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I recently purchased a new charcoal smoker to play with, which inspired me to nominate the Top Charcoal Smokers under $300. When deciding what smoker to buy, there are a ton to choose from. You have propane smokers, pellet smokers, and charcoal smokers. You also have larger offset smokers that wood logs in addition to charcoal. People often ask my opinion on what smoker they should start with and there are a bunch of factors that play into that decision. The size of the smoker, the cost of the smoker, the quality of BBQ produced, and is the smoker easy to work with and learn? In this guide we are going to focus on charcoal smokers, because of the quality BBQ they produce.
After starting with a cheap electric smoker, and then trying a propane smoker, I have settled on charcoal smokers for my everyday use. They just put out a better product. The flavor and bark developed in charcoal smokers is more authentic and robust than propane and pellet smokers and smoke flavor produced from the constant burning of charcoal is unmatched.
I typically use a chunk or two of apple, cherry, or oak for a little extra smoke and flavor, but the charcoal does most of the heavy lifting. Luckily, you can find an awesome charcoal smoker for under $300 that you can use for a life time…. or until you buy another. If you are like me, you are always looking for the next smoker to add to your patio weaponry.
If you are looking for a great charcoal smoker for a great price, any of the following charcoal smokers will help you smoke awesome BBQ for your family and friends. Lets examine the pros and cons of some high quality charcoal smokers that will take you to the promise land…. with out clearing your saving account.
The Pit Barrel Cooker
The Pitt Barrel Cooker is a drum style smoker and grill that is easy to use and gets great results. I own one and love using it for chicken and ribs, but also use it for pork butts and brisket. This smoker is designed to hang meat vertically, so you can fit a ton of meat for large gatherings. This method of smoking is also a lot of fun…. it has a rustic cave man quality about it, but delivers great results along the way. It also has one grill grate included so you can smoke and grill meats the conventional way… horizontally on a grill grate. The Pit Barrel is also quite portable, which is a handy feature.
Critical Specs: 18″ Diameter Grill Grate. Comes with one standard grill grate and eight hooks for hanging meat. The maximum length of meat you would want to hang is about 18″. Longer than that and it gets too close to the charcoal.
Necessary Add-ons: The smoker does not have a temperature gauge included. The manufacturer recommends a set it and forget it approach. While this works, I like to know the temperature of my smoker, so I can plan for when the meat will be done and make adjustments if needed. In my experience, the smoker temperature can vary by 50 degrees depending on conditions of the day and how you setup the charcoal. You should own a wireless temperature monitor, such as the Thermo Pro TP-7, the ThermoWorks Smoke, or at least mount a temperature gauge on the smoker itself. I would purchase the ash catcher pan accessory made by Pit Barrel Cooker to make removing ashes easier as well. I purchased this add-on right away and find it very helpful.
Pros: The construction is real solid. It is such a simple design, but it feels like it will last forever. The simple drum design allows for a lot of customization if you want to make this smoker your own in some way. You can add additional grill grates and vents to expand your smoking possibilities and really fit a lot of meat in this compact unit. You can easily smoke 8 racks of ribs, 2 pork butts, or 4 chickens. It operates as a grill too, just remove the lid and you can grill burgers and steaks over open flame heat.
Cons: It does not come with a temperature gauge and does not have a great mechanism for temperature control out of the box – only the bottom damper controls air flow and temperature. This smoker is designed to run around 250-300 F, which works well. Just know that it is not meant for extremely low and slow BBQ with out some simple modifications. You may have to trim some longer cuts of meat to hang them with enough clearance over the charcoal.
Char-Griller Akorn 20″ Kamado
I have not owned any Char-Griller products in the past, but the Char-Griller Akorn grill and smoker is definitely enticing. I do own a Big Green Egg, which I love and regard as my second child. However, the Char-Griller Akorn is a tempting Big Green Egg alternative at a fraction of the price.
Critical Specs: 20″ Diameter Grill Grate. Comes with warming rack and fold-up side tables.
Necessary Add-ons: For smoking meat, you need to purchase the smoking stone which gives you the indirect heat setup for smoking.
Pros: This is a very versatile smoker that should work great for long smoke sessions, such as smoking pork butt and brisket. It should also work great for grilling steaks and burgers. The Akorn is insulated, so it does not use a lot of charcoal in comparison to other non-insulated smokers (every other smoker in this post is non-insulated). This makes it great for longer burns and steady temperature control right out of the box. Char-Griller put a lot of design thought into a budget friendly smoker with a lot of convenient features you will not find on more expensive Kamado smokers (Green Egg… cough, cough). The side tables have utensil hooks and fold up for storage. The 20″ Diameter grill grate is wider than a Large Big Green Egg, giving you extra capacity.
Cons: The only reason I would not purchase the Char-Griller Akorn is smoking capacity or an expanded budget. If you have $800-1000, I would get an XL Big Green Egg. If you want to smoke several briskets or 8 racks of ribs, this may not be for you. However, if your budget is not huge and you are cooking for your family and a small gatherings in the backyard, this should do just fine.
Purchase Price: You can get the Akorn 20″ Kamado for about $300 on Amazon.
18″ Weber Smoker Mountain
I have a lot of respect for Weber products. They perform great and outlast their competition. The WSM (as it is called to its cult following) is a great product that will give you everything you need in a back yard smoker. Unlike a lot of the other smokers in this article, it is designed to be used with the included water pan. This is a nice insurance policy to keep your meat nice and juicy throughout the smoking process. My brother-in-law owns a WSM, and it holds temperature well and performs great with all cuts of meat. There are a lot of online forums for Weber Smokey Mountain smokers on everything you can think of, making it an excellent starter smoker that you will not outgrow.
Critical Specs: 18.5″ Diameter Grill Grates (2).
Necessary Add-ons: None. This smoker is pretty much ready right out of the box.
Pros: It comes with multiple grill grates, to give you more capacity. If you like having a built in water pan for added moisture, this is a good option. WSM smokers are known in the BBQ circuits for easy temperature control and outstanding performance. You have access to firebox during smoking, so you can add charcoal during longer smoke sessions if needed. This smoker can act as a grill too… just take out the water pan and leave the lid off to grill steaks a burgers.
Cons: Some people, including myself, do not like water pans due to the messy cleanup involved. The assembly is a little loose, so there are some gaps where air can escape or enter, such as the door to access the fire box. It is not a big deal, but you will find people who have added gaskets to tighten up the seals.
Purchase Price: You can purchase the 18.5″ Weber Smokey Mountain for about $300 on Amazon. This same smoker also comes in 14″ and 22″ diameter models. I would not buy the 14″ model for an everyday smoker, as you cannot fit a full rack of ribs on it. However, if you can spend an extra $100, take a look at the 22″ Smokey Mountain model, which has a lot of capacity with two 22″ grill grates.
Weber Master Touch 22″ Kettle
I have owned a 22″ weber kettle for years. You may have grown up with a Weber Kettle on the patio. If not, I can tell you this is a fabulous grill and a pretty damn good smoker too. I use mine a lot for smoking chicken, sausage, and other smaller cuts of meat that take less time. However, people also use them for briskets and pork butts. With a little research and a few add on parts, you can use a weber kettle for long smoke sessions, making great pulled pork and brisket.
Critical Specs: 22″ Diameter Grill Grate
Necessary Add-ons: The Slow-n-Sear accessory makes smoking meat a lot easier on the weber kettles, especially for the larger cuts of meat that take a while. For chicken, sausage, and ribs, you can use the Weber Kettle out of the box to start smoking.
Pros: Great value at an affordable price. You can find some models for close to $100. Setup and cleanup is really easy, as the ash catcher is designed nicely. This is truly a versatile grill and smoker. If you do not have a good grill, this is a great option to get you started with charcoal grilling and smoking.
Cons: More challenging to hold temperature during longer smoker sessions. As a smoker, you do not have a lot of capacity on the weber kettle, as you are limited to half of the grill grate for indirect cooking.
Purchase Price: Prices on the 22″ Weber Kettles range from $100-300 depending on the model you choose. I really like the Master Touch 22″ Kettle for $200, which has the built in lid holder and a heat shield for your hand around the lid handle.
Dyna-Glo Charcoal Offset Smoker
If you are looking for a high capacity smoker for a great price, I would check out this vertical offset smoker from Dyna-Glo. It is a great smoker for under $200! The high smoking capacity is served by the 6 grill grates that are adjustable in the vertical stack of the smoker. The fire box is offset, so your food should not see any direct heat. It does not come with a water pan, but you can easily put one in the bottom of the vertical stack of the smoker or on one of the grill grates.
Critical Specs: The 6 grill grates are 14″ x 14″
Necessary Add-ons: You might want to buy some high temperature gasket tape and sealer to seal the doors up tighter. Otherwise, this baby should be ready for action.
Pros: High capacity with a lot of flexibility with the 6 grates you can move up and down the smoke chamber. It has room for a water pan. You can burn small logs of wood, if you want even more smoke flavor.
Cons: It will not burn as efficiently as some of the other smokers on this list. Offset burner temperatures are generally a little more difficult to control. If you want the easiest smoker to control, this is not for you. Some minor modifications may be needed to tighten up a few of the door seals.
Purchase Price: You can purchase the Dyna-Glo Charcoal Offset Smoker for about $175 on Amazon. Note: If your budget allows for spending around $325, check out Dyna-Glo’s Heavy Duty Offset Vertical Smoker.
The Final Verdict: Which Smoker should you buy?
OK, that was a lot to take in. All of these smokers are good options, so which one should you buy? For the best versatility and quality, I would buy the 18″ Weber Smokey Mountain ,the the Pit Barrel Cooker, or the Akorn Char-Griller. All three of these units allow you to smoke and grill all cuts of meat with great results. If you have an extra $100, then I would buy the 22″ Weber Smokey Mountain, as I think you will appreciate the extra space on the large grill grates for larger cuts of meat and large parties.
For what its worth, I wrote this guide because I recently went through the process of picking out another smoker to play with. I purchased the Pit Barrel Cooker, because it was a little different and I liked its simplicity. I have not written up a full review yet, but I have really enjoyed “playing” with my new toy and I am happy with my purchase.
If you own one of these smokers or recommend another charcoal smoker, leave me a comment down below on your thoughts. Thanks! Keegan