If you’re on the hunt for a new smoker, chances are you’ve already debated whether to purchase an electric smoker or a charcoal smoker.
Both charcoal and electric smokers offer their individual qualities. The ease of convenience with electric smokers, and the more traditional, smoky flavor with charcoal smokers.
While both units have their pros and cons - it comes down to your personal smoking preference. If you’re a beginner in this area, and you haven’t quite figured out how you like your meat smoked, this article is perfect for you.
Using our knowledge based on years of experience in the grilling world, we’ll be breaking down both electric smokers and charcoal smokers, telling you our likes, dislikes, and finally, finding the right smoker for you.
Let's get into the electric smoker vs charcoal smoker battle.
Electric Smokers: An Overview
When you picture your traditional smoker or grill, what comes to mind is usually a searing hot open flame, either that of a propane smoker or a charcoal smoker.
Well, with electric smokers, the unit is powered via an electric heating element.
This element can be found near the bottom of your unit, placed under your wood chips, which then sets them smoldering. This, combined with the high temperatures given off, cooks and adds that great, smoky flavor to the meat placed on the upper racks.
Think of an electric smoker like a huge home oven. If you can operate your electric oven in the kitchen, chances are you’ll be a pro behind an electric smoker.
If you decide to get yourself a digital model (which I highly recommend due to ease and handy gadgets), temperature control becomes a walk in the park. All you have to do is set your temp, and it’ll hold it without needing to be babysat.
Charcoal Smokers: An Overview
If you’re looking for a more classic way to enjoy the smoking process, charcoal smokers are the way to go. They offer basic functions, however, you’ll achieve a more authentic smoked flavor.
The best offset smokers will burn charcoal to the side of the unit. However, common charcoal smokers will burn the charcoal at the bottom of the smoker. The wood chips or pellets are placed on top of the charcoal, generating heat and creating that authentic smoke flavor.
“If summer had one defining scent, it’d definitely be the smell of barbeque.”
- Katy Lee, Chef
Even though it may be basic compared to electric vs charcoal, or even a pellet smoker for that matter, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy ride.
If you choose to use a charcoal smoker for your cooking process, you’ll have to give a lot more attention to how your meat is cooking. You’ll have to ensure it keeps a constant temperature, as well as adjusting the dampers, and filling up the wood chips.
|Electric Smoker||Charcoal Smoker|
|Quality Of Food||The food is more likely to be perfectly cooked, however, there will be a less intense smoky flavor.||You may produce a better flavor, but you run a higher chance of not cooking your meat or food well.|
|Temperature Range||Typically around 100 F - 275 F. The thermostat keeps the right temperature throughout.||Typical around 100 F - 350 F. The desired temperature is controlled by the air vents.|
|Versatility||Can only be used for smoking.||Some models can be used for grilling and roasting.|
|Convenience||Very convenient and easy to use.||Can be an inconvenience as it takes extra time and commitment.|
|Cooking Capacity||Sufficient.||Options to go larger.|
|Size||Approximately 2’ x 2’.||Can range from 2’ x 2’ to 6’ x 4’, the latter being an offset smoker.|
|Weather Conditions||Can’t be used when raining.||Can be used in any condition, however, wind and rain can pose a problem.|
|Reliability||Electric units can run into some electrical problems.||Less likely to run into any problems.|
|Maintenance||Easy to maintain and clean.||Easy to maintain but requires more cleaning.|
|Price||Overall it is more expensive - less cheap options.||Cheaper models are available.|
|Running Costs||Cheap - around $0.06 per hour.||Costly - anywhere from $0.50 - $1.00 per hour depending on the coal used.|
|Accessories||Some models include a digital thermostat, temperature gauge, and meat probe.||Some models include a temperature gauge and thermometer.|
The Popular Choice
If you’re new to smoking meat and have no clue where to start, the electric smoker is a popular choice for beginners. It’s a great way to get your foot into the smoking world, as not only is it incredibly easy to use, it’ll lessen the learning curve you’ll normally have to go through.
The reason an electric smoker is such a popular choice is due to the ease of temperature control. All you have to do is set your meat smoker, pop on a timer, and come back when it’s ready.
The reason many people opt for a charcoal smoker is purely down to the intense smoky flavor it produces. It also helps people achieve a more authentic feeling when they smoke meat.
You may think that a charcoal smoker is a lot earlier to use since it doesn't have all the bells and whistles an electric smoker does, however, getting a hang of the way it works is a lot harder.
Therefore, if you’re really into the smoking process and you enjoy diving deep into the cook, a charcoal smoker is what you’re looking for.
10 Differences Between Electric vs Charcoal Smoker
When choosing the right smoker for you, there are quite a few things to consider.
Again, it’s all down to personal preference - if you value convenience or you’re into cold smoking over traditional, that’s entirely up to you. That being said, let's take a look at the most important factors to mull over.
1. Food Quality
If you’re new to the cooking process that comes with smoking, you’ll get a much better result using an electric smoker.
This is because the electric smoker will hold the temperature all by itself, which is essential when it comes to smoking.
However, if you’ve already got the hang of temperature control, a charcoal smoker can give you equal consistency.
If we’re primarily talking about the outcome of food quality, the charcoal smoker comes out on top every time.
Whereas you may have trouble creating crispy skin on your meat using an electric smoker, you won't have that problem with a charcoal smoker.
The electric unit struggles with moisture retention, where a charcoal grill excels thanks to its ventilation.
The way charcoal burning creates smoke will result in a more complex flavor profile.
As it burns, it gives off a complex compound that sticks to your food and meat to add flavor.
More smoke = more flavor.
2. Temperature Ranges
Electric smokers are made for smoking - end of the story. Therefore, they only have a very limited temperature range.
Typically, you’ll be able to get your temperature anywhere from 100 F - 275 F.
This is perfect if you’re into low ‘n’ slow or cold smoking. Searing, on the other hand, is off the cards.
You’ll have a much harder time keeping your charcoal smoker at a low temperature. The thermometer may show 100 F, however, you’ll have a very hard time getting your wood and charcoal to that temperature.
So, cold smoking is off the cards.
Realistically, you’re looking at the lowest temperature being closer to 125 F.
The high temperature will usually get to 350F, although it is possible to get a slightly higher temp if your fire is roaring.
If you have an offset smoker, you’ll be able to sear and smoke at the same time.
Related Article: How to Regulate Temperature in a Smoker
As I had mentioned above, an electric smoker is only capable of smoking.
Therefore I wouldn’t use the word ‘versatile’ to describe it. Although you may be able to do cold smoking, forget grilling or roasting.
While you can grill on a charcoal smoker, it is a little difficult to do direct heat grilling on a vertical unit.
That’s why if you really want 2-in-1, you’ll be better off with an offset smoker.
An offset smoker will usually have a small grate placed over the top of your charcoal., allowing you to grill there.
Therefore, if you need more options in your life, the charcoal grill is the way to go.
Electric smokers rely on electricity to smoke meat.
Charcoal smokers rely on charcoal burning, adjusting air vents, upkeeping the heat source, and temperature control. So, it’s safe to say an electric smoker wins the battle of convenience and ease of use.
Assuming your power source doesn’t fail you (aka a power cut), your electric smoker will be able to go days on end without needing to refill your charcoal.
Cooking time will also be cut short thanks to the heating elements instantly turning on.
Your wood chips will be on high heat and smoking before your charcoal is even ready to add wood.
With an electric smoker, you’ll also be able to smoke in a set and forget style.
Meaning the digital element will do all the work. You won’t need to adjust the vents or hand control the temperature.
Considering that, if you like traveling with your smoker, the electric unit may fall flat.
You always have to be within reach of an electric outlet, so if there’s no outlet at the end of your garden or you want to take it with you to the beach or camping, you’ll have a bit of a struggle.
With a charcoal smoker, you can fire up anytime, anywhere, once you control the air vents.
5. Cooking Capacity
The cooking capacity on electric vs charcoal smoker isn’t as different as you may expect it to be.
There are larger options available for a charcoal smoker, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find an electric unit that allows you to cook 5 chickens at the same time.
How much space you need depends on how much you’d like to smoke.
Typically, a vertical charcoal model will offer more space for your food and meat compared to an offset .
In order to purchase a smoker that fits you, you have to ensure it’s going to fit your space first.
Both charcoal and electric barrel units will be around 2’ by 2’, depending on the cooking size.
However, if you go with an offset charcoal smoker, you can either go big or go home. You’re looking at a size between 6’ wide and 4’ deep.
7. Weather Conditions
Bad weather conditions, especially the cold, can have a harsh impact on the way your smoker retains heat.
However, a high-quality model will help keep in the hot air, no matter what fuel it is using. A cheap smoker will have problems with this.
When it comes to an electric smoker vs charcoal smoker, your unit may have a harder time retaining the hot temp with electricity as the temp range is a lot smaller.
Wind won’t affect an electric smoker as all they need is electricity to work and they don't rely on vents. Even if there was a way around it, there is no flame to extinguish to begin with.
With a charcoal smoker, it's a different story. This relies on fire to produce smoke, therefore you’ll always need to block the wind.
Rain renders an electric smoker useless. Even the slightest bit of water can find its way into your control panel and absolutely fry your smoker.
The same can be said with humidity and snow. Ensure your electric smoker is covered when not in use .
Wet conditions aren't great for a charcoal smoker either. Not only will it chill your smoker, but it may get down the chimney and put the fire out. You can put a hood over the top to prevent this.
So, a charcoal smoker will work better in otherwise bad weather conditions.
8. Reliability And Maintenance
An electric smoker is more likely to break down due to electrical issues, especially if it comes with many electrical gadgets. A charcoal smoker is a lot more durable.
When it comes to cleaning, you’ll have an easier time cleaning and seasoning an electric smoker.
This is because they don’t produce a lot of smoke. Simple scrape off your racks and wipe down the exterior.
On the other hand, charcoal burning produces much more smoke, so you’ll have to get your hands dirty. Especially if you accidentally create thick smoke.
Depending on your budget depends on how much you’re willing to spend on your smoker.
Typically, a top-rated electric smoker will have you spending a lot more than the latter.
Charcoal smokers are generally more affordable, so if you have a small budget, this will give you more options.
Both types of smokers offer expensive models, especially offset smokers and ones with lots of gadgets, wifi, and Bluetooth.
10. Cost To Run
Before we get into it, I'll let you know that electricity wins hands down.
Taking the price of the wood chips out of the equation, the cost to run your electric smoker will be 10 times less per hour vs charcoal smoker.
If you need to run your electric smoker for a long time, whether it be a regular smoke or cold smoke, electricity will work out a lot less than if you were to burn even a few hours of charcoal.
The Pros And Cons To An Electric Smoker
- Faster, easier and quicker to start
- The heat is distributed and maintained evenly
- No extra cost
- Easy to maintain
- No need to babysit the smoker - set and leave
- Cheap to use
- Initial price can be expensive
- Doesn’t create a high smoky profile
- Can’t be used in the rain
- Needs to be close to an outlet
The Pros And Cons To A Charcoal Smoker
- High, smoky flavor profile
- Feels more traditional and hands-on
- Many flavors of coal available
- Can be hard to get the hang of
- Harder to maintain the temp
- Takes much longer to start up the fire
- More expensive to run
Electric VS Charcoal Smokers: The Bottom Line
When it comes down to it, the charcoal smoker vs electric smoker depends a lot on your personal preference.
If you’re new to smoking and you prefer working with electricity, or the added gadgets take your fancy, an electric smoker is a way to go.
If you prefer a much more authentic smoke and you’re fine with overlooking the entire cooking process, charcoal is the way to go.
No matter where you stand with the smoker vs smoker debate, as long as you have fun and enjoy your cooking, that’s all that matters.