Starting from simple charcoal and wood smokers that required constant monitoring, the smoker has come a long way, allowing the modern user to choose between four different types. The contenders in Types of Outdoor Smokers – Which Is Best Choice For You are charcoal, wood (now mostly pellet smokers), gas/propane and electric smokers. Contrary to what many believe, the procedure for using an electric smoker varies widely from say that of a charcoal or gas smoker, even when the desired result is identical. However, it is not merely handling procedure that differentiates the different smoker types; they possess many differences in terms of cost, taste, ease of cleaning and portability.

Charcoal Smokers

Charcoal smokers have been around for ages, evolving from the simple iron tubes of the 19th Century to sophisticated instruments that claim to offer many of the benefits of electric smokers even. The basics however, still center around a charcoal pit that produces smoke, which in turn cooks the food. Since the smoke is produced through the natural process of charcoal burning, charcoal smokers tend to have a most “natural” taste. Furthermorethey can carry high amounts of food as charcoal produces huge amount of heat. Last but not least, because charcoal is more easily available in remote areas than either gas or electricity, charcoal smokers tend to be useful for those who wish to spend time in such areas or are cut off due to heavy floods/snow.

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While considering Types of Outdoor Smokers – Which Is best choice for you, it should also be remembered that the natural burning process makes control of heat an extremely difficult process. There is no guarantee that the charcoal, even if taken from the same source, will burn evenly and uniformly. Even if it does, dripping fat/oil can create heat spikes that tend to send the smoking schedule haywire. Coupled with the fact that the need to store large amounts of charcoal makes them heavy and unwieldy, these can make using a charcoal smoker an exercise in playing with fire, literally!

Price Range – ~$75-$500

Pros
  • Can be used in remote areas.
  • Cooks large amounts of food in a session.
  • Highly affordable.
  • Strong “smoked” flavor that is reminiscent of original smoked food.
Cons
  • Heavy and bulky, cannot be moved.
  • Requires large amounts of charcoal that needs separate storage.
  • Difficult to obtain uniform smoking.
  • Hard to maintain heat, risk of heat spikes.
  • Usually have smaller temperature ranges, making it difficult to smoke food requiring low temperature.
  • Require paper or lighter fluid to ignite the charcoal.
  • Charcoal smoke and dust tend to be carcinogenic, according to some studies.

Types of outdoor smokers: Which is best choice for you?Propane Smokers

Gas or propane smokers work in much the same way a gasoline or kerosene stove works – the heat from burning gasoline produces smoke, which is then filtered and passed onto the food. Unlike charcoal, which is hardly used in other household tools, propane is used in propane burners, torches, etc. and so keeping a store of propane is not a smoker-specific burden on the budget. Further, since propane can produce heat at a faster rate, the required temperature is reached faster, and temperature change beyond the required temperature is scarce.

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The major shortcoming with propane smokers is that they create an unpleasant oily taste that is particularly abhorrent when found in meats. Further, the foods tend to be a lot less crispy than what charcoal, wood or electric smokers produce. Flavors tend to be diluted. Finally, while temperature maintenance is easier, the fact that liquid fuel is used means that the risk of a fire erupting out of negligence is even higher than in a charcoal smoker.

Price Range – ~$150-~$400

Pros
  • Propane ignites faster than charcoal and without any intermediates.
  • Attains required temperature quickly and maintains it.
  • No separate fuel budget needed as propane is used in daily work.
  • Fuel can be stored and carried more easily as it is lighter and can be poured out.
Cons
  • Unpleasant oily taste with diluted flavors.
  • Lacks crispiness of charcoal or electric smokers.
  • Risk of fire high if neglected.
  • Risk of leakage of fuel high.

Wood Or Pellet Smokers

As you would have noticed in our buying guide for electric smokers, electric and even other types of smokers make use of wood chips. However, wood smokers originally meant smokers that used small logs or branches of wood as fuel. Quite understandably, these were quite large and required the sacrifice of precious green cover. While they do still survive in the age of environmental consciousness, the more common “wood” smoker tends to be the pellet smoker. Among the types considered in Types of Outdoor Smokers – Which is best choice for you debate, pellet smokers have earned a good reputation because they use pellets made of pure sawdust. Since sawdust is a byproduct of many applications, pellet smokers contribute to environmental recycling.

Pellet smokers are also easier to light up compared to original wood smokers or charcoal smokers because sawdust is naturally dry. Further, the amount of smoke produced is higher than either propane or charcoal. In additionthe smoke produced and the coating of wood dust on the food as a result of smoking tend to be safe, as compared to the carcinogenic dust of charcoal. Further, the taste of food is similar to that of charcoal smokers, except that it is milder.  Lastly, these smokers can be used in virtually any area as (though not ideally) they are designed to work with pieces of wood that would otherwise not be of any use.

The problem with pellet smokers is that they leave a lot of sawdust in the product and this makes cleaning them a pain. Furthermore, the pellet smokers have a tendency of reaching the required temperature very quickly but not being able to retain it. Though the smoke is uniform, the presence of loose sawdust in the smoke tends to cause some flares from time to time. Last but not least, wood pellets like charcoal are not usable in any other major household task and constitute fuel resources that must be counted separate from the normal gasoline and electricity budget of the house.

Price Range – $400-~$2000

Pros
  • Pellet smokers contribute to recycling.
  • They produce flavors akin to charcoal smokers.
  • Attain required temperature very quickly.
  • Produce lots of smoke.
  • Can be used in remote areas.
  • Does not produce carcinogenic products.
Cons
  • Maintenance difficult due to huge amount of sawdust residue.
  • Sawdust may cause problems to people with respiratory disorders.
  • Temperature maintenance is difficult.
  • Require separate budget for wood pellets.
  • Expensive compared to all other smokers.

Types of outdoor smokers: Which is best choice for you?Electric Smokers

A very recent invention compared to other types of smokers, electric smokers possess a heating element that allows the smoker to produce smoke from electricity. This in turn does the smoking. Electric smokers may contain water pans and provision for wood chips/charcoal, though the amounts required are much lower than in a wood or charcoal smoker. This is the only type of smoker that is capable of informing the user the exact temperature within the smoker at any given time and allowing him/her to make necessary changes. With the temperature remaining constant once set, the cooking time is exact.

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If these weren’t enough, the electric smoker doesn’t require any supervision as it has no loose fuel that can leak and cause a fire. Though flares are reported, these occur mostly due to inefficient drip pans found in low quality smokers rather than due to the nature of the fuel or the design of the smoker itself. Though electricity consumption will rise to some extent when using an electric smoker, there is no separate fuel bill and the cost is comparatively lower than charcoal or wood pellets, especially since there is no transportation cost involved.

To be fair, the electric smoker does have some shortcomings. The primary shortcoming stems from the fact that it cannot be used in areas where there is no electricity. Furthermore, early electric smokers were accused of producing bland food. Thankfully, latest generation appliances, when used in accordance with suggestions in our tips and blog on electric smokers, can replicate the original charcoal smoker taste to a great extent, without the risks of ingestion of carcinogenic substances present in charcoal smoke.

Price Range – $200-$1,000

Pros
  • Temperature can be set and controlled.
  • Little variation takes place in temperature once settings are in place.
  • No separate fuel source required.
  • Latest products replicate charcoal smoker taste.
  • Few or no flares occur if drip pans are of decent grade.
  • No supervision needed.
  • Good temperature range.
  • No risk of fire due to loose fuel leakage.
  • Achieves required temperature quickly.
  • Light and can be carried.
Cons
  • Is incapable of running without electricity.
  • Somewhat costlier than charcoal smokers.

Conclusion

Electric smokers were intended as a replacement for virtually every other type of smoker. While electric smokers may still require some improvement before they achieve the exact taste achieved by charcoal smokers, the huge amount of smoke created by propane smokers or the usability in remote areas that wood/pellet based smokers can claim, they have achieved most of the features that hitherto distinguished the other types of smokers from one another. 

As such, though it is impossible to say that electric smokers are immaculate, the debate on Types of outdoor smokers – Which is best choice for you  is surely tilted in favor of the electric smoker candidates of today
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