Thinking about buying a smoker but feeling confused as to whether to buy an electric smoker or a charcoal smoker? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. The good news is that once you know what you want from a smoker – this is a very easy choice to make. Our guide will walk you through everything you need to know.
Electric smoker vs charcoal: which is better? Well, “it depends” is probably the best answer. The electric smoker is an excellent choice for beginner smokers and for those who don’t have huge amounts of time to smoke with. However, the charcoal smoker undoubtedly produces the best tasting end product.
So, let’s take a look at electric smokers and charcoal smokers – their strengths and weakness and then let’s put them together to define which might be the best for your style of cooking.
A Brief Introduction To Charcoal Smokers
When people think “smoker”, they tend to think “charcoal”. It’s the old school classic appeal and charcoal and BBQ are so inextricably linked in people’s minds that many will insist that charcoal is the only option when it comes to smoking food.
Before we get into examining all the different facets of charcoal and electric smokers, we’ll concede upfront that we think there’s a genuine edge when it comes to the taste of meat that has been smoked over charcoal.
However, we’re also going to point out that charcoal smoking is something of a dark art and it takes quite a lot of practice to get it right. Badly smoked food is often worse than no food at all – so if you want to charcoal smoke your food – you’re going to have to get to grips with a steep (and sometimes expensive) learning curve.
You’re going to have to create the ideal conditions for the charcoal to burn and then produce the perfect smoke within the body of the smoker.
We’d argue that this means for most first-timers than a charcoal smoker is going to be a bigger source of frustration that it is joy.
A Brief Introduction To Electric Smokers
The flip side is the electric smoker – you don’t have to spend very much time learning to use an electric smoker. You’re going to plug it in and then get to grips with some digital controls, we’d be surprised if you couldn’t get decent (possibly, even excellent) results out of your first uses of an electric smoker. (That’s something that is unlikely from a charcoal smoker).
If you’re just starting out or if you lack either time and/or patience, then this ease of use is going to carry the day for you. You plug it in, turn the controls to the settings that you want and then forget about it until the food is done.
Then, assuming that there are no acts of God or power cuts in your region, you can simply rely on the smoker to do the work while you do something else.
As for the taste? Assuming that you’ve invested in an electric smoker with a wood-burning element to it – it’s pretty good, sure, it’s not the connoisseurs option of a charcoal smoke but most people won’t be expecting that, they’ll be looking for something tasty and interesting and an electric smoker is near guaranteed to provide that.
The Pros Of Charcoal Smokers
So, what do we love about charcoal smokers? We think that there are four areas where the charcoal smoker shines, and these are:
The Flavor Of The Finished Product
You can’t get better smoke than that produced over a charcoal burn and that makes the meat taste better. We can’t get away from this – we’ve tried a million different things to enhance the smoke from an electric smoker and while we can get good results, great always comes from charcoal.
The Fun Had From Smoking
Some people love to cook. We love to cook. If you want to feel like you’re in charge of an exciting creative process then fiddling with the vents, fuel, etc. and learning to master the exact temperature of a charcoal smoker is for you. We won’t pretend that this process can’t be frustrating, because it can, but once you’ve mastered it – you will feel amazing and getting there is fun.
The Reliability Of The Smoker
Charcoal smokers are basic contraptions and the fewer moving parts, etc. that you have in a device – the more reliable that device tends to be. There’s no exception here. Charcoal smokers are very reliable and even if you do find that something goes wrong, it’s normally a very cheap fix that you can carry out yourself. There’s no risk of electrocuting yourself.
The Longevity and Value Of The Smoker
Once again, the lack of complicated gizmos inside a charcoal smoker means that you can expect a long life from a half-decent smoker. The top professional level models come with 10+ year warranties because the manufacturers don’t expect to see many claims on these warranties. You know that you’re investing in something that’s going to last when you buy a charcoal smoker and that means it offers fair value for money.
The Pros Of Electric Smokers
The electric smoker brings its own set of strengths to the table and we’d argue that it hits it out of the park in 3 specific areas, which are:
Convenient and Safe
The ability to flick a switch and start smoking is a big deal. Not everybody has the time (or inclination) to get to grips with burning charcoal and the adjustments required to get to the perfect smoke. Sometimes, it’s just better to be able to turn the thing on and get smoking. We’d also note that this is, by definition, safer too – you’re not messing around with flames and you’re much less likely to get burned.
Speed and Ease Of Use
You might have to wait a few minutes for the device to warm up before you can start smoking but you’re not going to have to do much else. Those few minutes might be the perfect time to add a little last-minute seasoning to the meats you intended to smoke.
Also, there’s no getting around how easy it is to use an electric smoker, if you buy a model with some strong digital controls, you can be incredibly precise about everything from cooking temperature to cooking time. You don’t need to keep your eye on the ball because the smoker will handle it for you.
You Can Cold Smoke
If you’re looking for a very long cooking process, for example, to make beef jerky, then you will be seeking a low-temperature heat. This is very easy to achieve with an electric smoker, just dial in that magic 150 degrees and you’re done. This isn’t important to every chef but to some chefs – this feature alone makes an electric smoker their top pick.
The Cons Of Charcoal Smokers
Now that we’ve seen the strengths of each smoker, let’s take a look at the three weaknesses that a charcoal smoker introduces to your cooking routine:
You’re Going To Have To Learn
We mentioned the learning curve earlier but it’s no laughing matter. A charcoal smoker is a bit of a beast and you have to tame that beast to get the best from it. If you haven’t smoked meat before, this can feel almost overwhelming when you start playing with vents, etc. to try and get the airflow right.
It’s Time Consuming
You don’t set a charcoal smoker once and then walk away and forget about it. You’ll need to keep an eye on progress and make adjustments every now and again to get the perfect results. Those who love the charcoal smoked meat say that this time investment is worth it – but you may not feel that way.
Controlling The Temperature Is Hard
If you want to get the temperature right, you’re going to have to get the right mix of air and charcoal. When you have too much charcoal, you’ll find the heat keeps climbing over a long period of time when you first start playing with air vents – you’ll quickly realize that gauging how much air you need is not something that you pick up in 5 minutes.
The Cons Of Electric Smokers
There are only 2 real downsides to using an electric smoker but either of them might be a dealbreaker depending on how you want to work:
You Can’t Get Them Wet
Now, this is fairly obvious, but electricity and water don’t mix. That means no rain, no heavily humid operating environments, etc. It also means that you can’t leave the smoker outside when it’s not in use and even storing it in the garage or the shed might not work if you live somewhere that’s particularly moist.
They’re Hard To Move Around
You are tied to a plug socket. It’s fairly obvious but we know that some people want their smoker out by their BBQ, which means running cables, etc. to get the power. You may think it’s worth the effort, but you might not, either.
Head To Head: The Electric Smoker Vs The Charcoal Smoker
Now that we’ve looked at each type of smoker individually, we can throw the two into the ring and see how they slug it out against each other.
Easy To Use: The Electric Smoker Wins
There’s absolutely no contest in this area. You take a plug to a plug socket and then switch on the electric smoker. Set a dial or two and you’re smoking. We’d strongly suggest that you also remember to add wood chips or chunks to the smoker and top up the water container (if there is one). Your food will be along shortly, and it’s guaranteed to be edible.
The charcoal smoker, by contrast, needs you to put in some work. You need to get the charcoal to burn properly (which means starting it and then spreading it out to burn evenly). You also have to adjust the vents properly to get the temperature you want. You’re also going to have to monitor how things go throughout the cooking process.
The Speed And Convenience Of Use: The Electric Smoker Wins
The same holds true when it comes to the speed and convenience of using a smoker. The electric smoker’s ease of use makes it fast to use too. If you’ve come home at the end of a long day and have no patience for building up the right smoke, then you want an electric smoker. You won’t spend any more time than you have to on it.
The charcoal smoker is an involved process. That means it’s going to be fine on a lazy Sunday afternoon or if you regularly smoke large volumes of food and find the time investment to be a good deal for your circumstances.
The Ease Of Temperature Control: The Electric Smoker Wins
Another win for the electric smoker. You turn a dial and set your temperature. The heating element is automatically adjusted and while it may not be exactly the temperature written on the dial inside your smoker – it will be close enough that it doesn’t really matter.
Setting the temperature in a charcoal smoker is more of an art than a science. It comes from trial and error and while the master smoker will make it look easy, you’ll spend more than one frustrating afternoon trying to get to this level of mastery. If you smoke food a lot, it’s worth the effort but if it’s only an occasional treat – it’s probably not.
The Ability To Cold Smoke: The Electric Smoker Wins
It’s not impossible to do cold smoking in a charcoal smoker but it is very, very hard. Given that operating a charcoal smoke is more challenging than operating an electric smoker in the best of circumstances – we think most people are going to balk at the Herculean efforts required to cold smoke in a charcoal smoker.
If you want to get into cold smoking, your best option is to buy an electric smoker with a specifically designed cold smoking attachment. This is necessary because the airflow needs to be controlled as the wood-burning smoke is too hot to do cold smoking.
Ease Of Cleaning: It’s A Tie
An electric smoker is no easier to clean than a charcoal smoker. You will have to clean both out thoroughly, mind you. You have to get rid of the ash (which is fairly easy to do) but, most importantly, you need to clean out the grates which you cook on and the grease traps below. If you forget to attend to this – your smoker will start to smell fairly unpleasant, fairly quickly.
The Price Tag: It’s A Tie
As with pretty much all kitchen style equipment – you can spend as much as you like on a smoker of either description. However, at the entry-level, a charcoal smoker should cost no real amount more or less than an electric smoker does.
The Flavor Of The Meat: The Charcoal Smoker Wins
There is no other possible result here. The charcoal smoker makes a much tastier end product than an electric smoker. It is the number one reason to purchase a charcoal smoker (in fact, if this wasn’t true – we doubt there would be anybody selling charcoal smokers).
The charcoal and/or wood deliver a thicker and more all-encompassing smoke and the flavor is just that bit more intense and defined when you use a charcoal smoker.
The Warranty Period: The Charcoal Smoker Wins
It’s the rare electric smoker that comes with a warranty for longer than 2-3 years because electrical equipment simply doesn’t last that long. However, by the time you get to a mid-tier charcoal smoker – you’re likely to easily find a 5-10 year or even lifetime warranty for the product.
The Durability: The Charcoal Smoker Wins
The warranty demonstrates the expectation that charcoal smokers will last longer than electric smokers and we find that this is true. The lack of moving parts just makes a charcoal smoker the most solid choice on the market.
Our Final Score: Electric Smoker 5: Charcoal Smoker 4
Well, the results don’t lie. The electric smoker has a definite edge over the charcoal smoker when it comes to our 9 point test. However, the most important advantage may be the taste of the end product and if that’s the case for you, the charcoal smoker’s disadvantages just don’t matter at all.
So, the electric smoker vs charcoal: which is better? Well, if we weight every measure equally – the electric smoker emerges as slightly better than the charcoal smoker and if you’re looking for a smoke that’s easy to use and not too time-consuming, the electric smoker is a definite win.
However, if you want the best tasting end product, you can ignore the scores and opt for a charcoal smoker (though we’d still strongly recommend you get some experience with an electric smoker first if this is your first purchase of a smoker).