Scoring: Each category is worth 20 points for a total of 100
- Temperature Controls: 10
- Smoke Controls: 6
- Durability: 15
- Versatility: 11
- Taste Test: 10
Final Score: 52/100
The Char-Broil Electric Water Smoker is a "bullet" style smoker, named for the basic shape of the unit. Bullet smokers are great introductory smokers for a number of reasons, the most important being the price - at $69.99 it is about as inexpensive as you can get if you are buying a smoker new and even your cheapest homemade smoker isn't much less (and who really wants to cook in a trash can or a cardboard box anyway?).
The Char-Broil smoker comes largely disassembled but goes together in about 20 minutes with a screwdriver and a wrench. I have put two of these together and in both cases the smokers were missing one screw, which was irritating. luckily I have spare screws and nuts around so in both cases I could fix the problem, nonetheless for some users this is going to mean going to the hardware store for the part or even a return.
An experienced and patient pitmaster can tease come pretty decent food out of one of these guys in a pinch but it is a pretty basic unit and without committing to putting some customizations into the unit this smoker isn't going to please the serious barbecue fan for very long. If you have some ingenuity you can massively improve the unit, and later on in I will go into some recommendations on how to improve its performance.
The temperature control on this smoker is pretty rudimentary; the heating element is basic, and very similar to an electric charcoal starter, and the temperature meter on the lid is useless. The temperature control is a knob, but really only has three settings, off, not hot enough and barely hot enough.
Another problem the smoker has is with smoke control. The smoker's instructions suggest that you put your wood chips into the “water” pan for smoking. This just doesn't work well. The wood chips start out not wanting to burn for lack of heat and as the meat above begins to cook, the drippings fall on the wood and then the meats grease is what burns, which gives your meat a nasty burnt meat flavor and smell, yuck. Further the water in the smoker is an important part of the chemistry of a smoker, filling the water pan at least halfway keeps the drippings from burning, and adds the humid environment that good BBQ needs. I place my chips in and around the burner below the water pan – which works very well, though it burns away quickly if you don't use chunk wood.
Also troubling is the smoker's lid. The smoker does not allow the smoke to pass over the meat and exit though the top of the smoker, creating a smoke pocket in the lid that slowly pours out the lids seal with the base, inevitably bittering your meat which is left sitting in a kind of bowl of smoke. The lid also condenses water that then drips on your food, covering your food with sooty water that has a foul taste. Covering your food on the top grill with foil will prevent this (see below for another customization that will help with both these problems).
Pimp Your Smoker!
The blessing of this unit is that it is made of reasonably tough materials (though I found that the paint tends to come off the inside of these cookers over time). These smokers, cleaned maintained and treated well will last for at least a couple of years. The other thing that the smokers 14 gauge steel provides for is a good foundation for reasonable customizations. The rest of this article and review is about making this cheap, half assed smoker into a more serious machine that will make you much happier with your results.
Fixing the Heat Control:
My first step in customixing this smoker was fixing the heat control (or lack there of). I put baffles in the bottom of the smoker by drilling 3/8 inch holes around the base of the unit, above the burner reflector, just below the burner itself. Next I went out and purchased a bag of replacement lava rock for a propane grill and poured this around the burner. The rock takes in the heat and distributes it more evenly than the reflector plate did, and creates a good surface for the wood to smoke, and, the baffles allow me to add some charcoal (shhh!) when I can't keep the temperature quite high enough (think Fall, Winter and Spring), I control the temperature with small pieces of stainless steel screwed in place next to the holes that I rotate out to open and close - contolling air flow. When I am done smoking I UNPLUG THE UNIT repeat UNPLUG THE UNIT, remove the burner and hose out the ash. I have also added a set of three 3/8th inch holes in the very bottom of the unit to allow the water and ash that accumulates there to leave the smoker. If you don't do this rain fills the base of the unit up anyway, so you might as well.
If you want to add some real flexibility to the unit, for instance adding the option of cold smoking, you can do that as well. Go online and find a Variac – which is also known as a Variable AC Transformer (Note: A Variac is not a dimmer switch – use a dimmer switch for this and you will have an electrical fire on your hands!). You will need one that is rated for at least 20 amps, and plug this unit in between your power and the smoker. The variac will allow you to have very precise control over your burner heat. With this addition you will be able to control the temperature of any electric smoker down to the degree – no joke. In a search for this article I found at least 3 used Variacs online that would do the job, from between $25 and $50. Set your smokers temp knob to max and use the large dial on the Variac to find your exact temperature, high or low. The best thing about the Variac it that it will make your smoker look like FrankenSmoker!
Fixing the Smoke Control:
This fix is a simple one and does a lot to fix two of the problems presented by the Char-broil. The Thermometer on the lid is a useless piece of junk – you have to use a a different thermometer, so pull that piece of junk right out of the lid, and add a smoke baffle instead. You can actually use tin foil for this if you want to work on the cheap, just shoving the foil in the hole and allowing a hole on one side to let out the smoke. This fix solves two problems in one – both the smoke bowl problem caused by the closed lid, and the drip problem caused by condensation on the lid roof. Allowing the smoke to pass over the meat is key to good barbecue, and this fix will make a huge difference in the taste of the food you can produce in this otherwise mediocre cooker.