Bottom line:If you are looking for set it forget it simplicity and good flavor, go gas. Bonus: They are cheap!
Gas fueled smokers are almost as easy to use as electric smokers. They produce a lot of clean heat, and that’s why gassers are so popular with restaurants. The smoke flavor comes from wood chips, chunks, or pellets. Most consumer units use propane tanks. Alas, I have never seen one set up for natural gas (NG) nor have I seen them offered with an optional natural gas conversion kit. You may be able to adapt yours to run on NG, but this must be done by a professional unless your goal is to be charred on the outside and rare on the center.
It is much easier to control the temperature of a gasser than a charcoal or wood fueled smoker, and this is very important. Propane smokers don’t require access to electricity as do pellet and electric smokers. This makes them more portable.
Owners complain about cheap construction, but when they look at the receipt it is usually under $200, so I don’t get their complaint. If they want high quality construction, pay for it and buy a MAK pellet smoker.
They also complain that cheap gassers leak a lot through the door. This is aggravating to someone who is efficiency minded. Although it can raise your propane and wood bills a bit, the food quality doesn’t suffer. There may be a remedy: You may be able to fit a thin gasket on the door. Rutland Gasket Kits and Gore-Tex Gasket Tape are good options. There are several options so pay attention to thickness and max temp.
Another option is Rutland High Temp Silicone Sealant or use a high temp auto silicone that is rated for 500°F or more. Lay the smoker on its back and make a really thin bead around the door rim. Lay a thin strip of kitchen wax paper or kitchen parchment paper (which is actually silicon impregnated) on top of the bead. Gently close the doors until the goo spreads out and the paper makes contact with the opposite surface all around. Lift the door and let it set. Peel off the paper. The sealant can be trimmed with a knife. Rutland Products are in hardware stores, furnace and wood stove stores, and online.
For some reason, all the models I have played with tend to run hot, in the 250 to 275°F range on the lowest setting. I think ideal temp for low slow smoking is 225°F, but most meats do just fine at the higher temp. Not ideal, but not bad. If you want to drive down the temp a bit, try ice in the water pan or leaving the door slightly ajar. This wastes fuel, but should do the job. Bruce Swiecicki, Senior Technical Advisor of the National Propane Association says “You might be able to control the flame by turning the cylinder valve, but the flame may be unsteady. I don’t know of any safety issues to look out for.”
You need to keep spare tanks on hand because they have a nasty habit of running out right in the middle of a five hour cooking session. If the tank is running low, you need to check up on it every 30 minutes to be sure the flame is not as dead as your pig. This is a bit of a pain, especially when you undertake the smoking a nine pound butt for pulled pork, a cooking session that could take 18 hours. For sure it will croak at 2 a.m. If your tank is running low, it’s a good idea to remove it and hook a fresh tank when you start. This practice leaves you with several partially filled tanks in the garage. Grrrrr.
When the tank is empty, you can take it to one of many gas stations, convenience stores, drug stores, or groceries that let you swap for a full tank for an empty plus $13 to 20. There is also a small safety issue. There is an open flame, and the flame is sometimes in a place where a child or dog could get into it by mistake. For an article on handling propane and propane safety, click here.
The biggest drawback to these smokers is that they are usually too narrow to fit a full slab of ribs or a whole brisket on a shelf. You can cut them in half, or hang them. To hang them you need to be creative. I use metal shower curtain hooks and hang them from a shelf in the top position. Another option is to drill holes in the sides near the top and put in some dowels.
Starting in 2009, the market has seen a number of similar El Cheapo Chinese-made cabinet style gassers in the under $200 range. They are thin metal and the doors are loose so they leak heat and smoke which means you will burn more wood chips than on airtight units. But it really doesn’t impact food quality. They are all very similar and are worth your consideration, especially if quality food and ease of use is a high priority.
They don’t come with a cover or a propane tank so factor them into your price. They are also small, so you will want at least two rib racks in order to pack in enough to feed all the people who will come sniffin around. The thermometers are worthless and can be off as much as 30°F, and this is the case on most grills and smokers, so plan on getting a good digital thermometer.
And remember, always leave the top vent open all the way to prevent soot and creosote buildup on your meat.
One other word of caution. I love the flavor of meat from propane smokers, but it is a tiny bit different than the taste of meat from a charcoal smoker. The combustion gasses combine with the moisture and the wood smoke and produce a fragrance and flavor that is sometimes reminiscent of bacon. Purists who compete on the BBQ circuit where gas is verboten complain about this undertone, but I say, just what’s wrong with a little bacon?