It is not a surprise that vertical pellet smokers are trending and becoming very popular. These smokers can produce wood-fired flavor but pack the technology and conveniences found in propane or electric appliances. We have published an article on propane smokers, but we are incredibly excited to bring you this review as we actually own a wood pellet vertical smoker here at BBQGrillAcademy.com.
Vertical pellet smokers can consistently hold temperatures for “low and slow” meat smoking, and some can reach high temperatures to double as BBQ grills. These smokers are also fuel-efficient when using wood pellets. In this review, we will look at popular brands like Pit Boss, Camp Chef, and Masterbuilt, to name a few. Sit tight, grab a drink, and read on!
As we all know, hot air rises. The great thing about vertical smokers is that their vertical shape forces air upwards to cook tender, juicier, and tastier meats. So, whether you’re just starting in the world of BBQ smoking, or you’ve been smoking briskets or ribs low and slow for decades, there’s no denying that vertical smokers are excellent for cooking delicious smoky-flavored meats.
Wood Pellet smokers burn wood pellets as fuel to grill and smoke. Wood pellets are essentially compressed capsules of sawdust and repurposed wood. Pellets are made from natural wood, so they can produce genuine wood and smoky flavors.
The wood pellets are fed from a pellet hopper to a firebox by an auger, where they are ignited. After the pellets are ignited in the firebox, a fire starts, and heat and smoke rise vertically through the cooking chamber, cooking and flavoring your food.
We’ll touch a little more on the benefits of vertical smokers later in this article, but one great advantage of vertical smokers is that they don’t take up very much space, which makes them great for outdoor cooking.
Finding a Good Vertical Pellet Smoker – What Should You Consider
Finding the best vertical smoker for your backyard can be intimidating as you will come across hundreds of brands and models, all with different features, attributes, pros, and cons.
We have researched and studied many brands and have complied a list of the best vertical smokers to help you narrow down your shopping list. Although we own a Pit Boss Pellet smoker and have cooked in this smoker for many hours, we’d like to point out that we have tested and researched the other brands in this review. One thing is for sure; upright pellet smokers will cook delicious, smoky, tender meats. The vertical shape of these smoker grills allows hot air to circulate upwards and carry moisture from the water pan, cooking your meats low and slow while keeping them moist.
We will provide you with information about these smokers and where to find them. We recommend you try purchasing these grills online and having them shipped to your front door. A vertical smoker grill is a large appliance, and its shipping packaging can be large. A large vertical smoker box will not fit in a small car or small SUV. If you are just getting started in the meat smoking world, I recommend a recent article on Smokers For Beginners.
Related: Best Smokers For Beginners
Here are some key features you should consider when buying a Pellet Smoker:
Build Quality and Materials
The build quality of a smoker is essential. First, smoker grills are not cheap; you might spend a couple of hundred dollars on a large vertical smoker. A well-built smoker will last years and provide you with endless hours of enjoyment. Smokers are usually operating for long hours at cooking temperatures, and the smoker needs to be built out of suitable materials to withstand this type of use.
Look for smoker manufacturers that use good quality steel and avoid smokers with thin wall construction or weak cabinets. Thin cabinets walls will not do an excellent job at retaining heat and can warp at high temperatures when cleaning or preheating the smoker. Preferably a double-walled cabinet construction or heavy-duty insulation should be considered.
Low-quality smokers will show signs of warping at around 350 degrees during preheating or high heat cleanup.
Cooking Grates, Grids, and Water Pan
Where you place your food to cook on matters as much as the equipment doing the cooking and even meat seasoning. Here is why, if your smoker has low-quality grates or grids, these might not transfer heat well, food can stick, and sometimes even damage your food. A smoker grill will be cooking for many hours and grates can make a world of difference.
Cast iron grates can last years and do the best job at transferring heat but require maintenance to stay rust-free. Other materials are porcelain coated grids and stainless steel grates.
A water pan in upright smokers plays a crucial role. As the smoker gets hot and heat rises, it slowly boils the water in the pan, and smoky steam adheres to the meat. This effect creates beautiful smokey rings on your meat and keeps the food moist during long cooks.
It is important to look for a smoker with good-sized water pans; is it an inconvenience to refill a water plan every hour. Plus, when you open the smoker’s main cabinet door, heats escapes, and it takes a while for your smoker and meat to get back to cooking temperature.
Tech – Electronics, Temperature Controller and Management Unite
This is where the money is, besides built quality. Unlike charcoal smokers, Pellet smokers depend on a few electronics to operate. If you throw pellets in a cup, they will burn and extinguish; instead, pellet grills use a hopper and auger to feed pellets to the firebox automatically. The firebox has an electrical heating element or heat plug which ignites the pellets. A small fan under the firebox blows constant air into the firebox to agitate the fire and keep the pellets burning. A digital controller manages all these components.
The digital controller knows how many pellets to feed and when to ignite the heating plug to maintain the temperature you set on the temperature control dial. So, the controller unit in your pellet smoker is the brain of your smoker.
Some pellet smokers have controllers capable of monitoring your meat temperature using meat probes, and others have built-in safety features. These extra features can come in handy. For instance, The Pit Boss has a 300 watts igniter with auto shut off. Also, these smokers can shut off automatically if it fails to reach the set temperature after a factory set amount of time, so if there is a problem with the firebox, you won’t have a sudden flare-up.
The purpose of a smoker is to cook meats for long hours, low and slow. Pellets are the fuel of your smoker, and the hopper is your fuel tank. Like a car with a small gas tank, pellet smokers with small hoppers will need to be refueled continuously.
On average, pellet smokers burn about half to 1 pound of pellets per hour at smoking temperatures. So if you want to cook non-stop for about 10 hours, your hopper capacity should hold at least 10 pounds of pellets.
Cooking Surface Area – Cooking Capacity
Cooking capacity square inches should be considered when buying any grill type but especially when purchasing smoker grills. Typically when smoking meats, the meats are placed in the smoker and left in cooking for hours. This means the cooking space area will be utilized for hours, and no other foods can be added until the cooking space becomes available. So plan on buying the cooking space you need and plan on that cooking space to be occupied for hours.
Some vertical cabinet smokers feature large cooking areas making it easy to cook large quantities of meats to feed large crowds.
Ok, so let’s talk money. Price is a prominent factor when making any purchase, including smokers and grills. Some of these pellet smokers can cost hundreds of dollars depending on the brand and features. Our suggestion is to find the right balance between cost, features, quality, and safety.
Invest your money on quality.
Pellet smokers use electronics to control pellet feeding, temperature and even monitor meat temperature. Certain parts are prone to failure when you mix heat, water, grease, and hours of use and abuse. Something can break!
A smoker brand with a good warranty is a plus, in our opinion. Some brands will offer a 1-year warranty, and others will go to three-plus years.
In addition to a good warranty, some manufacturers will offer US-based phone support for their products. This is a huge plus as some users sometimes need help troubleshooting their smokers, and having phone support from the manufacture is incredibly helpful. ( big plus)
Meat Smoking USDA Recommendation and Safety
Smoking meats is a lot of fun, and the reward is great tasting meats. However, we like to remind our readers to always follow the USDA food safety recommendations. Following the USDA guidelines will help you become a better pitmaster and cook safely.
Thaw Meats Before Smoking or Grilling
A complete USDA guideline for safely smoking meats can be found here, but here is the main point to remember before cooking or smoking meats.
Always completely thaw meat or poultry before preparing it to cook in a smoker. Smokers cook at lower temperatures and might not thaw the meat thoroughly enough to avoid entering what’s known as the “Danger Zone,” temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Meat left at the danger zone temperatures can grow bacteria. Our meat temperature safety guide offers more information on safe cooking temperatures for various meats and poultry. Always check the meat temperature using an accurate meat probe.
Q & A: Common Questions About Vertical Pellet Smokers
Are vertical or horizontal pellet smokers better?
Vertical smokers are better for smoking meats “low and slow,” because the heat source is farther from the meat. An upright cabinet smoker will also have a water pan placed right in between your heat source and the meats, further isolating the meats from fire and adding moisture to the food.
Lastly, the smoker cabinet’s vertical shape will direct heat, water vapor, and smoke upwards, perfectly smoking your meats.
Horizontal pellet smokers are shaped more like traditional grills, and while they are still great grills and smokers, heat and smoke flow more unevenly in a horizontal grill but depending on the type of smoke you get a lot of space for long cuts of meats like briskets and rack of ribs.
Are pellet smokers better than propane smokers?
When it comes to food and what’s best, it can be part facts and part opinion; however, if you really enjoy smoke flavor in your food, any grill or smoker that burns wood or charcoal will produce the most authentic forms of smoke and flavor.
Pellets are wood and typically compacted sawdust from mills and by-products from other industrial operations. So naturally, pellets will produce a richer, more authentic smoke flavor than a propane smoker. Propane smoker needs a wood chip tray full of wood chips to produce wood flavor.
Do pellet smokers make enough smoke?
Pellet smokers produce adequate smoke to cook meats and poultry with good flavor. However, there is no comparison between charcoal and chunk wood when it comes to smoking. Charcoal and wood chunks combined to give you the most control and amount of smoke.
Which is better, pellet smoker or electric smoker?
If given a choice, I would choose a pellet smoker over an electric smoker every time. Electric smokers are easy to use but are the furthest thing from the real deal and closer to a kitchen oven, in my opinion. Pellet smokers burn wood and will give you a more authentic smoky flavor.
Do pellet smokers need electricity?
Pellet Smokers and Grills need electricity to operate. Pellet smokers use temperature controllers, igniters, and other internal mechanisms to operate, which require electricity. The controller is continually on during the cook, monitoring, feeding pellets, and igniting the heating plug as necessary.
What Can You Cook on a Upright Pellet Smoker?
You can smoke just about any cut of meat or poultry in a vertical smoker. In fact, you can also use some smokers as BBQ grills, although it might not be as effective. Depending on the smoker’s cooking capacity, larger cuts of meat can even be smoked without cutting or trimming the meat.
The Best Vertical Pellet Smokers Reviewed
1. Best Overall – Pit Boss Grill 77550 5.5 Pellet Smoker – Best Overall
The Pit Boss pellet smoker is our best overall choice for many reasons, including, well, we actually own this smoker. We can attest to its durability, quality, and effectiveness at smoking meats. The Pit Boss smokers are built well enough to do the job, although we wish the build quality was just a bit better. The smoker has a thin metal sheet in the main cooking cabinet that acts as insulation. This metal sheet can warp a bit at high temperatures, but this does not affect the cooking. The insulation could be a little better.
However, the best part about this grill is that it works well and is simple to use. The ignition process is automated and straightforward, fill the hopper with your favorite pellet flavor, set the temperature control dial to “smoke” ( igniting position ), and push the power button. That’s it!
The cooking process is also straightforward and automated, simply set the desired cooking temperature and let the Pit Boss work its magic.
What we like:
- Large cooking area enough to fit a large Turkey with plenty of space and rack space for vegetables. The total cooking space is 1548 square inches.
- The Large hopper is capable of holding 40 pounds of pellets. This means you have plenty of space for even overnight cooking.
- The temperature controller has two built-in meat temperature probes to monitor two different types of meat.
- We like smokers with glass doors as we enjoy looking at the meat as it cooks.
What we don’t like:
- If the smoker’s firebox is full of ashes or debris, it can take a while for the pellets to ignite.
- It does require some maintenance, as ashes accumulate in the small fire cup, you will need to use a Shop-Vac to clean the ashes out of the firebox cup.
- The smoker’s top can get hot and messy- as hot air, water vapor with grease rises and comes out of the smokestack, it will all fall on top of the smoker. The smokestack is dead center of the smoker, so grease and vapor have nowhere to go but down onto the top of the smoker.
- The door latch can be difficult to operate and needs to be adjusted at times.
- No Grease management; all the grease hits the firebox heat shield, which will generate extra smoke and generate unwanted flavors.
- The glass door is not easy to clean but expected.
2. Camp Chef XXL WiFi – Runner Up
The Camp Chef XXL is another great pellet smoker option. What we like about this grill is that it is WIFI capable. However, where this smoker outshines the Pit Boss is in its controller. The tech in the Camp Chef controller includes features to do a better job at controlling temperature. and the amount of smoke. Camp Chef’s Smart Smoke Technology allows for more precise temperature and smoke settings while keeping temperatures within a 5-degree margin. The Camp Check App can control the smoker over WiFi, a big plus, especially when entertaining a group of friends and you need to move around.
What we like:
- Hopper capacity is 18 pounds of pellets, which is less than the PitBoss but enough for overnight cooks.
- A large cooking area of 2408 square inches.
- The WiFi capability is a plus; being able to walk around your house while keeping an eye on your smoker via an app is a great convenience.
- The temperature controller and features are easy to use and offer great control.
- Two meat probes so you can monitor two different meat temperatures.
- We love the adjustable “smoke” settings. In other pellet smokers, this is not an option.
- Grease management – grease collector cup.
- We appreciate the 3-year warranty.
What we don’t like:
- More parts to put together than other upright smokers.
- Instructions can be confusing for some users.
- The ash collector can be difficult to reach for some compared to a pullout tray on other smokers.
3. Louisiana Grills – Largest Hopper
The Louisiana Grill smoker is a smoking machine. If you plan on cooking large quantities of meat and need plenty of pellets, this smoker will do the job. Its hopper is a whopping 60 pound capacity, which means you can smoke for very long hours non stop.
This smoker is very similar to the Pit Boss and shares some of the same characteristics.
What we like:
- Large cooking area
- Five Year warranty
- Holds 60 pounds of pellets
- Includes a smoker cover
- two temperature probes
What we don’t like:
- The website doesn’t offer a lot of information about the grill like manuals, parts lists, and specifics about the smoker as other brands do.
4. Masterbuilt MB20250118 Pellet Smoker – Vertical Fueled by Pellets
Masterbuilts manufactures great grills and smokers, and their pellet smoker is not different. This smoker is simple to operate and includes four coated smoking racks, which hold less food than the other smokers in this list. This smoker has the smallest hopper capacity in this list at only 12 pounds of pellets capacity.
However, if you are looking to get started and are looking for a simple to use smoker, the Masterbuilt might be a good option.
What we like:
- The digital temperature controls are simple and easy to use.
- The double door design allows you to check on the water pan without opening the main cooking chamber.
What we don’t like:
- The hopper is small at only 12 pounds capacity.
- Lacks some of the features found in other smokers in this list.
- This smoker is not as refined as the other smokers in this list.
5. BONUS: Cookshack Vertical Pellet Smokers
If money is not a problem and you are looking to own a professional-grade smoker, check out the Cookshack Smoker.
The Cookshack smoker is built off of staleness steal with excellent insulation and restaurant-grade temperature controls. This grill doesn’t have some of the technology of other smokers in this list, however, its build quality is second to none. This smoker can be used in small restaurants and even in smoking competitions.
The hopper holds 20 pounds of pellets, but because this smoker is very well insulated is very efficient, and those 20 pounds of pellets can last up to 24 hours.
What we like:
- Commercial-grade construction.
- Restaurant quality controls.
- Full stainless steel construction.
- Very efficient as it is well insulated.
- Made in the US
What we don’t like:
- This is an obvious point but we all know that quality comes at a price.
One Last Word
If you are looking for the best pellet smoker, try to find a smoker that fits your budget and pick a cabinet size adequate for the amount of food you plan on cooking. Some of the smokers in this list have excellent features, but the smoker size, water plan, and build quality will determine how much satisfaction you get out of your smoker and how well it will smoke meats.
Enjoy Life, Get Grilling!