There are definitely two sides to the fence in the argument of electric smokers versus charcoal. This debate mainly comes down to what type of outdoor cook you are. If you are a fix it and forget it person, you’re probably on the electric side of the fence. If you enjoy puttering around with coals, wood chips and regulating heat by vent and coal rotation, you’re probably not going to concede to electric. Each option provides a good end product, but there will be some differences. Are you willing to give up some of the smoky flavor and charred exterior to be able to load the smoker and not come back until finished? It’s all a matter of preference, and this guide will help lead you to your perfect match!
The charcoal smoker gives the most authentic smoked flavor to your food. But this comes at a price. You’ll have to start, stoke, watch, and dispose of your charcoal, just like you would with a charcoal grill. With a charcoal smoker, you can add two levels of wood flavoring by burning flavored charcoal and wood chips together. This let’s you mix and match woods to create deep, nuanced flavors. The charcoal smoker is the choice of the gourmet smoking enthusiast.
- Fidelity to the “original” smoker taste – Back when smokers were first invented, it was primarily used in ranches and farms where gas, let alone electricity, was not easily available. As such, charcoal was the only option as far as fuel was concerned. Given the rapid heating produced by charcoal, food smoked tends to be low on moisture and highly crispy. Further, the charcoal dust produces a thin layer upon the food which adds a special flavor to the food. When done properly, the combination of crispiness, dryness and charcoal flavor create an attraction for the taste buds that is impossible to rival by any other means.
- More Food Can Be Cooked At A Time – Since charcoal produces a significant amount of heat, it is possible to load (and even overload) a charcoal smoker and still get food that is neither undercooked nor overcooked.
- Best For Areas Without Electricity – Though not the most portable (see “Cons”) the major advantage that charcoal smokers have in the Electric and Charcoal Smoker – Which is better is that the latter can be used in remote mountain lodges, cold tundra locations and even remote desert ranches where electricity may be unavailable or may come at a premium. Further, since charcoal produces a lot of smoke, the hot smoke can be used to keep oneself warm while monitoring the smoker. This feature is unavailable in case of propane smokers.
- Extremely Heavy – As our electric smoker reviews would suggest, electric smokers come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. The dictum can be extended to charcoal smokers as well, but it is true that due to fact that electric smoker heating elements require far less space compared to that demanded by a huge amount of charcoal, the size and weight of a charcoal smoker (even when the ability to add excess food to it is considered) capable of cooking a certain amount of food would be much heavier than that of an electric smoker cooking an equal amount of food.
- Hard to Control Heat – As you may have seen on any tips and blog page related to electric smokers, setting the right temperature is vital to smoking food properly. For charcoal smokers however, it is impossible to know whether you have set the right temperature or not till all the charcoal has started burning. At this stage, it is usually impossible to stop the smoking process, while attempts at jacking up the temperature (or pulling it down) often result in badly cooked food.
Furthermore, even if you manage to get the right temperature, there is no guarantee that you will be able to maintain that temperature even for an hour.
- Constant Monitoring Needed – Since temperatures often do not remain the same at the start and end of an hour, it is vital that the food and fuel levels are constantly taken note of. Hence, whether you’re smoking a brisket or preparing a few smoked vegetables, you’ll have to pay the same amount of attention to the smoker.
- Risk of Fire Hazards – Most participants in the Electric and Charcoal Smoker – Which Is Better discussion contend that charcoal smokers can produce flares if the fat/oil present in food drips onto the coal in sufficient quantity. While modern charcoal smokers come with a number of insulating layers, the risk of a fire hazard arising from a temporarily neglected charcoal smoker is always there.
If you’re all about push-button convenience, the electric smoker is for you. Since it needs to be plugged into an outlet, an electric smoker isn’t as portable as other smokers. Electric smokers come in both analog and digital styles. Analog electric smokers come with an adjustable thermostat dial to set the temperature, while digital electric smokers have a digital screen with push buttons to set the temperature. An electric smoker can cook food faster than a propane smoker, but doesn’t always give the richest smoky flavor.
- Easy To Start – All charcoal smokers require the use of a combustible liquid or solid substance (usually lighter fluid and paper) to light the charcoal. This makes it impossible to use the smoker if there is no combustible substance at hand or if the charcoal has been in contact with water for a prolonged period. Further, even if all conditions are optimal, starting a fire using charcoal takes time and patience, and if the person is inexperienced, a lot of caution as well. Electric smokers on the other hand come with simple buttons that automatically feed electricity to the heating apparatus if the smoker is attached to the powerpoint. Indeed, while getting a charcoal smoker up and running can take anywhere between 5-30 minutes, the electric smoker takes less than a couple of minutes to start smoking the products placed inside it at the optimal temperature level.
- Exact Temperature Controls – Since electric smokers come with a heating element controlled using a temperature control, it is possible to decide the exact temperature at which the smoking is to be done. Indeed, as our electric smoker buying guides emphasize, not only should the smoker allow you to set the right temperature, but it should also maintain it until asked to stop or change it. This facility, in turn, makes it possible for higher end electric smokers to predict exact cooking times, something the charcoal smoker could never provide any indication of. Finally, it makes it possible to modify the temperature at short notice and so save the food from being undercooked or overcooked.
- Even Smoking – As we mentioned in our discussion on the benefits of electric smoker, the uniformity of the surface of the electric smoker’s heating element makes it possible for the food to be smoked uniformly regardless of its position in the smoker. Of course, food placed on lower racks would cook more and those on higher racks would be less cooked. However, it is true that all the foods of the same type placed on a certain rack will cook the same.
- No need to constantly monitor the food – Since the temperature does not change unless you change it using the controls, there is hardly any need to monitor the food for changes in temperature, etc.
- Easier to Carry Around – While electric smokers are hardly something you’d want to take on a flight, they are lighter and easier to carry and hence can be fitted onto a large enough car or small truck in case you’re moving temporarily or permanently to a new location.
- Can Be Used Inside the House – Charcoal smokers produce such a lot of smoke that using them inside the house can be suffocating. This leaves the outdoors as the only option and while this may not be a problem in rural areas, smoking foods outdoors in urban spaces can lead to complaints. Electric smokers however cause only minimal smoke to move out and can be used inside the house.
- No Risk For Asthma Patients – Charcoal smoke is considered harmful for the lungs, and this is all the more so in case of those suffering from asthma, bronchitis and other breathing and lung ailments. Such folks however are at no risk from the electric variant of smokers as the smoke escaping from electric smokers is very low and do not contain harmful carcinogenic elements that charcoal smoke possesses.
- Cooking Is Cheaper – Given that prices of charcoal and propane are on the rise, the use of electricity represents an increasingly cheaper means of smoking food. Further, the cost is directly added to your electricity bill, thereby ensuring that you don’t have to set up a separate budget for buying large amounts of fuel. It is true that some amount of charcoal/wood chips may be required, but this amount is not very significant and therefore doesn’t require a budget of its own.
- Costlier – Electric smokers at one point of time were far costlier than charcoal smokers. With improvement of technology, however, the difference in price has fallen greatly. Still, you may have to shell out a marginally greater amount for your electric smoker than you would have to if you went down the charcoal road.
- Cannot Run Without Source Of Electricity – While attempts have been made to run smokers using generators and electric batteries by partisans of electric smokers in the Charcoal and Electric: Which Is Best debate, the fact that smoking is a long term process means that without a regular powerpoint it is hard to countenance smoking on a regular basis.
Decide what your top priority is. If you’re after convenience above all else, go with an electric smoker. If you want the best smoky flavor at all costs, then you’ll want a charcoal meat smoker. If you mainly want convenience, but you’d like better flavor than the electric offers, get a propane smoker. If you want a great balance of convenience and flavor, you’ll be happy with a pellet meat smoker.