Pellet Smokers vs Charcoal Smokers (A Comparison)

Masterbuilt Gravity Series 1050 Grill Size

Pellet Smokers vs Charcoal Smokers

As a pitmaster you know that smoking meat is an art. It needs expertise in handling the smoker to bring out the intended flavors to your meat. It is a process that takes hours from preparation, to cooking the meat, to achieving the desired smoky and spicy flavors. 

So, before you set out to buy a smoker here’s a comparison guide between the pellet smoker and the charcoal smoker.

The Pellet Smoker

This is an outdoor cooker that uses hardwood pellets that are 100% all-natural as the primary source of fuel. The wood pellets are first poured into the hooper which then feeds them into the burner. The burner heats them to produce heat and smoke which rises to the meat to add the delicious smoky flavor.  This burning is powered by electricity.

You will not need to use wood chips on a pellet smoker to produce smoky flavors as the hardwood pellets are just enough. The wood pellets do not have any fillers and additives like in briquettes so they burn completely without leaving any ash behind. Pellet smokers are easier to use especially for newbies because you can manage their temperatures without any hassle.

RELATED: Top 5 Pellet Smokers

The Charcoal Smoker

This is an outdoor cooking device that smokes food with low indirect heat that is generated from burning charcoal over a long time. Charcoal is first put into the firebox to burn, then wood chunks are added to provide that distinct smoky flavor to your food.

The heat and smoke pass through the water pan which sits just above the firebox to reach the meat being cooked. This water pan functions as a temperature controller because the charcoal smoker can sometimes get too hot. It’s often said that the tasty smoky flavors produced by charcoal smokers cannot be matched by other types of smokers.

RELATED: Top 5 Charcoal Smokers

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Camp Chef Woodwind

Pros of a Pellet Smoker

Temperatures are easier to manage: You can accurately manage temperatures on a pellet smoker more than on charcoal. It is however advised that smoking be done at lower temperatures and for longer periods of time.

Ease of starting: As pellet smokers are powered by electricity, this means that as long as you have a power source, you can get started.  This is compared to a charcoal grill where you will need to ignite the charcoal & ensure it stays lit for the duration of the cook.

Duration of cooking: A pellet smoker is estimated to cook within a period of eight to nine hours while the charcoal version can go for twelve hours or more if you’re not cooking fast.

Flavor: As the hardwood pellets burn, all the meat gets infused with real smoky wood flavor thanks to the fan-forced convection feature on them. This feature ensures there’s always smoky hot flavorful air moving around your grill.

Cons of a Pellet Smoker

Versatility:  Pellet smokers are mostly used for only one purpose and that is smoking at low temperatures, unlike charcoal smokers which can be worked on at high and low temperatures.

Cost: The cost of purchasing and operating a pellet smoker is considerably higher than that of a charcoal smoker. You will also need to think of replacing some parts of a pellet grill especially after the warranty has expired.

Pros of a Charcoal Smoker

Versatility: You can use a charcoal smoker to smoke, grill, and cook your meat both at high and low temperatures by regulating the amount of air flowing in. 

Cost: Charcoal smokers are cheaper to purchase and maintain compared to pellet smokers. Coal briquettes are also cheaper to buy than hardwood pellets making charcoal smokers a cheaper option.

Flavor: The charcoal smoker provides an authentic smoky taste to your meat and many people prefer to go for the fine smoke-filled flavor the charcoal smoker provides.

Cons of a Charcoal Smoker

Cleaning: You will have to clean up the ashes from a charcoal smoker every time you use it while the pellet smoker has almost no ash left from the burnt pellets.

Not user-friendly: Charcoal smokers require more starting time and more energy to cook meat or any other food. They can take up to 30 minutes to be ready for smoking (and that’s if everything goes to plan with lighting the charcoal).

Control of temperature: There is required expertise to know how to control the temperature in the charcoal smoker while the pellet smoker only requires a turn of the dial to get the desired temperatures.

Traeger Ironwood 885
Our Personal Favorite Pellet Smoker

Best Features of a Pellet Smoker

Big hopper capacity: The majority of pellet smokers have a hopper capacity of 20lbs or more which is good. A small hopper will need regular refills which can be laborious to keep filling especially for long cooking cycles.

Collapsible shelf: These folding shelves ease the cook’s job of loading and unloading food from the pellet smoker. It is also a great worktop for chopping onions, garlic, etc.

Translucent hopper: It is good to be able to tell at a glance the level of the wood pellets in your hopper without having to open the lid.

Traeger Ironwood 885 Louisiana Grills LG800E Camp Chef Woodwind Weber SmokeFire EX4 Gen 2 Broil King Baron 550
Rating
4.67
4.65
4.48
3.91
3.73
Cooking Area (sq in)
885
838
797
672
750
WiFi
Y
N
Y
Y
Y
Ease of Set Up
5/5
4/5
5/5
5/5
5/5
Price Range
$$$
$$$
$$
$$
$$
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Weber Master Touch 22
Our Personal Favorite Charcoal Smoker

Best Features of a Charcoal Smoker

The firebox: This is the part where charcoal is added and ignited to generate heat for the smoker.

Water pan: The water pan is situated right on top of the firebox and acts as a temperature controller. It also produces steam which enhances the cooking process & keeps meat moist.

The cooking area: This is the part where your food is placed in order to cook and provides a spacious area to place your meat.

Portable Kitchen Weber Original Kettle Weber Original Kettle Premium Weber Master Touch Masterbuilt Gravity Series 1050
Rating
4.81
4.76
4.72
4.72
4.40
Cooking Area (sq in)
301
363
363
443
1050
Burger Count
12
20
17
17
18
Ease of Set Up
5/5
5/5
5/5
5/5
5/5
Price Range
$
$
$
$
$$

The Verdict

To sum it all, it boils down to preference i.e. what kind of flavors do you like, how do you cook your food, and the clean up required? 

Consider key factors such as if you want to set & forget like you can with a pellet smoker or if you’re happy to spend the time lighting and maintaining the charcoals.  There’s also the fuel source to think about, while a pellet smoker is easier to cook on you will need a source of electricity & the pellets compared to relatively inexpensive charcoals and wood chips.  

It’s hard to come out with a clear winner, but it’s going to come down to:

  • Looking for less time commitment and not as much upfront knowledge but with a higher entry price point & more ongoing maintenance: Pellet Smoker
  • Looking for more time commitment, needing to do a bit more research to get the hang of it, but with a lower entry price point and less ongoing maintenance: Charcoal Smoker

The end flavor is always going to come down to personal preference so it’s hard for us to factor that in – both options produce deliciously smoky food!

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