While you may be familiar with the ins and outs of a grill, smoking opens an entirely different meaning to cooking food. Smoking and grilling are two very different processes, and most people use both units interchangeably.
However, you may be asking, “what are the differences between a smoker vs grill?” and “which is right for me?”
By the end of this article, all your fiery questions will be answered about the smoker vs grill debate.
During my years in the barbecue world, I have used both grills and smokers. Using my personal experience, I’ve gone ahead and compiled the ultimate outdoor cooking guide.
Smoker Vs Grill: An Overview
When it comes to the big differences between a smoker and grill, it usually comes down to temperature, cooking time, and the addition of that gorgeous, smoky flavor.
- A smoker is designed for large cuts of meat (think tough cuts such as pork shoulders, briskets, etc) at low temperatures, usually, between 90 F to 300 F. A smoker will cook food low n slow - meaning it usually takes quite a few hours to reach maximum tastiness. The main difference is the addition of wood chips in various different flavors, adding that smoky flavor to your food.
- A grill is designed to cook small cuts of meat (think burgers, steaks, hot dogs, and barbecue ribs.) A grill runs at very high temperatures, around 400 F to 550 F to cook food quickly. Typically, a grill is not suitable for smoking meat.
When it comes to similarities, a smoker and a grill both use the same fuels. They also both feature grates to cook meat.
However, all in all, they are two very different pieces of equipment, made for two completely different cooking methods.
What is Smoking?
Smoking is a low and slow method, used to cook and preserve large pieces of meat. Using indirect heat, this method adds a fantastic smoke flavor and tenderness to your cuts.
How it cooks: A smoker is able to produce mouth-wateringly delicious smoked meats with the help of indirect heat. The smoking or cooking chamber usually reaches temperatures of 225 F to 250 F, however, it can hit as low as 90F depending on the smoker.
This consistent heat produces an even temperature which allows the food to cook slowly, from the inside out. This heat also triggers the wood to smolder, causing the ideal smoky flavor.
“Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it’s a start.”
— Anthony Bourdain, American chef, and author.
How long it takes: The length of your cook depends on your cut of meat and how big it is. The aim of the game is to produce a deep, smoked flavor.
To do so, cooking sessions run long in order to give the wood time to burn and the smoke to penetrate the food.
Small cuts require around 90 - 120 of cooking time. Large cuts however take many, many hours.
You may find your smoking session to last as long as 12 hours depending on how big that chunk of meat is. On average, you’ll be looking at around 5 - 8 hours.
Related Article: What is Cold Smoking?
3 Different Types Of Smokers
The world of smoking runs far and wide, so you might be surprised to know there are quite a few different types of smokers on the market. All machines use different ways to generate heat, as well as differing in shape and size.
Here are the most common smokers on the market:
1. Electric Smoker
In an electric smoker, your wood chips will sit inside a bowl at the bottom of your smoker.
The electric heating elements will light the wood chips into a smolder which in turn produces smoke.
Both the heat and smoke will rise from the bottom, cooking and smoking your food as time goes on.
Typically, electric smokers will be designed in a vertical shape, often resembling a small fridge.
Many people who don’t enjoy ‘babysitting’ their smokers choose to go with an electric smoker as they feature a digital controller. This allows them to easily regulate temperature in their smoker.
All you have to do is set the desired temperature and you can go about your day - perfect for big cuts that require an extended period of time.
2. Charcoal Smoker
A charcoal smoker is typically the most common in the smoking world, using coals to generate a heat source.
Charcoal and wood smokers feature a tray at the top of the smokers where you place your wood chunks or wood pellets.
The smoked foods are then cooked using low heat.
Appearance-wise, charcoal smokers come in many different shapes and sizes. Some will resemble a drum smoker, while others will look like kamado grills or cabinets.
3. Gas Smoker
A gas smoker will look and function much like an electric smoker. The only difference being is they use gas instead of electricity to generate a heat source.
Many people prefer some of the best gas smokers due to their mobility, much like a charcoal smoker.
Electric smokers require the unit to be constantly plugged into an outlet, where gas smokers do not.
That being said, the more high-end smokers may feature a digital control that will require electricity to work.
What is Grilling?
An outdoor grill consists of grilling food on a unit that produces very high, direct heat. Grilling is a great way to produce a delicious caramelized crust on your meat and vegetables.
In most outdoor kitchens, you’ll most likely find a grill. The flavor profile on most grills will be entirely different to smokers as they will not produce a smoky flavor.
How it cooks: A grill will cook your food at higher temperatures and is a much faster process than smoking. You may be surprised to hear that roasting is also a form of grilling - it just requires a low temperature, still hotter than your standard smoker.
You may have also heard the term “searing” thrown around in the bbq world. Searing is a super important step when it comes to grilling.
This process can only be achieved when cooked over high heat sources. Searing is what will get you that great brown color. Much like caramelization, it’ll give you great taste while also getting rid of bacteria .
If you choose a charcoal grill, you may find your food to have a slight smoke flavor, and it always creates a great food profile.
A standard grill will have you cooking up barbecue favorites such as burgers, whole birds, ribs, sausages, veg, and chicken.
How long it takes: Grilling is generally a fast process and the meat cooks rather quickly. If you grill a steak at 500 F for example, it could take you as little as 10 minutes. There is a reason why many people choose to grill when they host a bbq.
3 Different Types Of Grills
Much like smokers, there are many grills on the market - which may or may not make the whole process a tad more confusing for you. There are quite a few ways to cook food, ranging from electric grills to gas and charcoal grills.
There are also outdoor and indoor grills, portable grills, and built-in grills. Safe to say your options are endless when it comes to grilled food.
Here are the most common grills on the market:
1. Gas Grill
When you’re looking to purchase a gas grill, you’ll come across two different types: natural gas and propane.
Both of these grills are super popular due to their convenience. You can either hook them up to your household line or buy a portable canister.
Gas grills are a great option for fresh grillers since they’re very easy to use.
However, since all you’re burning is gas, there isn’t much to be said about a smokier flavor.
2. Charcoal Grill
A charcoal grill has to be the OG of the grilling world.
If you’ve been to a barbeque or even eaten at a restaurant that produces bbq food - chances are you’ve eaten foods using this particular grill method.
It wouldn’t be a far stretch to call these grilling meat machines little UFOs, since that's what they resemble.
Charcoal grills burn charcoal as their chosen heating element, controlled by vents on the top and bottom of the unit.
3. Pellet Grill
Pellet grills are a wonderful creation, since they operate almost automatically thanks to the digital thermostat, much like an electric grill.
Both pellet grills and pellet smokers use compressed sawdust to create a wonderful smoke profile.
Generally, these types of grills are used to produce smoke, but they also cook on a high enough heat to grill your foods too.
Should You Buy Grill or Smoker?
To help you decide if you’re a dedicated smoker or a true griller, there are a few things you should do first:
- Try smoked food: smoking food is in all the range both online and offline. I’m sure you’ve looked at a nice, smokey brisket and thought “wow, that looks delicious.” But the question remains, have you ever tried it? You may surprise yourself and not even enjoy smokey food at all.
- Check your schedule: smoking is done over long periods of time and it could take up to 12 hours for your food to finish cooking. The question remains, do you really have time for that? Cooking with smoke is not a great option for anyone without patience, so you may be better sticking to an open flame.
Smoker vs Grill: The Bottom Line
Choosing between grills and smokers can be a huge headache, especially when there are so many options on the market. It all really comes down to what you prefer.
If you’re a classic barbeque lover, you can’t go wrong with a good old grill.
On the other hand, if you’re searching for a much more smokey profile, maybe you’ll want to try your hand at smokers. Either way, you’ll be cooking up delicious food for years to come.