Propane vs. Wood vs. Charcoal Smokers: Let’s Compare!


Smokers are no foreign item to most of the world these days. Smokers are used by the general public about as often as grills, and they have become all the rage within the last few years. However, what do propane, wood, and charcoal smokers look like when compared? 

Propane smokers are user-friendly, mobile, affordable, and have temperature consistency, yet they have a small cooking space. Wood smokers are easy to use and clean, have a large cooking space and an incredible flavor variety. Charcoal smokers are the messiest but provide the most distinct flavor.

Propane, wood, and charcoal smokers all offer something a bit different from the next, but they are all three incredible tools for smoking. Continue reading to understand the purpose of these types of smokers, how they work, and the pros and cons of propane, wood, and charcoal smokers.

What is the Purpose of a Smoker? 

Smoking food is no new practice, it has been done for centuries and will continue on for just as long. However, many people look at the process of smoking food and think “What is the point?” There can sometimes be a bit of confusion behind the practice, but fear not. 

Before we delve into the different types of smokers out there (including propane, wood, and charcoal smokers), let’s first discuss why they are all the rage and what exactly is causing them to be in such high demand. Specifically, let’s take a look at how smokers can use low temperatures and slow cooking to enhance the flavor of the food they are smoking.

Low Temperatures and Slow Cooking Times

Low and slow is the name of the game when working with a smoker- regardless of the type of smoker that you are working with. I want you to picture the first time you ever experienced the luxury of a grill session (this experience may have been a good one for you, but I cannot say the same). 

I remember like it was yesterday – finally having my shish kabobs perfectly marinated and they were ready to throw on. They were a lovely combination of peppers, red onions, pineapple, and a sweet marinated chicken, the picture of beauty. 

Young me had the grill going so it could be good and hot once I laid my culinary creation on it. Finally, I approached the grill and when I sat my kebabs on its surface after a long draw from my beer, I was met with instant flames and an eruption of heat. I thought “Oh, it’s fine, things will settle down.” They did not settle down. The grill was too hot and my food was causing some type of volcanic reaction as it laid upon its fiery grill. 

There was no way to fix what had been done. The kabobs were absolutely scorched and the grill would take some time to cool down. This is a problem I continued to face until I finally invested in a smoker. 

For some reason, I could not control the temperature enough to cook my food in a way that was slow enough that it would not burn the surfaces of the item right off the bat. It was this game of flame-throwing that I no longer wanted to play. 

I realize that there are many people in this world who have a fine grip on their grilling skills, masters of the grill even. However, I was not one of those people and I needed to find something that could cook my food low and slow without me having to worry so much about finding the correct temperature and maintaining it through the grilling session. 

This is why I went over to the world of smoking – so my food could cook slowly at a low temperature. Truly, the low temperatures and slow cooking times used by smokers can decrease risks of burnt food, allow for consistency in end products, and increase the flavor added by the material used to smoke the food.

Enhanced Savory Flavors 

As one would assume, there is not only one purpose of a smoker. Yes, they are wonderful tools if you are looking to cook your meats, vegetables, and even desserts at a low temperature over a long amount of time, but they offer something that no grill (gas, charcoal, or electric) can provide: a smoky flavor. 

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a castle in the dead of winter atop a sloping hill in the middle of England during the 16th century? No? Ok, so let’s do a little more imagery here too. During those times, it would be safe to assume that their food did not quite have the ability to harness all the modern flavors our food is capable of – they simply did not have the food advancements that we do during that period. 

It is a shame, really, but there is one thing that they did have and that is the flavor of smoke. Although they may not have smoked their food in such an advanced piece of equipment as we have in the 21st century, they knew how to smoke a pig like it was their job and I can almost guarantee that the flavor that came from that hog was one that was talked about for weeks following the feast.  

Smoking your food through the use of a smoker is a sure-fire way to add an intense and savory flavor that no other piece of equipment is quite capable of. You are able to do this through the use of different wood types that help to infuse your food with their distinct flavors. This is something that many desire, but only a few can attain. I’m kidding, literally anyone can do this.

All you need to do is purchase your smoker and you are in business! Here, another wonder that comes from smokers is added- smokers are user-friendly and can be enjoyed for years to come. Plus, with some types of smokers, you can even enhance the flavor by using particular types of flavored chips.

Now, let’s delve into the comparison of propane, wood, and charcoal smokers. 

Propane Smokers 

Propane smokers are like the best friend that you have always had, but they got a bit of a trendy new haircut. Propane smokers are capable of getting your dishes from dull to delectable in a matter of hours (or days if you feel like really taking it extra slow) with the lovely assistance of the use of modern gas technology. 

The appeal behind a propane smoker is easily understandable as it uses old-world practices with new-world technologies. 

How Propane Smokers Work 

These smokers, however, have a bit of a different look to them. For many gas smokers, they are vertical metal boxes that have a few compartments within them where the magic happens. They are solid, so do not let that description fool you. 

Their design is simplistic and this can be a very good thing for those of you that want something that does not require too much fuss. They are reliable pieces of equipment and can last ages when cared for properly.

Burners

Internally, you first want to take a look at the burner. This is where the propane tank comes into play, as it is connected to the burner. The purpose of the burner is not to grill your meat, as some may think, but it is placed near the smoker which helps to give it the fuel that the smoker needs in order to do its job. 

Wood Pans

Above the burner is the wood pan and this is where the real magic happens. The wood pan is the source of smoky flavor. Wood is placed on the wood pan and the vapors start surrounding your dish like you have never seen. 

Water Pans

Keep going up and above the wood pan is the water pan. This is filled with, you got it, water and is used to regulate the heat in your propane smoker. They also add moisture to your dishes, but even work to keep off any drippings from your food from falling into the fire below and blocking the burner. 

Cooking Racks

Last, but of course, not least, you have your cooking rack. This is the must-have of your propane smoker, otherwise, you have a box with nowhere to rest your culinary masterpieces. 

Some models have features that include hooks, have removable racks, and even have racks that are adjustable. The important thing here is to make sure that you keep your dishes far from the heat if you are wanting to cook low and slow. Direct heat means a quick cook. 

The Pros of Propane Smokers 

Now that you know how they work, let’s talk about why they may be a good investment for you. So, what are some of the pros when it comes to propane smokers? 

  • User-friendly. One of the biggest draws when it comes to propane smokers is how easy they are to use. They are super user-friendly in that most are operated with the flip of a switch and the temperature is set. After this, you have nothing left to worry about until your dish is done. 
  • Temperature consistency. They are also super great temperature regulators. When it comes to smoking, the biggest factor in smoking something well is having a consistent temperature, no matter if the temperature is low or high. 

Because you have a constant flow of gas, the temperature does not have the ability to fluctuate which means you don’t have to worry about wood or charcoal dying down or losing its spark. The work is already done. 

  • Affordable. When it comes to more practical points, propane smokers are typically pretty affordable (much less expensive than charcoal or wood smokers). You can find a pretty wide range of prices, but propane smokers are consistently the least expensive option. 
  • Mobile. Propane smokers are very easy to haul about. They are relatively small which means they can fit into smaller places, are better at being taken to and from different events or areas, and are great for those of you that do not plan on smoking an entire bear throughout the winter. 

The Cons of Propane Smokers

While propane smokers are user-friendly, have a positive temperature consistency, are affordable, and relatively mobile, there are still some downsides to this option of smoker in comparison with wood or charcoal smokers. To provide an accurate representation, let’s take a closer look:

  • Small cooking space. Propane smokers are great for people who are limited when it comes to space, but this also means that the smoker is limited when it comes to the amount or size of the dishes you plan to cook. These smokers are compact and they do great with small amounts, but you will not be able to feed the football team with this thing. 
  • Gas refills are required. Many people also think that a propane smoker is going to the “solve-all” when it comes to the inconveniences that other smokers may host. It’s true, with this type of smoker, you do not have to be constantly fetching coal or worrying about stocking the wood. 

However, gas does run out and you will have to refill it. This means taking the propane tank, hauling it off, and refilling it ever so often. Not only will this take your time, but it will also take the added cost of keeping propane on-hand.

Wood Smokers 

Moving on to wood smokers, these are what most people imagine when it comes to smoking because of how long they have been around and how reliable they are. Before there was propane, before there was charcoal, there was wood. 

This is how our ancestors smoked food, and this is how you can too with a bit of a flashier piece of equipment by your side. Wood smokers are able to take you back in time while also giving you the most modern smoking experience out there. 

How Wood Smokers Work 

A wood smoker is going to be quite a bit bigger than propane smokers. Through the use of wood, they have the ability to smoke larger amounts and are thus created to fit big pieces of food or large quantities. When you consider how they look, they are likely what you think of when a smoker comes to mind. They have a large barreled center with a smokestack on top and a few other compartments here and there that we are about to get into. 

Firebox

First, though, you have what is called the firebox. No, this is not where lava pours out, but it is where the heat of your smoker is created. The firebox is where your wood is placed and is then ignited. Once the ignition happens, it will burn for as long as you continue to feed it. Yes, this means that you do sometimes have to add more wood in order to keep a long smoke fueled, but the process is easy as can be. 

Smoking Chamber

Once the wood is ignited, smoke is created and the smoke then travels into the smoking chamber. This is the largest part of your wood smoker and the one that is likely in the shape of a large cylinder. The cylinder is where your grates are located and this is where all of your food is going to go. Because of their size, some wood smokers have two, sometimes three racks, that can hold large amounts of food without even blinking. 

Water Tray

Once the hot smoke enters into this chamber, it then heats up the water tray that is located just below your grates. This water tray has the exact same purpose as a propane smokers water tray and that is to steam the meat in order to keep as much moisture as possible in there. Even when you are smoking at low heats, your dishes will begin to lose moisture and the water tray helps to put that moisture right back into them. 

Air Vent

An air vent is also located on the top of the smoker to help control the temperature within the smoker. This helps to maintain the temperature no matter what the weather conditions are so that you do not have to worry about cooking times that take too long or have to fuss with a dish that hasn’t cooked evenly due to the constant increase and decrease of temperature.

The Pros of Wood Smokers

Wood smokers are a staple in the smoking world for a reason. Truly, there are so many pros. But, to keep it to a concise list, here are several pros of wood smokers:

  • Incredible flavor variety. The flavor that smokers bring to the table is one of the biggest reasons consumers purchase them. When it comes to smoking, wood smokers are going to give you the most flavor of any other smoker out there because of the material they use – wood. 

It isn’t a small amount either, but enough to go on for hours while you sit back and watch it work its wonders. The flavor wood smokers can offer is unmatched by its counterparts. Plus, you can add in different types of wood chips to enhance the flavor or provide a more particular hint to your favorite dishes.

  • Easy to use. With a wood smoker, they are inevitably low fuss. You should be able to set the temperature, watch it heat up, throw your food on the grate, and close the door until it’s supper time. 

You may need to add more wood depending on how long the smoke is, but beyond that, there is so little interaction you have to partake in while your dishes cook to absolute perfection. They are also very easy to clean and produce hardly any waste when it comes to ash and grease. 

  • Large cooking space. A wood smoker is also a great option for those of you that need a little more room on the grates for your smoking session. If you are someone who often hosts, wood smokers are able to afford you the room you need to feed your guests. 
  • Easy to clean up. It is also fueled through clean fuel due to its natural nature (aka wood) which means you do not have to worry about handling charcoal or messing your clothes and hands up to get the fuel ready.  

The Cons of Wood Smokers

Of course, even with an incredible wood smoker, there are always going to be a few downsides. For this, it is important to consider the cons of wood smokers:

  • Cost. Cost is going to be the first drawback for this awesome machine. When it comes to smokers, wood smokers are going to cost you quite a bit more compared to electric or propane smokers. They are costly, but it is a matter of what you really want when it comes to your smoking experience.  
  • Electricity required. Another con is that they do require electricity to work. No, this is not an electric smoker, but in order for the temperature gauges to work and start heating, you have got to have some electricity. 

This means that you do not have a ton of versatility when it comes to where you can place your smoker. 

  • Difficult to transport. Even more, due to this and its size, wood smokers are very hard to transport from one place to the next. So, if you are setting up for a camping trip, a wood smoker might not be your best bet.

Charcoal Smokers 

Charcoal smokers are a bit nostalgic for me. You can just smell that smell and instantly you are taken back to a smoldering summer day with hot dogs, melting popsicles, lukewarm pool water, and all your best friends with you in the backyard. 

Just as with wood, charcoal smokers are known for the way they flavor your food in a way that grills simply cannot. Charcoal smokers get the job done in a way that brings barbeque to low and slow. 

How Charcoal Smokers Work 

A charcoal smoker is almost identical to a wood smoker, only that it uses charcoal as its source of heat rather than wood. Because of this, I will only briefly go over its functions as we do not need a repeat for no good reason. 

A charcoal smoker has all the same components as a wood smoker: the firebox, the smoking chamber, the water pan, and the vent. The only difference is how you prepare the charcoal. 

When getting ready to add the charcoal to the smoker, you cannot simply toss it in as you would with wood. A charcoal chimney is needed (or you can stack the coals inside the smoker) in order to get the coals burning. Once you have the charcoal added, you can also throw in some wood in order to add another layer of flavor to your dishes. This means getting a bit of wood to add as another effect to all your brisket dreams.

The Pros of Charcoal Smokers 

With the nostalgia that comes with charcoal smokers, there are also many other pros. Consider the following:

  • Unique flavor. Charcoal smokers are able to give your food another type of flavor that wood and propane smokers simply cannot imitate. You can always add wood with your charcoal smoker to get a bit more flavor, but no other smoker is able to match the taste of charcoal that this type of smoker is able to produce. Because of this, charcoal smokers stand out from the rest when it comes to a really distinct flavor. 
  • Affordable. Charcoal is also relatively inexpensive. Wood and propane are two things that can really run up the bill when it comes to cost and when you consider charcoal, you can get a lot of product for a very reasonable amount.

Avoid those higher-end charcoals that claim they can achieve magic in your smoker. Stick with the stuff you know and harness the powers of the basic charcoal brick, it will serve your smoker and your wallet just fine. 

The Cons of Charcoal Smokers 

Still, there are many cons that come with charcoal smokers (even if they, arguably, provide the most distinct flavor, so many people are willing to look over the cons). Consider these cons of charcoal smokers before deciding if it is the right fit for you:

  • Messy. Charcoal is pretty infamous for the amount of mess that it makes. For your smoker, this is no different. Charcoal smokers create a ton of ash and for you, this means a good amount of clean up in your day-to-day when smoking. 

Charcoal is also quite messy when just handling it, not even considering how much mess it makes once completely burned. This is something to consider if you are wanting a smoker that does not require a lot of fuss. 

  • Complicated ignition process. The process to start a charcoal smoker is a bit more involved than any other smoker. You can’t simply pour in your coals and they will automatically ignite. 

You have to make sure that they are burning well, have to light them separately (or within the smoker if you are feeling confident) and the burn can be inconsistent if you do not light them properly. Time can sometimes be a huge make or break component when it comes to these things. 

  • Large amounts of smoke produced. One last con is the amount of smoke that they produce. Yes, when smoking, you have to have smoke in order to cook and flavor your food, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. 

Charcoal smokers typically produce much more smoke than an electric smoker and the smoke is quite dense. This is not something that is clean-burning, so you should consider this if you live close by to other people in your community. 

William Johnson

Will has loved smoking food in his free time for the last few years. Each major holiday or off-weekend, Will spends days testing and prepping new recipes for perfection.

Recent Posts