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Buying a barbecue smoker

Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 4:42 PM

They are horizontal and vertical, round or rectangular. They can be totally wood- or charcoal- fueled, or they can be electric- or gas-ignited. They can run dry, or they can use water pans. They range in price from about $200 to well over $10,000 for a custom-made model.

But no matter the size, shape or degree of fanciness, there are a few things you should look for in a smoker:

- The metal should be thick.

- The seals should be tight.

- The firebox (if it has one) should be big enough to handle split logs.

- The temperature gauge should operate accurately.

Know your needs before you buy. If all you're doing is some weekend backyard cooking for relatives and friends, you won't need a top-notch monstrosity. Although competitive types scorn the cheap smokers sold at hardware stores, those work fine if you are willing to closely monitor the fire. And if you cover them between uses, they can last for a few years without rusting.

Here are some possibilities. Prices are approximate.

Weber Smokey Mountain. This bullet-shaped smoker looks a little like R2-D2. Comes with a water pan; competitors extol its tight seal and even cooking. From $300. www.weber.com.

Char-Broil Silver Smoker. A solid beginner smoker; has firebox with adjustable damper, wood work shelf, porcelain grates, good-sized cooking chamber. Doubles as a grill. $200. www.charbroil.com.

Char-Griller 1224 Smokin Pro. Another good "starter" offset smoker, with 580 square inches of cooking area and adjustable grate height. $200. www.chargriller.com.

Brinkmann Smoke'N Pit smoker. Good inexpensive smoker with adjustable grates for grilling, offset firebox and work table; $200. www.brinkman.com.

Backwoods Chubby. For higher-end smoking, this vertical, rectangular, well-made smoker comes with a removable water pan and ash box. $850. www.backwoodsok.com.

Pitt's and Spitt's. Full line of high-quality pits, with stainless-steel lids, some with an upright smoker attached to the firebox for "warming" or cold-smoking. Prices start at $1,700. www.pittsandspitts.com.

David Klose Pits. Durable, heavy-gauge-steel backyard smokers start around $1,100 and increase in size and available options to the "Extended Caterers Combo," a huge combination grill, smoker and warmer complete with folding tables at $4,175, stainless-steel charcoal basket optional ($275). www.bbqpits.com.

Jamie Geer Pits. Stylish high-end pits made with great attention to detail, from double-insulated fireboxes to (optional) chrome chimneys. Backyard model starts around $1,775. Top-end J-5 model starts at $12,000. www.jambopits.com.

-- J.S.

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