Portable electric smokers have a lot to answer for because they are probably the main reason for the epidemic of smoking enthusiasm across much of the USA. These products are low cost and relatively speaking are getting even lower in cost as manufacturing moves out to China.
The basic design is an aluminum shell and a single chamber with an electric hotplate on the base to act as a heat source and on top of that sits a wood chip pan to provide the smoke. The remaining upper half of the chamber is where the food racks sit.
There will be a removable front panel that gives access to the inside of the smoker and the process is simple to follow. Place the food on the food racks, wood chips in the pan, place the pan on the heating element and then close the door and switch on the machine. A vent top and bottom ensure that a draft carries the hot smoky air from bottom to top and so over the food.
It’s pretty simply and it has to be said that anyone who can follow these simple instructions has a fair chance of turning out half decent smoked food so with one of these units retailing for significantly less that $100 you can understand why they are so popular.
They are however flawed and would not be of any use to any smoker other than a novice. The main point is that the aluminum shell is not insulated and the heating element has only two settings – on and off. This means that temperature control is extremely difficult and you a susceptible to the elements. If the outside temperature is low (and you have to use this smoker outside) then the chances of reaching a recommended temperature for smoking such as 225 Fahrenheit is pretty slim. And if the wind is blowing too then you’ve got double the temperature. To counteract this problem, many folks make insulating blankets to fit around the outside of the unit but even with this solution there are no guarantees and whilst you end up with a smoky food, it may not be cooked all the way through.
Similarly, if it’s a really hot day, there’s no way to lower the temperature. Imagine that the sun is blazing down on this cylinder of aluminum, it’s going to get pretty hot in there and all you can do to lower the temperature is to open the door and let the smoke out. It defeats the object of the exercise somewhat.
There’s no provision in the portable electric smoker for a water pan so you have no control over the humidity. Remember that cooking in humid conditions keeps the meat moist during what is a long cookout so not being able to use a water bath restricts your cooking time and also threatens a dry finished product. The only way to short cut this is to smoke for a few hours and then finish off in the oven but again I think that this spoils the fun of smoking.
These smokers must as I said earlier be used outside and that means that you have to be really careful – as you know electricity and water don’t mix. So it must be sited on an inert surface like a concrete slab, away from the sun wind and rain…not exactly the most flexible of products.
They are however extremely lightweight and therefore truly portable so in theory you can cook almost anywhere – provided you have access to a ready supply of electricity. Not sure I’d want to have this issue on my next fishing trip!