Authentic barbecue is typically cooked in a smoker or homemade pit, not on a grill, so any barbecue restaurant worth its weight in molasses needs a commercial smoker. Smokers are also an essential kitchen tool for any commercial kitchen. Smoking vegetables, meat and other products can provide depth of flavor and offer an artisanal spin on local ingredients.
Purchasing the right one for your restaurant is imperative because the smoker you choose will directly impact daily operations in the kitchen and the flavor and texture of the food smoked. This buying guide offers an informative look at the types of smokers currently available and other factors to consider before making a final purchase.
Did you know? Commercial smokers can be used for a variety of ingredients, not just meat. Restaurants will often use smokers to smoke vegetables, fish and cheese – all of which can be components of other recipes.
The first thing to consider when shopping for a commercial smoker is its eventual location. Fire safety laws surrounding smokers in restaurants and public spaces vary not only from state to state, but also from city to city. Some smokers are intended for stationary use only, while others are equipped to be pulled on a trailer and moved at will. [Read related article: 13 Things to Consider Before Starting a Restaurant]
Many traditional smokers are intended for outdoor use and designed with vents or chimneys for ventilation purposes. Commercial outdoor smokers vary in size, configuration and portability.
These are some pros of an outdoor smoker:
- You have more space. Setting up a smoker outside can be easier than inside your kitchen. If you have a yard or lot behind your restaurant, it can be easy to set it up and leave it there. Finding space inside kitchens for large smokers, while balancing space for other appliances and prep areas, can be challenging.
- It attracts new customers. Diners being able to see your smoker in the parking lot can be a draw to your restaurant, especially if you’re a barbecue joint. You can also bring it to outdoor food festivals and events.
- Setup is easier. Since the smoker is outside, you won’t have to fuss with exhaust vents and extensive indoor regulations. Outdoor units can also be much easier to set up compared to indoor ones.
Outdoor smokers also have a significant potential con.
- Outdoor regulations: Check in with your city or municipality to understand how to set up your smoker safely. Local governments have rules around how far a smoker must be from the building and how the fuel for the smoker is stored.
In many densely populated (or fire-prone) areas of the country, restaurants are not legally allowed to have outdoor smokers. For restaurants that want to serve authentic barbecue, the only option is an indoor smoker designed for commercial use. Indoor smokers typically require installation by an expert.
These are some pros of an indoor smoker:
- Convenience: Sometimes, working with an indoor smoker can be easier than having to take a trip outside to check in on your smoked ingredients.
- Portability: If you work in a small kitchen with limited space, it’s essential to find a smoker that fits in with your kitchen’s overall footprint. Some indoor smokers are vertical, which means they can be easily installed in between larger appliances. Others are squat and can be installed under tables or other types of workspaces.
This is the main con of an indoor smoker:
- Installation: You’ll need to work with a professional to install your indoor smoker, and there are a long list of requirements and regulations you’ll need to research and understand to ensure you’re compliant with local fire codes.
FYI: Defining your kitchen’s spacing needs is a top priority when finding the right type of smoker. Make sure your kitchen manager has a good idea of what should go where to ensure a proper workflow.
Glossary of fuel types
The reason buying a smoker is a daunting task is because there are so many factors to consider. In addition to choosing between an indoor and an outdoor model, you should weigh the pros and cons of different fuel types. Not all smokers cook food the same way, and the type of fuel you plan to use will partially determine the type of smoker you purchase.
Charcoal can be purchased in lumps or briquettes. Low-cost charcoal briquettes typically contain sawdust, coal, starch, sodium nitrate and other additives. Such briquettes are popular because they are cheap and burn at a consistent rate. Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is typically made from pure chunks of wood. Lump charcoal produces less ash than charcoal briquettes, and it lights faster and burns longer. Since it doesn’t contain additives, though, it’s also more variable, so maintaining a consistent heat level with lump charcoal requires a hands-on approach.
Wood is a popular choice for smoking because it lends food the rich, smoky flavor that most people associate with smoked foods. However, because wood is expensive and high maintenance, it is often used as a fuel supplement, added primarily for flavor and not for cooking power. Wood creates a large amount of smoke when burning (and it is possible to over-smoke foods), and maintaining an even and low temperature in a wood-only smoker requires an experienced hand.
Wood pellets have become a popular fuel choice among commercial smokers. They offer wood-fired flavor with much less volatility and hands-on attention required. Wood pellets can be purchased in myriad flavors, and wood pellet smokers are among the easiest smokers to use (and the quickest to heat). Food cooked in wood pellet smokers cannot be over-smoked (in fact, lack of smokiness is one of the most common complaints regarding pellet-fueled smokers), and pellet smokers rarely have hot spots or cold spots.
Many indoor smokers use electricity as the primary energy source. Electric smokers are relatively inexpensive to operate and by far the lowest-maintenance smoker option for commercial settings. Electric smokers offer easy cleanup, and many high-quality electric smokers allow the cook to add some wood chips or wood pellets purely for flavoring purposes. Some barbecue purists feel that electric smokers are not true smokers, because they cook primarily with electric heat and steam, not smoke. But they are used frequently in the restaurant world because they’re easy to use, clean and maintain. The main downside to electric smokers is the lack of authentic smoke flavor and the inability to achieve those iconic grill marks on meat.
Propane smokers, such as electric smokers, are not considered actual smokers by many barbecue enthusiasts. However, propane smokers are a prudent choice for indoor commercial uses where charcoal, wood and pellet smokers are not permitted or realistic. One significant advantage to gas is ease of use. Gas is easy to control and doesn’t produce a swath of smoke like wood or charcoal does. Gas and electric smokers function in much the same way, with a heated coil or propane flame keeping the chamber at a constant heated temperature, a tray or other vessel of wood chips for flavoring, and a repository for water to maintain an appropriate level of moisture.
Many cooks choose a primary fuel type and smoker, and then add alternate fuels or flavoring components to achieve the desired taste. For example, adding wood chips to electric or gas smokers, and then using liquid smoke to flavor the meat further, is common in the restaurant world, as is combining charcoal and wood. Additionally, some large smokers are built as hybrid machines, using different fuel sources in different sections.
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Common commercial smoker configurations and pricing
Since the size of the smoker you choose will correlate to the amount of space you have and the output you require, this section will focus primarily on the available configurations, with the understanding that these configurations can be purchased in many sizes at varying prices.
A favorite among die-hard smokers on the competition and food fair circuit, as well as with restaurateurs with plenty of cooking space, offset smokers are defined by their large cooking chambers (often barrel-shaped) and offset fireboxes, where the fuel is loaded and burned. While traditional offset smokers are horizontal in configuration, vertical-offset smokers are also available.
Cooking with an offset smoker requires maintaining the fuel in the fuel box and then manipulating the airflow from the fuel box to the cooking chamber to maintain an ideal temperature. Offset smokers are known for their ability to imbue foods with a rich wood and smoke flavor, but they require a deft hand and lots of attention.
Offset pricing: Well-known offset smoker brands include Lang, Yoder, Horizon Smokers, Klose and Meadow Creek, and costs range from $2,500 to $15,000 (or more) depending on the make and model. Many restaurateurs also order custom-offset smokers built to their specifications.
A popular choice for indoor commercial kitchens, vertical (or upright) smokers come in both single- and double-door models with various configurations in terms of the number of racks, setting options and general capacity.
Upright smokers are popular in restaurant kitchens because they take advantage of vertical space, but there are also short vertical smokers on the market, which are ideal for compact restaurant kitchens that don’t need to produce a large number of smoked foods at a time. Upright smokers tend to be low maintenance and easy to use, and many of them have digital controls to set times and temperatures in advance, which is ideal for overnight or all-day smoking.
Vertical smokers can have any fuel source.
Vertical smoker pricing: Established upright smoker brands include Royall Grills, Town and Fire Magic. Prices are typically around $3,500 for small models; $6,000 for medium refrigerator-sized models; and tens of thousands of dollars for large custom installations.
In addition to freestanding smokers, some base-style smokers are built to fit underneath commercial charbroilers. Compact smokers like these are affordable, relatively easy to install and user-friendly.
Base-style smokers have space for wood chips (for flavoring), and since they’re usually electric, they’re approved for indoor restaurant use in many areas. The downside to this smoker configuration is the size. Smoker bases are best for restaurants that do not primarily serve barbecue but want to add a wood-infused flavor to a few dishes. They are often used for finishing dishes rather than for cooking them entirely from start to finish. Compact smokers can also be custom-made to fit unique spaces, which is usually much more expensive but does offer a solution for those who require unique dimensions.
Compact smoker pricing: Vulcan makes one of the best-known lines of smoker bases, which fit with its commercial charbroilers and are priced from around $600 to $1,200.
As the name implies, rotisserie smokers are intended to smoke meats as they rotate. Commercial rotisserie smokers usually use pellets to imbue the meat with flavor, and many of them are portable and easy to tow.
Rotisserie smoker pricing: Small rotisserie smokers start at around $700, but you can find large smokers for well over $20,000. It should be noted, though, that large rotisserie smokers may hold as much as 500 pounds of pork or 80 whole chickens at a time, which makes the corresponding price understandable. Reputable brands of rotisserie smokers include Cookshack, Cadillac Cookers, Equipex and BKI.
Did you know? Some vendors have the opportunity to lease restaurant equipment. Before deciding whether to purchase a smoker outright, see how potential lease agreements stack up.
Popular commercial smokers to consider
Choosing the right smoker starts with defining your restaurant’s needs. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to consider some options that make sense for your business. Here are three of the top commercial smokers on the market from Cookshack.
|Cookshack SmartSmoker SM160 20-inch Stainless Steel||Ideal for smaller restaurants, the Cookshack SmartSmoker SM160 can be used in both indoor and outdoor spaces. It can operate 24 hours a day and comes with five layers of grills and racks.||It can hold roughly 1 pound of pellets and burn them at up to 250 degrees to ensure whatever product you have inside the smoker is receiving the appropriate amount of smoke.||$5,100|
|Cookshack Fast Eddy’s FEC240 46-inch Stainless Steel||This smoker excels as a large-volume smoker. Restaurants that use it can produce over 500 pounds of heavy meat cuts per load.||This is one of the largest smokers available for indoor commercial use. It also can cold-smoke fish and cheese.||$12,000, depending on availability and your business’s location|
|Cookshack SmartSmoker SM360 47-inch Stainless Steel||This smoker can handle large loads, like the Fast Eddy’s FEC240, and it allows extensive temperature control. It’s larger than the SmartSmoker SM160, so keep that in mind if you’re running a small kitchen.||This smoker sports a Q5 digital system to regulate temperature more effectively. It also burns fuel more efficiently than other commercial smokers, which can reduce overall emissions.||Around $13,000|
Mona Bushnell contributed to the writing and research in this article.