Fish Smoker Buyer’s Guide: Choosing the Right Smoker Type

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Kamado smoker/grill

With summer officially here, thoughts begin to turn to summertime fun with family and friends and, of course, backyard barbeques.

Barbequing and grilling are as much a passion for me as is fishing, and I will be doing plenty of that throughout the summer season.  A subset of barbequing that I really enjoy is smoking foods – I’m talking smoked pork ribs, beef brisket, seafood and so on!

But, maybe because I’m an angler who also sometimes loves eating his catch, I think that smoked fish is in a league by itself.

If you have the patience and love phenomenal-tasting food, smoking fish will reward your palate with a slice of culinary heaven in a way that can only be imagined.

But to get the best-tasting smoked fish results we need the right backyard equipment. In this article-guide, we will take a look at 4 familiar and popular types of food smokers and 6 different design configurations.

The goal of this guide is to give you enough useful information about each type, including their most relevant pros and cons, to help you choose the type and design that best fit your budget and needs as well as level of experience and patience… yes, patience.

That is because, although smoking involves a confluence of several elements to produce good results, perhaps the most important of these is represented by the phrase “low and slow”. This common and overused slogan best describes the smoking process.

Whereas conventional outdoor grilling can cook foods in a matter of minutes using direct heat, its close cousin, smoking, will cook fish at lower temperatures and slower rates using indirect heat. It is this low and slow process that is largely responsible for that rich, smoky fish flavor that many of us can’t get enough of.

Be it trout, tuna, mackerel or salmon (… oh that smoked salmon!), smoked fish has a distinct aroma and flavor that just can’t be achieved through conventional cooking methods – but you will need a good smoker to pull it off.

 Whether you’re cooking your own catch or just love to eat fresh fish from the supermarket, investing in a quality food smoker will bring you years of tasty rewards.

And, as a bonus, the standard smoker grill also works just as well with meats of all types, making it a versatile piece of hardware that almost everyone can appreciate.

Fish Smoking: A Tasty Tradition

best smoker for salmon

Smoked salmon

Smoking fish, meat, and other foods is nothing new – it’s been done by various cultures around the world for eons – but the methods have certainly changed throughout the years.  

Long before refrigeration, smoking was done to preserve food probably more so than to give it flavor. Today, the opposite is true – we smoke fish, meats and other foods because we like the incredible taste it imparts.

Traditionally done in a smokehouse, the modern fish smoker is basically a standard BBQ smoker used for cooking food with the added bonus of tasty smoked flavors.

Today, there are a variety of home smokers for sale – we’re talking dedicated charcoal, electric, gas (propane and natural gas) and wood (wood pellet) smokers at our disposal for smoking fish and meat.

4 Types of Smokers

There are several types of smokers available, which are typically based on the fuel they use, and each one has their advantages, so it should be easy to find something that meets your preferences. The most popular types of smoker include:

Charcoal Smoker

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Perhaps the most widely available type of smoker, they use charcoal as fuel to provide a deliciously smoky flavor. Charcoal grill smokers let you fine-tune the smoke-flavor density you want, from light to strong, once you master them.

This results in probably the most authentic tasting smoked fish. The other major benefit of charcoal smokers is that it is easy to find an affordable model without losing any of that smoky goodness.

On the other hand, charcoal requires lighter fluid, takes longer to start, adding to the total time to complete the smoke,  and can be quite messy to clean up.

You will also need to have a good supply of charcoal on hand, and it is not the most cost-effective fuel for smoking fish or anything else for that matter!

Charcoal smokers come in basic to feature-loaded models and in various shapes and sizes.  While it’s possible to find charcoal smokers that can be considered expensive, the vast majority fall squarely into the affordable category.

Keep in mind, however, that the higher cost of charcoal as a fuel will negate, over time, any savings from the charcoal smoker’s lower initial cost.

Pros:

  • Grill masters don’t always agree on everything related to grilling/smoking, but most agree that charcoal produces the best-smoked flavor for fish (and everything else).
  • Charcoal smokers/grills are the least expensive types available on the market
  • Charcoal (briquettes or lump charcoal) is readily available throughout the year in supermarkets and other retail outlets
  • Versatile – can be used just about anywhere outdoors – no heavy propane tanks to connect or electric cords looking for an outlet.

Cons:

  • Involves the most work and time to start of the 4 types in this guide -can present some challenges, particularly for novices
  • Temperature/heat control which is crucial to smoking is often inconsistent and requires more supervision
  • Charcoal as a fuel source is more expensive on a per smoke basis than other fuel types (though cheaper than wood pellets)
  • Cleanups are often messy and spent, hot charcoal/ashes can be hazardous

Electric Smoker

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Powered by electricity, these smokers offer the most convenience for smoking fish. Simply place your fish into the smoker, adjust the settings accordingly, and let it do its thing.

This hands-off approach is certainly appealing for many people seeking an easy way to smoke their fish, although the taste isn’t quite as authentic compared to those using charcoal or wood.

Electric smokers come in two flavors: an analog (rheostatic controller) and digital (thermostatic controller) temperature control versions.

Analog (dial temperature control) smokers are cheaper but will still require some monitoring of the temperature. Though still far less than other types such as wood or charcoal.

Digital food smokers, on the other hand, while more expensive,  will perfectly maintain the temperature inside the smoker for virtual “set and forget” operation.

But regardless of controller type of controlling the temperatures is generally very easy on an electric smoker, making it ideal for both hot smoking and cold smoking fish.

Pros:

  • On a per-use basis, electric smokers use the most fuel-efficient – costs less to operate than wood, charcoal and, even, propane.
  • Speaking of fuel, electricity is abundant – you never have to worry that you’ll run out of fuel like with other types of smokers.
  • Affordability scale comparable to charcoal smokers, though you’ll also find some high-end models that can be pricey.
  • Most hands-off of the 4 smokers in our guide – “set it and forget it” operation (particularly with digital models) make them perfectly suited for smoking fish, particularly for beginners.
  • Great for those who live in apartments or condos where other  grill/smoker types such as charcoal or gas not allowed

Cons:

  • The most flavor-neutral of the smoker types in this guide.  You won’t get that rich, smoky flavor that you would get with a charcoal or wood pellet smoker.
  • Can struggle to maintain the desired temperature if you are smoking in windy or cold outdoor conditions, though digital smokers do a better job of minimizing temperature fluctuations
  • Need for electricity can be a problem in remote areas away from a power source

 Gas Smoker: Propane and Natural Gas

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Propane gas units make up the most common type of grills and smokers in the U.S. (about 7 out of every 10), with good reason. For starters, they are affordable, convenient, easy to use and produce consistent results.

An alternative to propane is natural gas smokers. Though not as abundant as propane smokers, natural gas models burn cleaner and are cheaper to operate – however, natural gas smokers and grills are more expensive.

A propane smoker is quite comparable to an electric smoker in that it is easy to use and smokes a lot quicker than other fuel types. Also, they don’t necessarily need to use propane, with natural gas now available as an alternative fuel source.

A Propane gas smoker is simple enough to use. Once you set it up by connecting the gas you simply toss the fish on and set to the appropriate heat, after which the fish will slowly smoke. The flavor produced by propane smokers, although not quite as smoky as wood or charcoal smokers, is still good.

A great alternative for those who love the convenience and consistent results of propane but may also want a more robust, smoky taste from time to time, is a hybrid smoker that can run off both gas and charcoal.

Pros:

  • Familiarity: gas is the most popular type of grills/smokers in the U.S. today – In fact, you probably already own a propane grill. Using a propane smoker is an easier transition for most people.
  • Propane smokers are very affordable – while not as cheap as charcoal units, they are on par with electric one in terms of price (natural gas units will cost you more).
  • Propane gas smokers are easy to set up, use and clean – they will also offer you years of dependable operation
  • Gas fuel is very cost-effective – while slightly more expensive than electric, it is cheaper than charcoal or wood
  • Temperature is easily maintained with gas smokers. Almost on par with electric smokers in this respect, they offer greater control over temperature and cooking time than either wood or charcoal.

Cons:

  • Though more flavorful than their electric counterparts, propane and natural gas fish smokers will not give you the robust, smoky taste you get with either charcoal or wood pellet smokers.
  • One of the biggest negatives with a gas smoker/ grill is the potential for running out of fuel at the worst possible time – right in the middle of smoking your favorite fish (full spare tank is helpful).
  • Using and storing any kind of gas is always a safety concern. You will have to use a propane/gas smoker a good distance from the house or any structure (usually 10 ft. or more).

Wood Pellet Smoker

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There was a time when a time when all food was cooked over a fire using wood as the source of fuel. We now have all sorts of other options as we’ve seen, from charcoal to electricity and gas.

Today, though wood is not the main source of cooking fuel for the masses anymore, it holds a prominent place in modern day cooking, grilling, and smoking. For smoking fish and meats, there is no better way to get authentic, smoky-flavored results than with a wood smoker.

In fact, the taste that various woods impart to smoked foods is so desirable that you will see all sorts of kiln-dried wood chips, chunks, and pellets for sale meant to be used in combination with smoker boxes and smoker tubes to infuse charcoal, gas and electric smokers with the irresistible aroma and flavor of wood. Apple, Cherry, Hickory, and Mesquite are just a few of the most popular wood flavors available.

This highlights the importance of wood in smoking and adding flavor to smoking and leads us to the wood pellet smoker grill, considered by many to be one of the best smokers for home use.

The wood pellet smoker is a relatively new entrant into the food smoker category, coming onto the scene in the late 1980’s with the introduction of the Traeger wood pellet grill.

The wood pellet smoker is an interestingly effective design. Hardwood pellets are held in a hopper or repository where they are released onto a powered auger that transports the pellets to a firebox where they are ignited by a hot rod. A combustion fan below then stokes the fire and circulates the heat and smoke throughout the smoker for unparalleled smoked flavor.

Different types of wood can be used achieve distinct results, giving the smoke master plenty of room to experiment and find that perfect blend of smoky aroma and flavor on a level not achieved by other types of smoker grills.

Pellet smokers are excellent for smoking fish due to the low and consistent heat they deliver, They maintain temperature well, and though not as “set and forget” as electric models, they are one of the easiest smokers to use and are low maintenance.

One of the great strengths of a wood pellet grill smoker is its incredible versatility. In addition to smoking your favorite catch, they can also be used to roast meats, grill, barbeque… you can even bake a pizza on them.

It is worth noting that though pellet smokers use electricity to power the digital electronic controls, auger, and fan as well as heat the hot rod, they should not be confused with electric smokers. The fish or meat you put onto the grill is cooked strictly by the heat and smoke created by the burning wood pellets.

Some of the higher end pellet smokers for sale on the market will even let you monitor and control the settings and so much more via Wi-Fi and Apps. This lets you change the smoker’s temperature and other settings from the comfort of your backyard chair.

All that said, wood pellet smokers don’t come cheap.  They are more costly of the types of smokers in this guide. And to boot, pellets are neither cheap nor as readily available as other smoker fuels.

Pros:

  • Produces possibly the best authentic smoky flavor of all the types (close running with charcoal at worst) – ideal for smoking fish
  • Excellent temperature/smoke control and distribution makes it hard to over-smoke foods
  • Versatile – Besides being excellent smokers,  you can cook almost anything on them from roasts to chicken wings
  • Better for achieving different desired flavor because of the variety of flavored pellets available
  • Ability to pair up with advanced technology (on some models) such as Wi-Fi and smartphone Apps for added control and convenience.

Cons:

  • Pellet smokers are on average more expensive than other smokers (charcoal, electric and propane)
  • Pellets as a fuel type are not as readily available as other fuels such as charcoal or propane and are more expensive
  • Parts maintenance/costs- though generally reliable, the potential costs of replacing moving parts such as the auger or induction fan should be kept in mind

Fish Smoker Design/Configuration

The build of a smoker is important to consider as it will impact how easy it is to use, not to mention how much space it takes up in the yard.

While I don’t break down the pros and cons of each design type in bullet points (I feel design choices are more subjective and preference dependent and would need its own separate post for a fair treatment), the broader important considerations, positive and negative, are outlined in each section.

Vertical Smokers

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Also commonly known as a water or bullet smoker (due to their bullet shape), vertical smokers are usually powered by charcoal, wood, or gas. They use a chamber of water to help regulate the heat and to ensure the fish retain moisture as they smoke.

These compact upright smokers tend to be broken into separate compartments, with a section for the fuel that produces heat and smoke, a pan of water above this section to control the heat, and a final top section for the fish.

The vertical smoker’s smaller footprint makes it ideal for situations where outdoor space may be limited.

Offset Smokers

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An offset smoker looks very similar to a horizontal barbeque in shape and size. It consists of two sections, one for cooking/smoking and another that acts as a firebox. The smoke from the wood burning in the firebox is transferred into the larger section and funneled out through a chimney.

One issue with an offset smoker is their quality can vary significantly depending on the make. Those made poorly leak smoke and don’t heat the fish evenly, especially when using thinner metal that doesn’t retain heat well.

However, reliable models produce wonderful results, with a delicious wood smoked flavors that are hard to replicate. Look out for tightly sealed doors and seams, along with models that use reverse flow to help heat food evenly.

Box Smokers

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As the name suggests (they are also called vault smokers), this smoker features a large box-shape that will contain your fish for smoking. The heat source is found at the base of the smoker, with heat sources varying from gas to electricity.

Box smokers are very convenient to use, as you simply place your fish in the main body of the smoker, close the cabinet door and then leave it to do its thing. Available in most price ranges, these smokers can also be found in compact and large sizes, making it easy to find the right size for your yard.

However, it is worth mentioning that you want to find a box smoker with good insulation, look for one with a robust cabinet door made from thick metal to ensure optimal performance.

Drum Smokers

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If you’re in the market for a basic yet effective fish smoker, then look no further than a drum smoker, also affectionally known as an “ugly drum smoker”.

This is basically a large metal drum/barrel repurposed for smoking, featuring a fire basket at the base for the heat source (usually powered by charcoal or wood) and a wired grate near the top to hold the fish.

Despite a basic design, a drum smoker is excellent for smoking fish and other meats. A lack of oxygen in the drum barrel creates the perfect smoking environment, with convection heat producing an even cooking temperature throughout for that smoky fish goodness.

Kamado Smokers/Grills

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The Kamodo (meaning stove in Japanese) smoker-grill is a striking piece of backyard equipment both in terms of looks and efficiency.  It’s hard to ignore one when you see it.

Though it has that cool factor, the kamado grill is not something new. In fact, it is surmised that its basic design can be traced back to early China and later to Japan where it picked up its name. The Kamado was introduced to the American market following World War II by ex-servicemen who experienced its wonders while stationed in Japan.

A favorite among grilling and smoking enthusiasts, the vertically designed egg-shaped smoker is effectively a two in one unit, working as both a smoker and grill with equal efficiency.

Additionally, larger models can be used for 2-zone cooking, allowing to basically to grill/sear and slow cook different foods at the same time by using direct flame heat and indirect convection heat simultaneously.

The overall build quality of the kamado smoker is high, using heavy-duty materials such as ceramic and thick-gauged steel produce exceptional insulation and durability. Originally found only in the more expensive ceramic build, today they are also available in cheaper but still high-quality heavy-gauge steel construction.

A Kamado smoker grill is a great purchase for those serious about smoking and grilling fish, meat, and much more with very little downside. Look for top

However, possibly the biggest drawback with this grill is its price. It is up there with the most expensive smokers on the market, with even basic models costing several hundreds of dollars. But you get what you pay for with these terrific grill-smokers

Dual-Purpose/Combination Smoker-Grills

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Lastly, we come to combo smoker/grills. While Kamado grills can be used as dual-purpose units, there are combination smoker-grills made specifically for people who want maximum backyard options. They come in just about every fuel type including charcoal, propane and wood pellet.

These are ideal for anyone looking for a flexible piece of hardware for smoking and grilling a variety of their favorite fish, meats, and other barbeque classics. Most models are reasonably priced considering what you are getting.

Designs vary, but most tend to be a horizontal shape with dual compartments for smoking and grills. Heat sources also vary, ranging from charcoal to wood pellets to electricity. Dual-purpose grills are a great pick if you want to have the best of both worlds in a single pit.

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2 thoughts on “Fish Smoker Buyer’s Guide: Choosing the Right Smoker Type

  1. Henry Brookstone

    I always thought using wood as fuel was the best way to smoke. Didn’t know charcoal is considered the best for smoking. Still, I’ll stick with wood for the flavor.

    Reply
    1. Dorado Post author

      Hi Henry. As far a as flavor goes, the debate is really between wood and charcoal. The other smoker types shine where convenience is a priority. I prefer charcoal for its great taste and availabilty.

      Reply

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