Do you love BBQ? If you’re keen to start making your own BBQ at home, you’re probably tackling the thorny question as to whether to buy a smoker or a grill? Perhaps you even own a grill and just want to know what a smoker can do for you? Well, you’re not alone in that and the good news is that once you understand the differences between them, making the right decision for your family is easy.
Smoking vs grilling: what’s the difference? In a nutshell – grilling uses radiant heat or direct heat to cook food products whereas smoking uses smoke to both flavor and cook food products. However, the truth is that there’s quite a lot more to it than that, which is why we put together this handy guide to smoking and grilling for you.
Smoking Vs Grilling: What’s The Difference?
Smoking and grilling have quite a lot in common. After all, they both require some fuel and some fire to get the best out of them.
They’ve both been around for a long time almost certainly before human beings moved into cities, though, of course, we’ve refined them a lot in the modern era and you no longer set fire to stuff in a cave and hope for the best to get finely smoked products any more than we currently use wooden grilling racks because, thankfully, steel working is something we can do now.
However, they’re both different methods of cooking too. Smoking, in its purest form, is all about the smoke (as the name suggests). The food product is suspended in smoke which raises its temperature to cook it and, at the same time, the smoke adds flavor to the food.
Grilling, on the other hand, involves suspending the food over (or sometimes under) a heat source and may or may not involve any smoke at all. Some forms of grilling do use smoke and that means food cooked in this way will gain some taste from the smoke, but it is unlikely to get the depth of smoky taste that you get from using a smoker.
So, let’s take an in-depth look at each type of cooking and see what the differences are and what the similarities are and then see if we can decide which is best?
Grilling Vs BBQ: A Meaningless Distinction
One thing that we won’t be dealing with, however, is the difference between grilling and BBQ because in the context that we are using them here – they are the same thing. Purists will argue over tiny perceived differences, but none of those differences make any real change to the final edible product on the same scale of smoking and grilling differences.
We think if you use two near-identical methods to get a near identical end product – they’re the same thing. We’d be happy for you to change our minds, of course, but we don’t think that you will.
According to Wikipedia, “Smoking is the process of flavoring, browning, cooking or preserving food by exposing it to smoke from burning or smoldering material, most often wood.”
We’re quite happy with that definition – so, we don’t want to change it up.
Smoking would, probably, have started at some point during the Paleolithic Period which covers about 99% of all the time that human beings spent in pre-technological societies. Sadly, we can’t get to a more precise definition of when people would have started smoking food because they hadn’t invented writing or record keeping back then.
It is likely that it came about when human beings had hung meat up in their huts, shacks, caves, etc. and then lit a fire to try and stay warm. The smoke would have helped dry the meat and scare away insect infestations. It would also have helped make the food tastier too.
As a form of preservation, however, smoking has always been a bit lacking and it was soon to be combined with a process known as curing (which is when the food would be dried with salt prior to smoking) to produce long-lasting meals.
It’s fair to say that this is why salt was so precious in the ancient world – curing requires a lot of salt.
In fact, it’s also worth noting that without the modern smoking equipment we can use today – this process of smoking and curing would have been long and tedious and could go on for days at a time.
Smoking has gained real popularity in the modern era and in some parts of the Southern United States – they now run competitive smoking events. Where people gather to cook a specific cut of meat (or cuts of meat).
It is worth noting that while smoking is mainly used on meat, fish, and cheese. It is possible to smoke plums, peppers, prunes, and pickles and also tea leaves and malted beverages (such as the malt used in whiskey). However, if you’re not at least partly a carnivore – you probably don’t need to add a smoker to your cooking equipment.
The 5 Basic Types Of Smoking
There are 5 types of smoking that are used in modern cookery:
- Cold smoking. This is a process where the food is not cooked at all during the smoking process. Typically, it takes place between 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The food products will get some of that delicious smoky flavor but will not dry out or cook during the process. For this reason, cold smoking is generally only conducted on meat products after they have been cured through cheese, nuts, etc. may be subject to cold smoking without curing. Most people will never cold smoke at home as it is a very risky process and one which requires real training to carry out safely.
- Warm smoking. This is a process carried out at a higher temperature, typically, 77 degrees Fahrenheit to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. In most cases, this will be done as a substitute for dehydration processes and given the ease (and low cost) of buying dehydration equipment, today, it’s rarely done except for interest’s sake.
- Hot smoking. When we consider smoking in this article, we’re really talking about hot smoking. That is a smoking process that takes place at 126 degrees Fahrenheit up to around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This process fully cooks the items as long as they are left in the smoke for long enough to raise their internal temperature to a high enough level to kill off any bacteria. This process tends to add the most intense smoke flavor to food as well.
- Liquid smoking. This is what we’d like to think of as “cheating”. Liquid smoke is a water-based chemical mixture that adds a smoke-like taste to food when you spray it on. While the preparation of liquid smoke may involve actual smoking, most of the time – it does not.
- Smoke roasting. This is sometimes known as pit-roasting because it’s most commonly carried out in a closed pit but there’s no reason you shouldn’t use a conventional oven for it. You’re looking to reach a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit with this kind of roasting and it’s normally achieved by placing the meat in a pan directly over smoldering hardwood chips.
The Types Of Smokers
There are many different designs of smokers, but we think that when most people consider buying their first smoker, they’re really looking at a choice between four types of smokers: the electrical smoker, the propane smoker, the pellet smoker, and the charcoal smoker.
There’s no denying the simple convenience of a smoker that just requires you to plug it in. Electric smokers are the most common form of a domestic smoker because not only are they easy to switch on, but they require less watching when the food is smoking too.
Most will have controls on them that allow you to set the cooking temperature and the amount of time to cook. The smoker will handle pretty much everything else (as long as you add wood and sometimes water as required). The only real downside of these smokers is that the smoked food doesn’t taste as strongly of smoke as charcoal smoked food does.
A propane smoker is not as easy to use as an electrical smoker, however, it’s fair to say that it is still much easier to regulate the temperature of the smoker than it is in a full charcoal smoker. This can be a big deal because learning to use a charcoal smoker is a real labor of love.
The downside of using a propane smoker is that you have to buy propane for it and that can get expensive if you’re smoking regularly. It’s worth noting though that you won’t use as much wood as you would in other smokers while you’re burning propane – so there is some positive trade-off.
Pellet smokers are capable of putting out more heat than an electric smoker and of controlling the heat very specifically. They feed sawdust pellets into a controlled burning area which keeps them smoldering while a heat sensor regulates the flow of pellets into the area to keep the temperature under control.
Until recently, pellet smokers were something of a novelty in the smoking world, but they’ve become increasingly common in the world of competitive BBQ because of their ease of use and incredibly even heat layer inside the smoking compartment.
Charcoal smokers are the old school favorite where charcoal is burned (along with some wood) to get the smoke inside the smoker. There’s no denying that this gives the best flavor when smoking food and it remains the number one choice of smoking professionals in America.
However, there’s also no denying the intense learning curve and constant vigilance required for charcoal smoking and that means for many people it’s just too inconvenient to carry out at home. You’ll want to think carefully before buying a charcoal smoker for your own use – it’s a really good idea to try one out at a friend’s before you do.
As for grilling? Wikipedia says, “Grilling is a form of cooking that involves dry heat applied to the surface of food, commonly from above, below or from the side.”
That is, unlike with smoking, the food is going to get most of the heat for cooking from direct or radiant heat (depending on the type of grill – though radiant heat, that is heat which radiates from a source but does not come into contact with the food, is most common).
In the United States when we use a heat source that goes above the food, we don’t call the process grilling any more but rather broiling. This isn’t the case elsewhere in the world and can lead to some confusion.
Grilled meat often gains a certain scent and taste from a chemical reaction in the food known as the Maillard Reaction. This requires a temperature of over 310 degrees Fahrenheit to take place and explains why grilled food is distinctly different from smoked food in its taste and appearance.
You can grill meat, fish, and cheese as with smoking, but you can also grill a wide variety of vegetables and even some fruit.
Grilling is, generally speaking, considered to be healthier than smoking for two reasons. Firstly, there are some concerns that smoke may be carcinogenic (though it’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that there are high risks associated with smoked foodstuffs) and second because it helps to remove the fats from foods.
It’s worth noting though that losing fats and other juices from meat products often leaves them drier and less palatable than smoked foods.
We should also point out that there are many forms of grilling which also involve some exposure of the foods to smoke – though they are likely to be less intense than the kind of exposure in smoking.
The Types Of Grill
We could probably write a book on the different types of grilling but for the sake of brevity and your sanity, we won’t. As with smokers, we think that when people go out to buy a grill, they know there are different designs and instead, they have four main types of grills that they intend to choose between. These types of grills are:
- Gas Grills
- Charcoal Grills
- Electric Grills
- Portable Grills
Possibly the most popular form of grill for home use is the gas grill. They come in some really impressive looking designs and some of the best are very expensive. We get why they’re popular too – they take a few minutes to set up and you won’t struggle to use them.
However, we’re going to be blunt about this – the food lacks flavor on a gas grill when compared to a charcoal grill and while a charcoal smoker can be tough to master, pretty much anyone can master a charcoal grill. We’d only buy a gas grill if we were looking for ultra-convenience, or to have when you want a quicker prep-time for dinner.
The charcoal grill is what we like to think of as the traditional grill or BBQ. It can take a little more time to get a charcoal grill going, particularly when you first start using one, but we feel it’s worth the effort – plus there are plenty of fire lighting products out there that can help you get a blaze going in short order.
The effort is paid back in a better-tasting end product because not only do you get that Maillard Reaction we talked about earlier, you also get a gentle smoky taste too. It’s not as pronounced as when you cook food in a smoker but it’s pretty good all the same.
Look, we love having an electric grill in the home for those days when we can’t be bothered to BBQ and we know that they’re very handy if you live in a condo or an apartment without access to a BBQ space but otherwise, we don’t feel that they’re the real deal when it comes to BBQ at all.
You won’t get a smoky taste and you may not get a decent Maillard Reaction, but they are better than nothing though not much better. For us, an electric grill is a backup and not the main event.
The portable grill is the smaller version of the gas or charcoal grill that you can take on the road with you or on a camping trip. They can be very good and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the taste of the end product.
However, they can’t be used inside (so they’re not a replacement for an electric grill) and they tend to be much smaller than the gas and charcoal grills that most people use as their main BBQ machine. They’re usually cheap and cheerful though, so it’s often not going to hurt the household budget to have a portable grill as well as a grill that stays at your home.
How To Choose Between A Smoker And A Grill
OK, so now, we’ve fully examined what the differences between a smoker and a grill are and seen the differences in the types of smoker and grills that there are available too.
We can now turn to the tricky question of which one should you choose for your next cookout? We know that there are hardcore fans of each method already and if you have a preference – we’d say skip the next bit and indulge yourself, it’s better to get food you want to eat than food cooked in the way a list suggests.
However, if you don’t have that preference – this quick guide should help you work out what you want to buy.
What Are You Going To Cook?
The number one consideration, for us, is what are you going to put inside your new cooking contraption? Not just what are you intending to cook, today, but also what would you like to be able to cook in the future?
If you’re thinking something big like a whole leg of lamb or a turkey, then a smoker is your friend. You’re going to find that large amounts of meat become very tender and the smoke really gets to permeate the flesh and bring out the taste.
As long as you ensure that there’s enough moisture present for the meat not to dry out – smoked meat like this can be heaven. Also, if you want smoky fish or bacon, you’re going to love the smoker because a grill won’t cut it.
However, on the flip side, if you only have small pieces of meat in mind – it’s definitely easier, quicker and cheaper to grill and the food will still be very tasty.
If you want to be able to cook a wide range of vegetables then a grill is a must and in this health-conscious age, even if you’re not cutting down on the meat, somebody you know, probably, is.
How Many People Are You Cooking For?
The number of people you’re cooking for will have an impact on your final decision too. Though, it’s worth pointing out that you can buy really big smokers and really big grills, so if you’re planning to cook for your local team then you can as long as you plan ahead.
However, we think that a smoker is really built to cater to large numbers of people. On a like-for-like basis (that is, in terms of how much you spend), you’re going to get more in a smoker than you will on a grill.
We like grills for smaller, more intimate affairs like a Sunday BBQ with your family. You don’t need to drag out the smoker on such occasions as you won’t need anywhere near as much food.
If you’re going to be grilling for big groups, the key thing to pay attention to when buying a grill is the size of the cooking surface as opposed to the size of the grill overall. You can often extend the facility of a grill by buying some grill racks that slot over the current set up too.
How Much Space Do You Have?
The average family grill can be a fairly small affair and it’s certainly going to be easier to use and to store if you live in a place with a severely limited amount of yard or storage. We think that if you have a small home – a grill is always going to make life easier than a smoker.
That’s not to say that you can’t find smokers with a smaller footprint nowadays, there was a time when your choice was always going to be big and bulky but in recent years they’ve come out with “egg-shaped” smokers that take up much less space than the older models.
Of course, the smaller the smoker – the less capacity you will get though you’ll fit more in a small smoker than you will on a small grill.
Both small grills and smokers can be made to be portable (though please, be careful with your back – if you’re in any doubt when lifting something, ask for help – back injuries are no fun at all and you want to be in shape to enjoy that BBQ, right?) and while smokers aren’t a usual sight when tailgating, they are fantastic for a camp out session in the woods.
How Much Money Do You Want To Spend?
You don’t have to spend a fortune on either a smoker or a grill but if you’re feeling flush – you can always spend a little more to get a little more capacity or few more features.
We don’t think there’s anything on the cost side of the equation that should sway you more to smoking or grilling, though, they can both be economical.
Is A Smoker Better Than A Grill?
No. A smoker is not better than a grill, it’s just different. They both produce tasty and enjoyable end products. Smokers are better for larger meals and for that distinct smoky taste. Grills are usually for smaller meals and especially if you want to cook vegetables.
However, if there’s a taste you prefer – you can use either without feeling guilty about it. It’s your food, you have it the way you want it.
Can You Use A Smoker As A Grill?
Yes, you can as long as you’re using an offset smoker. You can grill directly which is when you build a charcoal fire below the cooking grates and grill like that (you will need to buy a grate for most smokers for this purpose).
You can also grill indirectly (that is you build the fire in the firebox and then run the dampers to create a grilling area in the cooking chamber).
Neither effect is exactly like grilling but it’s pretty close. However, most of the time, we’d smoke food if you only have a smoker as that’s what it’s for.
Smoking vs grilling: what’s the difference? As you’ve seen smoking uses smoke to create a different taste and to cook the finished product – it is mainly used for cheese, meat, and fish. Whereas, grilling is used to cook food using radiant or direct heat and can be used for fruits and vegetables as well as meat and fish.
Neither is better than the other but they do produce very different finished products and the best way to choose between them is on personal preference for the taste but if that’s not going to work – weigh up what you will cook, how much you will cook, how much space you have, and how much you want to spend and decide that way.
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.