Pellet smokers and offset smokers are two of the most popular types of smokers among seasoned barbecue masters. While offset smokers have been around since forever, pellet smokers became popular only in the past couple of decades.
Choosing which one of these two types of smokers is better is often a matter of heated debate among smoking enthusiasts. Offset smokers are a tried-and-true option, but pellet smokers bring forth some innovative solutions that were not possible with the traditional offset smoker design.
In today’s article, we’ll explore the differences between the two to help you make your own decision.
What is a Pellet Smoker?
The simplest way to define a pellet smoker is by saying that it’s a smoker that runs on wood pellets. The concept of pellet smokers takes the design of a traditional smoker and adapts it for the 21st century. Pellet smokers run on natural fuel, just like traditional smokers, but in the form of pellets which are much more convenient to use than charcoal or wood chunks.
Suppose you’ve heard about pellet grills before and wondering what makes them different from pellet smokers. In that case, that question is easy to answer: they are the same thing. That is one of the distinguishing features of pellet smokers: they are amazingly versatile. Smoking a large chunk of meat low and slow for hours on end, searing a steak or roasting a couple of hot dogs? With pellet smokers, you don’t have to decide one or another; You can cook just about anything in it.
So how exactly does a pellet smoker work? When you load the wood pellets into the hopper, a motorized corkscrew known as the auger will automatically feed the right amount of pellet into the firepot.
Once the pellets are inside the firepot, they come into contact with an ignition rod that sets them on fire. At the same time, an intake fan located underneath the firepot feeds air into the smoker, thus ensuring that the fire always keeps burning and the temperature is evenly distributed inside the grill.
What is an Offset Smoker?
An offset smoker is a classic smoker. Depending on where you are, you might know it under different names like the barrel smoker, the horizontal smoker, the stick smoker.
No matter what it’s called, every offset smoker consists of two chambers – the main chamber where you place your meat and the firebox which is located in a separate chamber connected to the main one.
The principle on which offsets smokers operate is quite simple. To get the smoking process started, you’ll need to light a fire in the firebox that will generate smoke. Offset smokers can use different kinds of fuel, including pure wood, charcoal mixed with wood chunks or logs, or even charcoal and wood chips. A combination of charcoal and wood chunks is most commonly used as it generates a steady flow of heat and smoke.
Once the fire is lit, the heat and smoke will flow from the firebox, through the main chamber where your meat is, and out through the chimney. Most offset smokers will have dampers that allow you to control the airflow and consequently the temperature inside the smoker.
There is a certain allure when it comes to being able to start your fire and manage it without having your smoker do the heavy lifting for you.
Think of the last time you went for a camping trip and how it felt to sit around the fire and get lost in your thoughts while staring into the flames. It is almost like its ingrained into us as humans.
With that said, we have come a long way since the time of our ancestors. While some people find it rewarding to be able to do that, we’ve got the other end of the spectrum where some people don’t want to spend their entire weekend playing with fire; so let’s have a closer look to find out which smoker is right for you.
Pellet Smokers vs Offset Smokers
|Pellet Smoker||Offset Smoker|
|Cooking methods||Smoking, grilling||Smoking, grilling, roasting, baking|
|Price range||$500 – $2000+||$100 – $2000+|
|Fuel type||Wood pellets||Charcoal and wood|
|Power outlet required||Yes||No|
Ease of Use
Some people might tell you that you have more control over the smoking process with an offset smoker than with a pellet smoker, but this claim is simply not true. Part of the reason some smoking enthusiasts may feel this way is the fact that smoking meat on an offset smoker is a much more involved process that often requires a lot of skills and attention.
With an offset smoker, you need to start the fire yourself and add the chunks of wood as needed. On average, you’ll need to attend the firebox once every 45 minutes or once every hour. If you get it just right, the results will be very satisfying, but the process requires skill and finesse.
Now, imagine smoking a brisket or a pork butt which often requires at least 6 hours of smoking. Standing by the grill the whole time and checking on the fire doesn’t seem like the best way to spend your day, right?
Well, with a pellet smoker, you won’t have to. Pellet smokers are the complete opposite of offset smokers in this regard. 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. Yes, you understood right: the Z Grills pellet smokers are completely automatic. They are designed to be set and forget. Most pellet smoker will give you at least 8 hours of smoking time with a single load of wood pellets while you can just kick back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Hardcore traditionalists often say that you can’t get the level of flavour you get with an offset smoker with anything else. However, this is far from the truth. In general, offset smokers, and pellet smokers can give you the same amount of smoke and therefore, the same level of flavour.
Offset smokers and pellet smokers do use different kinds of fuel to create smoke. In offset smokers, chunks of wood are usually used, while pellet smokers run exclusively on pellets.
While one might assume that you will automatically get more flavour if you smoke with wood chunks, there is much more guesswork involved there. Every chunk is unique, and the amount of smoke you get from an offset smoker will depend on many more external factors like the weather and how windy it is.
This requires much more skill and precision to get it right. If you do it incorrectly and/or create too much smoke, your food can end up tasting bitter as a result of creosote build-up.
Pellet smokers, on the other hand, will always give you a consistent level of smoke. The only thing you need to do is to choose the temperature you want, and you are all set. Pellet smokers made by Z Grills even offer a smoke setting that gives a consistent thin blue smoke that gives you the best results in terms of flavour.
People tend to forget that at the end of the day, pellets are just compressed wood dust. High-quality BBQ-grade wood pellets should be free of any fillers and made from 100% wood. Therefore, in terms of wood-fired flavour, you should expect the same wood-fired from a pellet smoker as you would from an offset.
Both offset smoker and pellet smoker have quite a considerable amount of freedom when it comes to the temperature you want to cook at.
The nice thing about both types of smokers is that you can quite easily get them up to the 200°C range.
As the name implies, the heat source of an offset smoker is off at the side in the firebox. This means you won’t be able to get direct heat to the grilling chamber unless you start a separate fire in the chamber barrel itself. If you manage to do the latter, you can get your grilling surface blazingly hot.
You want to check if the particular offset smoker you are looking to buy has been designed for this to make sure you don’t end up voiding any warranty.
With pellet smokers, however, the heat source comes from directly below the grilling surface. While there is often a heat deflector and an oil tray in between the flame and the grilling surface, on the Z Grills 700 series, this can easily be removed, and a cast iron plate can be dropped in place for some serious searing action.
Most other pellet smokers can still benefit from having a cast iron plate or a heavy gauge skillet which has a high thermal capacity to get up to high temperature. It’s a simple accessory that lets your sear your steak to perfection.
Temperature control on an offset is a bit of a manual process, but it can be rewarding when done right.
To get the temperature the desired temperature in an offset, you’ll have to regulate the airflow by opening and closing the vents. This process is unique to every offset smoker model, and it takes a bit of practice to get used to it.
It’s quite common to find a thermometer on the top part of the main chamber, but you’ll need to keep in mind that this often shows a higher reading than the rest of the smoker since hot air rises.
You’ll want to get yourself a separate meat thermometer if you want to measure the internal temperature of your food accurately.
With a pellet smoker, there is absolutely no guesswork involved in regulating the temperature. All you need to do is to choose how hot you want it to get via the control panel, and the smoker will regulate the airflow and the intake of pellets to get you exactly the temperature you want (and keep it that way). It doesn’t get any easier than that.
As a bonus, the entire Z Grills pellet smoker series comes with two built-in food probes which you can use to accurately measure the temperature of your food so you won’t need to get a separate unit for that.
In theory, both pellet smokers and offset smokers can run 50+ hours without having too much ash built up in the fire pot and firebox respectively.
However, there is a big difference in how long each of these smokers can run without any interventions on your side.
Offset smokers require a bit of babysitting. On average, you’ll need to check the fire and usually add some charcoal and/or wood approximately once every hour or so.
With some practice, you can learn to keep the fire going for a bit longer without checking it all the time, but an offset smoker will never run on its own for 6 hours.
If you want to do a long, low and slow cook overnight, you’ll need to wake up to check up on your smoker.
Most pellet smokers, on the other hand, can run for at least 8 hours without any interventions on your part. You just need to load your smoker with enough pellets, set it, and literally forget it.
You may want an offset smoker if:
- You appreciate the art of building and maintaining a constant fire
- You want a more traditional-looking rustic smoker
- You need to run the smoker without electricity.
You may want a pellet smoker if:
- You want a consistent cook every single time.
- You want to experiment with different flavours of wood pellets easily.
- You hate the idea of spending your weekends babysitting and cleaning your smoker.
Are pellet smokers as good as wood smokers?
At the end of the day, pellet fuel is essentially compressed hardwood. It is no question that in terms of taste and flavour, pellet smokers will yield an equal result to the traditional smoker. The biggest advantage when it comes to pellet smokers is how easy they are to use. Simply dial in the desired temperature, and the smoker takes care of the rest. If you’re looking for the easiest way to get the smokey flavour and great results, pellet smokers are the way to go.
The debate on which kind of smoker is best will most likely never be solved. Some people will always prefer old-school offset smokers. In contrast, others will gladly embrace the convenience and precision of a pellet smoker.
In the end, it mostly depends on the type of person you are. Offset smokers will force you to tend to the fire often and give you the option to fiddle around with it as much as you’d like. If you are the type of person who likes that, then, by all means, go with an offset smoker. However, if you’d like to get essentially the same results, but with much more precision and less manual work involved, than a pellet smoker is the right choice for you.