How to Make a Cheap Smoker

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Slow cooking with a smoker imparts new dimensions of flavor to meat and fish.
Slow cooking with a smoker imparts new dimensions of flavor to meat and fish. (Image: Jena Cumbo/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Slow cooking meats in a smoker is a cornerstone of classic barbecue where the low temperature of the indirect heat breaks down the collagen fibers in the meat, making it extra tender and juicy. But smokers don't need to be those huge industrial beasts you see around the back of commercial barbecue spots. You can make one yourself at home for probably less than you would spend on a standard barbecue grill.

Things You'll Need

  • A container for your smoker with a lid (popular choices include metal trash cans or large terracotta flowerpots)
  • Heavy duty pan or baking tray
  • Metal barbecue grill
  • Wood chips
  • Hot plate

Putting heat to meat

Set your container in a safe space for smoking. Its outside surfaces will get extremely hot, so be sure it has plenty of room. Likewise, your smoker will, quite unsurprisingly, put out quite a lot of smoke; if your yard is small, think of your neighbors and set it up as far away from them as possible.

Decide whether you're going to use the "electric hot plate" method made popular by Alton Brown on his TV show "Good Eats," or use a manual, stoked-fire method. Purists will tell you that there's no substitute for a real fire burning real wood logs, but for our small-scale backyard smoker the hot plate makes a lot of sense. A fire would require you to create an access hatch in the side of your container for tending the fire while cooking. Placing a hot plate in the bottom of your container is the set-and-forget equivalent, as it will cycle the heat on and off to maintain a constant temperature.

Drill a hole in the side of your trash can, or use the drainage hole in the base of the flowerpot to run the power cord to an extension. Many recommend drilling subsequent holes or placing the pot on raised feet to allow better airflow through the bottom of the smoker. I recommend waiting until you've tested the smoker once before doing this -- it's easier to drill extra holes if you need them later, rather than trying to seal up superfluous ones.

Fill a metal container such as a cast iron pan (handle removed) or baking tray with wood chips and set it on top of the hot plate. The most popular choices for wood include apple, cherry, oak and mesquite, experiment with each or try blending them together to find a favorite. After a short period on the heat, you will start to see some smoke; splash the chips with some cold water to accelerate it.

Place the barbecue grill on top, ensuring that it is stable and set firmly in the container. If you chose to use a trash can as a container, you may have to create some tabs or feet for your grill to sit on. If you went for the flowerpot, the tapered shape should help the grill set firmly in one place. Once you're happy all is secure, add your meat or fish, cover with the lid and wait. It may take some time to decide on the ideal cooking time -- use your selected recipe as a general guide -- but trial and error is a rite of passage of all barbecue enthusiasts!

Tips & Warnings

  • Use a container for your wood chips that is bigger than your hot plate. It should overhang the sides so none of the hotplate is visible from above. This will prevent meat juices and other unwanted fluids splashing onto the electrical device.

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