If you love smoking as I do, you've probably realized that some smoker designs will cater to your preferences more than others.
Being a dedicated carnivore for almost a decade, I've had extensive experience with all sorts of smokers.
In this guide, I will share my insights on how vertical and horizontal smokers differ and what you can expect from both when it comes to smoking capacity, affordability, and efficiency.
What's The Difference Between Vertical and Horizontal Smokers?
The main difference between vertical and horizontal smokers is their orientation.
A vertical smoker (also known as a cabinet smoker) stands upright, with several levels of cooking racks ascending vertically for smoking. In contrast, horizontal smokers are on a flat plane, longer and similar in shape to a regular BBQ.
The heat source of a vertical smoker is located at the bottom, while it can be found on the side of a horizontal smoker.
Finally, the heat maintenance differs. It’s easier to maintain even heat on a horizontal smoker. You have to open a chamber to operate a vertical smoker which can interfere with the temperature.
Vertical and Horizontal Smokers Compared
The decision to buy either a vertical or a horizontal smoker will depend on several factors. Here are the things to consider before making a purchase.
1. Smoking Capacity
The smoking capacity is generally a huge problem for vertical pellet smokers.
For example, my Brinkman vertical pellet smoker could fit the chicken and pork butts nicely but didn't have any room for more.
Even with a similar meat smoking capacity, horizontal pellet smokers have an advantage, especially when you need to load big chunks of smoked meat.
With a vertical pellet smoker, you can forget about having a large party with ribs for everyone. Its cooking chamber can’t accommodate the big stuff.
On the other hand, horizontal smokers have more extensive real estate to smoke meat in large quantities and varieties of other food on the side.
However, a vertical pellet smoker is a superb option if you're cooking a small family meal most of the time.
Overall, the smoking capacity depends on your needs. If you grill for a large number of people, a horizontal smoker may be the better option. But if you usually cook for your family, go for the vertical one.
2. Grilling Potential
One of the reasons I recently swapped to a horizontal pellet smoker was the cooking versatility.
Horizontal pellet smokers go beyond smoking. They can also grill, bake, and even direct flame boil.
This isn't the case with vertical smokers.
Their cooking abilities are limited to smoking only, and it means you'll have to purchase a separate smoker to grill and roast meat, which is an additional expense.
3. Space-Saving Capacity
Both vertical and horizontal grills come in different sizes, but vertical pellet smokers are generally smaller and more compact.
Therefore, a vertical pellet smoker could be an inspiring option if you don’t have a lot of space to spare in your garage or backyard.
Conversely, the horizontal grills take vast space because of their horizontal orientation. They need more space to stand so you’ll have to set out a chunk of your real estate for them.
4. Meat Flavor
When it comes to the meat flavor, the horizontal smokers have an upper hand.
While the vertical grills are perfect for high-heat searing and grilling, they can’t match the pellet smokers.
A pellet smoker can cook food slowly and at low temperatures. That and the better smoke infusion provide a classic BBQ flavor.
I find horizontal smoker’s meat to be more flavorful, tastes juicier, and is moist inside, and crispy outside.
Of course, depending on your taste preferences, some find the horizontal smoker’s meat a bit jerky and lacking the consistency that comes with a vertical smoker.
Nonetheless, I found that practice is necessary if you want to get perfection with any smoker.
5. Energy Efficiency
Most vertical grills beat the horizontal pellet smokers hands down regarding energy efficiency.
Vertical pellet smokers generally have a compact smoking chamber design and therefore don't need much fuel to heat, as the horizontal smoker grills do.
Another important element to consider is the heat's propensity to rise instead of going sideways.
“With vertical smokers, the heat source is at the base, which creates a higher temperature at the bottom. So - your heavier meats down the bottom, lighter meats at the top.”
- Mark, BBQ Expert from Pit Fire Boys
Overall, I found that my vertical smoker heats its content much faster because heat will tend to move upwards rather than sideways.
A vertical smoker has a low entry barrier and incredible options if you're on a budget. Generally, most of these smokers are available in the purchase price range of $100 to $1,000+ .
On the other hand, horizontal pellet smokers tend to be a bit expensive since they offer more than the typical vertical smokers. The average initial cost of horizontal grills is between $200 to $2,000+ .
Also Read: Best Budget Smokers
7. Ease of Use and Refueling
The biggest benefit to a vertical smoker, especially the electric box smokers and drum smokers, is they allow you to "set and forget". All you have to do is load up your fuel, set the dampers, and the smoker will maintain the temperatures in the cooking chamber.
Horizontal pellet smokers aren’t this advanced, especially ones with a lower price point. You need to babysit the smoker, check the temperature and how the food’s progressing.
However, this is a part of personal preference. It's always my job to smoke at the family cookouts, so I don’t mind staying by the smoker. But if you don’t want to be tied to the smoker for hours, a horizontal smoker may not be for you.
Similarities Between a Horizontal Pellet Smoker and a Vertical Smoker
The biggest similarity between horizontal and vertical smokers is that they both use fuel sources to cook your food indirectly through radiant heat and smoke.
Depending on the specific brand and model, smokers can use different forms of energy including wood, pellets, charcoal, gas, and electricity.
The gas and electricity smokers are convenient and easy to operate, but they don’t offer the flavorful appeal of the wood smokers.
Pros of Vertical and Horizontal Smokers
Both of these smokers make up for excellent choices to upgrade your BBQ experience. Here’s how their strong points compare.
Pros of vertical smokers
- Compact design and portable
- Set and forget
- Energy efficient
Pros of horizontal smokers
- Ideal for cooking large volumes of food
- Provides an authentic and flavorful barbeque
- Doubles up as a grill
- Maintains even heat
Cons of Vertical and Horizontal Smokers
Both smoker ovens have their share of drawbacks, and in the section below, I’ll list the cons of each smoker design.
Cons of vertical smokers
- Can’t be used as a grill — they’re dedicated smokers only
- Possibility of heat loss
- Doesn’t accommodate large quantities of food
Cons of horizontal smokers
- Complicated to operate and work with
- Less fuel-efficient
When to Consider a Vertical Smoker
You should consider a vertical smoker if you prioritize cooking convenience. It’s also a great option if you’re new to BBQing and don’t know how to set up and prepare food using a smoker.
The greatest benefit to a vertical smoker is you can “set and forget it”. Once you load up your fuel and get your meat ready, you simply need to wait until the food is ready. No need to monitor or babysit it as with the horizontal smoker.
When to Consider a Horizontal Pellet Smoker
You should consider a horizontal smoker if you want smoke-infused flavored food and an authentic-tasting barbeque.
A horizontal smoker provides more quality smoke and utilizes a slow cooking method so it gives more flavorful meat than the vertical smoker.
Vertical vs Horizontal Smoker: Which one is better for you?
The ideal smoker design will depend on your barbequing needs and preferences.
A vertical smoker takes up less space, and you can set it up and go about your business. On the other hand, a horizontal smoker takes up more space, and you have to keep an eye on it, but it provides better smoke and a more authentic smoking flavor.
If you’re looking for a new smoker, check out our round-up of the best offset smokers you can get now.
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