Barbecue smokers are grills that have been specially modified or designed to smoke the food inside while also controlling and isolating the heat to prevent food from actually being grilled instead of smoked. There are two main types of barbecue smokers, the offset smoker and the vertical smoker. A vertical smoker is a tall unit in which the food is stacked above the heat source so the smoke passes naturally up and through it. An offset smoker is usually a wide cylinder with a small compartment off to the side where the smoke is created and then piped into the main chamber, passing over the meat before exiting through a chimney. All barbecue smokers have a heat source using some type of fuel that heats wood or wood chips to create the smoke, although a truly authentic smoker is an offset smoker that uses carefully prepared smoldering hardwood to create smoke.
The different designs of barbecue smokers attempt to make the process of smoking foods easy, predictable and sometimes portable. The main element required for successful smoking is a way to generate smoke. This can be achieved by providing a heating element that uses a fuel such as charcoal, gas or electricity to heat a box filled with wood. It is important to allow the wood to smoke without actually catching on fire, which is achieved through careful heat management. Offset smokers can be used with just hardwood, but this requires a good amount of experience and near-constant attention to the barbecue.
Using vertical smokers is generally a simpler process than using offset barbecue smokers. The heat source on the bottom of the smoker heats the wood to create smoke and also usually heats a pan of water to help dissipate any direct heat and to keep the air moist in the cooking area. Vertical smokers are generally more compact than other types and can sometimes be too small to accommodate large cuts of meat.
Offset barbecue smokers create smoke in a small compartment that is separate from the cooking chamber. This means there is very little chance that the indirect heat creating the smoke will overcook the food. It also makes it possible to cold-smoke foods. An offset smoker might require more wood and fuel than a vertical smoker because of the size and the space around the food where the smoke has to pass. These smokers are capable of cooking food for a very long time over very low heat.
There are some alternate versions of barbecue smokers that can be used in regular grills. One inexpensive option is a type of covered metal basket that can be placed inside a standard grill with a lid. The flame from the grill heats the pan, which contains wood chips. The chips then emit smoke that fills the grill, although this version can actually require more wood than a dedicated smoker.