has always been the taste. Some people are very sensitive to the flavor that natural gas can leave behind. This is especially prevalent on cheaper natural gas grills. Higher end natural gas grills with “flavor bars” greatly help mitigate the affects that natural gas can have on your food. These bars usually look like shields above your heating elements. As your food cooks, the juices will drip down onto these bars and sizzle back up into the food. I consider this feature basically a requirement on any natural gas grill!

Propane grills

Propane grills are extremely popular. The portability of propane, tied with the benefits of natural gas has led to the massive popularity of propane grills. The quick preheating nature of propane has made it a goto for people who either do not like the taste of natural gas or do not have a natural gas line available on their back patio. Downside to propane is you do have to get it refilled. Some grills have a propane bottle weighing station built in so you have a heads up on when the bottle is getting low, others do not. The main problem with propane is when it does go out you are out of luck. You either have to make a quick run to the store to get a refill or concede to cooking on the oven or stove.

Electric grills

Electric grills are generally smaller units meant for condos, apartments etc. They are usually sufficient to get some nice grill marks on food. Typically the more you use the grill the better your food will taste once it gets fully seasoned. The downside to electric grills is unless the grill grate is a nice cast iron, your food may never get that amazing smokey flavor that can come with a grill that is using charcoal or has good flavor bars….that is unless you are using an electric pellet grill. Head down to the smoker section for more information on these.

Types of Smokers

It would take days to get into all the intricate differences with all the different kinds of smokers so we’ll just keep it broad.

Smoker Fuel Types

Just like grills, smokers can be powered by charcoal, wood, natural gas, propane and electricity. Each fuel type has it place but most experienced smokers are using charcoal or wood.

Charcoal smokers

Charcoal smokers are extremely popular due to the repeatability in the fuel source and the fact that the fuel source can be bought at any store. Charcoal smokers put off a great smoke flavor by itself with the ability to amplify that flavor just by adding a cube of your favorite wood. Charcoal smokers are generally as efficient as the smoker allows it to be. Some charcoal smokers will use very little fuel to maintain temperature while others will need to be topped off throughout long cooks. Charcoal briquettes are very easy to deal due to their uniform size. On smokers like the Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC) you can count out how many briquettes you use each time to make sure you hit that same temperature each time you smoke. Lump charcoal generally needs a smoker that has excellent air control such as a Kamado style cooker. Due to its odd sizing, without proper air dampening you can get temperature spikes when not careful. The upside is organic lump charcoal such as the Kamado Joe Lump Charcoal can give absolute incredible flavor to your food.

The downsides to charcoal smokers the fuel source is not unlimited. Meaning on longer cooks some smokers may require you to refill the charcoal basket. Most smokers are capable of a full cook without refill but its worth noting that some are not. Another downside is the learning curve. With charcoal you have to light some briquettes and leave the rest unlit. This takes trial and error to figure out the best combination and how much charcoal to do this to.

Wood smokers

Wood smokers or “stick burners” are generally used as offset smokers. This means you have a cooking chamber and another smaller chamber that the fire sits in. Wood smokers are notoriously hard to manage and take a lot of time to master. The benefit to all this is of coarse when done right…the results are phenomenal.

The downsides to wood smokers are they generally need monitoring and tending every hour. Either adding more wood or managing air control, very few wood smokers are set it and forget it.

Natural gas smokers

Natural gas smokers are not very popular but they do exist. Generally a natural gas burner is used to heat an element that has wood chips placed on top. This creates the smoke and the heating element creates the heat. Just like the natural gas grill, the main draw to the smoker is the fact that you never have to get more fuel source if you have a gas line in your backyard. The downside to natural gas smokers is they don’t put out the best flavor and only work if you have a natural gas line to your backyard.

Propane smokers

While there are some high end propane smokers, most are geared towards those who want a super easy, cheap smoker to use. Just like the natural gas smokers, propane smokers are generally cabinet style with a heating element that gets wood chips hot enough to smoke. Results can vary from mediocre to good or even extremely tasty on higher end models. When one is looking for higher end smokers however, they typically go for charcoal, wood or electric based. Propane smokers do make a great first smoker for beginners however.

Electric smokers

There’s basically two types of electric smokers. Cabinet style similar to how most gas and propane smokers are built and pellet smokers. Pellet smokers have exploded in popularity due to the great results they put out as well as there set it and forget it type heating elements. This makes them fantastic for beginners.

Electric cabinet style smokers area great choice for those on a budget that want good tasting smokey food. Those who want to heavily use their smoker or want to fit large cuts of meat will be let down though. The small size and generally poor construction on electric cabinet style smokers will leave most wanting more.

People who are willing to spend over $500 on an electric smoker typically gravitate to pellet smokers. Pellet smokers usually look like an offset cooker but instead of building a wood fire, pellet smokers utilize an electric heating element that turns small wood pellets into smoke. Pellet smokers are a fantastic way to get into smoking and slow cooking but beware, many manufactures have noticed this so the market has been flooded with sub par units. Many cheaper pellet grills will have cheap electronics in them that may go out after only a couple uses. Others may have good electronics but flimsy small gauge metals were used for the enclosure resulting in poor efficiency. Smokers like the Yoder are the happy medium of high end electronics mated to a heavy, bullet proof chassis.

Downsides to electric pellet smokers is they are reliant on electricity to function. As with an electronic devices, things can break. If you plan on using your pellet smoker often, it’s probably wise to invest in a nicer unit up front.


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