Electric Smokers: Buying Guide, Reviews, Ratings, And Recommendations
Set it and forget it. That's the main attraction, and an important one. Electrics excel at fish and things like smoked peppers, sausage, nuts, and cheese. The bad news is that I think the flavor is inferior to charcoal or gas for most other meats such as pork ribs, pulled pork, turkey, and beef brisket.
Yes, I know you LOVE your electric smoker and the food it turns out. But I'm here to tell you, it could be better.
The good news is that gas smokers are almost as easy to use, they are much less expensive, and the food tastes better. Pellet smokers are just as easy to use as electrics, but they are more expensive. Before you buy an electric, please read this page thoroughly before you buy.
Some inexpensive electric cookers use a rheostat, which turns down the flow of electricity to the coil but does not turn it off. They usually just have low, medium, and high settings. Rheostats are less desirable than thermostats because they often do not get hot enough to make the wood smoke. All but the cheapest portable electrics are thermostat controlled. You don't want something that does not have good temp control. You can't cook if you can't control temp.
On the better models, just turn the dial or press the buttons. Thermostats turn the heat on and off as necessary. Temperature fluctuations are minor. With a thermostatically controlled unit you can get pretty precise about timing when the meat will be done. No lighting charcoal, waiting for it to be ready, or adding charcoal when it gets low. Just turn it on, crack a brew, and take a snooze in your lounge chair. Or put in a brisket before you leave for work and come home to a tender, smoky, juicy meal. Electrics need only 2 to 4 ounces of wood to give meat a smoky flavor. And if they are well insulated, they are great for winter use.
Electrics typically draw 10 to 20 amps, and if your outlet is already carrying a load it can pop the circuit breaker. I have even heard of electric smokers habitually popping GFCI outlets and necessitating a visit from the neighborhood electrician. On the plus side, electrics are fairly cheap to operate. The Cookshack Smokette Elite, with a 750 watt element, burns about one kilowatt every two hours if it is running constantly, which it doesn't because the thermostat cyles it on and off. A kilowatt runs about 10¢ (at the time of this writing), so it uses about 5¢ an hour. That's a lot cheaper than charcoal, and if you rent an apartment and your lease includes electricity, then running an electric smoker is free!
Because the better models are well sealed, they are great for cooking things where retaining moisture is crucial. But if you want crispy skin on chicken or a crusty "bark" on your meat, you will not be happy with an electric.
The taste difference is hard to describe, but the smoke doesn't seem to penetrate and weave itself into the meat as well. That's because the heat in gas, pellet, and charcoal cookers comes from combustion. The heat in an electric comes from a glowing metal rod. Smoke is created by putting wood chips above the heating element and letting them smolder. This creates different compounds in the smoke than created in combustion machines like charcoal, wood, or gas, and they react differently with the meat surface.
Another drawback: Most barbecue competitions do not permit electric cookers.
How to improve your smoke ring
In addition, electrics usually don't produce the pink smoke ring just below the surface of the meat that you get from other fuels. To get one, add one or two charcoal briquets to the woodbox of an electric. They produce gases that help create a pink smoke ring. The ring doesn't add flavor, but it adds authenticity.
The built-in cords are often not long enough, and regular household extension cords will not carry enough juice to keep you electric smoker going. They could become a fire hazard as they heat up trying to deliver power to the unit. To extend the cord you need a large capacity cable as measured in amps. Here's how to figure out what you need:
Watts ÷ Voltage = Amps
If your smoker needs 500 watts, and typical household voltage is 110-120 volts, then you need a cable that has a capacity of 4.17 amps.
A rule of thumb: For home models, get at least a 10 amp 12 gauge three prong cord (12 gauge is higher capacity than 14 gauge). That's more than you need, but better safe than sorry. The best solution: Have an electrician custom make a cord the proper length for you. Don't buy a cable much longer than you need it because the longer the cable the higher the resistance and the power diminishes. You don't want to see the equations for that.
Bottom line worth repeating
This page was revised 4/9/2013
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