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You are looking to buy your first smoker or maybe you are just looking to switch to a different type of smoker. Either way, there are so many different types and brands of smokers on the market it can be overwhelming to choose one. I remember when I was looking for my first smoker, I did not even realize there were different types of smokers. After some careful research I finally settled on a Weber Smokey Mountain charcoal smoker. To save you some time and hassle, here is a breakdown of the two most common types of smokers for beginners, charcoal smokers and pellet smokers.
What Is A Charcoal Smoker?
A charcoal smoker is outdoor cooker that uses indirect heat and smoke to cook meat at low temperatures for extended periods of time. Charcoal smokers are great for rendering fatty pieces of meat such as brisket that are otherwise inedible. Used in conjunction with wood chunks, charcoal smokers give meat that notable smoky flavor.
Charcoal smokers come in three different types, bullet smokers (also called water smokers), drum smokers, or ceramic ovens. They are vertical smokers, meaning that charcoal is placed at the bottom of the smoker, allowing the heat and smoke to rise vertically from beneath the meat.
Now because the heat source is below our meat, and smoking requires indirect heat, charcoal smokers will have some sort of heat shield to protect the meat from direct heat. Charcoal smokers also have a series of vents which controls air flow and the temperature of the smoker. While the charcoal gives the meat a good smoky flavor, wood chunks are used in addition to charcoal to give the meat different smoke flavors.
What Is A Pellet Smoker?
A pellet smoker, also referred to as a pellet grill, is an outdoor cooker that uses wood shavings compressed into pellets, to cook and smoke meat. Pellet smokers are electronically controlled and automatically feed pellets into an igniter to maintain a set temperature. Furthermore, electronic fans control the flow of air throughout the cooking chamber.
Pellet smokers look like a grill, but are fueled by the wood pellets instead of propane. A hopper sits on the side of the pellet grill holding the wood pellets. An auger transports wood pellets to an igniter which catches the pellets on fire. The heat and smoke produced from the wood pellets are then transported to the cooking chamber, allowing our meat to smoke. Inside the cooking chamber, fans circulate the air to ensure even cooking.
Growing in popularity, pellet grills are an easy and effective way for people to smoke meat. Not only are they great for smoking meat, but they can also be used as an oven or grill as most brands allow temperatures up to 500° F. Because pellet grills are electronically controlled, these types of smokers do not require much oversight making it very beginner friendly.
Which One Is Better For Me?
As with anything in life, choosing which smoker is better for you depends on multiple factors. There is no clear winner as far as which type of smoker is better. Each type of smoker has its time and place; however, you can choose which one better meets your current needs. While both types of smokers will create great BBQ, looking at the factors below can help you determine which type of smoker is better for you.
Winner: Charcoal Smoker
Probably the most asked question regarding each type of smoker is the cost. Budget is one of the most important factors when it comes to determining which smoker is better for you. While there is a range of pricing options available for each type of smoker, in general charcoal smokers are more cost effective. When looking at cost, I took into consideration the initial cost of the smoker, fuel cost, and maintenance cost.
Pellet smokers, especially the name brands, can easily run at over $1,000 and range anywhere from $600 to $4,000. Taking a look at the top pellet smokers on the market today, the average price came in just under $800. Comparing this to charcoal smokers, they range anywhere from $100 all the way up to $1,200 with an average price around $437. You can also create your own well built drum smoker from scratch for under $200.
Because pellet grills are electronically operated, in general they are going to be more expensive. You can find cheaper pellet grills, but you are going to sacrifice quality. If you are looking for a cheap smoker to test out the hobby, or are looking for a quality smoker that will not break the bank, then a charcoal smoker is your best bet.
Wood Pellets Vs. Charcoal Cost:
When it comes to fuel cost, pellet smokers and charcoal smokers are a wash. Wood pellets and charcoal briquettes average about $1.00 per pound with lump charcoal being a little more expensive; however, pellets will burn faster than charcoal so you will go through more pellets in a cook then you would charcoal.
Another thing to keep in mind with pellet grills, there is no need to buy wood chunks. The pellets provide the heat and the smoke flavor, so while wood chunks are not expensive, you can save some money there. All in all, the fuel costs for pellet grills and charcoal briquettes will even out and if you are using lump charcoal, pellets would actually be cheaper. The difference between fuel costs is not going to break the bank and shouldn’t sway your decision. Most of the cost difference lies in the initial cost of the smoker.
The main difference between operating a charcoal smoker and a pellet smoker, is pellet smokers require electricity to run. While they do not require a lot of electricity, this is a cost you will need to take into consideration. Additionally, pellet smokers have a lot of electronics and moving parts which are always susceptible to breaking.
It is only a matter of time before something breaks and you have to replace it. Again, these aren’t huge costs, but there is much more maintenance that goes into keeping a pellet smoker running than there is in keeping a charcoal smoker running.
Overall, most of the cost difference is going to come in the initial investment of the smoker in which case charcoal smokers are cheaper. Charcoal smokers are slightly cheaper to keep and operate as well. While cost is an important factor, you can still find both types of smokers in every price range so it is important to look at these other factors as well.
Ease of use:
Winner: Pellet Grills
Pellet smokers are by far some of the easiest smokers on the market to use. They are a simple plug and play smoker that takes all the work out of managing a fire. You simply plug in the smoker, set your temperature, and wait for your meat to be done.
Charcoal smokers require you to manage your fire which is done by opening and closing vents that lead to your fire box. Your smoker’s temperature will fluctuate based on a variety of factors. You will have to make minor adjustments to your smoker throughout the smoke to maintain your desired temp. While it is not hard to learn how to use a charcoal smoker, it is a little more hands on than a pellet grill.
In addition to that, pellet smokers fire up much quicker than charcoal smokers. For charcoal smokers you need to get a fire going and let your charcoals heat up before they are ready to cook on. Pellet grills give you the ability to fire up the smoker quickly and get the meat on faster. Both types of smokers are easy to use for beginners but if you are looking for a hands off, set it and forget it type of smoker, then a pellet grill is for you.
Winner: Charcoal Smoker
While pellet smokers are convenient and easy to use, you will be sacrificing some of that sought after smoky flavor. Charcoal is going to produce a much stronger smoky flavor than pellets. Now, that is not to say that you cannot get a good smoky flavor from a pellet grill, because you can, it is just that the smoke flavor just will not be as strong.
In addition to that, most charcoal smokers utilize wood chunks with their charcoal to further enhance the smoke flavor and strength. Pellet grill owners will often use smoke tubes or foil packets filled with wood chips to help add more smoke flavor, but it you are looking for that traditional smoke flavor, a charcoal smoker is going to be your best bet.
Winner: Slight Advantage To Pellet Grills
While pellet grills look like an offset smoker and a grill, they actually more resemble a convection oven. Electronic fans move the air around in the smoking chamber allowing for an even cook. This allows the pellet grill to be used as a smoker or an oven.
Additionally, some of the higher end brands have a removable plate that allows you to cook food over a direct flame. Whereas most charcoal smokers are almost strictly a smoker, pellet grills can be used as an oven, grill or smoker. There is one exception to charcoal smokers though, and that is the ceramic smokers.
These smokers are incredibly well insulated and are very versatile. These charcoal smokers triple as a grill, a smoker, and an oven as well. They even come with attachments that you can use to cook woodfire pizza and bread.
Winner: Pellet Grills
Pellet grills closely resemble a grill and usually have a fairly larger cooking chamber. This is great for cooking large amounts of meat at once. It also helps when you want to cook larger cuts of meat like brisket and ribs. With a pellet grill there really is not any worry about fitting all your meat on the smoker.
Charcoal smokers on the other hand, are going to be smaller and more compact. Most cheaper versions of charcoal smokers are going to come with one circular cooking rack. This will limit the amount of food you can put on at once. You can opt to spend more money on a larger charcoal smoker giving you more room, but you still will not have as much cooking room as a pellet grill.
If you are wanting to smoke for more than 10 people or have more than 3-4 cuts of meat on the smoker at once, then you will want to opt for a pellet smoker.
Other Important Factors
Electricity and water do not mix very well. It is not a great idea to use a pellet smoker in poor weather conditions without some sort of cover. Doing so could damage the electrical components of your pellet grill. Additionally, storing your pellet grill in poor weather conditions could damage it. Some pellet smokers make the electronic parts detachable, but this is still something you should take into consideration depending on where you live and if you plan on smoking in poor weather conditions. The nice thing about charcoal smokers is you can smoke meat in the rain or shine.
As mentioned above, charcoal smokers are in general much smaller and compact than pellet grills. This makes them easier to store and transport. Additionally, because you are using charcoal as your heat source, you can use a charcoal smoker anywhere. Unless you have a generator or electricity, with a pellet smoker you will be limited to smoking at your house.
Interestingly enough, many apartments or HOA’s may not allow charcoal smokers. Because charcoal smokers are cooking over a live fire, they can be considered a fire hazard. Apartments and HOA’s may restrict use of charcoal smokers so it is best to check your local guidelines. Because pellet smokers are not classified as a live smoker, there are no restrictions on where you can use a pellet grill.
After all, smoking is a hobby and something that we do for fun. Some people find it more fun to be hands on when smoking. Starting and managing a fire in a charcoal smoker can be challenging but done right can be rewarding. While some would rather take the hands off approach to smoking meat, some prefer to be a bit more involved in the cooking process. Charcoal and offset smokers are more work, but for someone who enjoys the smoking process, they are much more enjoyable to cook on.
So, which one should I choose?
If this is your first smoker and you are just getting into the hobby, you cannot go wrong with either choice. There is no need to stress as you will be able to create great BBQ with either choice. With that being said, you can choose a better smoker for your needs. Using the factors above you should be able to determine which smoker type would work best for your needs.
Are you willing to sacrifice some smoke flavor for something that is more hands off? Or are you looking for the traditional smoking experience? Choose which factors you care about the most and make your decision based off that, and if you still cannot choose, grab both!
Each type of smoker has its place and time and many pitmaster’s actually have multiple type of smokers for that reason. In the end, no matter what type of cooking device you get, you can create good food.
Are Pellet Grills Healthier Than Charcoal Grills?
There is no evidence to suggest that pellet grills are healthier than charcoal grills. Pellet grills, just like charcoal grills, burn wood to create smoke and heat which can release carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. You take on the same amount of risk cooking with a pellet grill as you do with a charcoal grill.
Are Pellet Grills Cheating?
Pellet grills are not cheating. Pellet grills, like other smokers, use wood and indirect heat to smoke meat at low temperatures for extended periods of time. The only difference between pellet grills and other smokers, is pellet grills do not require you to manage a fire. The cooking process is the same, thus using a pellet grill is not considered cheating.