Wood pellet smokers and charcoal smokers are extremely popular with meat lovers everywhere, and I’m no exception.
Over the past decade, I’ve tried several different pellet and charcoal smokers and noticed that they differ in some ways.
Today, I’ll share valuable insights into their differences, costs, performance, flavor, and even health considerations.
6 Differences between a Wood Pellet Smoker vs. Charcoal Smoker
The main difference between pellet and charcoal smokers is the fuel they use. However, there are a few additional points to keep in mind too.
1. Cost and Versatility
A charcoal smoker is generally less expensive and more versatile. If you want to be able to grill hamburgers on the same unit, one of these might be for you.
Most pellet grills come with a smoker box on one side as an additional feature. Other charcoal smokers are stand-alone products.
Pellet grills tend to be a more significant investment than charcoal grills, with prices typically ranging from $500 to over $2000. The higher-end units of either type can be pricey, though.
Wood chunks burn quicker than charcoal and are a bit more expensive overall, which means the operating costs for a wood pellet smoker are higher. A 20-pound bag will run you about $20. You will probably go through 1 to 3 lbs. of pellets per hour.
By comparison, a 15-pound bag of charcoal briquettes (which costs in the $18-$20 range) should last at least 12-15 hours. There is no need to buy the more expensive lump charcoal since it tends to burn hotter anyway.
Replacing the existing grill grates or other parts is a big consideration for pellet smokers since they have more mechanical parts that may eventually break or deteriorate.
2. Health Considerations
Another consideration is how healthy wood pellets are. Smoking meat is a great way to reduce fat content in your diet. Experts agree that reducing fat tends to decrease the risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality .
You also avoid the carcinogenic dangers of burning oils dripping into an open flame, which so often happens while grilling.
Always ensure you buy good quality wood pellets. Cheap brands could potentially contain compounds that you want to avoid.
The high-quality protein you get from eating smoked meat is also great for those losing weight. Studies have demonstrated that higher protein diets may spare lean body mass during weight loss .
3. Cooking Temperatures
Charcoal smokers can achieve higher temperatures because charcoal fire burns hotter, so the food can also be seared.
This requires high temperatures of 500°F and above. If you love a seared steak hot off the grill and enjoy smoked meat from the same unit, many charcoal smokers make this possible.
It’s easy to create a hotter fire with a charcoal smoker.
One of the most important differences is the taste created by the smoke. Many people love the familiar char flavor.
However, wood pellet smokers create a strong wood flavor unlike charcoal smokers, and different types of pellets can also vary the taste. While it’s possible to add some pellets to a charcoal smoker, the flavor just won’t be the same.
You can choose between apple, cherry, hickory, mesquite, and whiskey barrel. My favorite to get the most flavorful taste out of my pellet smoker is hickory hardwood pellets. On top of that, these burn incredibly well and make an excellent combo when slow-smoke meat like pork shoulders and ribs.
“Using smoke is a great way to enhance the natural flavors of the dish, as well as drive some of the flavors of the smoke itself into the dish.”
- Dmitry Rodov, Chef , Duet Restaurant, NYC
5. Clean Up
Charcoal smokers require more clean-up. You’ll need to remove the ashes after each use. You’ll also need to remove the carbon on the grates and inside the burn area.
On the other hand, a wood pellet smoker burns cleaner and doesn’t create as much mess for you to clean.
6. Ease of Use
Charcoal grills need more work and involvement from you. You have to start the coal and monitor the temperatures while adding wood chunks.
Pellet smokers are more hands-off. They have an auto-feed system, so there’s no need to add more pellets.
Simply turn on your pellet smoker and set the temperature range. These smokers have temperature control, so there aren’t extreme variations.
Pros of Pellet and Charcoal Smokers
There are lots of things to love about these simple smokers. Let’s look at some benefits.
Pros of Pellet Smokers
- Ease of use. Taste and ease of use head the list of the reasons you may love a pellet smoker. Most wood pellet smokers have an electric auger system that feeds the pellets in at a consistent rate to maintain the desired cooking temperature. This means practically hands-free smoking.
- Flavor. The distinctive flavor is what makes pellet smokers shine. There’s just no better way to get the wood smoke flavor into the meat.
- Easy maintenance. These smokers are also easy to clean up, with minimal ash.
Pros of Charcoal Smokers
The pros of charcoal smokers also have to do with flavor and simplicity.
- Ease of use. Charcoal smokers are not much more complicated than a simple grill. Lighting the charcoal and adjusting airflow to maintain higher or lower temperatures is about all there is to do.
- Accessibility. Charcoal is easy to obtain almost anywhere and is quite economical, making it ideal for outdoor cooking.
Cons of Pellet and Charcoal Smokers
Let’s take a quick look at the downsides of these smokers.
Cons of Pellet Smokers
- A distinct flavor. Pellet smokers will always deliver wood pellet smoked flavors to the meat. If that’s not for you, you probably won’t like a pellet smoker.
- Cost-effectiveness. The pellets burn more quickly than charcoal briquettes, so the initial cost of operation for pellet smokers tends to be a bit higher.
Cons of Charcoal Smokers
- A strong flavor. Charcoal cooking and smoking create a distinctive flavor of their own. If you don’t like that charcoal taste, you probably won’t like cooking meat in a charcoal smoker.
- More clean-up. The other main drawback is clean-up. Most charcoal grills are a bit messy, creating a lot of ash and soot. So, you will spend more time cleaning up after using a charcoal smoker.
Are Pellets Cheaper Than Charcoal?
Yes, pellets are cheaper than charcoal because they burn more quickly, so they cost more per hour to burn than charcoal.
Can I Mix Charcoal and Pellets?
You can mix charcoal and pellets to create a blend of flavors. Just add a few pellets on top of already lit briquettes. Using charcoal briquettes in a pellet smoker is also possible if you light them first.
Pellet vs Charcoal Grill: Which One to Buy?
Both wood pellet grills and charcoal grills have their pros and cons. You have more flavor varieties with a pellet smoker because you can use different wood pellets.
However, a charcoal smoker is more accessible and affordable. Plus, they can reach a higher cooking temperature to sear meat. They are more budget-friendly and provide more variety to grilled foods.
To help you find out the most suitable charcoal smoker, we’ve compiled a list of 10 best charcoal smokers on the market. Our team tested them for ease of use, maintenance, and durability, so you can pick the one that ticks all the boxes.