Whether you’ve just decided to join the world of smoking meat and other food, or if you’re merely kicking some tires and deciding whether or not it’s for you, you’re going to want to read this article.
There are three basic types of smoker: gas, electric, and charcoal.
Ultimately, each one is supposed to do the same thing, but they each do it differently with their own unique pros and cons.
In a series of articles, we’re going to cut through the clutter and compare and contrast all three styles. The end goal: give you enough information to pick the right smoker for YOU.
Read on as we compare and contrast gas and electric smokers.
Yes, this article on gas vs electric smokers compares and contrasts the features, benefits, pros, and cons of these two different categoies of smoker.
By the end of the article, you should be well informed and able to decide which is the best type for you.
Seconds away….let’s get this fight on.
- Gas Smoker General Overview
- Electric Smoker General Overview
- Comparison Table
- Gas Vs Electric Smoker Contrasts and Comparisons
- Gas Smoker Summary – and Who Should Buy One?
- Electric Smoker Summary – and Who Should Buy One?
- And the Winner is…
Gas Smoker General Overview
All smokers use a heat source to cook food at low temperatures, usually at between 225F to 250F. Most importantly, they cause wood to smolder and smoke, and the smoke infuses food with flavor. Where some smokers differ is in the heat source.
Gas smokers use either propane or natural gas to fuel its fire. Above the flames, you’ll find a spot for your wood chips or pellets.
Controlling the temperature with a gas smoker is not unlike using a gas grill; just adjust the knob to increase or decrease the rate of flow of your gas to raise or lower the temperature.
A propane smoker will need an external propane tank, typically the standard 20-pounder available almost everywhere. For a natural gas-powered smoker, you’ll need a professionally installed hook-up to your home’s natural gas supply.
Electric Smoker General Overview
Rather like a stove, electric smokers use electricity to heat an element or coil underneath the wood chips. Heat, in combination with smoldering wood, cooks and flavors food on the racks higher up in the unit.
Electrics are very easy to use. Typically, you can, as they say, “set it and forget it,” trusting the built-in thermostat to maintain a constant temperature without any further input.
Less expensive models must be set to low, medium, or high, and will require some monitoring to ensure a steady temperature is held – the key to successful smoking. Electric smokers are of the vertical type.
|Category:||Electric Smoker||Charcoal Smoker|
|Quality of finished food||Better overall results||Good, but less flavor intensity|
|Ease of Use||Steeper learning curve; needs “babysitting”||Very easy to use; no monitoring required|
|Versatility||Many models can smoke, roast and grill||Smoking only|
|Temp Range||Approximately 150F-400F||Approximately 100F-275F|
|Size and Space Required||About 2’x2’ for vertical; up to 3’x5’ or more for offset||About 2’x2’|
|Cooking Capacity||Comparable, but with more large options||Comparable, but few large options|
|Reliability||Few complex parts to fail||On-board electronics may be a concern|
|Weather Considerations||Good in all weather, but needs more care in cold, windy, or wet weather||Not affected by wind, but not recommended for wet conditions|
|Maintenance Needs||General cleaning; easy to maintain||General cleaning; easy to maintain|
|Relative Cost to Buy||Less expensive on average||More expensive on average|
|Relative Running Costs||Far more expensive – about $0.40/hr.||Inexpensive – about $0.06/hr.|
|Popularity||Somewhat popular||Not very popular|
Gas Vs Electric Smoker Contrasts and Comparisons
There are many factors to consider when buying a smoker. Here, we’ll review the most important and how gas and electric models stack up.
Remember, they’re all important, and any given one may be the deciding factor for you.
Quality and Consistency of Finished Foods
Why do you buy a smoker? To make delicious food! The quality of the finished product is absolutely the most important consideration.
You might think the simplicity of an electric smoker (and we’ll talk more about that in the next segment) will ensure the most consistent, and hence the best results. While that may be true at first, once you’ve gotten the hang of holding a steady temperature with a gas smoker, you’ll find you generally get better-tasting food.
An electric smoker is designed with minimal venting, so it will retain moisture. That means tender meat, but it also means you’ll likely never see crispy chicken skin or a nice bark on your brisket.
Also, because not much gas is emitted from electric combustion, you’re probably not going to get the coveted smoke ring. No, the smoke ring doesn’t add flavor, but many people consider it the calling card of great barbecue.
While we’d rather have electric-smoked meat than no smoked meat, the clear winner for flavor is gas.
Ease of Use and Convenience
There’s a bit of a learning curve for gas, and you’ll spend a lot of time, at first, adjusting vents and dampers, and keeping an eye on your temperature. In time, this will get easier.
An electric smoker, however, is literally plug-and-play – provided you have access to an outlet. They are simple to ignite, and from there you just set the temperature and walk away. If you go electric, buy one with a digital thermometer and thermostat to hold your temperature. You can even buy models with remote controls.
When it comes to speed, a gas smoker will get up to temperature and start producing smoke much faster. Flames, of course, are instant-on; it takes a while for an electric element to heat up enough to ignite wood.
Overall, even if you’ve never smoked food before, if you’ve got electricity available in your yard, on your deck, balcony, or patio, an electric smoker is your top choice for convenience and simplicity.
An electric smoker is a one-trick pony: it smokes food at low temperatures, and that’s it. With some models, you can get the temperature low enough that you might be able to quasi-cold smoke nuts and cheese, or make jerky.
While they won’t go as low as an electric, most gas smokers can easily hit temperatures high enough to roast meat (325-400F) while they soak up the delicious smoke. That’s a nice bonus, and it’s not hard to do – basically, you’ll need to turn the knob all the way on and open up your vents for maximum airflow.
If you buy an offset gas smoker, you’ll be able to both grill and smoke on the same unit, which is pretty cool. They tend to be large, but if you’ve got the room, it’s a sweet way to go.
We’re giving gassers the edge for versatility, especially if you go offset.
Temperature Range – High Heat and Low Heat
On average, an electric smoker has a temperature range of 100-275F (38-135C). This is absolutely ideal for most of your smoking needs. You won’t sear or roast, but for low ‘n’ slow, it’s spot on.
Gas smokers tend to have a wider temperature range. Something like 175-400F (79-204C) is pretty typical. Some models advertise temperatures as low as 100F and as high as 500F.
We’re skeptical of a gas powered model staying that low; it’s hard enough to hold at a good smoking temperature of 225F. If you can hit 500F, you could actually grill and even sear meat.
Size, Footprint and Space Required
Both electric and gas smokers are available in a variety of sizes.
Vertical models vary in height and hence capacity, but typically average around a 24” x 24” footprint. There are units small enough to fit on a tabletop and take camping or tailgating, and others that stand around 4 feet tall.
Because they don’t need room for a tank, an electric is your best bet for fitting into a small space. To accommodate an offset propane smoker, reserve a space at least 3’x5’.
There is a wide range of food capacities available in both electric and gas models. If you want a really large unit, however, gas is the way to go; there are more large capacity gas smokers than there are electric and you can choose from vertical or horizontal offsets.
As far as the smoke box goes, reliability will come down to your choice of unit; a well-built smoker made by a reputable manufacturer will be reliable, and a cheap one won’t be, no matter whether it’s electric or gas.
Things can go wrong with any smoker. Hoses crack, cords fray, connections corrode or warp, etc. But, the most likely thing to go bad on you is the complicated electronics built into a digital electric smoker. Think about it: when did exposure to heat, smoke, and the elements, plus repeated use ever do electronics any favors?
Sure, we think all those features are great, and they’re most of what we like about electric smokers. But they are far more likely to crap out on you than anything in your average gasser.
So, it’s gas for the win in terms of reliability.
Bad Weather Effects
A gas smoker can be used in any kind of weather you can stand to be out in. (Remember, they need a lot of monitoring!) The trouble is, weather can really impact the smoking process.
Good insulation will help minimize the effects of outside temperatures. But, precipitation and wind can wreak havoc on a good smoke session because of the vents that help control the internal temperature.
Vents are minimal on an electric, so wind isn’t much of an issue. Ambient temperature isn’t a big deal, either, since the thermostat will adjust to compensate. They shouldn’t, however, be used in the rain or snow because moisture and electricity are a bad fit.
If you live in a dry, not-so-cold climate, either gas or electric will do. For damp locations, whether that’s rain or snow, we recommend gas.
There’s little maintenance required for either, other than wiping down the grates after a smoke, and the exterior, too, to minimize the chance of rust.
Both leave ash behind that you’ll need to dump, and grease will collect in a drip pan. What you’ll find, though, is that an electric smoker produces less soot than a gas model. However, because of the low temperatures and clean sources of heat, there won’t be much in either. We’ll give a very slight advantage to electrics for ease of cleaning, but it’s virtually a tie.
Most of the parts are pretty simple on both types, and replacements are usually just a phone call to the manufacturer anyway. But, if the digital thermostat goes on an electric, that could be a huge problem if it’s outside the warranty.
Overall, this isn’t likely to be a deciding factor. Call it a tie.
Initial Cost to Buy
Thanks to all the electronic parts inside, electric smokers cost considerably more, on average, than their gas-powered cousins. You could do without the digital controls and save a lot of money, but why? The primary reason for buying one is the ability to set-and-forget and let the electronics do the work.
While you can get budget-friendly and budget-blowing models of each, overall, the least expensive smokers are gas, and the most expensive are electric.
On-Going Cost To Run
The cost to run an electric smoker will vary wildly depending on what your local electricity rates are. If you’re off the grid and using solar panels, your cost will be $0/hr., however, so that’s worth thinking about.
Pretty much wherever you live, propane is a lot more expensive than electricity, and natural gas falls somewhere in the middle. On average, expect to pay several times as much per hour to run a propane smoker (around $0.40/hr.) versus an electric one (around $0.06/hr.).
Popularity and Community
Hands down, gas smokers are more popular than electrics. A quick look at Facebook will turn up gas smoking groups all over the world, and just a handful of electric focused communities.
Gas smoker users also dominate online forums. If you’re looking for on-going support and brother- and sisterhood, gas is the way.
Gas Smoker Summary – and Who Should Buy One?
Check out our handy list to see if a gas smoker is right for you.
What We Like
- Can be used in all types of weather
- Delivers the best flavor
- Better variety of smokers available and generally less expensive than electric
- Hot enough to roast/grill
What We Don’t Like
- More expensive to operate than electric
- Propane tanks run out and have to be swapped
- Requires constant attention
- Steeper learning curve than electric
Who are They Best Suited to?
- Experienced grillers
- Anyone who wants to smoke away from home
- People who value flavor above convenience
- Patient people who are willing to learn a new skill
You May Prefer Electric if…
- You have easy access to electricity
- Are willing to sacrifice some flavor for convenience
- Aren’t allowed to cook with gas where you live
- Have little experience with propane/gas grilling
Electric Smoker Summary – and Who Should Buy One?
Thinking an electric smoker is for you? Review the checklist and see if you’re right!
What We Like
- Very easy to use – IF you buy one with a digital thermostat
- Inexpensive to operate – perfect if you use solar panels!
- Simple to maintain
- Never runs out of fuel
What We Don’t Like
- If the power goes out, you can’t smoke
- Shouldn’t be used in the rain
- More expensive to buy, on average, than a gas model
- Flavor isn’t as strong as you get with a gas smoker
Who are They Best Suited to?
- Busy people who don’t have time to keep an eye on a smoker for hours (e. parents of young kids)
- Anyone inexperienced with gas cooking
- Casual/occasional users
- People without easy access to a gas line or replacement propane tanks
You May Prefer Gas if…
- Flavor is more important than ease-of-use
- You don’t have a convenient outlet
- You want the option of tailgate/camping/cottage/RV smoking
- You already buy propane/have a gas hook-up for your grill
And the Winner is…
While both electric and gas smokers have their advantages, we think a gas smoker is the best choice for most people. Though they require more learning and care, the results are so much tastier, that we believe it’s more than worth the effort. We know you’ll agree after you have your first bite!
That being said, for some people an electric smoker is good enough, and that’s ok. We’re sure you’ll still enjoy some good smoked food!
Thanks for coming to us to answer your burning questions about smoking. We invite you to browse and search the site for everything you need to know about smoking and grilling, including more comparisons, product reviews, recipes, and BBQ tips.
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Happy grilling – and smoking!