Pulled pork, Texas brisket, and fall-off-the-bone tender baby back ribs—what do all these delicious foods have in common? A barbecue smoker. Sure, you could make all of these meats in the oven or a regular gas or charcoal grill, but they’ll taste a heck of a lot better on a smoker. These devices are specifically designed to cook low-and-slow and have precise temperature control between 175°F and 350°F. A good one—like our top pick, the Masterbuilt Thermotemp XL Propane Smoker(available at Amazon for $399.99)—maintains that heat without much intervention on your part.
If you have a smoker that's a joy to use, you’ll want to use it for everything. Turn a tough cut of meat like pork shoulder or brisket into a feast for a crowd at your backyard barbecue, or fire it up during the holiday season to make smoked turkey or double-smoked ham. They’re also a great way to free up the oven while infusing extra flavor into side dishes like mac and cheese. Once you dig into the possibilities, you’ll be outdoor cooking all the time. That is, if you have a product that’s easy to use.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case (especially with inexpensive models). Some require constant fiddling with dials or settings to keep the temperatures even. The problem tends to go away as the price increases, but not everyone wants to drop $600 or $700 on a cooking hobby (ahem, not to mention that some high-end models cost over $2,000). We wanted to know if there were any good and affordable smokers out there for under $500. So, we picked up nine models—three each of gas, charcoal, and electric—to see if these no-bells-and-whistles models could compete with their expensive counterparts. We were pleasantly surprised by the results!
Here are the best smokers under $500 we tested ranked, in order.
The Masterbuilt Thermotemp XL was—by far—our favorite to use during the tests. It was the very definition of set-it-and-forget-it: Hook up the propane, turn the dial to the proposed temperature, hit the ignition switch, and away you go. An internal sensor adjusts the flame to maintain the target temp, all without any fiddling around to keep it there. Not only that, but the wood chip bin that infuses the smoke into your food was large enough to hold two hours of chips at a time. That means you don’t have to run outside to keep feeding the smoker every hour, freeing you up to hang with your guests at the party, stay inside and watch football, or do anything else your heart desires while your food cooks.
When it came to overall construction and design, we were pretty impressed. The Masterbuilt Thermotemp has four removable racks, which can hold six turkeys, eight racks of ribs, or eight pork butts. It also looks gorgeous with a large viewing window, but not at the expense of functionality. The two doors latch firmly into place, and we loved how the handles didn’t get hot to the touch as we used the unit. The top door gives you access to the food, and the bottom door opens to the water pan and wood chip bin, allowing you to refill the chips without releasing the heat in the smoking chamber. They really thought through the process while designing this smoker—the propane hookup even includes a tank fuel level gauge so you know how much propane is in the tank. Overall, this thing was solid and sturdy, and we have no reason to believe this product wouldn’t last five years or longer with proper care.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few hiccups along the way. It took over an hour to build with a lot of frustrating, unclear steps. It was so complicated, we accidentally omitted an essential part of the ignition hookup. When we got ready to season it (turning it to high heat for an hour to remove any odors and coatings from the production process), the smoker wouldn’t stay lit. Luckily, that provided the opportunity to test Masterbuilt’s customer service, which turned out to be top-notch. They walked us through the troubleshooting steps, and the smoker was up and running in no time at all.
In the end, the Masterbuilt created a smoke-flavored, super tender brisket that tasted better than the competition. Easy to use and it created a delicious product? Yup, that’s why the Masterbuilt Thermotemp XL was an easy choice for our pick for Best Overall.
The Cuisinart Vertical 18-Inch might not have all the bells and whistles of our top pick, but it’s one of the least expensive models we tested and it still outperformed most of the products we tested. It’s designed in the classic bullet shape—cylindrical with a domed lid and an access door that leads to the coal bed at the bottom of the smoker.
The porcelain enamel water pan is suspended directly above the coals, and it’s wide and deep enough to hold a full gallon of water. The coal bed allows you to bank unlit coals underneath the lit ones, giving you hours of smoke without much intervention. It was slightly shallower than some of the other charcoal models, but we tossed a handful of charcoal briquettes onto the fire every few hours, which seemed to do the trick; the smoker maintained a perfect 250°F temperature for the entire 10-hour smoke time. While it didn’t have a wood chip bin, none of the charcoal models did. Charcoal smokers don’t need one because you can toss the chips directly onto the coals.
With propane or electric, the temperature is controlled by a dial. A charcoal smoker is different: It’s up to the user to adjust the vents at the bottom of the grill, allowing more or less airflow to stoke the coals and increase the temperature. The Cusinart’s system worked perfectly. Simply slide the latch on the ash catcher at the bottom of the smoker to open or restrict the airflow. Even after hours of smoking, the latch remained cool enough to touch with bare hands.
The rest of the layout and design was as well thought out as the temperature control. It comes in three pieces that latch together. Combine that with the handles on each side, and it’s easy to move around once it cools down (for safety reasons, we don’t recommend moving any grill or smoker while it’s hot!). You also get two, 18-inch cooking grates that stack, giving you plenty of room to smoke multiple briskets, pork shoulders, or chickens. It all worked together to create a perfectly juicy brisket with a picture-perfect smoke ring. Considering how inexpensive this smoker is, it was a no-brainer to name the Cuisinart Vertical 18-Inch our Best Value.
Hi, I’m Lindsay Mattison, a trained professional chef and outdoor enthusiast. During the summertime, you’ll find me outside grilling burgers on the patio, cooking a pork shoulder on the smoker, or building a yakitori grill on my fire pit. If I can cook it outside, I will!
One thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of having a reliable smoker. The best way to build confidence in your pitmaster game is with a smoker that boasts precise temperature control and retains its heat without having to fiddle around with the settings every 30 minutes. It also makes you more likely to want to use it on the regular. I’d love to help you find the right one for you!
Using my training and years of grilling experience as a starting point, I spent hours researching the latest, greatest, and most popular products under $500. Using price, quality, and brand reputation to narrow the field, I chose nine highly-rated models available from popular shopping outlets like Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowes to call in for testing. After receiving the test candidates, I built each one.
From there, I could have thrown any number of tests to assess its ability to hold low-temperature heat for extended periods of time. But, I wanted to see how each model could handle the hardest task: smoking a brisket. My mentor in culinary school was known for saying, “Brisket, don’t risk it.” That’s because these tough cuts of meat are challenging to cook. They have a ton of intramuscular fat and connective tissue, which requires hours at low temperatures to break down into collagen and turn the meat juicy and tender. Plus, their large size makes them expensive, and turning them into a dry hockey puck is certainly a waste of money.
So, I chose brisket for our smoking tasks. I set the temperature of each product to 250°F and added a trimmed brisket, seasoned simply with salt and pepper (so we could taste the flavor each smoker added to the meat). When the brisket reached an internal temperature of 165°F on the probe thermometer, I wrapped it tightly in aluminum foil and put it back until it reached 202°F. This process took anywhere from 8 to 11 hours, depending on the size of the brisket.
Along the way, I was able to assess several crucial elements. Did it reach the target temperature, or did it get too hot or cold? Was it easy to identify the temperature inside the smoker? Could it maintain steady temperatures during the smoke time, or did I have to fiddle with the dials to keep it where I wanted it? When it came to fuel, did it blow through propane or charcoal faster than it should? Did it have a wood chip bin and water pan, and were they large enough? And, finally, did the brisket have a smoke ring or a deeply smoky flavor, and did it turn out juicy and moist?
I finished our assessment by evaluating aesthetics and build quality. Products that rattled and shook lost points, and models that were built to last and easy to move around were awarded bonus points. I looked at the location of the vents, grease or ash pans, and grill grates to see if they were well-designed and easy to clean. After compiling the scores, some of these design choices made a huge difference in the grill’s overall ranking.
What You Should Know About Smokers
You might be wondering why you should spend money on a smoker when you can just hack your gas or charcoal grill to produce smoke? It’s true; it’s easy to set your regular grill to indirect heat, add a foil packet of wood chips to the hot side, and place a brisket on the cooler side. That would achieve both the proper temperature and smoky conditions of a smoker, so why should you spend the extra coin?
Unlike your grill, these outdoor appliances are specifically designed to hold low-temperature heat for extended periods of time. You can use indirect heat on a regular grill, but you may see temperature spikes (especially when adding in new pieces of charcoal). That can cause the meat to seize up and become overly chewy.
A smoker is the very best way to break down tough cuts into tender bites while infusing the food with smoky flavor. They usually have a built-in chip bin and water pan, which keeps the food juicy and moist as it cooks. Or, in the case of charcoal models, the charcoal bed is much larger than a regular grill, allowing you to add unlit charcoal to sustain the fire during long smoking times. If you opt for a gas or electric model, things are even easier: Just set-it-and-forget-it. Once you turn the dial or set the digital thermostat, it will hold the desired temperature for as long as you like. No fiddling, no fuss.
What to Look For in a Smoker
OK, you’re sold? Now let’s talk about the essential components, whether it’s gas, charcoal, or electric (we’ll dive more into that debate in a minute). The most important consideration is temperature control. Ideally, you want to be able to set the temperature and walk away, like an oven. This means the smoker should have some kind of dial, electric thermostat, or vent system. Even better if the smoker has a thermometer that displays the internal temperature (although you can always add one if it doesn’t come with one).
Next up, you’ll want to take a look at the water or drip pan and wood chip tray. Some smokers can use any type of wood chips, while others are better suited for wood pellets. Charcoal grills don’t have wood chip bins, so you can even use large wood chunks for smoking. Consider the type of smoke you want to infuse into your food and proceed accordingly. You’ll also want to make sure that wood box is accessible; there’s nothing worse than reaching inside a hot smoker just to keep the smoke happening. When it comes to the removable water bin, you want one. It creates a humid environment as the food cooks, which is absolutely essential for keeping food moist during long smokes (like brisket or pulled pork). The water bin doesn’t have to be huge, but you do want it to hold at least a quart of water.
Then you’ll want to scope out the size inside the smoker. If you want to smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving, you should make sure it will fit before you make your purchase! Some smokers have multiple racks, too. That’s helpful if you want to smoke multiple items at once, but pay attention to the width, depth, and height of each rack. Just because it has six racks doesn’t mean you’ll have space to smoke six pork shoulders.
Finally, consider everything else. Does it have handles to move around? Will you be storing it in the garage or a shed, making wheels a necessity? How about a cover to keep it from rusting in the rain? Does it feel sturdy enough to last a few years? Some of these seemingly aesthetic decisions can make a huge difference in your decision to move forward.
Wood, Gas, Charcoal, or Electric—How Do You Choose?
Most people have pretty deep-set feelings about gas or charcoal grills, but when it comes to smokers, all bets are off. The smoky flavor comes from the wood pellets or chips—not the fuel source—so how does that affect your buying decision?
First things first: If you’re planning to enter competition barbecue, pick up a log0burning or charcoal model. These smokers use wood as their fuel and typically don’t require the addition of any wood chips (although, we love tossing a handful of wood chips onto a charcoal smoker to add additional flavor to the meat). The reason these smokers are rated for competition is because they require skill to operate. Setting the temperature requires some practice in controlling the airflow via the smoker’s vents. Open them fully and you’ll fuel the coals to create intense heat; close ‘em up to choke off the oxygen and lower the temp. As far as fuel goes, you’ll need about a 20-pound bag of charcoal for an 8- to 10-hour smoking session, like we did for these charcoal tests.
Then, there are electric smokers, which are probably the easiest to use. Plug ‘em in and set the temperature, and you’re off to the races. No need to worry about fuel, but you do still need to pick up wood pellets or chips to create a smoky environment. Unfortunately, electric products tend to add the least amount of flavor into the food, as it’s difficult to ignite the wood chips over an electric element.
Finally, gas smokers are almost as easy to use with the same type of set-it-and-forget-it mentality of an electric version. But, they’re able to infuse a serious amount of smoky flavor into your food because a real flame does a better job of getting wood chips to produce smoke. Unlike regular gas grills, BTUs—British Thermal Units—aren’t important here because you’re not trying to crank the grill to maximum heat. And before you start worrying about running out of propane, don’t. A standard propane tank can produce approximately 430,000 BTUs. Our winning Masterbuilt smoker, for example, runs about 7,500 BTUs per hour, meaning you can cook up to 57 hours on a single tank. That said, it never hurts to have a spare tank around just in case; there’s nothing worse than running out of fuel mid-brisket.
So which one is right for you? For the flavor, set-it-and-forget-it benefits, and money, I’ll go with the propane options. But the right smoker for you depends on your needs.
What About Pellet Smokers, Log-Burning Offset Smokers, and Kamado Grills?
We eliminated pellet smokers, log-burning offset smokers, and Kamado grills (like the Big Green Egg) from our testing group. In our experience, inexpensive log-burning smokers are difficult to use. The more expensive ones work better, but they’re still challenging enough to use that we reserve them for true smoking enthusiasts. Similarly, pellet models available for less than $500 are problematic: The hoppers that feed the pellets to the fire source simply aren’t reliable. They break down, or the pellets stick to the side of the auger and don’t make it down to the burn pot. That doesn’t just mean your food won’t be smoky, but it also means the smoker will never reach the appropriate heat levels. We’ve had good personal experiences with Traeger Grills, but these models were over $500 so we decided to exclude pellet grills from this round of tests.
We also skipped kamado grills during this round of tests. We absolutely love our Big Green Egg, but these grills are primarily charcoal grills. They can be turned into outdoor ovens and smokers with additional accessories, but we wanted to focus on models specifically designed to be used as smokers this time around.
We enjoyed using the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker, but a few design features put it out of the running for our top pick. This bullet smoker made of porcelain enamel had everything we’ve come to love about that style of smoker—cylindrical shape and domed lid, large water pan over the coal bed, and an access door to add wood chips and extra charcoal. It created a smoke-flavored, moist and juicy brisket without any problems, thanks to the three adjustable vents at the bottom of the unit that allowed us to control the temperature precisely.
It was the small things that dropped it out of the running. The vents got extremely hot, and we couldn’t adjust them without wearing gloves. The unit was also difficult to move around; it’s a three-piece smoker, but the body doesn’t clasp onto the coal bed bottom. So, you have to take it apart when you want to move it. It also doesn’t have any handles (except the handle on the lid), so it was difficult to transport before or after smoking.
Masterbuilt 20078715 30-Inch Electric Digital Smoker
Let’s start by saying that the Masterbuilt 30-Inch is gorgeous! It was easy to assemble and even easier to use—plug it in, use the digital control panel to choose your temperature setting, and off you go. You can even enter a specific smoke time, and the unit will shut itself off when the timer expires. The four racks provided plenty of smoking space, and the water pan is sufficiently deep that it didn’t require refilling during the smoking process.
It was our favorite of electric smokers we tested, but we had some issues that kept it from being on our winner’s list. It was really difficult to clean inside, and it was much slower to heat than the gas or charcoal models. And, because it doesn’t have any handles, we had to pick the whole thing up to move it around. It’s not impossibly heavy, but just heavy enough to make this an annoying process. Finally, the unit has a smoke pellet loader that lets you reload the chip bin without opening the doors, but it didn’t work very well with wood chips. They got caught during the loading process and warped the pellet loader as we used it.
If this is the smoker for you, keep in mind that it requires a three-hour seasoning process to remove factory coatings and odors. Plan ahead and don’t try to use it straight out of the box after you buy it.
If you’re an experienced charcoal grill enthusiast, you’ll love the Pit Barrel Cooker. It takes the idea of the barrel grill and turns it on its side—literally. Barrel grills started with old oil drums which were cut in half and welded together to create long, hinged-lid grills. Instead, Pit Barrel Cooker kept the barrel shape intact and added a charcoal basket to the bottom.
You have a choice when using this smoker: use the grill grate to place your food up top, or use the rebar hanging rods to hang the meat vertically. The latter provided more than sufficient room to smoke a ton of meat in this thing! We loved its no-fuss assembly and the large capacity charcoal basket but found it difficult to add extra coals once the grill grate was in place.
It also doesn’t have a thermometer, making it difficult for anyone new to smoking to figure out how to adjust the bottom vent. Finally, without a water pan, our brisket turned out slightly drier than we’d like.
We were halfway impressed with the Char-Broil Vertical. The smoker maintained steady temperatures, and although the temperature dial had numbers instead of temperatures, the “3” setting seemed to do the trick for us without any problems. Our brisket turned out super juicy, but it wasn’t the least bit smoky due to a serious design flaw.
You see, electric smokers work by placing the chips right over the heating element, and the heat causes them to ignite and smoke. In this case, the chips in the bin started to smoke, but the metal plate covering them didn’t allow much of that smoke to escape. Interestingly enough, the water pan’s side of the plate was perforated, allowing steam to enter the smoking chamber and keeping our brisket moist as it cooked.
Also keep in mind that, if you buy this smoker, you can’t use it right out of the box. It requires a two to three hour seasoning time to burn off unwanted odors from the factory coating.
We had a few issues with the Cuisinart Vertical 36-Inch. There was a ton of space inside the tower, and you could definitely smoke a ton of food, but we can’t say we’d want to. While most propane smokers make it pretty easy to control temperatures, we encountered temperature difficulties with this model.
We were constantly fiddling with the temperature dial, and the gas turned off randomly a few times as we were smoking the brisket. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and we ended up checking it every twenty minutes to make sure it was still lit and holding temperatures. Not only that, but the combination wood chip and water pan shelf just didn’t work for us. The chips never really caught like on other models we tested, failing to infuse smoky flavor into the brisket. This model might be value-priced as compared with our winner, but it’s not really worth the savings.
There were several things we liked about the Smokehouse Big Chief. It took less than five minutes to assemble, and it’s extremely lightweight. The design is straightforward: Fill the bin with chips and slide it through the front door.
It produced a ton of good-quality smoke, and we would have loved this smoker for smoked fish or vegetables. But, it didn’t do so well on our smoked brisket test because it has a non-adjustable temperature setting of 165°F. That’s not nearly hot enough for smoking meats.
If low-temperature smoking is your goal, the Smokehouse Big Chief would be great; just be aware that the handle gets very hot and you’ll burn your hands trying to add additional chips without heavy-duty gloves.
Char-Broil The Big Easy TRU-Infrared Propane Smoker
The Char-Broil The Big Easy didn’t thrill us from the get-go. The building instructions were confusing, and it took us longer than we’d like to put the thing together. After an hour of seasoning the grill, we added our brisket and were disappointed to find this model didn’t have a water pan, causing our brisket to turn out dryer than we’d like.
That wasn’t our only complaint: It was nearly impossible to tell what was going on inside. The unit doesn’t have a thermometer, and the dial gauge that controlled the flame height had a HOT to LOW flame setting. We also weren’t happy with how often we had to fill the tiny wood chip bin, and the inside has limited space for meat as compared to the other smokers. All in all, we’d rather spend our money on a more functional smoker.
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