Pellet vs Electric Smokers: Fight It Out

March 9, 2023

The biggest differences between pellet and electric smokers are their primary heat sources and the flavor they yield. Pellet smokers use wood pellets to smoke meat, hence the smoke ring and smoke flavor. While electric smokers use electricity to cook, wood chips only add a mild smoky flavor.

Having worked as a pitmaster, I have had the chance to try out both pellet smokers and electric smokers. Both can yield, flavorful results when used right. However, I would pick a pellet smoker any day of the week but only because I enjoy a nice, protruding smoke ring on my meat. Likewise, the right smoker for you should rest solely on your preferences.

To help you decide, I have outlined the difference between electric smokers and pellet smokers in this article. I have also discussed how both these appliances function as well as their pros and cons.

pellet vs electric smokers

Pellet Smoker vs Electric Smokers: A One On One

Feature

Pellet Smoker

Electric Smoker

Orientation

Vertical

Horizontal

Heat Source

Hardwood Pellets

Electric Element

Smoke Intensity

High-Intense

Low

Moisture

High

Low

Potential Cooking Capacity

Low

High

What Are the Differences Between Between Pellet Grills and Electric Smokers?

Pellet and electric smokers differ in the following ways:

Heat Source

Both pellet and electric smokers use electricity but their major difference is the heat used to smoke food. An electric smoker relies on an electric heating element to generate the heat that will cook your meat. 

A pellet grill on the other hand is fitted with a heat rod. This rod is powered by electricity and in turn, it combusts the wood. It is the heat from this combustion that cooks the meat.

Winner: Tie

Flavor Intensity

Since electric and pellet smokers use different sources of heat to smoke meat, you can expect them to yield different flavors.

In an electric smoker, the heating element is the only source of heat. All that circulates within the cooking chamber is hot air and water vapor.

If you want to add a smoke flavor to your meat, add some wood chips to the wood tray. As the chips smolder, some of the flavors will be imparted to your meat. This is a far cry from the volume of smoke a pellet smoker generates where wood pellets, as the primary source of heat, produce rich, dense smoke consistently for hours.

More of the smoke can penetrate the meat fibers in a pellet smoker because it is encouraged to circulate within the chamber through convection. The same cannot be said for an electric smoker. The taste of meat smoked using wood is distinct and unmistakable.

Winner: Pellet Smoker

Moisture

Moisture within the cooking chamber of a smoker comes from the meat, combustion of wood, and a water pan.

Electric smokers produce dry heat for two reasons. First is because they don’t have the benefit of combusting wood pellets that release their moisture as they burn.

Secondly, due to their design, moisture content drawn from the smoking meat is lost to the surroundings all too soon instead of being encouraged to stay within the cooking chamber.

To keep your meat moist in an electric smoker, you have to introduce moisture into the food chamber using a water pan. Be sure to keep your water pan halfway. Any more might cause it to spill over when it boils.

Pellet grills typically utilize indirect heat to cook your food. The moisture from the combustion of pellets and the meat is circulated within the food chamber, keeping the meat from drying out.

This method allows you to make a tender and succulent BBQ even without the water pan, especially for short cooks.

Winner: Pellet Smoker

Ease Of Use

Both pellet smokers and electric smokers are simple to operate. They require minimum maintenance if they are well-handled and regularly serviced. However, the pellet smoker requires you to empty the ash and clean out the grease, preferably after every BBQ session.

The electric smoker is a breeze when it comes to cleaning. The cooking grates and the walls of the cooking chamber can easily be cleaned using warm water and regular dish soap. There is no ash or grease deposits to get rid of making this an easy enough process.

As far as smoking meat is concerned, an electric smoker is a ‘set it to forget it’ appliance. You just load in your pull temperature, put in your meat, and wait for it to conclude the countdown. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

Winner: Electric Smoker

BBQ Grilled Meat

Smoke Rings

A great ring is an outstanding performance badge for all BBQ warriors. That deep, red, rustic outer layer is enabled by a chemical reaction that takes place between the wood-flavored smoke and sodium nitrate in the meat.

Both electric smokers and pellet smokers can maintain temperatures low enough to impart a ring but you would also need a lot of smoke.

A pellet smoker generates intense smoke since wood is the primary source of heat. The same cannot be said for an electric smoker. This is one feature that skews the pellet smoker vs electric smoker debate in favor of pellet smokers.

Winner: Pellet Smoker

Versatility

Shopping for a smoking appliance is no small feat so make sure you get our money’s worth. To that effect, I advocate for versatility.

Since an electric smoker can’t reach certain temperatures, there are other cooking methods you can’t use with this appliance, including searing and broiling.

Many electric smokers offer a maximum temperature of 275ºF whereas pellet smokers typically get to a maximum temp of at least 450ºF.

It is important to note that cold smoking is not an option with a pellet smoker. Cold smoking demands very low temperatures of around 86ºF -120ºF for delicate foods like cheese, eggs, and seafood. Pellet smokers run too hot to be efficient at cold smoking.

Winner: Pellet Smoker

Safety

The heat and smoke from burning wood pellets are necessary to get your pellet smoker going. This involves an open fire which presents a hazard, especially in a house that has kids or pets.

This design and the smoke make a pellet smoker more suitable for outdoor cooking. Pellet smokers shouldn’t be left unattended for long periods and should be kept far from any flammable materials.

Electric smokers do not pose the same risk. They use electricity to produce heat. This is why a lot of apartment buildings allow free use of electric smokers but require pellet smokers to be used on balconies or fire escapes.

That said, any appliance that uses heat can pose a safety hazard if not used correctly. To this end, err on the side of caution and place your electric smoker away from water and on a flat surface.

Winner: Electric Smoker

Cost

In general, electric smokers are more affordable compared to pellet smokers. Pellet smokers go for between 400-3000 dollars depending on brand, size, and features.

Electric smokers are priced much lower between 100-1000 dollars. These prices obviously vary depending on the specifications, size, and brand.

Winner: Electric Smoker

BBQ Ribs on the Grill

What is a Pellet Smoker and How Does It Work?

A pellet smoker is also called a pellet grill. A pellet smoker offers you the option of smoking, grilling, baking, and roasting meat. Pellet grills operate on electricity and are wood-fired. Simply put, you connect to an outlet to turn on its function but the wood fire cooks your meat.

They are horizontally oriented to support most of the components. So what are these components and why are they important?

The Hopper

The hopper is fitted on the side of the pellet grill. This is where you pour your supply of hardwood pellets.

Depending on the size and brand of your grill, the hopper capacity may be large or small. Some pellet grills have a hopper capacity of 20 lbs and others 5 lbs.

A larger capacity will give your smoker longer periods of uninterrupted cooking. From there, the wood pellets met the auger.

The Auger

This component is responsible for feeding pellets into the firepot. It’s a rotating shaft made of metal that shuffles the wood forward. It is powered by an electric motor, called an auger motor which is connected to a controller.

The auger and the digital controller are what set pellet grills apart from other cooking appliances.

The Digital Controller

Just like with an oven, you start by inputting your pull temperature in the control panel. This controller is connected to a sensor located in the food chamber.

Think of the sensor as a thermometer built into your grill. If the temperature measured by the sensor is less or more than the set temp, it rotates the auger slower or faster. This will either speed up pellets into the firebox or slow them down.

When the pellet grill finally reaches the set temperature, the controller does one of two things: feeds pellets at a rate that maintains the temp or stops feeding pellets altogether. Pretty simple, right?

The Fire Pot

This is where the hoppers go to meet their demise, the pot of fire. It houses an electric rod whose sole job is to ignite wood pellets. They then produce smoke and heat.

Sitting right above the firepot is a deflector plate. It is commonly referred to as a baffle plate. It serves two functions:

  1. It keeps the firepot safe from drippings to avoid flare-ups
  2. To distribute heat and smoke inside the grill
Smoked Steak Kabobs Resting on the Grill

The Fan and Blower

Regardless of fuel type, it is oxygen that fuels a fire. Without oxygen, your fire will choke. This is where the fan and blower come in. They blow in air from the surrounding into the firepot.

Just like we work the vents of a charcoal grill or a Kamado grill to manipulate the amount of oxygen, the fan kicks in to drive more air rich in oxygen into the chamber when a higher temperature is needed.

The Chimney

The chimney is typically located either on one end away from the pellet hopper or behind the cooking chamber. It is also called a smokestack.

The chimney allows for a sufficient flow of air within the system by expelling gases from the combustion of the system. Optimum airflow ensures that your meat smokes evenly.

What Are the Pros and Cons of the Pellet Smoker?

Pros

  • Is versatile. You can roast, bake and grill on a pellet smoker. Some can even get high enough for broiling
  • Large amounts of food can be cooked evenly on it since it uses indirect heat. This helps prevent hotspots in the meat
  • You can get smoke-kissed meat

Cons

  • Pellet grills require time and practice to master
  • Is sensitive to temperature changes and thus can be difficult to operate in colder climates
  • It is not eco-friendly. It utilizes wood pellets as the source of heat
  • They are more expensive compared to electric smokers

Who Should Buy A Pellet Smoker?

Pellet grills are perfect for authentic-style smoked meats. That means if you love a deep smokey flavor, an enticing smoke ring, and a bark that is to die for.

These qualities are hard to achieve with an electric smoker. Some are downright impossible.

Which Pellet Smoker Do You Recommend?

I recommend the Z grills 450A pellet grill and smoker. Z grills are reputable pellet grill manufacturers that blend longevity and performance with affordability. This pellet grill is inexpensive and has great specs.

It allows a temperature range of 180ºF-450ºF. This is great for smoking, baking, grilling, searing, barbecuing, braising, and roasting.

This pellet grill is ideal for small families since it offers a total cooking surface of 452 sq. inches and a large pellet hopper capacity of 15 lbs.

Since it is made from heavy gauge stainless steel, the 450A by Z grills is sturdy and durable. It is also user-friendly and reasonably priced.

What is an Electric Smoker and How Does It Work?

An electric smoker uses electricity to smoke meat. They are typically vertically oriented, looking a lot like a mini fridge. How does it work? To understand this, let’s take a look at the components one by one:

A Heating Element

Electric smokers rely on the element for heat. The electric element is probably the most important component in an electric smoker. Depending on the brand and model of the appliance, an electric grill is fitted with one or more heating rods at the very bottom of the smoker.

The Control Panel

The control panel or the digital control panel allows the user to input their preferred temperature. Thanks to the control panel, you have full control over a temperature range of 100°F-275°F for most electric smokers.

Depending on the model and brand of your electric smoker, your control panel might even have a timer and automatic shut-off.

The Wood Chip Tray

Electric smokers use electricity to cook meat. Electric heat does not produce an open flame so there is no combustion. So, smoking meat in an electric smoker will cook your meat but it won’t have the characteristic smokey flavor produced when the fuel source actually burns.

To fix this electric smokers come with a wood chip tray. If you want to add a hint of smokey flavor when working with an electric smoker, add wood chips to the wood tray, also called a wood chip pan. The wood chips only smolder and impart a wood flavor to the meat. They do not cook the meat.

In most electric smokers, the wood tray will be fitted very close to the electric element. The element slowly burns the wood chips imparting that incredible aroma to the meat.

You can use any flavor you want to flavor your meat. Get experimental with hickory, mesquite, oak, pecan, maple, or several other wood chips to narrow down on your favorite flavor. You can even try a blend of different wood flavors.

The Water Pan

Water pans are sandwiched between the cooking chamber and the wood chip tray. Electric smokers require water pans to introduce moisture into the cooking chamber.

In the absence of a water tray, there will only be hot air and smoke to circulate. This can easily dry out your meat and turn it into the anticlimax it was not meant to be.

Food Racks

Because of the vertical orientation of a typical electric smoker, it has more potential cooking space to offer. This comes in form of food racks. All electric smokers have at least 2 food racks and can have up to 8 racks. It all depends on the size you need.

Smoke Coming Out of an Electric Smoker

What Are the Pros and Cons of the Electric Smoker?

Pros

  • Some models like the Masterbuilt electric smoker come with a cold smoking kit that you can attach to the main unit. With temperatures of between 100ºF – 120ºF, it is perfect for cold-smoking foods like cheese, eggs, bacon, tofu, and fruit, just to mention a few.
  • It is easy to use with the ‘set it to forget it’ functions.
  • It is eco-friendly because it does not use wood as a primary heat source.
  • It is very affordable.

Cons

  • It can’t yield a smoke ring.
  • It is not as versatile as a pellet smoker due to its limited temperature range.

Who Should Buy An Electric Smoker?

If you’re not stuck on a deep smoke flavor and a smoke ring, the electric smoker is a wonderful and affordable option.

This smoker is perfect for anyone who wants an easy convenient and clean way to smoke a delicious steak.

It is also ideal in limited spaces as well as apartment buildings where the smoke produced by a pellet smoker may be unacceptable.

Which Electric Smoker Do You Recommend?

If you have decided on an electric smoker, I recommend the Dyna Glo 30'' electric smoker. It features a cooking capacity of 732 sq. inches split over 4 cooking racks.

I like this electric smoker because it has an access drawer at the bottom that allows you to access the water and wood chip trays without having to open the cooking chamber.

FAQs

Are Pellet Smokers Better Than Regular Smokers?

The key feature that sets pellet smokers apart from other smokers is that they are designed to use wood pellets. Other than that, regular smokers can still yield tender, flavorful smoked meats.

Final Thought

The different heat sources utilized by these smokers are what result in all their other differences. Flavor intensity, smoke ring, moisture content, and versatility all rest on using pellets to cook your food.

To that effect, a pellet smoker will have parts like a hopper, auger, fire pot, and chimney while a smoker will have the heating element. Besides that, both pellet smokers and electric smokers offer excellent performance and you are sure to love whichever model you decide to purchase.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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