How to Decide Between Charcoal and Pellet Smokers

Barbecue might be the quintessential American past-time, but it’s a bit too broad and ambiguous to cover all the possibilities of backyard cooking. Typically, you can break down the category into three – smoking, barbecuing and grilling – each method differing somewhat depending on cooking temperature and cooking time.

Smoking, for instance, involves slow-cooking, at a very low heat, between 68° to 176°F, for anywhere between an hour to two weeks. Of course, this type of cooking isn’t what you’d sign up for when you’re looking to quickly whip together some hotdogs to feed some hungry clamoring kids, or are rushing to get burgers on the table in time for lunch – but smoking does lend that lovely, additional depth and layering of flavor that’s oh-so-delightful for some nice, juicy ribs or the perfectly cooked brisket, letting you bring the smokehouse charm directly to your own backyard.

smoked foods

But which smokers are going to deliver the quality you’re looking for? What with the options available, from propane to charcoal and pellet smokers, one has to consider exactly what they’re signing up for, from budget concerns to cooking time and desired flavor.

And while electric smokers are more convenient, quicker and easier to use, charcoal and pellet smokers are better at producing the actual smoky flavor you’d expect from a legit smokehouse, oozing with dimensions of taste and layered richness. Both have their sets of compelling pros – let’s take a look at how they differ.

Charcoal smoking


For proper, authentic smoking, this is the way to go. Although it’s arguably more difficult to maintain and use a charcoal smoker, it’s worth it if you want to recreate that delectable smokehouse taste and aroma, right from the comfort of your own backyard. Different combinations of flavored charcoal and woodchips can create unique blends and depths of smokiness, and the little extra effort having to light, stoke and watch over your charcoal (pretty much what you’d expect when using a charcoal grill) is all worth it when you dig into a delicious meal of tender, slow-cooked goodness with layers of smokiness lingering over your tastebuds.

Charcoal smokers come in many shapes and forms, but one of the most common and popular styles is the vertical water smoker. Easier on the pocket and space-saving thanks to its vertically-capitalising build, this unit uses water to regulate the temperatures within the smoker, deflecting direct heat exposure and maintaining moisture, to allow your meats to remain tender and juicy. The charcoal is burned at the base of the unit, with a water pan above it, and a smoking chamber into which you’ll put in the ribs or whatever item you’re planning to smoke. Vents allow you to moderate the internal temperature, with many units featuring a temperature gauge that let you keep an eye on and control internal conditions to suit your preferred cooking option and the dish. Some units even incorporate multiple cooking chambers, so you can smoke more than one portion in one go, with features like multiple vents especially handy in moderating the temperature throughout the whole unit.

For something a little more portable, many also prefer a drum smoker – this involves a dry method of cooking, since the unit doesn’t come with a water-pan and cooks through direct exposure to smoke and heat from the charcoal. The firebox into which you’ll deposit and light your charcoal sits at the bottom of a steel drum, over which goes a cooking rack you’ll be grilling and smoking your meats on. The upper lid and base of the unit feature vents to let you moderate temperature, again with some units featuring a temperature gauge so you know exactly what temperature your food is being smoked at. An average drum smoker does a great job smoking chicken, but for ribs, pork chops and briskets it gets a bit trickier, since direct heat exposure risks drying your meats out. One way around the problem is to wrap up larger portions of meats in tinfoil once the internal temperature of the smoker reaches 165°F.

Pellet smoker

Imagine food cooked over an open wood fire – that’s the kind of smoky effect you’ll get using a pellet smoker, especially if you’re using quality, premium-grade hardwood pellets. Combining the convenience of electric and propane set-ups, while adding a rich layer of smoky flavor thanks to the pellets, this might be the choice for you if you’re looking for something a little more user-friendly than the constant maintenance and dedication you’d need when working with charcoal. With electronic control systems to fire it up, some even featuring options to set on a timer and then go about your day, a pellet smoker also lets you mix and match different wood pellets to build up nuances of flavor and depth, as you would with charcoal.

There are a couple of terminologies you’ll run into when looking into pellet smokers, including the hopper, an external storage bin in which you’d scoop in your wooden pellets (compacted bits of hardwood sawdust), while an augur, powered by a motor, feeds these pellets into a firepot. The pellets burn to create heat and smoke to cook your food, the unit serving as both a grill and a smoker, though some units do a definitively better job smoking than grilling.

A drawback to this set-up is, for starters, the price. Unlike the more manual system of a charcoal smoker, pellet smokers are electronically powered, with features that warrant a bit of a higher price-tag, especially where jammed parts and repairs and maintenance are concerned. If convenience and ease of use are your primary priorities when picking out a smoker, and price is more of a secondary concern, you might want to consider a pellet smoker.

Another potential drawback, which is entirely subjective, is that pellet smokers don’t quite achieve the depth of smoky flavour charcoal can. But if it matches your preference and lines up with the type of flavors you’re looking for, you might enjoy the ability to set it up and go about your day, letting the machine handle the rest.

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