Electric smoker vs. wood smoker – which is better for you?
So you think you want a dedicated smoker and are working out exactly which type of smoker is right for you. You’ve seen a number of cooking shows on barbecue and know there are essentially 5 types to choose from. Maybe you’ve heard good and bad things about offset wood smokers – “stick-burners”.
You’ve certainly heard an awful lot about pellet smokers – Traeger pellet grills are being advertised all over the place. You may or may not have heard about charcoal smokers. And then you’ve probably seen the electric smokers that nearly every website on the internet says are so great. What to do, how to decide?
3 things to consider when comparing electric vs wood smokers
Once you decide what you’re looking for, choosing which model to buy becomes relatively easy. There are 3 main categories to consider when deciding between electric smokers and wood smokers.
The first is ease of use
When we talk about ease of use we mean how much time and energy you are willing to put into your barbecue? This will be something that not only impacts your initial decision on which type to choose, but will also impact every cook you do and ultimately how satisfied you are with you choice and how often you use it.
Many folks overestimate their willingness to prepare for, tend, and clean up after a cook. As a result they lose interest in using their smoker and it sits in the yard unused. Regardless of the quality of the barbecue, if the time or hassle involved isn’t worth it to you, your meat smoker will go unused.
The time you’re willing to spend assumes that the smoker you choose is actually capable of producing high quality barbecue. As you’ll see below, many of the offset smokers available at Home Depot or Lowe’s are not worth the trouble.
Trying to control a fire and smoke with them is like chopping down a tree with a sledge hammer – no fun at all. That’s a bad situation and one that can be avoided.
The second is smoke and flavor
There is zero question that electric smokers produce a milder smoke flavor and less bark than wood smokers can produce. I own an electric smoker and it makes fantastic barbecue – ribs, port butt, brisket, etc. However, there is no debating the difference when I use a charcoal smoker or wood smoker.
A wood smoker is going to provide an array of combustion gasses and more intense smoke that will enable you to duplicate the best barbecue you’ve ever had. So, if flavor is your primary concern, and you don’t care as much about budget or simplicity, a wood smoker is the only choice that will meet you needs.
The third is cost to buy and operate
First off, if you have a decent gas grill you can achieve some pretty nice quality smoked meat using a 2-zone method and some wood chips. You don’t need to buy a dedicated smoker if you don’t want to. There are numerous videos about how to smoke meats using you charcoal or gas grill and and some wood chips.
There are dozens of smoker tubes on the market and they work really well. I highly recommend you give these a try before you make any decisions about a dedicated smoker. The results really are pretty good and you may be surprised to find that this is enough for your needs.
If however, you know you want a dedicated smoker, the cost difference between electric and wood can be significant – especially at the lower end of the market.
An entry level electric smoker can be had for under $200. Typically these do a pretty nice job, add a bit of smoke flavor, and produce some nice barbecue. They all work on the same principle – a heating element and some form of smoldering wood.
The knock on the entry level units is they tend to be cheaply made, leak smoke, don’t hold heat very well and are small requiring racks of ribs and packer briskets to be cut in half to fit.
Stepping up to a nicer level of electric smoker fixes all these issues but prices approach $500 and above for the popular manufacturers.
That said, electric smokers are very cheap to run using only electricity and a minimal amount of wood chips.
Wood smokers on the other hand – specifically offset smokers start closer to $300. Unfortunately these do not typically do a decent job. They leak heat and smoke. provide poor drafting and temperature control, and they rust. In my opinion, buying a cheap offset wood smoker is the quickest way to sour on smoking barbecue for a long time.
A decent offset smoker will run you $700 and up. I’m sure many folks will argue about this but if you do the research you’ll find the experts agree – do not buy a cheap offset smoker.
So, if you want to get into smoking barbecue and want to do it for a couple hundred dollars, the choice between electric vs. wood smoker comes down on the side of electric – hands down.
Wood vs. Pellet – aren’t they the same thing?
In a word – No. Yes pellets are made of compressed wood but the construction, cost, operating difficulty and results are going to be entirely different between the two. For starters, a pellet smoker is going to have an electric combustion box. Depending on price it’ll have a basic of advanced temperature controller. And it’ll consume wood pellets at a potentially alarming rate of speed.
Pellet smokers (or grills) are very easy to use and have become quite popular. You load the pellets, set the temp and you are good to go.
But when we speak of wood smokers here at Lazy-Q Life we are referring strictly to stick burners. Offset smokers that have no advanced controllers, burn regular wood logs and can be quite the challenge to operate and manage during a cook.
If you’re really interested in comparing electric vs. pellet smokers, there’s quite a bit of detail comparing them here.
So, you’ll get much of the same gasses and flavor profiles from a stick burner and a pellet grill, they are in their own worlds in terms of skill, the attention that must be paid during the cook, and the cost of entry. If pellet is what you’re after, the very best ones to consider at both the entry and intermediate price ranges are reviewed here.
Wood smoker advantages
- Best smoked meat flavor possible – Burning wood creates a combination of gases, solids, and liquids (vapors) that provide the flavor you expect from the best BBQ in the world. Not other fuel can duplicate it – although charcoal is pretty darn close.
- Tradition – If smoking meat is something you are into and you want to do it “right” then burning wood is the only way to go. Burning wood comes with a lot of hassle, but if doing things the traditional way are important to you, and worth the extra effort, by all means get a stick-burner.
- Bark & Smoke Ring – Wood smokers will give you the best bark and provide a nice smoke ring. Although the smoke ring is actually caused by an interaction between a pink protein in meat named myoglobin with nitric oxide and carbon monoxide (which you get from burning wood or charcoal).
- Cool factor – there’s nothing like having a traditional offset smoker in the backyard to impress your friends and family. You’re smoking meat the exact same way it’s been done for years and years – just like Aaron Franklin or any other famous cook.
- Capacity – offsets are typically pretty good sized and can handle multiple racks of ribs and entire packer briskets. This is key to being able to do it all in the backyard.
- Crispy finish – wood smokers are capable of higher temperatures than electric smokers. You can smoke poultry and get a nice crispy skin.
If an offset wood smoker is the right choice for you, I urge you to do some shopping and invest in something that’s built to work properly and built to last. You won’t find these on
Amazon. Here are a few manufacturers with great reputations: Texas Original Pits – Yoder – Lang – Old Country BBQ Pits
Aaron Franklin uses and Old Country BBQ Pit offset wood smoker
Electric smoker advantages
- Cost to buy – electric smokers can be super cheap – easily under $200. You can’t touch a decent wood or pellet smoker for under $700 (I said decent). That said, a nice, durable electric smoker can set you back $500 or more. Tons of folks opt to start with a cheap electric, but I suspect they regret the savings when the doors leak, it doesn’t hold temp, and it starts falling apart. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. If an electric is really right for you, I urge you to check out some of the better brands like Smokin-It.
- Cost to run – cheap cheap cheap to run. Depending where you live the cost to run an electric is a couple of dollars for a long 8 hr. smoke. Plus maybe $1 for 6oz. of hardwood. Pellet grills can run $1/hr. and stick-burners even more depending on where you buy that 1/2 cord of wood.
- Simplicity – Lazy-Q at it’s finest. The major advantage to an electric smoker is simplicity. Can you use an oven? Then you can use an electric smoker. It’s essentially the same thing with some smoldering wood and a water pan. Put the meat in, add the wood and water pan, close the door and walk away. Electric smokers are without question the easiest to use and great for folks just getting their feet wet in terms of smoking food.
- Variety – electric smokers run at cooler temperatures. this enables you to smoke cheese, nuts, fish, and a whole plethora of things simply not possible with the high heat produced by a wood smoker, So, if smoking cheese, or pork belly, of almonds is something you want to do, an electric is the only way to go for you.
If an entry level electric smoker makes sense for you – the Masterbuilt is hands down the best rated and most popular there is – highly recommended and a great value considering it’s under $200.
Wood smoker vs. electric smoker – which is best? If your goal is to primarily smoke meat and you want the best flavor – there’s really not much doubt that a wood or pellet smoker is going to produce better tasting food than an electric. That said, if you live in an apartment or somewhere that prohibits open flame, obviously electric is going to do the best job for you. Having owned electric, wood, and charcoal myself, I can say that electric smokers produce some very good tasting food. But when it comes down to which I’m going to use for brisket, ribs, and pork butt, the answer is always going to be wood or charcoal.
I hope this post has helped you make the choice between a wood smoker vs. electric smoker. You’ll be enjoying the food regardless of which you choose. Life is too short to eat bad BBQ!