Libertarian Living – How to Choose a Grill and/or Smoker

I joined a Weber Kettle Grill community on Facebook recently, and immediately noticed that a lot of people have questions regarding the kind of a grill/smoker setup they should have. I thought I might step away from economics, and write another article in the ‘Libertarian Living’ line.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to give a short answer, as it depends on someone’s specific needs. For 80% of the public, a gas grill is best. Gas grills heat up faster, and are easier to use than are charcoal grills. You can make 80% of what you might want to make with a gas grill, and can get 80% of the flavor charcoal or hard wood grills and smokers provide, with 20% of the effort. If you are OK getting 80% of the benefit for 20% of the work, read no further. Get a good gas grill (I recommend Weber for the quality), and have at it.

Gas grills are not very good at smoking (though it can be done), but an electric smoker can fill that void with the same ease and convenience – again giving 80% of the quality for 20% of the work.

This post is for people for whom grilling and smoking is an art or passion – those for whom being the same as everyone else is not good enough. What we live fire people know is that a gas grill is little more than an outdoor oven…

I don’t want to get into subjective questions about whether one specific setup is ‘better’ than another, but I will talk about my needs and my setup, and then I’ll go over some of the differences between various grills and smokers, to help others decide what makes the most sense for them.

I’m a remarried, divorced father, and almost an empty nester. I still have my son 40% of the time, but my daughter is out of the house. As a consequence, I grill and/or smoke for two or three people most of the time.

My wife and I usually throw a couple of big parties a year, with upwards of 40 people attending. I have very different needs for those parties than I do when it’s just my family.

I need to be able to grill and smoke (sometimes both at the same time), and I need to be able to prepare anything from a relatively small amount of food (for just my family), to enough to feed upwards of forty people.

I have a Weber Performer Premium 22 inch kettle grill (I think it was called the ‘Performer Pro’ when I got it, but Weber has since added an even higher end model, and changed the names), and a 22 inch Weber Smokey Mountain. Both units run on charcoal, though the Performer Premium grill has a gas starter to light the charcoal.

The Smokey Mountain comes in three sizes – a 14 inch, an 18 inch, and a 22 inch. I opted for the 22 inch based on the parties we do. The Smokey Mountain has two cooking grates, so the 14 inch actually has 28 inches of cooking surface, whereas the 22 inch has a whopping 44 inches of cooking surface.

When we have our big parties, I use the Smokey Mountain to smoke, and the kettle for direct heat grilling. With Covid-19, we did not have any parties this year, but last year, for the 4th of July, I smoked a full packer brisket, two pork shoulders, six racks of ribs, a large salmon, and four whole chickens. In addition to that, I grilled shrimp, hot dogs, asparagus, zucchini, cucumber, and peaches (cut in half and served with ice cream, for desert).

Sometimes, we’ll have a few friends over, and I may break out the smoker for that – depending on how many people it is, and on what we want to prepare.

When it’s just my family, I smoke in my kettle. I can easily do a pork shoulder, three racks of ribs, a brisket, a couple of chicken, or whatever – more than enough for two or three people. It makes little sense to break out a giant smoker for such a small amount of food, when with a little extra effort a kettle grill works fine. I use the ‘snake method’ to smoke in my kettle, and I just bought a device called a ‘Slow and Sear’ that is supposed to work even better than the snake method.

What I can NOT do is smoke and grill at the same time with just my kettle, so if I want to do both, I have to use the smoker.

If I use my smoker, I want to pretty much fill it, so I’ll do a packer brisket and some pork shoulders along with whatever we may be eating.

Luckily for me, smoked meat freezes well. I can smoke a packer brisket and some pork shoulders, and they will hold up beautifully in the freezer for up to three months. I freeze them in one pound bags.

Anyway, that’s my basic setup. As for what others might want.. I can’t tell you what your needs are, but I can discuss some of the options available.

First off.. If you do not have a Weber 22 inch kettle grill, go out and get one. The 22 inch Weber kettle starts at $109, and you can get the top of the line model, with all the bells and whistles, for $439 – cheaper than a cheap gas grill.

All 22 inch Weber kettles cook exactly the same. The difference between the cheapest model, and the more expensive ones, are the options that make the grill easier to use. The $109 one is hard to clean out, whereas the next one up in price has the ‘one touch’ cleaning system that assists in removing spent ash. As you move up in price, suddenly the kettle is built into a table, and then you get a gas starter (allowing you to start the charcoal with a gas jet.

I recommend at least getting the $165 model, with the one-touch cleaning system, and there is nothing wrong with having two kettle grills, so feel free to start with the $165 model even if you think you’ll later move up to the full blown $439 model. These are great grills that can do just about anything.

Don’t consider a knock-off. The knock offs are garbage.

You could also go with a Green Egg style device (aka a Komodo grill). A Green Egg starts at about $1,200. This style of grill has grates that can be moved around for smoking or grilling, and are insulated, so they can run for long durations on limited charcoal.

For this style of grill, I still prefer Weber. Weber has it’s Summit grill, which is a direct competitor of the Green Egg, except that whereas other Green Egg style grills are packed with insulation, Weber uses a double wall with air as the insulation. As such, the Weber will use slightly more charcoal, but whereas with other Green Egg style grills, if you go over temperature there is nothing you can do about it, the Weber Summit will cool down, should you need it to.

Another option is the Traeger (pellet) style grill. To me, these are almost cheating. You fill a hopper with wood pellets, and you set the temperature you want the grill set at – anywhere from very low, to about 600 degrees (for direct heat grilling). The Traeger is better for smoking than grilling, and since it uses actual wood, it does a great job as a smoker. Weber has recently entered this grill category too, but as of yet their pellet grills have a reputation for being problematic. My guess is that Weber will get the kinks worked out, but for now Traeger is the way to go.

Note that though you can grill with the Traeger, it’s hopper design lacks versatility. To me, the Traeger is a smoker, and if I had a Traeger, I’d still want a Weber kettle.

I mentioned that I have a Weber Smokey Mountain. The Smokey Mountain is a bullet smoker that runs on charcoal. You fill the bottom with charcoal (generally in what is called the ‘minion method’), and place wood chunks in the charcoal. The charcoal performs the actual cook, with the wood chunks providing smoke.

Bullet smokers are very versatile as smokers, and they have two cooking grates, so you get a lot of cooking surface.

Bullet smokers are not as easy to use as a Traeger, but they are still pretty easy to use, and some people use them for competition smoking – they really do get the job done.

Technically, you can convert a Smokey Mountain into a kettle grill by taking the middle piece out, but it’s awfully awkward to use as a grill. If you get a bullet smoker, you’ll want a Weber kettle grill too, giving you a similar setup to what I have.

Some people use smokers that look like upright barrels. These are essentially bullet smokers – they just don’t look like bullets.

The king of smokers is the offset smoker, which separates the fire box from the smoke box. These smokers are designed to run solely on wood, though you can use charcoal too.

Offset smokers are great for versality, and they probably produce the best results, but offset smokers are also the hardest to use.

The thing with smoking is that you need back pressure in order to force smoke into the meat. When you smoke on a Weber Kettle, a Green Egg, a bullet smoker, an electric, or a Traeger, you don’t need to worry about back pressure, but on an offset smoker you do. Smoke can only penetrate meat so deep, and it takes about two hours to get to that depth. If you apply smoke for longer than that, you’ll make the meat bitter.

The offset smoker has a cover on the smoke-box vent that has to be adjusted to keep the right amount of back pressure, and then after a couple of hours that vent needs to be opened to prevent back pressure.

I’ve used offset smokers, and I think I’m reasonably competent with them, but these things do have a learning curve. Someone who really knows the offset smoker can do a great deal more than I can with them (hence they are the king of smokers), but I do not recommend starting with one. If you think you might want to move up to an offset someday, I recommend starting with a bullet smoker, and then adding an offset once you have mastered the bullet.

If I buy another smoker, it’ll be an offset…

There is only one scenario where I would buy an electric. If I wanted to get into cold smoking, such as in smoking cheeses – you have to use an electric for that. But nobody starts smoking by smoking cheese! You want to smoke ribs, brisket, pulled pork, and things like that!

And there you have it. Those are the options.

Hopefully you found this article helpful. I can’t address everyone’s specific needs, but I did discuss mine, as well as my specific setup. I also discussed the different types of grills and smokers out there. If you are looking to get into grilling and/or smoking, or you are looking to up your game, hopefully you found something you can use. Whatever the case, we’d love to hear about your setup and experiences. Feel free to send us a note, or to leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you!