The name electric smoker can be a little vague. After all, it simply suggests that it runs on electricity and it’s a smoker. Technically, a pellet smoker runs is also a smoker that runs on electricity. This is probably why some people get confused when we tell them that they are not the same.
In this post, we’ll take a detailed look at the similarities and differences between the two smokers. We’ll also explain why pellet smokers are superior compared to the electric-only counterpart.
These are the categories in which we’ll compare the two types of smokers:
- Ease of Use
- Temperature control and range
- Run time
But first, let’s first cover the basics of electric and pellet smokers.
What Is an Electric Smoker?
Almost every electric smoker looks like a vertical metal box. At the bottom of the box, there is an electric heating element that provides the heat necessary for smoking. Right above that, you’ll usually find two smaller boxes – one for wood chips and one for water which is totally optional.
What We Like:
- Great for cold smoking -Electric smokers perform great in the low-temperature range. If you want to smoke things like cheese, fish, or sausages, doing it on an electric smoker is by far the easiest way.
- Small footprint -Due to the upright nature of electric smokers you can fit a good amount of food in it without having it take up too much space.
- Easy to set up -with electric smokers, all you really need is access to a power outlet and some wood chips
What We Don’t Like:
- Electricity is the only source of heat – it’s not just about the amount of power an electric smoker will consume. With an electric smoker, your options on how to treat your meat are also fairly reduced. You can smoke meat at low to mid-range temperatures. That’s it.
- Inferior flavour – Although you will use wood chips in your electric smoker, the flavour you get is nowhere near to food cooked over a real fire.
- No smoke ring – In the day and age of Instagram, it’s all about showing off that smoke ring right? Unfortunately, you’ll be struggling to get one with an electric smoker.
What Is a Pellet Smoker?
As the name suggests, a pellet smoker is a BBQ smoker that runs on wood pellets. Although wood pellets haven’t been really known in Australia until recently, they have been the smoker of choice in American for quite a while now.
Wood pellets are completely natural and made from 100% hardwood. Therefore, they allow you to smoke your meat completely naturally, while also giving you the convenience of a modern smoker that doesn’t need babysitting.
In the US, pellet smokers have been around for the last couple of decades, but they are often referred to as “pellet grills”. So, if you are wondering what is the difference between a pellet smoker and a pellet grill – there is actually none. These smokers are sometimes called “grills” because they are perfectly capable of reaching higher temperatures and therefore grilling your food too.
From the outside, a pellet smoker looks somewhat like a traditional offset smoker – but the mode of operation is actually quite different. When you look at a pellet smoker, you’ll notice it has a large funnel, usually attached to the side. This funnel is called the hopper and this is where you need to load your wood pellets. The smoker takes over from there and does everything automatically.
The right amount of pellets will be fed into the firepot through the auger (essentially a motorized corkscrew). Once in the firepot, the pellets are ignited by an ignition rod and they act as the main source of heat and smoke.
At the same time, an intake fan will ensure there is always just the right amount of air inside the grill – ensuring a stable temperature and even heating across the interior of your pellet smoker.
Advantages of Pellet Smokers:
- Flavour -Pellet smokers use fuel made of real wood, and you can be sure to get the distinct wood-fired flavour every single time.
- Convenience – Wood pellets are definitely the most convenient form of natural fuel. Pellet smokers don’t require babysitting, nor preparation that takes hours like traditional smoking methods. They are truly the “set and forget” kind of smoker
- Versatility – Pellet smokers are designed for smoking meat, but they can actually do much more than that. In essence, you can use your pellet smoker just like you would a grill.
Drawbacks of Pellet Smokers:
- Higher price for entry-level models – Getting an entry-level pellet smoker will be a considerable investment. However, you immediately get a full-featured model that can last for years – there is no such thing as a cheap
- Requires electricity – Even though the heat in a pellet smoker comes from wood pellets, they still require electricity to operate. This means you always need a power outlet around in order to use your smoker.
Electric vs Pellet Smoker: Direct Comparison
Ease of Use
Both electric smokers and pellet smokers fall under the “set and forget” category. All you need to do to start cooking is to load up your smoker and turn it on. This is a huge contrast to getting a charcoal smoker or an offset smoker fired up and running.
With a pellet smoker, the controls are actually more straightforward. What makes them slightly less convenient than electric smokers is the fact that you actually need to buy wood pellets in order to run your pellet smoker. The good news is that a bag of pellets will last for many hours.
Flavour is one category where pellet smokers definitely win. Although it’s convenient to only use electricity to heat up your smoker, the truth is – you will never achieve the flavour profile of meat smoked over real wood with an electric smoker.
Now, this does not mean that an electric smoker is useless. They are especially good for cold smoking certain foods. However, if you want to smoke large cuts of meat and get a nice bark and a smoke ring – this is highly unlikely to happen on your electric smoker.
With a pellet smoker, the story is a bit different. What creates the smoke is wood pellets which are essentially hardwood ground into sawdust and then compressed. Making hardwood into pellets results in a fuel that emits the same amount of smoke as wood chunks.
When it comes to wood pellets, you have the ability to choose from many types of aromatic wood and competition blends to create just the right smoke profile for the food you are smoking. With that said, we notice that many of us Aussies like the keep things simple.
Versatility is another category where pellet smokers definitely win. Electric smokers are good at one thing and one thing only – smoking meat on low heat for long periods of time. However, you simply can’t grill meat on it.
Pellet smokers, on the other hand, are very versatile. They easily reach temperatures in the mid to high range, allowing you to get a good sear on your food. While the main purpose of pellet smokers is definitely smoking meat low and slow (sometimes referred to low’ n’ slow), the possibilities of what you can do with a pellet smoker are virtually limitless. From American BBQ to pizzas, snags, paella and even anything you can cook in an oven
Temperature Control And Range
When it comes to electric smokers, one would expect the temperature control to be as easy as possible.
After all, there is only an electric heating element involved. However, the temperature controls can vary greatly from model to model when it comes to electric smokers. Some have digital control panels that are fairly precise but also can break down more quickly if left under the harsh Aussie sun.
With pellet smokers, temperature control is quite straightforward. All you need to do is choose the setting you want. The smoker will regulate the airflow and the wood pellet intake automatically to give you the desired temperature.
In terms of temperature range, both pellet smokers and electric smokers work best in the low range, up from 80 until 250°C. Some electric smokers can be more stable in the really low range – 80 – 120°C so if that’s what you are after you might consider one of these.
One thing to understand is that the main source of heat in pellet smokers is a wood-fire, so it’s normal for the temperature to fluctuate between 5 degrees from the target temperature.
The nice thing about pellet smokers is that you can use it as a BBQ (that’s why they’re called pellet grills in the US). With a Z Grill, for example, you can remove the heat diffuser and drop in a cast iron BBQ plate to get temperatures upwards of 300°C.
Both pellet smokers and electric smokers can run indefinitely without having to stop to refuel. With electric smokers, all you need is access to a power outlet and the smoker will run for as long as you want it.
The real question is – how often do you need to add the wood chips? This will, of course, depend on your smoking strategy, but also on the size of the smoker box. Some electric smokers can give you interrupted smoke for up to 8 hours, while some can’t do more than an hour without refilling.
How long a pellet smoker can run without a refill depends on the capacity of the hopper. Most pellet smokers will give you at least 8-10 hours of smoking time when you completely fill the hopper. Z Grills wood pellets include large-capacity hoppers that allow the smoker to run for at least 8 hours. However, if, for some reason, you wanted a smoking session that’s longer than that – you can refill the hopper anytime you want.
Entry-level electric smokers, are definitely cheaper than any pellet smoker you can buy.
However, making a good purchase is not just about comparing the prices. It is also necessary to consider the value you get for your money.
If you invest the just a little more into a pellet smoker, you will get a smoker that can do much more. You’ll get much more flexibility, a smoker that actually uses natural wood for the fire, and more space for bigger cuts of meat.
An electric smoker is right for you if:
- You have limited space for a smoker
- You mainly smoke fish and/or small cuts of meat
A pellet smoker is right for you if:
- You want a hands-off smoker but don’t want to compromise on the flavour
- You want to use all-natural fuel
- You want consistent results every time
In truth, electric smokers are becoming a thing of the past. Once popular for the ease of use, it has largely been replaced by pellet smokers.