Unless you are an absolute purist and want to use hardwood as the heat source for your smoker then charcoal is probably the next best thing.
For sure hardwood has been used for eons as a source of both heat and smoke but in this modern day and age is it practical? If you’re into continually loving and caring for your fire all the way through the cookout and you’ve got the ability and finances to build a smoke pit in your backyard then maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree but certainly as far as I’m concerned if you want to get close to the traditional method (and like me you like playing with fires) then plump for a charcoal smoker.
Assuming you buy good quality charcoal then you will get a product which is upwards of 80% pure carbon and this ensures that you get a clean burn. Just be wary of some of the cheaper products that have additives, some of these may be petroleum based and therefore could end up tainting the flavor of your food ceramic smoking pipes.
The main advantage of using charcoal other than the fun is that it is completely self contained. There’s no need for pipes (gas) or power cords (electricity), once your charcoal is lit the only thing it needs to continue burning is a ready supply of oxygen which is freely available in the air we breathe. So if portability is high on your list of criteria when buying a smoker then maybe a charcoal burner is right for you – just don’t go out and buy a ceramic kamado like the Big Green Egg because these weigh a ton.
There are however a number of disadvantages to charcoal and this mainly revolves around the control of the heat. Dependent on the supply of oxygen, charcoal can produce a very intense heat and if that supply of oxygen is abundant then this intense heat will only last for a short space of time.
For this reason, careful control of your fire is required to ensure that you get an even heat for as long a period as possible. After all, we’re not heating the oven to a very high temperature so getting the charcoal to burn low and slow is possible by restricting the supply of oxygen.
Draft vents top and bottom help you achieve this and once sorted you can relax a little but getting the fire under control will involve a lot of sequential incremental adjustments to the apertures of both vents. Some smoker enthusiasts consider this to be part of the fun, if you don’t fancy it then go for gas or electricity.
Once set up it’s also the case with charcoal that your fire can start to die within 30 minutes or so and this means that you have to keep checking your smoker on the half hour throughout the cooking process. (Professional competition teams generally have an alarm that will sound should the temperature inside the oven vary by so many degrees from the optimum).
Finally, if you’re going to do a lot of smoking, charcoal can become very expensive very quickly.
So I hope that the message is clear, if you’re up for the tradition and want to spend your time playing with your smoker then charcoal fuel is probably for you but if you’re more inclined to sit back, enjoy the day and then enjoy your food, it’s probably time to check out the gas smokers guide.