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Pellet Smoker vs Kamado: Does the 3000-year-old technology still hold up?

In this post, we will be exploring the main differences between a pellet smoker and a kamado smoker.

The main points we will be covering are:

Which is better – a pellet smoker or a kamado smoker? The discussion is really a subtle competition between the traditional and the modern approach to smoking.

Pellet smokers were once seen as a short-lived fad. However, after seeing what people are saying about their Z Grills pellet smoker, we think they are here to stay.

Kamado smokers, on the other hand, represent an ancient cooking method in a modern interpretation.

The truth is, both types of smokers have their devoted fans. In this article, we’ll explore the differences between the two to help you make an informed buying decision.

What is a pellet smoker

Simply put, a pellet smoker is any smoker that runs on wood pellets. Pellet smokers look somewhat like traditional offset smokers in terms of shape, but they take this design to a whole new level.

A pellet smoker is a modern unit that still runs on natural fuel, in the form of wood pellets. The main feature of pellet smokers is the completely automated process of burning wood pellets.

How does a pellet smoker work?

Every pellet smoker has a hopper on one side which you need to load with wood pellets. Once the pellets are in there, all you need to do is select the temperature you want and let it do the rest of the work for you. A motorised corkscrew known as the auger will take the pellets into the firepot.

What is a kamado?

In essence, a kamado smoker is a heavy earthenware pot with an equally heavy domed lid made of the same material. The large, egg-shaped pots can be used as both as a grill and as a smoker.

Although modern kamado grills have been on the market only for the last couple of decades, the concept on which they are based is actually thousands of years old. Cooking in heavy earthenware pots is an ancient practice that used to be immensely popular across East Asia.

Image courtesy of World Digital Library

These earthenware cooking vessels were known under different names in different areas, but the word kamado is the name under which they were introduced to the Western world. Kamado is a Japanese word which translates directly to “stove” or “cauldron”. The Japanese kamado attracted the attention of Americans after World War 2, and this interest resulted in the modern kamado-style smoker and grill.

How does a kamado work?

The principle on which kamados operate hasn’t changed much – and the reason for this is simple: it just works. The most important part of a kamado is the thick earthenware walls. They absorb the heat and reflect it back into the food. As a result, kamado smokers are amazingly efficient.

Every kamado grill has a firepot at the bottom (usually with a metal grate) where you can load the charcoal and chunks of wood for smoking. Once you set up the fire, you can close the heavy lid of the kamado and let it work its magic. Every kamado smoker comes with air vents at the top and at the bottom. Just like an offset smoker, the key to maintaining a constant temperature lies in the art of controlling the airflow.

Pellet Smoker vs Kamado

Flavour

Kamado smokers and pellet smokers use different kinds of fuel to create the smoke which imparts flavour into your food. With kamado smokers, wood chunks and charcoal are burnt to create heat and smoke, while with pellet smokers the smoke comes from wood pellets.

While wood chunks and wood pellets look rather different, it is important to remember that they are essentially the same thing. High-quality BBQ-grade would pellet are made of 100% wood – they just compressed wood dust. For this reason, the flavour you get from wood chunks and wood pellets made from the same sort of wood will be essentially the same.

When setting up a kamado smoker, one gets to enjoy the art of lighting their own fire and maintaining it to get the perfect temperature.

However, it is important to remember that every wood chunk is unique, and there is a certain amount of skill involved in getting the smoke levels exactly right using charcoal and wood chunks. Too much smoke can result in the food tasting bitter due to a build-up in creosote.

With pellet smokers, on the other hand, there is no guesswork involved. All you need to do is set up your smoker, turn it on, and wait. Pellet smokers made by Z Grills also come with a dedicated smoke setting. Using this option will give you a consistent thin blue smoke that maximises the results in terms of flavour.

Ease of Use

Operating a kamado smoker is simple, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy. All you need to do to start smoking on a kamado is add charcoal and wood chunks to the firepot and start smoking. However, keeping a specific temperature on a kamado during long smokes requires quite a bit of skill and precision.

Adding more charcoal or wood during the smoking session is not very convenient – you’ll need to open up the kamado and remove the cooking grate to do that, so you should get it right the first time.

While your food is smoking, you’ll also need to be very careful about airflow control. If there is too much air going through the smoker, the temperature inside can get too high. Once a kamado overheats, it can be quite difficult to get the temperature down.

With a pellet smoker, on the hand, there is no guesswork involved. You don’t need to worry about how much fuel or air is going in – the smoker handles this by itself. All you need to do is load the hopper with enough wood pellets, choose the temperature you want, and the smoker does all of the work for you. Thanks to their large hopper capacity, the Z Grills pellet smokers will give you at least 8 hours of smoking time with a single load of wood pellets.

Clean Up

Kamado smokers are relatively easy to clean. Most of them come with an ash drawer at the bottom, so, in theory, you just open this drawer and take the trash out. The thing with kamados is that just emptying the ashes is often not enough. Especially if you run your kamado at high temperatures, you’ll inevitably have to deal with lots of burn grease and drippings that stick to everything. While this can definitely be cleaned, it’s a time-consuming and often annoying process.

The other alternative would be to get your Kamado roaring hot to sear off any grease and dripping on the deflector. But this will mean you have to start another fire and get it going just to clean up after a smoking a few racks of ribs.

All of Z Grills pellet smokers are designed with ease of use in mind. A sloped grease tray that sits right under the grilling rack catches any drippings and channels it into a grease bucket which sits at the side of the smoker.

We usually recommend people lining their grease tray with some heavy-duty aluminium foil to make clean up a breeze. The ceramic coated racks can also be easily cleaned with a Koala Claw scraper tool. Any stubborn chunks can be scraped off the ceramic coated racks easily with a Koala Claw 2 in 1 scraper grab tool.

Temperature Range

One area where a kamado shines over a pellets smoker is the temperature range it can achieve. A kamado can get blazing hot, reaching temperatures as high as 400°C. In fact, kamados can get so hot that it’s important to practice caution when opening them. Before opening a hot kamado, always remember to lift the lid for just a couple of inches first and wait a couple of seconds before opening the lid. That’s called “burping the kamado” and it will save you from getting burned.

That being said, some of the best cuts you can make in a smoker don’t require high temperatures at all, but rather cooking low and slow over many hours. When smoking cuts of meat such as briskets, ribs, and pork shoulders, long cooking tie is required for the collagen and connective tissues to break down.

Pellet smokers don’t get as hot as kamados, but they will perform almost all the possible tasks you could ask for from a smoker or a grill. If you are trying to sear a steak, for example, you can use a cast iron BBQ plate which can get roaring hot to leave a beautiful sear on your steak

Temperature Control

This is one area where pellet smokers really shine. There is no guesswork involved, all you need to do is choose the temperature you want. The smoker will regulate the airflow and the wood pellet intake automatically to give you the desired temperature. Smoking really doesn’t get any easier than that.

With kamado smokers, getting the temperature right takes a bit more practice. You’ll have to do everything manually, from loading the grill with charcoal and wood chunks to adjusting the air vents. Controlling the airflow is especially important here, as it can make the difference between the perfect low temperature and a blazing hot grill.

Run Time

Kamado smokers are designed for low and slow cooking sessions and some bigger kamados can hold enough fuel to run up to 20 hours. The pain of using a kamado smoker is the fact that you basically need to get the amount of fuel just right the first time. If you want to add fuel mid-session, you’ll need to remove the whole grill rack which is not only annoying, but also cools down your food.

With pellet smokers, there is no issue with adding more fuel mid-session. Most pellet smokers have hoppers that will hold enough pellets to run for 8 to 10 hours without a refill. However, you can just keep refilling the hopper and keep your grill running for 50+ hours without having to empty your firepot.

Summing up

You may want a kamado smoker if:

  1. You enjoy the art of building and maintaining a fire by yourself
  2. You want the traditional experience of smoking meat
  3. You want a smoker that can get up to 400°C
  4. You need to run the smoker without electricity

You may want a pellet smoker if:

  1. You want consistent results every single time
  2. You want to easily experiment with different flavours of wood pellets
  3. You want a versatile smoker that you don’t have to babysit

It is hard to say which type of smoker – a kamado or a pellet smoker is better, as it ultimately depends on the preferences of the one who’s using it. Hardcore traditionalists will always prefer smoking with wood chunks and charcoal, but the truth is, nothing matches the convenience and precision of a pellet smoker.

Kamado smokers resemble cooking vessels dating back thousands of years, so they are a good choice for smokers who would really like to go back to the roots. Pellet smokers, on the other hand, provide essentially the same results while giving you more flexibility.

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