Smokers vs Grills? That is the Question!
Some food just tastes better off the grill.
You get that caramelized glaze on the outside, perfect levels of saltiness, and a nice bit of crunch on your meat and veggies.
Then again, some food just tastes better out of a smoker: tender, fall-apart ribs, salmon that makes you feel like a warrior while you’re eating it.
So which is better?
Well, they’re both pretty awesome, but I’m going to explain why, and dive into the categories that grills do better than smokers, and vice versa.
There’s a lot to cover but suffice to say, you’re going to want to dabble in both.
If you’re rocking a Kamado grill, you already possess the ability to do both.
If you’d like to see a graphical breakdown of grills vs. smokers, we got you covered:
Here are the 4 Key Factors to Consider:
- Fuel Costs
- Temperature Control
- Time Spent
Please include attribution to GrillsReviewed.com with this graphic.
Smokers Use Indirect Heat
Indirect heat is when you’re heating your food, but you aren’t exposing it to open flames, such as with gas grills or charcoal grills.
Instead, the heat transfers through a plate, which is usually a griddle or a plancha plate, and then that plate heats up your food. It’s like adding a middle man.
So why do people use indirect heat?
For one, you’re going to read about carcinogen count in grilled food today, and when you use a method of indirect heat to cook, you actually lower the number of carcinogens –cancer-causing chemicals in your food.(*)
Another reason you might use indirect heat is if you enjoy the slightly smoky flavor of food off the grill, but you don’t like char marks or the way they alter its taste.
You use indirect heat when you cook on the stove.
There’s a hot coil or open flame touching your pan, and when you use the heat that it transfers to your pan to cook.
You can still burn things with indirect heat, it’s just going to change how long your food takes to cook and how it’s going to taste.
Indirect heat is very predictable.
Since you’re heating an object or plate to use, you can easily monitor how hot it gets, and watch that spread evenly across the board.
With direct heat, you can only do so much to control the flames, and therefore the total heat.
Grills Use Direct Heat… Most of the Time
Direct heat is when the heat source, which is usually fire, directly touches the food and heats it up that way.
Mist grills use a form of direct heat via propane or charcoal, but then you run into the gray area of grills when you actually do use indirect heat.
Most electric grills are using a form of indirect here, because they’re heating up the grates with no source, like fire.
But then you have electric griddle top grills (like the big plancha style ones) that use indirect heat all the time.
It really comes down to what grill you’re using.
Another way that you will come across indirect heat while grilling is when you use a food shield to protect your food from over-charring due to direct heat.
A few pieces of tin foil under your food makes all the difference, because it heats the foil up, which then heats the food, taking the heat source out of the equation.
Direct heat is much harder to control than indirect heat.
You have more variables at play, such as wind speed, fuel efficiency (charcoal, lumps, etc.), oxygen valve usage, and a lot more.
It’s partially why people revere charcoal and wood-burning grillers to have more skill than those who use electric grills.
Now, this is where the debate is going to come in.
It’s up to a lot of variables, including what wood you use for a smoker versus what style of charcoal you use for a charcoal grill.
For example, you need different types of wood pellets for different types of food.
Let’s go over a basic cost breakdown without making this a head-scratcher, though.
Average Pellet Cost for Smokers
You can use charcoal to smoke, but pellets work best since they’re not just sticking straight up carbon to your food and making it impossible to enjoy it, and adding major char to the edges.
Pellets come with five different wood types, and each of them can cost you a different amount of money depending on their availability, and where you’re located.
You can get a hybrid blend of different pellets, which can actually save you a few cents per pound (which adds up).
Expect to pay about $1.00 per pound, if you’re buying in bulk of 40 lbs or more.
Under that, you’re looking at about $1.12 to $1.20 per pound.
It’s still not a crazy hike, but if you really enjoy smoking with wood pellets as I do, it’s worth it to stack up now and save some money in the process.
If you make your own wood pellets at home, you can reduce your costs.
There are always people online trying to get their wood taken away when they clear out their yards, and if you’re able to get some recently chopped wood, you can make your own pellets.
Average Fuel Cost for Grills: Gas, Charcoal, Electric
Let’s break it down one by one so you can deliberate what’s going to work best for you.
You can find charcoal smokers, sure, but you’re not going to find gas smokers or electric smokers.
None that are any good, at least.
Gas Grill Costs
Gar grills are usually seen as pretty cheap to run, but the cost of propane is always changing.
The tanks themselves are pretty expensive to get started, and your grills don’t come with them for free.
You’re going to have to refill your tanks when you’re done using them, which is cheaper than buying new ones, but it can still add up.
You can expect to pay about $20.00 per tanks refill, and those will last you about 8-10 hours on average.
It all depends on how many burners you’re rocking and how high you keep it.
Charcoal Grill Costs
For your charcoal grill, you can expect to pay about $1.00 per pound of charcoal after you peak over 30 pounds in total.
Bulk buying is always your best option when you want to save a bit of money.
The thing is, charcoal burns slower than gas, but it still burns quickly compared to wood pellets.
You can expect to burn through about two pounds of charcoal an hour if you’re not using a slow-going smoker.
That means you can spend about $2.00 per hour, compared to electric grills, which are about to shock you.
If you grill often, the ongoing cost disparity might be enough to make you reconsider your preferred grilling method.
Electric Grill Costs
Electricity costs are going to vary based on which state you live in, and what area in that state you’re drawing power from.
On average, you can expect to pay about $0.18 per hour, per kilowatt of power you use.
To put that in perspective, the average electric grill runs about 1,500 kilowatts per hour, which would end up costing you roughly $0.27 per hour to run your entire grill.
Even if you get a higher-grade model that doubles that wattage, that’s $0.54 per hour.
How much charcoal could you burn through in that amount of time?
Smokers Give a More Tender Texture to Your Foods
There’s something you need to know about the science behind how muscle breaks down in the meat.
The higher the temperature, the quicker it breaks down.
The lower the temperature, the slower it breaks down, meaning a slow chemical reaction.
Slow roasting your food is the number one way to ensure it’s going to be tender as can be, and you barely have to do anything for it.
You have to check the smoker every now and again, such as every half-hour or hour, to make sure your food doesn’t dry out.
It’s a weird double-edged sword; smoking meat allows you to leave it unattended then you would on a grill, but it still requires you to check in on it periodically.
If you can set a timer and bring it with you, or set one on your smartphone, then you’ll be able to remember to check the smoker and ensure your food comes out fantastic.
Grilling Food is Much Faster
For the sheer reason that the temperature in a charcoal grill is higher, you’re going to have a faster time cooking on one.
Or even a gas grill, for that matter.
Smokers are made to have a low temperature, so you can get that slow-roasted, slow-cooked flavor that you’re after.
When you go to standard grilling, there’s about a 125° F disparity.
You’re cooking on a higher temp, the grate is hotter and actually sizzles when you make contact, and you can cut down the time it takes to cook food by a huge margin.
But some of us still end up preferring the taste of food off a smoker, and that’s okay.
There are still plenty of hacks you can use to make seriously tender and smoky-flavored meat from grilling.
If you’re into the speed of getting tasty, semi-charred food off the grill, then it’s the best option for you, but smoking is for those of you who enjoy better flavor and more tender meat no matter what.
You don’t mind waiting, but the people at your Labor Day cookout might.
Temperature Control is a Chore for Smokers
Most smokers do not have an electric temperature control system.
The ones that do are usually pellet grills that have the option of being used for smoking as well, and those do work great… most of the time.
So with a standard charcoal smoker, there’s a lot of air space, so it’s difficult to gauge the actual temperature inside your unit with all that smoke fluttering around.
You don’t always get an accurate reading.
Couple that with the fact that electric gauges normally have a margin of error that reaches or exceeds 15° F up or down, and that can really mess with how your smoked foods come out.
If it’s 15° F too high, then it can dry out your meat when left unchecked for an hour or two at a time.
Standard Grills are Easy to Control
With a normal charcoal grill, retaining the same temperature is tricky, but it’s extremely doable.
Since charcoal is basically just a big block of carbon with no other volatile compounds or elements in them, they can burn low and slow without the risk of running out.
Charcoal grills have air vents along the bottom to allow oxygen in, which can boost the fire and fan the flames, so to speak.
Most smokers and grills share the common chimney stack on the top that allows you to release excess heat into the air, so that’s nothing new, but in combination with these oxygen vents, it helps a lot.
If you’re using a pellet smoker, it’s going to be fairly difficult to control the temperature since you’re already dealing with a low oxygen environment.
With charcoal, you just have to feed it oxygen.
I will be fair and say that auger motors in pellet smokers do a better job of keeping the pipes clear, whereas, with charcoal grills, you have to remove the debris and ash yourself.
The only exclusion for this is if you have a Kamado grill from Weber with a One-Touch cleaning operation at the bottom.
Carcinogens to Consider
PHAs and HCAs are two carcinogen families that you encounter when grilling.
HCAs are going to happen; they come from the fat inside of your meat, and they’re essentially activated when the grease or fat in that meat drips out and hits the heat source below.
There, a rapid chemical change occurs that turns it into its final form as an HCA.
It rises in the steam and reattaches to your food, but now as a more volatile version of this cancer-causing carcinogen.
As for PHAs, they’re basically what you’re going to find in soot.
Soot particles rise in the air, and you get more of them at a time from a super-hot fire.
If you notice that a really blazing fire has thick clouds of black smoke, it’s because of the high temperature raising more soot through the air.
Think about this: the black bits on your meat are basically soot.
You’re ingesting soot.
It’s an occupational hazard of grilling, unfortunately, but you should avoid as many PAHs from charcoal as possible while cooking.
The best way to do this is to use a food shield made out of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Time Spent Cooking vs Smoking
You can grill a 2” steak on the grates in about fifteen minutes, and still have some pink to it.
That’s not a very long time when you compare it to smoking.
If you wanted a smoked shoulder, that could take 16 hours to be ready.
Trying to use your smoker for a turkey this Thanksgiving?
Nearly 22 hours.
While some will see that as a major inconvenience if you’re like me, you just think about how tender the meat is going to be after all that time spent in the smoker.
Part of the reason smoking takes so long is that when you measure the internal temperature of a smoker, that’s not necessarily the temperature of the grate.
That, and the thicker the piece of meat is that you’re cooking, the longer it takes to change its internal temperature.
For a well-done steak, the internal temperature should be 165° F or higher.
If your air temperature in the smoker is 200° F, it’s going to heat up the exterior of your meat, but then it has to penetrate all those muscle fibers and heat up the inside.
That process takes a while.
With grilling, you rapidly break down carbohydrates and fats in meat.
That sends them down to the charcoals and back up as carcinogens and soot very quickly, which chars your meat faster.
The carbohydrates also act like sugar and create a glaze on the outside of your meat.
Grilling vs Smoking: It’s Up to You
Between carcinogens, flavor, dehydrating your food, fuel costs, and everything in between, it’s a lot to take in.
This is the way I see it: you can do both, you’ll just end up focusing on one of them a little more often than the other.
This is why I have a Kamado grill, but also why I use a pellet grill as well: you get the best of both worlds, no matter what.
Grilled or smoked, there are a ton of excellent recipes out there for you to try your hand at. It’s time to get cooking, one way or the other.