I wish it were as simple as picking one over the other, and for me, it is. That said, electric and propane smokers differ on a number of factors that inform this propane vs. electric smoker debate including the initial cost, running costs, versatility, and reliability among others.
My grandfather taught me how to smoke meat like a pro on a charcoal smoker. I only recently stopped using after I got myself a propane smoker. I am, however, spoilt rotten so I have not one, but two smokers. One propane and one electric, and I have used both of them extensively.
The two smokers have overlap as well as distinctions, which is why I continue to keep both of them. That said, you only need one. In this article, I will give you a detailed review of both which should help you decide which of the two suits you best.
When I barbecue to impress, I smoke meat on the propane smoker.
Propane smokers, which are also called gas smokers, infuse a richer depth of flavor into the meat compared to electric smokers.
A propane smoker produces superior flavor, an enviable beautifully pink smoke ring, and a thick crispy dark bark. Even with a trick or two up your sleeve, it is difficult to replicate these results in an electric smoker.
Experienced meat connoisseurs like myself swear by propane smokers as far as flavor and appearance are concerned.
The heat source of an electric model is not an open flame as is the case in a gas smoker. An open flame burns and smolders wood chips better producing the necessary chemical reaction between nitrite oxide in the smoke and myoglobin in the meat.
This reaction creates that truly desirable smoke ring and thick dark bark. The overall quality of brisket smoked in a propane smoker is better compared to the results achieved on an electric smoker. An electric smoker cannot smoke wood chips as optimally as a gas smoker.
That said, many electric smokers do not disappoint and brisket smoked in one is remarkably delicious food. The main difference between the two smokers is just the source of heat.
A choice brisket, well-marinated or cured, coupled with remarkable cooking skills is as important as the smoker you choose.
Remember, the smoke ring does not have any additional or unique flavor but its appearance on smoked meat is often viewed as an indicator of mastery at smoking.
You can also create a good bark by using a sprinkle of dry spices and artificial nitrites all over your meat before cooking it in your electric smoker.
Your end product should be super tasty regardless of the smoker.
A propane smoker has a greater temperature range than an electric smoker. A propane smoker has a temperature range of 150 – 400 degrees Fahrenheit while an electric heating element has a temperature range of 100 – 275 degrees Fahrenheit.
The lower temperature range of electric smokers makes them dedicated smokers and ideal dehydrators (cold smoking) while the higher range of the propane smoker makes them ideal for smoking, roasting, and baking. Check out this Big Easy Roaster and Grill.
A propane smoker is clearly more versatile, allowing you greater culinary range than an electric smoker. Electric smokers may limit your cooking but since smoked food demands low heat, an electric cooker is a safe bet.
Electric smokers are hands-down the easier gadget to use. Electric smokers, especially the digital ones come fitted with an automated temperature control panel that merely needs to be set to your desired temperature and left to perform their magic. A top contender is the Masterbuilt digital electric smoker.
The low temperatures of the heating element will hold steady for the duration of cooking. Propane smokers are more low-tech and have a steeper learning curve. They do not come with temperature control features and the ones that do are quite glitchy.
Using a gas smoker means you have to continually monitor the temperature of the cooking and periodically adjust it when it gets too hot.
This implies having a well-developed skill at smoking meat and perhaps a thermometer that will guide you as you do your cooking.
Cooking with electric smokers allows you to let the meat cook without supervision for the entire cook time while gas smokers demand that you pull up a chair and get comfortable babysitting your smoked meat.
Dedicated barbecue lovers will enjoy this but if you are a novice, just buy an electric smoker. Electric smokers are also recommended for those who have no interest in perfecting barbecuing as a skill but still want smoked meat on occasion.
One of the most enjoyable activities to go along with barbecuing is camping. It is entirely possible to have an electrical outlet at a campsite but it is unlikely.
Any decent camping adventure should not involve the availability of electricity.
Unless you are willing to haul a generator with your electric model, the better smoker would be a propane one. It is easier to transport and conveniently easy to set up once you settle down to cook. The Portable Masterbuilt propane smoker is ideal for camping escapades.
An electric smoker only gives you the option of smoking or cold smoking. Without a separate gas grill, for instance, you need more than cold smoke options on your camping trip.
A propane smoker will also accommodate roasting and baking which makes it the better option for anyone who regularly needs to unwind from a busy lifestyle.
Smokers do not last very long due to the nature of their use. They often deteriorate fast as a consequence of moisture and heat damage.
Reliability and quality of any machinery are often a function of the craftsmanship involved in making the smoker but the overall mechanics of a propane smoker are better and last longer than those of an electric smoker.
A digital electric smoker has more sensitive components such as the electric element and power outlet. These have to function for many hours in compartments packed with moisture and grease.
While they are sufficiently protected, they will still sustain greater wear and tear compared to gas smokers.
The repair can be rather troublesome if the heating element and digital controls get damaged. This is not a concern with gas smokers. I would recommend Weber Smokey Mountain for quality smokers. Check out weber smokey mountain.
On the other hand, propane smokers tend to develop rust on the floors. The smoke and moisture produced in propane smokers are quite high eventually wearing them out. This will, however, take years to occur making them the hardier choice.
Both smokers are vertically structured which means they occupy very little room on your terrace. They are ideal for all kinds of households including apartment buildings, condos, and lofts.
Gas smokers tend to produce more smoke and may not be allowed in certain buildings. In such cases, a Char-Broil Deluxe Electric Smoker is a great choice.
The vertical models of smokers are also designed for maximum cooking space to accommodate as many racks in the cooking chamber as possible while keeping the heat trained within a narrower volume.
Both have great capacity but a gas smoker tends to have more room on all models while an electric smoker is generally smaller.
This should not concern you much since even the smaller models of either smoker can cook over fifteen pounds of meat in one go.
Cost and fuel usage make all the difference and should be a critical factor in your final decision. The initial cost of purchasing an electric smoker will be higher than the cost of buying a gas smoker of a similar range.
The rub here is the cost of running or using either. A gas smoker requires that you regularly refill the propane tanks.
It may also mean having a second propane tank just in case you run out while smoking a ham.
Propane is more expensive than electricity, so an electric smoker is the cheaper alternative in the long run. If cost is not a concern, you can get yourself an offset gas smoker which is a great investment in the long run.
There are very few models that run on natural gas and are not recommended since they have to be hooked up to the gas line by a professional. This setup means that you cannot move your smoker from one spot to another.
Natural gas is a slightly cheaper alternative to propane but these smokers are not popular.
Smokers are used outdoors, exposing them to the elements and harsh weather conditions. In particularly cold regions, propane smokers can underperform since they are not well- insulated and therefore lose a lot of heat. This lengthens the smoking process and consumes more gas.
The Masterbuilt Analog Electric Smokers have great insulation and protective covers, making them ideal for harsher colder weather conditions.
Regardless, even electric smokers need to be protected in some kind of enclosure to prevent them from getting damaged by moisture and precipitation.
The digital controls are particularly vulnerable, so as much as possible, use and store your smoker away from harsh weather and the elements.
The table below is a quick comparison of propane and electric smokers:
Factors to Consider
Flavoring the meat
Smoking & cold smoking
Smokes, bakes and roasts
100° - 275° F
150° - 400° F
Ease of use
Very easy to use
Steeper learning curve
Reliability and build
Small to large options
Larger options available
Lower than electric smoker
Higher than electric smoker
Hardiness in harsh weather
Unsuitable for wet regions
Unsuitable for windy cold regions
A traditional charcoal smoker is a simplistic barbecue apparatus involving a rack that is placed over burning charcoal and on it is the meat you intend to smoke.
Meat smoked over charcoal is arguably the best you will ever have. I smoked my first-ever ham on charcoal and the flavor was exquisite.
Some people still use charcoal smokers which is fine but charcoal is not green fuel, and its continued use is unsustainable in the long run. Charcoal burns inefficiently, creating a ton of wasted energy.
It is also difficult to control the temperature within the smoking chamber which makes it a cumbersome option for learners.
Residual ash means it can’t be used in most households, condos, and apartments without creating the need for constant cleaning and endless clouds of offensive smoke.
Most charcoal smokers are used in more rural far flung areas and where traditional style barbecuing is still a very strong culture.
Campers too, prefer portable charcoal grills, wood grills, and offset smokers over propane smokers. A popular smoker is the NutriChefKitchen Offset Smoker.
Propane vs. electric smoker is not an easy call and neither smoker is better or worse. The best way to make this decision is to weigh your needs versus the different characteristics of both. For instance, if you are a beginner, I strongly suggest buying an electric smoker.
Smokers are inexpensive, which means you can always buy a gas smoker later if you want more from your cooking experience. If you are a camper, the better option would be the gas smoker.
Smokers are typically used for slow cooking, which means smaller flames and less fuel over extended cook times. A gas smoker can also be used for baking and roasting which utilize larger flames and more gas.
Without factoring in any baking and roasting, a 20 lbs propane tank can smoke meat at a steady temperature of approximately 225 degrees Fahrenheit for 52 hours, maybe more.
This is a lot of time and you will likely smoke more than five briskets comfortably.
Of these three, electric and gas smokers remain the most viable options, especially in most apartments and condos.
Lighting charcoal is an unpopular option today and is rather outdated. It is not environmentally-friendly to use charcoal to smoke meat and the process has a higher carbon footprint compared to gas and electric smokers.
A gas smoker bridges the gap between electric and charcoal smokers since it is characterized by the advantages of both.
It is fairly easy to use a propane smoker and it infuses the meat with a great smokey flavor which is the allure of the traditional charcoal smoker.
Yes. An electric smoker is the best option for anyone who is just learning how to smoke meat or simply wants to get the job done effectively without having to supervise it the whole time.
If you care about flavor and would like some adventure in your barbecuing journey, an electric smoker will limit your choices despite the convenience.
As mentioned earlier, the best way to go about this decision is to consider the characteristics of both smokers against the factors that are most relevant to you. This way, your pick is not only influenced by my bias.
As an experienced meat smoker, I am inclined to go with the propane smoker but considering how I have both of them, I find that even the electric smoker holds its own rather well on this scale.
Whichever smoker you settle on, rest-assured you have value for your buck! I hope the information above will help you make the best decision.