So you’ve decided that you want to start smoking your own food. Great decision, you can’t beat the taste of meat fresh from your own smoker! But you might now be wondering which type to go for and trying to decide between an electric smoker vs charcoal smoker.
It is an important decision and I will say right now that there is no clear ‘best’ option, you will have to decide which is right for you and your lifestyle. But, we are here to help you make that decision!
In this post, we will give you all the information you need to decide whether an electric smoker or charcoal smoker is the right choice.
There are a few differences in taste, convenience, cost, and reliability. So, without further ado let’s look at charcoal smokers vs electric smokers and find out a bit more about each.
What is an electric smoker?
One of the very best things about electric smokers is how easy they are to use. There is no need to get involved with an open flame since the heat is provided by a heating element near the bottom. Above this is a pan for wood chips which will be set alight to provide the all-important smoke that electric smokers rely on.
So the heat for cooking comes from the electric element but the wood chips add a smoky flavor to the food on the racks above. It’s kind of like using a standard oven that you would have in a kitchen, it’s pretty easy to use and a great option for beginners.
Electric smokers have a convenient dial or digital display for temperature control. Set it how you want and that is it, the electric smoker will keep the constant temperature required for perfect smoking.
What is a charcoal smoker?
Charcoal smokers have been around for a while and are probably the most basic of all smokers. You place the charcoal at the bottom of the smoker and set it alight to produce the heat that you need for cooking.
On top of this, you add some wood to increase the amount of smoke. Wood chips come in a range of different flavors so be sure to use ones that you like or which compliment the meat you are cooking. Now all you need to do is put your food on the rack so that it can cook.
So it is all pretty straightforward but charcoal smokers are not necessarily simple to use. There is often no dial to set the temperature so you will need to use your own skill and temperature monitoring to get it working just right.
This means that you will need to pay much more attention than with an electric smoker as you will need to adjust the vents and dampers and top-up supplies of wood chips and charcoal whilst you are smoking meat.
Does food taste better in a charcoal smoker or electric smoker?
This is possibly the most important thing to consider. Whether you choose an electric or charcoal smoker you are going to quite a bit of expense and effort to put the food on the table. So, you want it to taste good. No, you want it to be better than good, you want it to taste great!
Most people agree that a charcoal smoker produces better-tasting food. They are much better at crisping the skin and produce an amazing bark. This is because they have much better ventilation than an electric smoker and overall charcoal gives a more intense smoky flavor.
The charcoal also provides a more complex flavor since it gives off additional compounds as it burns, these stick to the food and add even more flavor. The other basic fact is that charcoal smokers produce more smoke and generally more smoke means more flavor (don’t overdo it though, too much smoke can make food taste bitter).
So, it is possible to produce tastier food on a charcoal smoker. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will. The trump card of the electric smoker is that it is much easier to produce consistently good food and you are far less likely to end up with a ruined meal.
It is a bit of a trade-off, you might consider that very tasty (but not the absolute tastiest) food produced every time is better than a more hit-and-miss outcome with a charcoal smoker.
It’s worth pointing out that with practice and skill you should get consistent quality food with a charcoal smoker making it the clear winner in charcoal vs electric smoker taste comparisons.
Is an electric smoker easier to use than a charcoal smoker?
An electric smoker is easier to use than a charcoal smoker since all you need to do is plug it in, turn it on, add some wood chips, and set the temperature on the display. Chuck your food in and you are smoking. Once an electric smoker is on it will stay on and you don’t need to worry about topping up the charcoal or keeping an eye on it.
Electric smokers get started more quickly than charcoal smokers as the wood chips will catch fire soon after you turn them on. A charcoal smoker takes some time before the charcoal is ready to have wood added on top.
An electric smoker is also much easier to keep at the correct temperature since you just set it on the digital display and the smoker will do the rest to maintain an even temperature.
The only time when an electric smoker is less convenient than a charcoal one is if you don’t have a handily placed power outlet. A charcoal smoker can be moved anywhere you like but an electric smoker must have a source of electricity. If you don’t have an outlet where you need it you could use a heavy-duty extension cord.
Does an electric smoker offer more versatility than a charcoal smoker?
An electric smoker doesn’t offer any additional versatility compared to a charcoal smoker. You might think you could use it as an oven since they can look a bit similar, but that is not the case, and you cant roast or grill effectively in an electric smoker.
You can use electric smokers at a slightly lower temperature (100F) than charcoal smokers (125F) so you could have a go at cold smoking but it is not quite as cold as you would ideally like it, which is closer to 85F. In theory, a charcoal smoker can go hotter than an electric one but this doesn’t really have a practical use so we won’t give any bonus points for this!
Some offset charcoal smokers have a grilling area for direct heat grilling and this is good for searing your meat. But overall I would say that both electric smokers and charcoal smokers are good for smoking and not much else. Which is fine by me, that is what they are supposed to do and they both do it well.
Can you use a charcoal smoker or electric smoker in bad weather?
All smokers can have a hard time staying at a temperature if the weather is very cold. More expensive smokers of either type are likely to have more insulation which will help to mitigate this, it is also possible to add insulated blankets or jackets over your smoker to keep them warm in the cold.
But what of the electric smoker vs charcoal smoker comparison? Well, electric ones will probably find it harder to keep the target temperature since they have a lower maximum temperature than a charcoal smoker.
But if it is wind you are worried about then the electric smoker is a clear winner since they don’t rely on chimneys or vents to operate and there is no chance of the wind blowing them out since there is no flame. Charcoal smokers don’t like the wind so much and you will probably need to find a sheltered spot or create some kind of wind block.
Rain doesn’t go down well with a charcoal smoker or an electric smoker but if you were to use either in the rain then the charcoal one would be the best option. The hood should keep most of the rain out although some may get in through the chimney.
If it is really pouring down it is best to give up on smoking unless you have a decent shelter for your smoker (but don’t be tempted to use a smoker in the garage).
Electric smokers shouldn’t be used or stored anywhere that they could get rained on. The moisture could get into even tiny cracks and water and electricity don’t mix well, so there is a good chance that your smoker could get damaged and it would be dangerous to actually use it in the wet.
Which is bigger an electric smoker or charcoal smoker?
Charcoal smokers can be bigger than electric smokers, especially if you go for an offset smoker. These have a big footprint so you probably need a space about 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep to use it in.
If you are more limited on space then you could choose either an electric smoker or a charcoal smoker but go for a vertical or barrel-style smoker. These only have a footprint of around 2 feet by 2 feet.
With charcoal, however, you have the option of going with an offset smoker. These big daddies have a footprint more in line with a standard grill. Expect to need a space up to 6 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet deep.
There isn’t too much to choose between a charcoal vs electric smoker when it comes to cooking capacity. There are some super-sized charcoal grills but generally, electric smokers and charcoal smokers are of a similar size, and either way, you will find something that can smoke 6 turkeys at once.
Six turkeys! Surely that is enough for anyone! If you are looking for something big then check out the vertical models as they have more racks and can cook more food at one time.
Is a charcoal smoker more reliable than an electric smoker?
There is not too much that can go wrong with a charcoal smoker. Sometimes they have a built-in lighter but generally, there are no electrics involved and the most complicated piece of engineering is a hinge! There is always a risk of rust with a smoker but if you store it properly and maintain it well then this shouldn’t be an issue.
There is much more that can go wrong with an electric smoker as the whole thing is full of electric circuits. Whilst they are generally pretty reliable, when keeping an electric item like this outside it is likely that at some point something will go wrong. You will probably get a good few years of use out of it first, but parts tend to wear out in the end.
So, if you are wondering whether electric smokers or charcoal smokers are more reliable, I would have to say that charcoal ones are just because there is much less that can go wrong. If an electric smoker does develop a fault, it can be quite expensive to get it repaired, unless you are covered by a warranty.
Is it harder to clean a charcoal smoker or an electric smoker?
A charcoal smoker will generally need more cleaning due to the greater volume of smoke that they produce and charcoal is generally messy stuff anyway. Make sure that you keep the chimney clear of creosote build-up to allow the smoke to flow freely. Thick smoke is harder to clean than thin blue smoke, and it is the thin smoke that you want to have to produce the best results.
Cleaning an electric smoker is much easier since there is less smoke but make sure that you wipe down the outsides and clean the racks between uses.
Electric vs charcoal smoker: What are the costs?
It is also important to compare electric smokers vs charcoal smokers when it comes to cost. This is worth thinking about in terms of upfront costs and the ongoing running costs. There is actually a big range of prices for both electric and charcoal smokers but in general, the average price to buy an electric smoker will be higher.
If you are looking for a budget or entry-level smoker then you will find more options if you look for a charcoal grill (but remember they are not quite so user-friendly for beginners). If you have a higher budget you will find some great high-end models for both fuel types such as offset charcoal smokers and electric smokers with Bluetooth.
Once you have made your purchase you will find that an electric smoker is much cheaper to run than a charcoal smoker. You will need to buy wood chips either way so we can leave that out of the cost comparison.
But running a smoker on charcoal costs about ten times as much as if you use an electric smoker. That is a big difference, and remember that you could be smoking for several hours at a time so the costs could mount up quickly.
What is better an electric smoker or a charcoal smoker?
The key difference between an electric and charcoal smoker is the source of heat. The clue is in the names and whether you choose to smoke with electricity or charcoal then you should get some pretty amazing tasting meat.
It is hard to say which is best as it will depend on your situation. If you want something that is easy to use, that gives reliable results every time, and have a power outlet in your yard then an electric smoker could be best.
If it is all about the flavor for you then you might want to choose a charcoal smoker and take the time to learn how to use it. This would also give you more options to move it around the garden or even take it with you camping.