pellet grill vs smoker

Pellet Grill vs Smoker – What Are the Differences?

Pellet grills have been around for quite a while now, but they have only recently started becoming popular. You may have heard that these grills excel not only at grilling but smoking too.

So how do they stack up against the traditional cabinet and offset smokers?

Let’s take a closer look.

What is a Pellet Grill?

Wood pellets are simple pressed pellets made of hardwood shavings and sawdust, usually about the size of a pencil eraser.

The first company to use these as a cooking fuel was Traeger, which patented the technology in 1986. Traeger is still a major player in the pellet grill market, but there are also other choices out there today.

Below is an infographic that explains the basic structure of pellet grills:

pellet grill parts explained

Pellet grills have a couple of notable advantages when compared to standard charcoal or gas smokers:

First, they are electronically controlled — an electric pellet feeder stokes the firebox so that you can control the temperature very well. The only heat source is the burning pellets, so the single fuel source provides lots of smoke along with the heat.

One of the most significant advantages of the design is that it is easy to set a pellet grill for low-temperature smoking recipes. Since the feeder controls the flame, these grills can hold 250 degrees Fahrenheit with no difficulties. While electric and gas smokers can also do this, it can be hard to achieve with a charcoal smoker.

In addition to slow smoking, you can set most pellet grills to 500 degrees or more for regular grilling. Gas and electric smokers can’t do this.

Pros:

  • Single fuel and smoking source means fewer supplies to purchase
  • Easy to start up
  • Automatic temperature control
  • Most pellet grills get hot enough for grilling

Cons:

  • Often expensive
  • Needs electricity to run
  • You need to buy wood pellets that can be harder to find compared to wood chips

Going to buy a pellet grill?

Our article with a comparison of Pit Boss vs Traeger pellet grills will help you with finding a great option.

What are BBQ Smokers?

Smokers are dedicated to the task of smoking. From their inception, they are built to heat foods during long, slow recipes and saturate them with as much wood smoke as possible.

There are a few basic designs of smokers out there and a few different fuel sources used. To maximize their cooking space and the quality of the final smoked food, their designs typically preclude them from doing any other types of cooking.

Some smokers can roast an item at high heat like an oven, but they aren’t particularly good at it. In short, a smoker is just a smoker, while a pellet grill can be used as both a smoker and a grill.

Propane Smokers

Propane smokers are powered by a standard gas burner. They are built into a smoker cabinet, with the burner at the bottom.

Above the burner sits a drip pan and water tray that helps distribute heat. A smoker box contains wood chips or chunks that smolder and release the smoke.

Wire racks for the food are placed above the heating element and smoker box. Most cabinets have three or four shelves and are loaded through a large front door.

gas smoker parts explained

The shelves can be arranged so that they can accommodate large items. You can often hang longer items on hooks from above.

This type of smoker holds a lot of food, but the burners usually limit the heat to 300 degrees Fahrenheit or less. It is designed as a smoker, though, so this is the perfect amount of heat.

Pros:

  • Easy to start up and control temperature
  • Plenty of cooking space
  • There are many affordable options on the market

Cons:

  • Limited temperature range

Electric Smokers

An electric smoker looks almost identical to a propane-powered unit, but it has a simple electric heating element instead of a gas burner. It requires a wall outlet and a steady supply of electricity to keep it running.

electric smoker parts explained

Electric smokers are probably the simplest smoker to keep going. It’s much the same as using your home oven — set the desired temperature, load the wood chips and the food, and then come back when the recipe is done.

Their shape and design are the same as a propane smoker, with the heater mounted in a tall cabinet. The smoke passes over any number of shelves before exiting the top.

Pros:

  • Excellent temperature control
  • Fast set up — just plug in and start cooking
  • In addition to electricity you only need wood chips

Cons:

  • Requires access to electricity
  • Doesn’t get hot enough for grilling

Charcoal Smokers

Charcoal requires more work since the coals burn at variable rates and temperatures.

Many charcoal smokers use an offset design rather than a cabinet. This enables the fire to burn hotter, and the smoke is diverted off the side to the cooking chamber. If the fire gets too hot, it’s less likely to impact the temperature in the smoking chamber.

vertical charcoal smoker parts explained
A typical vertical charcoal smoker

Charcoal smokers come in other shapes and sizes too. With careful control of the briquettes, vertical smokers can also be used. Most of these look like tall kettle grills or Kamado grills. Vertical cabinets are also typical, with a firebox designed to control the heat better than your typical charcoal grill.

Regardless of the style of charcoal smoker you choose, the key to using it successfully is to ensure that the coals do not burn too fast or too hot.

Pros:

  • Most units are simple and affordable
  • No need for electricity — can be used anywhere from a backyard to a camping area
  • You can smoke with just charcoal, wood chips are not necessary

Cons:

  • Can be hard to maintain the right temperature
  • Takes more effort to light up and clean than other types of smokers

Vertical Wood Pellet Smokers

Lastly, you can have the best of both worlds.

While regular pellet grills are designed to do equal parts smoking and grilling, a vertical wood pellet smoker takes the electric feeder and pellet-fueled fire and puts it in the bottom of a smoker cabinet.

Vertical pellet smokers usually get hot enough for roasting but they are still smokers. So you can’t really use them for grilling.

Pros:

  • Can handle large large amount of food
  • Easy to start up and set a temperature
  • The wood pellets provide both heat and smoky flavor
  • Wide temperature range

Cons:

  • Needs electricity and wood pellets
  • Dedicated smoker — can’t be used as a grill
  • Can be expensive

Pellet Grill vs Smoker – Main Differences

So what exactly sets pellet grills apart from the various types of smokers?

Here’s a look at some of the most important differences:

Design

A pellet grill takes the form factor of a standard grill. The cooking area is flat, so smoking recipes will need to fit within the grill area.

A smoker, on the other hand, typically takes the form of a tall cabinet. The shelves of nearly all models are adjustable and removable, so pretty much any size food product can be made to fit.

Temp Range

Grilling temperatures are way hotter than smoking temperatures. Hot smoking typically occurs between 225 and 275 degrees Fahrenheit, while grilling is usually 400 degrees or more.

While the pellet grill can achieve both temperatures, most smokers cannot reach the grilling or roasting range.

Flavor

The smoked flavor comes from hardwood smoke. Since pellets are made of hardwood, they produce lots of smoke.

Pellets can be made from various kinds of hardwood, and you can find nearly any type you want to use in your recipes.

On the other hand, some people might instead enjoy using different types of wood chips or chunks or even making their own smoking woods. If you want to burn regular wood instead of specially made pellets, you’d need a conventional smoker of some kind.

Ease of Use

Pellet grills and smokers are hands down the easiest to use — fill the hopper with pellets, set the temperature, and walk away.

Electric smokers come close to this simplicity, but they require organizing and maybe soaking wood chips. As you cook, you’ve got to keep an eye on your wood to ensure you’re getting the quantity and quality of smoke you want.

Charcoal smokers are even more difficult because controlling the burn rate and temperature must be done by organizing and moving the coals along with the wood.

Price Range

For all their plusses, pellet grills are still expensive. So the cheapest options for smoking are either electric cabinet smokers or vertical charcoal smokers.

However, there are some great pellet grills available for under 500 dollars.

What You Can Cook

What you can make on your grill or smoker is a factor in the cooking space. Vertical cabinet smokers have the most space, so you should have no problem fitting entire chickens, turkeys, racks of ribs, or briskets on their shelves.

But if you want to grill something in high heat and get a decent sear, you need to get a separate grill for that.

A pellet grill has a limited cooking area, however. So whatever you cook will have to fit in that fixed area and allow the lid to close securely. You’ll also have to consider leaving enough room for the smoke and air to circulate.

On the other hand, some pellet grills are designed so that you properly sear steaks and burgers. There are actually two options for this — you can either get a unit that gets hot enough for searing or choose a pellet grill that comes with a searing box.

Pellet Smoker vs Wood Smoker – Which One to Choose?

If you have already chosen to get a dedicated smoker, there is one final question. What kind of smoker to choose?

Should you get a pellet smoker or some other type of smoker that uses regular wood chips or chunks?

As mentioned earlier, a pellet smoker is a great option. They are easy to use, have a wide temperature range, and can often cook a huge amount of meat at a time. However, they are usually the most expensive types of smokers, except for Kamados.

When you are looking for an affordable entry-level unit, we recommend going with a gas or electric smoker. You can actually get a good electric smoker for less than 300 dollars.

Pellet Grills vs Dedicated Smokers – Final Thoughts

Whether you choose a pellet grill or a dedicated barbecue smoker will depend on several factors.

For one, take an honest assessment of what you are going to use it for. If you already have a grill you love, adding a less expensive dedicated smoker makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, if you’re shopping for an entirely new setup, a pellet grill makes a great choice that can do it all.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Joonas!

As soon as I learned to walk, I started to assist my dad and uncles with grilling and smoking. I always loved helping them and later took over the role of the grill master in my family.

My goal is to cook tasty barbecue food, enjoy it with family & friends, and help others do the same!

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