Who doesn’t love the taste of freshly smoked food? It makes the meat from ribs fall off the bone with the perfect tenderness or imparts that one-of-a-kind smokey flavor to chicken and salmon.
Smokers offer the perfect heat for low and slow cooking and infuse food with a flavor that speaks to our primal love for wood and charcoal-fired meats. But we are not living in the paleolithic era, where cavemen didn’t have options for cooking food.
Today, there are probably more options than are good for us. Case in point: do you know which is better between an electric smoker and a charcoal smoker? Did you even know you have an option? If you did, then you are probably familiar with smoking already.
But whether you are new to the pit or want to sort all of your options as a seasoned (no pun intended) smoker, it pays to know the pros and cons of electric and charcoal-powered smokers.
In this article, I will discuss the major and minor differences between an electric smoker and a charcoal smoker to help you figure out which would be best for your needs (and your meats).
A Quick Look at Electric Smokers
As you can probably surmise from the name, the main difference between an electric smoker and a charcoal smoker is the power source. Instead of relying on charcoal (or in some cases a combination of wood and charcoal), electric smokers rely on, well, electricity.
They rely on heating elements (usually metal rods or metal coils) that are heated up with electricity to combust wood pellets which is how they achieve smoke. In many cases, the heating element can be controlled relatively precisely, making electric smokers particularly attractive to beginners.
Usually, the learning curve with traditional smokers is pretty steep. But many electric smokers are marketed towards consumers with little to no smoking experience because they make controlling heat and the amount of smoke easier.
With that all being said, it should be noted that just because you buy an electric smoker doesn’t mean you will become a pitmaster on your first go.
You have to be sure to buy a quality electric smoker because shoddy ones will make it hard to control and maintain temperature even with an electric heating element.
A Quick Look at Charcoal Smokers
Charcoal smokers are a little more intimidating because not everyone is adept at controlling charcoal fires. With these kinds of smokers, the bed of charcoals will sit at either the bottom of the main smoking chamber or on the side burner if you use an offset smoker.
Then, the smoke rises directly toward the food or is fed to the main cooking chamber, where it circulates and cooks the food. Many pit masters refuse to use anything other than charcoal smokers because they truly believe charcoal imparts the best flavor.
These purists reject electric smokers outright because they say it lacks the true smoke flavor. We don’t know about all that, but we can tell you that if you learn to control a charcoal smoker, you will be able to use any smoker.
For this reason, many people start with charcoal smokers because they truly want to learn how to master the art. Using a charcoal smoker is also a more engaging and involved process, as you need to monitor the coals, temperature, and smoke levels closely. And some people truly enjoy the process.
|Category||Charcoal Smokers||Electric Smokers|
|Cost||Charcoal smokers tend to be more affordable||Electric smokers tend to cost more because of the additional wiring and electrical components|
|Ease of Use||Harder to master||Electric smokers are easier to use overall|
|Flavor||Charcoal smokers tend to impart a richer, smoke flavor than electric smokers but this is certainly debatable||Most purists will say that electric smokers don’t make the grade when it comes to flavor|
|Ease of Maintenance||Charcoal smokers are fairly easy to maintain with the only real challenge coming from cleaning out charcoal ash||Electric smokers can be a little more difficult to clean and the heating elements can get dirty|
|Storage Considerations||Charcoal smokers can be stored outdoors pretty easily so long as you have a cover that fits well||Electric smokers should be kept indoors in general due to the electrical components|
In most cases, the simpler the device, the more reliable it will be. The same holds true for smokers. In general, you can expect your charcoal smoker to last longer than an electric smoker. The main reason is that electric circuitry can fail for several reasons.
It’s also possible that the electric heating element can become corroded over time and fail. While you can replace an old heating element, the process takes some time and technical acumen. Some people opt to avoid the possible headache altogether and use a charcoal smoker.
Another consideration is rain. One of the most common causes of electric smoker failure is moisture exposure. This usually occurs when people forget to move their electric smoker indoors when it starts to rain.
But even if you are diligent about keeping your electric smoker indoors, other things can happen. Floods in the garage, leaking water heaters, and spills can occur and damage the electrical components. In general, you can expect an electric smoker to last between 5 and 10 years.
You don’t have to worry about all-out failure with a charcoal smoker. The only thing you do need to keep an eye out for is rust. In most cases, the threat of rust can be negated simply by using a cover.
As far as maintenance goes, it’s pretty much a wash between electric and charcoal units. While charcoal smokers will surely generate more ash, most modern models have convenient ash catchers that can be slid out from the firebox and dumped.
It’s also pretty important to keep your charcoal smoker as clean as possible because residual ash (especially when it gets damp, moist, or straight up wet) can affect the flavor of your foods. But cleaning charcoal smokers (even ones without an ash catcher) is a fairly straightforward process.
And while you have to watch the heating element – making sure it doesn’t accrue layers of grime, grease, and debris – you don’t get as much ash or creosote buildup. So it’s pretty much a tie on the maintenance front.
Price can be tough to compare between these 2 types of smokers because you have to consider both the upfront costs of the smoker itself and operational costs.
Upfront, you probably won’t spend as much on a charcoal smoker as you would on an electric smoker (although there are certainly uber-fancy charcoal smokers that will cost you a pretty penny).
But as far as ongoing operational costs go, you may end up paying more in the long run on a charcoal smoker. This of course has to do with the cost of charcoal. In general, it is cheaper to power your smoker with electricity.
To give you an idea of how much cheaper the operational costs of electric smokers are if you were to smoke every single one of your meals with an electric smoker for a month straight, it would only cost you about $25 in electricity.
And chances are, you’re not going to be smoking three square meals a day for months at a time. However, electric smokers tend to be more expensive upfront than charcoal smokers. And you also have to compare the average lifespan of electric vs. charcoal smokers.
This topic is really a matter of opinion. Because electric smokers typically rely on wood pellets, some people say that the food tastes the same as charcoal smokers. But experienced grillers say that they can tell the difference and that there is no comparison at all – charcoal is the end-all-be-all.
On the other hand, not everyone is skilled or experienced (or they don’t have the time) to get consistent results with charcoal smokers. So while charcoal may inherently impart a deeper, more robust flavor inherently, that may mean nothing to the smoker who can’t get the hang of it.
Fortunately, both electric and charcoal smokers come in all shapes and sizes. Vertical charcoal smokers can save on space and may need as little as a 2 feet x 2 feet square space.
On the larger end of the spectrum, you can expect charcoal offset smokers to be larger than any electric unit you can find.
Simply put, charcoal smokers can reach higher temperatures but also have a higher lower end. It is difficult to get anything lower than 100 degrees Fahrenheit with a charcoal smoker, whereas you can maintain a lower temperature pretty easily with an electric smoker.
Implementing a “low and slow” smoking method with electric smokers is a bit easier. And low and slow cooking is essentially the signature of smoking meats in the first place.
Electric smokers give you a lower base temperature, meaning you can smoke other foods besides meats. It also means that you run a lower risk of overcooking meats, searing them, burning them, or simply not getting enough smoke infusion before they are fully cooked.
And of course, it is much easier to maintain an optimal temperature with electric smokers. While you may not get as much smoke, it is easier to reach your prime temperature and stay there.
This is especially true if you opt for an electric smoker with digital temperature controls.
As far as versatility goes, the winner is subjective. Both types of smokers have their advantages and disadvantages regarding how and what you can smoke. For example, a decent amount of charcoal offset smokers can be used as a traditional fire grill.
This usually entails stoking the fire in the separate fire chamber so that you get a flame going. Some offset smokers will have a grate in the fire chamber for this purpose; others may require installing one yourself. But the bottom line is that you can potentially use charcoal smokers to grill foods traditionally.
While you don’t have the grilling option with electric smokers, you can use the lower base temperature to your advantage. For instance, you may use an electric smoker at a very low temperature to smoke cheeses, vegetables, and nuts.
Summary of Electric Smoker
If you are convinced an electric smoker is a right choice, check out my review of electric smokers. I know there are many electric smokers to choose from depending on factors such as size, shape, and feature.
Smoking your food can be an extremely rewarding process. There’s nothing like mastering the level of smoke needed to achieve flavor perfection. But choosing between an electric smoker and a charcoal smoker can be difficult.
In the end, the 2 types of smokers are pretty evenly matched from an objective standpoint. Each has its unique strengths and weaknesses. So at the end of the day, it becomes a subjective matter.
Some questions you must ask yourself before buying:
- Do you prefer the ease of use?
- Are you an experienced smoker?
- Is flavor the ultimate decider for you?
- How much space do you have to work with?
- Is cost a factor?
In general, if you want to save money and don’t feel like babysitting a bed of hot coals, an electric smoker will be more your speed. The main advantages of an electric smoker are that they cost less to operate and aren’t as hard to use.
On the other hand, if operational costs are no object and you prefer the pure charcoal flavor, then a charcoal smoker is your best bet.