Great barbecue is all about the smoke, man. Yes, you can bring smoke to the party on a regular grill, but to make smoked meats, like Amazing Ribs, bacon, pulled pork, Texas Brisket, smoked salmon, smoked turkey, nothing beats a dedicated smoker designed for the job.
Charcoal or wood fueled smokers are extremely popular for backyard chefs. Some, like the Weber Smokey Mountain, are easy to start and control the temperature. Others, especially offset smokers, so called because the firebox is set off to the side, are also popular (see below).
The problem with most charcoal and log burners is that they require a bit more nursing than electric smokers, gas smokers, or pellet smokers. You have to monitor and fine tune the fuel and air supply in order to keep the temp within your target range. This takes practice. Some are easier to control than others. With the temp yo-yoing up and down, it can be difficult to estimate when the meat will be ready; so cooks typically ruin a few meals learning a new smoker. Cook too hot and the meat will dry out and be tough. Too cool and you will serve raw meat. Set the air dampers incorrectly and you can get bitter creosote on the food.
If you are going to buy a charcoal or log pit, my best advice is to please invest in a really good thermometer and plan to hang out on the patio all day. Have plenty of beer on hand. And don’t invite the boss to dinner until you have the darn thing figgered out.
There are a lot of cheap units in Wally World, K-Mart, Lowes, and Home Depot and I can’t review them all nor do I wish to waste good meat on them. If budget limits you to a cheapo, remember this: When it comes to charcoal burners, it is important to pick the one that looks like it will control air flow the best. You need the ability to regulate the air intake near the coals in order to lower or raise the temp. You want a tight and thick cooking chamber so the meat will be heated evenly and be bathed in smoke from one end to the other, and you want a vent on the far end, which is usually left open during cooking.
In answer to the most frequently asked question, the two I recommend most for home cooks are the Weber Smokey Mountain (inexpensive) and the Backwoods (more expensive).
I do not recommend offset/horizontal smokers
I know you want to buy an offset. They look so macho. So cool. They say “I’m serious about barbecue” to your neighbors. Don’t do it! They are a pain in the pork butt because smoke and heat want to go up, not sideways! I do not recommend any small offsets. I especially mean the cheap ones by Brinkmann, Char-Broil, and Char-Griller. Their basic flaw is that smoke and heat want to go up, and these offsets force them to go sideways. You end up with uneven heating and smoking.
Yes, I know you see the big huge trailer mounted offsets on TV and in competitions, but they are designed differently. They are very thick steel and retain and distribute heat well. The doors and vents seal tight. The most expensive units have reverse flow, a system that ducts the heat and smoke across the bottom below the food so they enter the cooking chamber on the side opposite the firebox and back across the food to the firebox side where the chimney is mounted. The duct also warms and radiated heat upward.
Alas, there are no small backyard models that have these design features.
Yes, offsets look cool, but they have turned more people off barbecue than any other cooker. That’s why they’re so cheap on Craig’s List. After one season of frustration, owners dump them. Please resist the temptation. If you have to look macho, get a drum smoker or build one yourself. There’s an inexpensive kit that will have you up and running for under $200, and cooking circles around the offsets. If you are tempted to buy a cheapo offset smoker (COS) please please read this article on how to use them first.