For many people, the ideal weekend is one where the weather is moderately sunny, and there’s lots of smoked meat and drinks to enjoy while watching football on the TV. Smokers have made such weekends even more common today, as they’re now more portable and accessible. But which of the smokers should you go for between the pellet and electric variants?
Pellet smokers and electric smokers both rely on electricity to run. However, the key difference between them is the smoking source. While an electric unit heats meat with a hot rod or plate, a pellet smoker uses wood pellets, leaving a more intense smoke flavor on smoked food.
The rest of the article will cover all you need to know about the key differences between a pellet and an electric smoker. You’ll also learn all the pros and cons between them to make the best possible decision.
What Is a Pellet Smoker?
A pellet smoker (sometimes known as a pellet grill) is a model that runs on wood pellets. They’re a popular option because they burn natural wood derivatives while cooking food.
Pellet smokers feature a hopper (wood pellets storage container) and an auger motor. Once plugged into a power source, the auger motor moves hardwood pellets into the smoker’s cooking chamber from the container. Intake fans draw in air, and the pellets are ignited in the chamber through combustion. The resulting small fire heats the barbecue, dispersing smoke that smokes or grills the food inside.
Pellet smokers are electric-powered, so they provide a hands-free smoking experience. You can maintain the temperature by setting a dial on a digital interface. The auger motor adjusts the rate of feeding pellets into the chamber based on these settings.
Many people call these products pellet grills, but you should keep in mind that the grilling function depends on the specific model. Most pellet smokers are only designed to smoke food at low temperatures from 180°F (82°C). If the grilling function is important to you, you need to go with models capable of reaching around 450-650°F (232-343°C). That’s the right temperature for proper searing and grilling.
Pellet smokers are now so popular because they’re the only barbecue machines that deliver 100% wood-smoked meats without the strain of conventional offset smokers.
What Is an Electric Smoker?
Electric smokers are another type of portable automated barbecue machine. The models rely on heat from a heating element to cook foods instead of natural wood fire.
Apart from the heating element, electric smokers also contain a water pan and a wood chop pan. The water pan keeps the food moist, while the wood chop pan releases some smoke in the cooking chamber to infuse a light wood flavor to your food. Add the automated function, and these units are only slightly different from the oven in your kitchen.
Since the heat source in these units isn’t real fire, the produced smoke isn’t as powerful as what you’d get on a pellet smoker. For meat, the result is a softer bark without any smoke ring. Still, the meat is very tasty.
Electric smokers are a good option if you live in an apartment where you can’t use real-fire barbecues. However, they aren’t great for grilling as the design approach used on the bulk of them means the temperature simply won’t get hot enough.
Additionally, they work like ovens, spreading the heat across the entire chamber instead of focusing on the heating element. Some products may promise the grilling function, but they’re the exception, not the norm.
Differentiating Between Pellet and Electric Smokers
You may have already seen some key differences between both smoker designs in our description for each one above, but we’ll delve a bit deeper into their differences under some key talking points. These talking points are key considerations for buyers in the market for any of these two products.
The meat flavor is one of the first considerations for people trying to choose between both products. However, as we’ve seen above, the pellet smoker stands apart in this area. The smoky flavor on meats smoked with a pellet smoker is a lot more intense because cooking with wood is bound to deliver more smoke compared to cooking with a heat source.
Electric smokers indeed have water and wood pans that work together to produce smoke as the machine works, but the result is a very faint wood flavor. If you love meat infused heavily with the standard wood-fired flavor, you should go with a pellet smoker.
Overall Ease of Use
Both electric and pellet smokers are easy to use, for newbies getting started on meat smoking and experts. Pellet smokers may look complicated, but they’re easy to use. You don’t need to stand guard watching the operation. You only need to set your desired temperature after putting in the meat; then, the machine will get to work without any other inputs from you.
Electric smokers work similarly, but there’s a slight twist. Due to the design of these units, you won’t find much deposit after smoking. Therefore, cleanup is far easier here and won’t take long. It’s why some people refer to it as the smoker for lazy cooks. On the other hand, the pellet smoker generates a lot of ash you have to clean out after every use.
Cost of Operation
An electric smoker is cheaper to run overall. The unit relies on electricity as its heat source, and you only need to add 3-6 ounces (85-170 g) of wood for a session. The small amount of wood needed and the price of electricity means that the cost of operation is generally low.
Pellet smokers cost more overall. The smoker also uses electricity, but only to run the pellet-feeding mechanism and ignite the pellets. However, the machine needs a lot of pellets to keep the fire going, which ramps up the operating costs.
You can expect to spend a dollar for every hour of pellets. So, if you need to smoke for 10 hours, you should expect to buy $10 worth of pellets at least. The costs add up if you do more than just occasional grilling.
A pellet grill is more versatile when it comes to cooking options. You can use it when smoking any food, including French toast, cheese, fish, brisket, and sausage. This is especially true if you buy a model like the Traeger Grills Tailgater 20 Portable Wood Pellet Grill and Smoker from Amazon.com. It can grill, sear and roast, giving you true culinary freedom.
An electric smoker can only smoke food. Of course, you can smoke all kinds of food, but they aren’t equipped to do much else.
A pellet grill is an excellent investment if you’re in the market for a multifunctional barbecue unit but if you only want to enjoy smoked foods without spending a lot of money, you should consider electric smokers like the Masterbuilt MB20070210 Analog Electric Smoker from Amazon.com. It’s affordable and comes with three racks—enough to hold lots of food in one session.
If you’re looking to spend the least money possible on one of these, go with electric smokers. The smaller designs made for home use cost around $150, while commercial options can cost up to $1,000. On average, you should expect to spend around $250 on one of these.
On the other hand, the smallest pellet smokers cost around $300, while commercial designs can cost more than $2,000. On average, you should expect to spend around $500 on a pellet smoker.
However, it’s best to look beyond pricing and focus on your unique needs. You’ll need to outline your needs and any usage constraints and then settle on a budget. Armed with that knowledge, you can compare different pellet or electric smoker models that match your expectations and pick the most favorable option.
Temperature Range and Control
You’d expect temperature control to be easiest on electric smokers because they only feature a heating element. However, temperature controls will vary across models. Some lower-quality designs come with less durable control fittings, which break down quickly when left outdoors long enough.
So, you have to pay attention to the controls when choosing one of these.
Pellet smokers have more reliable temperature controls. The designs are sturdier, and the controls work as they should, regulating wood pellet intake properly.
Both electric and pellet smokers are designed to deliver the best smoking results in the lower temperature range between 176°F and 482°F (80 and 250°C). Some electric designs work well between the 176°F and 248°F range (80 and 120°C).
Keep in mind that the temperatures on a pellet smoker will fluctuate around the target temperature. So it’s best to set your temperature controls 4-5% higher than your actual target when using one of these.
Pellet and electric smokers can run for a very long time. Electric smokers only need to stay hooked to a power outlet, while a pellet smoker only needs you to maintain a steady supply of pellets.
A pellet smoker can deliver up to 10 hours of smoking on average without refilling, while an electric smoker can deliver 2-6 hours of smoking. Variants with large hoppers can also go up to 10 hours. If you want your smoking session to last longer, just refill the hopper as it nears empty, and the machine will keep working.
Pellet Smoker Pros and Cons
Here’s a quick look at the advantages and disadvantages of choosing a pellet smoker:
- It’s easy to use.
- It supports set-and-forget smoking.
- It can work in all kinds of climates when properly insulated.
- It infuses smoked foods with real and intense wood flavor.
- Some pellet smokers can also grill, making them versatile.
- It’s highly efficient.
- Controlling it is as easy as inputting the right data in the temperature dial.
- You can use a pellet smoker in places where cooking with real fire is banned.
- It runs on electricity, so it has to be set up near an outlet.
- It’s generally costlier than electric and charcoal smokers.
- The cooking area is small when compared to vertical electric smokers.
- The smoke is weaker than the results on an offset smoker.
- You have to budget extra money for wood pellets as a full hopper costs $10-$12.
Electric Smoker Pros and Cons
The pros and cons of electric smokers are covered below:
- Electric smokers work great for indoor and outdoor smoking because many models are designed for indoor use.
- These designs are generally very portable.
- You can use one of these without constant monitoring.
- They’re properly insulated and can work in very cold climates.
- The pricing is very affordable for most mid-range models.
- Smoking at very low temperatures is easy, making these devices a good option if you constantly smoke other foods besides meat.
- The cooking capacity is very large.
- They’re cheaper to run because you don’t have to buy a lot of wood pellets.
- The design ensures easier cleanup compared to other types of smokers.
- They’re compact and thus won’t take up much space.
- Electric smokers are an excellent choice for apartment or condo living.
- They have to stay connected to a power outlet to run.
- You can’t use them for grilling.
- The food tastes great but not up to the standards of a pellet smoker.
- They don’t leave a smoke ring on food.
- You may need some practice time to get the right smoke level and keep meat from drying out.
Pellet and electric smokers are great products in their own rights. Electric smokers are the better option to go with if you want compact units that don’t cost a lot to run. However, if you’re in the market for one of these because you want the perfect wood flavor, a pellet grill will deliver better value for money.
Similarly, an electric smoker fits better in small spaces, making it a good fit for most apartment balconies, but a pellet smoker offers more versatility overall. So, the choice comes down to your unique needs and how much you’re willing to spend.
Scot has loved smoking food in his free time for the last few years. Each major holiday or off-weekend, Scot spends days testing and prepping new recipes for perfection.