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.
But there are also cabinet-style smokers that use wood pellets as fuel. While they don’t reach as high temperatures as pellet grills, they offer longer smoking times and have more cooking space.
So what are the main differences between pellet grills and pellet smokers?
And how do they stack up against the traditional offset smokers and convenient gas and electric powered units?
Let’s take a closer look!
What is a Pellet Grill – Pros and Cons
The first company to use wood pellets 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.
Wood pellets are simple pressed pellets made of hardwood shavings and sawdust, usually about the size of a pencil eraser.
Below is an illustration of the basic structure of pellet grills:
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 easily and quite precisely. The only heat source is the burning pellets, so the single fuel source provides both smoke and 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 typical smoking temperatures around 225 degrees Fahrenheit with no difficulties.
While electric and gas smokers can also do this, it can be harder to achieve with a charcoal smoker or offset smoker.
In addition to slow smoking, you can set most pellet grills to 450 degrees or more for regular grilling. Vertical cabinet-style smoker smokers can’t do this regardless of the fuel source.
- 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
- Can be quite expensive
- Needs electricity to run
- High-quality wood pellets are not cheap
Looking for a pellet grill that can do some proper searing?
Consider getting a pellet grill with a sear box.
Some brands, like Pit Boss, also have units that allow you to do open flame searing with super high temperatures.
Watch this short video to see exactly how it’s done:
If you are planning on buying a pellet grill, check out this guide with a comparison of Pit Boss vs Traeger pellet grills.
Different Types of BBQ Smokers Explained
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 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 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.
This type of cabinet smoker is flexible when it comes to cooking large amounts of meat at a time.
The shelves can be arranged so that they can easily accommodate large and tall. 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 you don’t really need to go any higher.
- Easy to start up and control the temperature
- Plenty of cooking space
- There are many affordable options on the market
- Limited temperature range
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 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.
- Excellent temperature control
- Fast set up — just plug in and start cooking
- In addition to electricity you only need wood chips
- Requires access to electricity
- Doesn’t get hot enough for grilling
Using a charcoal smoker requires some experience and 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.
Charcoal smokers come in other shapes and sizes too.
With careful control of the heat, vertical smokers can also be used. Most of these look like tall kettle grills or Kamado grills. Vertical cabinets are also available, with a firebox designed to control the heat better than your regular 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.
- 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 or chunks are not necessary
- 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.
- Can handle large amounts of food
- Easy to start up and set a temperature
- The wood pellets provide both heat and smoky flavor
- Wide temperature range
- Needs electricity and wood pellets
- Dedicated smoker — can’t be used as a grill
- Often more expensive than gas or electric smokers
Pellet Grill vs Smoker – Main Differences
So what exactly sets pellet grills apart from vertical pellet smokers and other types of smokers?
Here’s a look at some of the most important differences:
A pellet grill takes the form factor of a standard grill. The cooking area is flat, so all of the meat has to fit on the grill rack.
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.
Grilling temperatures are way hotter than smoking temperatures. Hot smoking typically occurs between 225 and 275 degrees Fahrenheit, while grilling is usually done at 400 degrees or more.
While a pellet grill can achieve both temperatures, most smokers cannot reach the grilling or roasting range.
One option is to get a smoker and grill combo to have one unit that can really do it all.
The smoked flavor comes from hardwood smoke. Since pellets are made of hardwood, they produce a nice amount 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 enjoy using different types of wood chips or chunks instead. You can even make your own smoking wood from seasoned hardwood.
If you are looking for a real smoky flavor, then a traditional offset smoker is probably the best choice.
When 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 sometimes soaking the 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 more difficult because controlling the burn rate and temperature must be done by organizing and moving the coals along with the wood.
For all their plusses, pellet grills and smokers are still quite 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 one of the most important factors.
Vertical cabinet smokers have the most space, so you should have no problem fitting entire chickens, turkeys, different types 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 can properly sear steaks and burgers. There are actually a few options for this — you can either get a unit that gets hot enough for searing or choose a pellet grill that allows open flame searing or has 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 vertical 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!
PS. Read also our detailed comparison of electric smokers vs pellet smokers.