Electric vs. pellet smoker – which is best?
Trying to compare an electric vs. pellet smoker? Not sure which is better for you or what kind of smoker you should buy? Read on and we’ll walk through the checklist of pros and cons of each to help you decide which is the best electric or pellet smoker for you.
If you’re just beginning the search, check out the post on what kind of smoker to buy. It covers all 5 types and the differences between electric, pellet, gas, wood, and charcoal.
There are 5 things to consider when shopping for a smoker – regardless of heat source – they are:
- Ease of Use
- Cost to Operate
- Cost to Buy
#1 Flavor – heat & smoke sources
It’s mostly about flavor. Both use electricity to heat an element. But the heat sources are different and heat sources make all the difference in the world in terms of flavor. The difference being that in the electric smoker, the element is the only real source of heat, whereas in the pellet smoker quite a few wood pellets are burned to create heat. Up to 2 pounds per hour.
All electric smokers consist of a box – some insulated – some not, a heat source, and some sort of wood chip or chunk tray. The electric element heats the box and gets the wood smoldering to produce smoke. There isn’t (supposed to be) any combustion as part of the process.
The heat source is the element only, and all that’s produced is simply hot air and some water vapor. It’s an oven with some smoke and steam. Electric smokers make some great tasting food – but let’s see what we get with pellets before we decide which is best for us.
In a pellet smoker, the electric element is used to ignite wood pellets which create heat and smoke. Combustion takes place. The heat source is the wood not the electric element. We get all sorts of gases, plus some solids as well.
There-in lies the major difference (besides price) between the two. An electric smoker produces heat, steam (via a water pan), and a bit of smoke – which does impart some flavor to the meat.
A pellet smoker however, produces heat, and lots of smoke, gases, and solids via combustion. These other gases and solids are where all that wonderful flavor comes from. Primarily Nitrogen Oxide (NO) and Carbon Monoxide (CO).
The difference in flavor is a major distinction between the two types. No matter how much money you spend on an electric smoker, it still won’t produce the combination of gases that impart the smokey flavor, smoke ring, and bark we’ve all come to expect from high quality BBQ.
I’ve used charcoal, pellet, wood, and electric smokers. Honestly, electric smokers make some tender, juicy and fantastic food. But pellet smokers definitely impart flavors electrics simply aren’t capable of given how they work.
If an electric smoker is the right choice for you, then the Masterbuilt models are incredibly popular and priced at the lower end – a great way to explore whether this is right for you without breaking the bank. They are the best electric smokers under $300.
If you want to step up to a nicer electric smoker, you have many more options available to you. I use and am a huge fan of the Smokin-It Model 3. They are a big step up in terms of build quality and flavor.
#2 Ease of use
Both pellet smokers and electric smokers are very simple to use and require minimal maintenance. They are pretty much set it and forget it simple. The term Lazy-Q typically refers to electric smokers. Some folks call these lazy smokers. No fuss no muss. Set your temp, load the meat, and wait for the temp to be hit. It really doesn’t get any easier than these.
The pellet smoker will require you to clean out ashes after each use, whereas the electric will require you to remove your charred wood chunks and the tin foil you line the bottom with before each cook. Probably the same amount of time and effort for each.
Both types of smokers do a really nice job of low and slow cooking – which is kind of the point of having a smoker to begin with. If you can’t cook things low and slow – like brisket and pork butt – you’re not going to break down the muscle tissue enough to have that tender and succulent BBQ you’re looking forward to.
So let’s break this down. They are both very easy to use and require little maintenance time. With the electric you may be replacing some aluminum foil whereas witht eh pellet smoker you’ll be emptying out the ash bin and refilling the hopper with fresh pellets. The difference between the two comes down to results and price.
The electric smoker, and all electric smokers to a large degree, provides pretty great food but without a lot of smoke flavor. So, very tender fall of the bone ribs, beautiful pulled pork and wonderful tri-tip. But in terms of smoke rings and bark – not so much. Electrics can be had for under $300 quite easily.
Pellet grills on the other hand provide top-notch flavor and complete ease of use. A combination that has an entry fee of $700 and quickly tops $1000 for a high quality pellet grill from Traeger or better.
#3 Cost to operate
There’s a pretty significant difference between the two. An electric smoker uses electricity and maybe 3-6 ounces of wood to create the smoke. Electricity is very cheap and that small amount of wood costs you very little per cook.
For many electric smokers, you can buy wood from many sources around the country. And depending on the make and model of electric smoker you have, you’re not necessarily locked into a specific brand or format.
For example, the Bradley smokers require (or recommend) you to use their proprietary bisquettes. These are basically little hockey pucks of wood particles pressed together. They come in a variety of flavors but do you really want to be locked into Bradley smoker bisquettes?
Masterbuilt – a very popular brand – uses wood chips. The problem with wood chips is again, you’re not entirely sure what you’re getting and you’re buying bags of wood chips from Home Depot or Walmart. Not exactly freedom to choose.
A pellet smoker is going to use electricity to ignite the pellets, but also a lot more wood than an electric. Without pellets, and a pretty hearty supply, you have no way to cook anything. So while each requires making sure you’ve got enough wood before starting a cook, you only need a chunk or two for the electric to provide the best results.
A pellet smoker will cost you 1-2 pounds of pellets per hour whereas an electric only consumes 6-8 ounces per cook. Pellets run about $1 per pound so a 10 hr cook will run you $10. As I mentioned above, the electric might run you a buck. Is the difference in flavor worth it? Yeah, it is to most folks, but there are other things to consider before you pull the trigger.
#4 Cost to buy
Big difference here. electric smoker can be very cheap and pellet smokers generally are not cheap – typically costing more than a very nice gas grill. This is something to consider and one of the more difficult aspects of making the choice.
If you have no grill at all, a pellet smoker by itself won’t eliminate the need. You aren’t going to want to fire up the pellet smoker to grill a few burgers. That said, you won’t use an electric for that purpose either.
The choice here is whether you want to dip you toe into the water and start smoking some meats without a big financial commitment – or you’re OK to drop about a thousand dollars for the entry level pellets smokers available.
Decent pellet smokers run $700 and up. Make it full size high quality with a sear box and you can easily top $1000. The entry level pellet smokers are very good and get the job done. The only caveat I have with the entry level models is the absence of a sear box. A sear box allows you to get a nice char on burgers, steaks. tri-tips, etc.
Without a sear box you’ll need to fire up your grill (assuming you have one) or make other arrangements to handle the task. So, if you already have a grill capable of searing a steak – an entry level pellet grill – sans a sear box – is a viable option for you. If not, figure $1000 or more.
Electric smokers start under $100. They can run up to and over $500, but spending that much won’t change the heat source or the results. In the upper price ranges you are paying for larger capacity, much better fit and finish, and the type of quality that should last for years to come. It’s still an electric smoker and comes with the limitations inherent in the heat source.
Here’s where an electric has some advantages. Let’s not presume you only want to smoke meat. Many folks like to smoke cheese, fish, nuts, and all sorts of things. An electric smoker provides you with the ability to set and maintain very low temperatures. If you want to smoke nuts at 110 degrees you can. Salmon? No problem. These types of cooks aren’t really possible with a pellet smoker as they run too hot.
Both type require electricity to run, so no real difference in versatility there. But an electric smoker is typically going to be smaller and lighter than a pellet smoker. What does this mean? Portability.
The idea of loading a pellet smoker into the pickup and taking it somewhere isn’t very appealing. But your typical electric smoker is pretty compact and light. Basically the size of a dorm room refrigerator and much lighter. So if mobility (with electricity available) is a concern, electric has the advantage.
Another element of versatility involves where you live and what’s allowed. If you live in an apartment or condo and are using a balcony or other limited space, an electric smoker is typically going to be permissible.
Using a pellet grill or smoker usually won’t fly in these situations.
In the end the decision is yours. Between these two types of smokers it’s a serious choice between flavor (at a price) vs. ultimate convenience and lowest cost. If you live someplace that doesn’t allow open flame, the choice has already been made for you you’re stuck with an electric.
However, if you can do whatever you want and have the money – a pellet smoker is an awesome cooker. If you already have a good gas grill you can even skip the sear box. For my money, the best deal on an entry level pellet grill out there is the Camp Chef with a sear box.
Since we’re talking about smoker brands – Traeger is another very popular (and aggressively marketed) brand. I’m not sure they have an advantage over the Camp Chef though.
If you can’t bring yourself to spend $899 or more and still want great flavor check out charcoal smokers – they may be the answer you’ve been looking for.
You can get a Pit Barrel Cooker and a very nice gas grill for about the same money.
So decide which type of smoker you need, want, and can afford and take the next step now. You’re first cook could be less than 48 hours away or you can go another week procrastinating. It’s time to get this done.