Before you pick a commercial smoker for your barbecue restaurant, consider its size, fuel type and function, among other factors.
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. Purchasing the right one for your restaurant is imperative, because the smoker you choose will directly impact daily operations in the kitchen as well as the flavor and texture of the food smoked. And that's important because while only 2 percent of total U.S. restaurants are barbecue-focused, it's the 15th most popular type of menu with patrons, according to CHD Expert.
This buying guide offers an informative look at the types of smokers currently available as well as other factors to consider before making a final purchase.
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.
Most traditional smokers are intended for outdoor use and designed with vents or chimneys for ventilation purposes. Commercial outdoor smokers vary drastically in size, configuration and portability.
Any restaurateur considering the purchase of an outdoor smoker should do their due diligence to make sure such setups are allowed in their area. Many cities that allow restaurants to maintain outdoor smokers still have some regulations regarding how far the smoker is from the building, what type of ventilation system the smoker has, how the fuel is stored and how the unit is maintained.
The benefits to outdoor smokers are numerous. Since they can be found in portable configurations, they're ideal for restaurants that like to attract new customers through local food events or outdoor fairs. Outdoor models are also typically much easier to set up and less expensive, since they don't require interior installation. Plus, most barbecue pros agree that outdoor smokers produce the best results in terms of flavor and texture.
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 that's designed for commercial use. Indoor smokers typically require installation by an expert.
Like outdoor smokers, indoor smokers can be found in many different configurations and sizes. Some indoor smokers are vertical, which is ideal for kitchens with small footprints, while others are squat and intended to be installed under a workspace. Before selecting an indoor smoker, take careful measurements of the space you have available, and make sure you have a comprehensive understanding of how the ventilation system will work and whether any structural changes will need to be made to your kitchen to complete the installation.
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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 in the same way, and the type of fuel you plan on using 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 oversmoke 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 and cold spots.
Many indoor smokers use electricity as the main 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 true smokers by many barbecue enthusiasts. However, for indoor commercial uses where charcoal, wood and pellet smokers are not permitted or realistic, propane smokers are a prudent choice. One major advantage to gas is the ease of use and low-maintenance cooking. 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 in 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, with the option to use different fuel sources in different sections.
Common commercial smoker configurations
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 configurations that are available, 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 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. 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 quantity 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. Established upright smoker brands include Royall Grills, Town and Fire Magic, and 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, there are base-style smokers that 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 just a few dishes. They are often used for finishing dishes rather than for cooking them completely from start to finish. 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. 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.
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. Small rotisserie smokers start at around $700, but you can find large smokers for well over $21,000. 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.