Are you shopping for a smoker but don’t have the time to manage the fire for a 12+ hour cook? Then you’re likely trying to decide between a pellet grill and an electric smoker.
So which is the better option for you?
Unless your budget is super tight, I would almost always recommend going for a pellet smoker because they’re easier to use and much more versatile.
There are a few more considerations though, and in this article, I’m going to run you through all the pros and cons of both types of smokers so you can make the best decision for you.
This is part of a series of articles where we compare different types of smokers:
What’s the big difference between pellet grills and electric smokers?
Both pellet and electric smokers have one thing in common. Both require electricity to operate, and both offer the ability for you to set the temperature you want to smoke at and let the smoker do the work.
The main difference is that electric smokers cook using heat generated by an electric element, with wood chips added periodically for extra flavor.
Pellet grills use electricity to heat a rod that ignites wood pellets, and it’s the heat and smoke from those wood pellets that cook your food.
Pellet grills have a much greater temperature range than electric smokers. Some models like the Weber SmokeFire can reach north of 550°F, while electric smokers are for low-and-slow cooking only and usually max out around 275°F.
This means you won’t be able to sear steak or chicken, as you just can’t get them hot enough.
Pellet grills are also much more expensive than an electric smoker, running anywhere from $500 to upwards of $3000.
Electric smokers have good options available from around $200 up to the $700 range.
Electric smoker overview
Electric smokers are simple. They use an electric heating element, much like in an electric oven, to generate heat for cooking food. Everything in an electric smoker runs off electricity. That includes the heating element and the temperature controller.
Like when you use your oven, you want to let your electric smoker preheat to the proper temperature.
Electric smokers are essentially outdoor ovens, but they have the ability to add wood chips to smoke food.
They can cook whatever meat you put in them without any extra fuel supplies, but you won’t get any hint of smoke without wood chips, and you’ll need to replenish them every 30 minutes or so to keep the wood flavor going.
Electric smokers are a great option for beginners, as they don’t require much skill, to operate. Essentially – all you need to do is fill the water tray, add wood chips, bring it to temperature on the right settings and throw in your food!
Electric smokers are also a lot more affordable than most other types of smokers (including pellet smokers), and they’re arguably safer than other types of grill.
Electric smoker pros and cons
|Temperature control is easy with most models having a digital readout that allows you to select what temperature you want to smoke at. There are models that have different ways of selecting the temperature, but control on electric smokers is easy.||Electric smokers need electricity at all times, so you need to make sure you are near an outlet to use them.|
Do not expect to take an electric smoker on the go with you unless you have a generator.
|Set it and forget it convenience. Just like an electric oven, you do not have to worry about major temperature fluctuations with electric heating elements.||Electric smokers are designed purely for smoking, so you will not have the ability to reach high temperatures ideal for grilling or searing meat.|
|You will have an easier time using electric smokers in certain environments like apartments than charcoal or gas grills.||You need to add more wood chips every 30 minutes, can be annoying on a long brisket cook.|
|Even when using wood chips, you’re not going to get a smoke ring synonymous with barbecue. The wood chips are not burning hot enough to release the chemicals, specifically nitric oxide, that reacts with the myoglobin in the meat to form the red smoke ring.|
Pellet grill overview
Despite the name “pellet grill” you should think of these as a smoker first and foremost.
While some pellet grills offer direct grilling capability (usually with some kind of sliding road that opens up the fire pot) like on the Camp Chef Woodwind.
Pellet grills need a power source to manage the onboard controller, the fan system, the auger, and heating the firepot to burn pellets. So yes, pellet grills need to be plugged in – just like an electric smoker.
The way that pellet grills operate, however, is quite different from an electric smoker.
Pellet grills use convection to circulate smoke and heat throughout the cooking chamber and burn wood pellets to create smoke and heat.
The pellets are made from sawdust that comes from hardwoods. They are 100% wood and come in different blends so you can get the flavor you want. You pour pellets into a hopper that is mounted either to the side or the rear of the grill.
The hopper looks like a large box, but the interior is shaped like a funnel that leads to the auger. The auger, essentially a large screw, pulls pellets from the hopper and feeds them to the firepot.
The firepot has the heating element, known as a hot rod, which produces enough heat to cause the pellets to combust. The burning pellets produce both the heat for cooking and the smoke to flavor the food in the cooking chamber.
The fan assembly blows the hot air and smoke throughout the cooking chamber. There is usually a heat baffle above the firepot to help distribute the heat evenly as well.
Related – Pellet Grill Tips & Tricks
Pellet grill pros and cons
|Very convenient for longer smoking sessions. As long as you ensure that the hopper is full of pellets, you can smoke a full packer brisket in a pellet grill without worrying about major temperature fluctuations or running out of fuel.||They need a constant power source. All the systems on a pellet grill run on electricity. There are portable pellet grills on the market, but you still need to have a power source. That means if you’re out camping, you need to have a generator, an adapter for your vehicle, or you need to spend the extra money to have a campsite with an electrical hookup.|
|Pellet grills have an unmatched combination of ease and versatility. Most models will reach at least 450°F with some hitting 600°F while also being able to maintain the proper temperatures for low-and-slow cooking. You can smoke pork butts one day and then crank the heat up and grill up burgers or steaks another day on the same grill without worrying about temperature problems.||You need to store your wood pellets properly and ensure that they do not come into contact with moisture. Since wood pellets are essentially compressed sawdust, they will absorb moisture quickly and swell. That can lead to the auger jamming or improperly burning pellets. It can also lead to completely ruined pellets if left in the hopper too long or stored in a wet area.|
|More and more models are coming with either WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity and an app for your phone. That means you can track your pellet grill from a distance and even make adjustments to the temperatures without having to be right in front of it.||Good pellet grills are an investment. Even the more value-conscious pellet grill options are going to cost you at least $400. If you’re looking for top-of-the-line features, you can easily spend a few thousand dollars.|
Pellet grills and electric smokers – head to head
Armed with knowledge about some of the defining characteristics of both types of smokers, now we can compare them to each other in some of the most important areas.
Ease of use
Pellet grills and electric smokers are at the top of the list when it comes to ease of use and smoking. Both types fit in the “set it and forget it” style of cooking, much like an oven. You set the temperature you want and the smoker handles the rest.
Pellet grills are easier to keep the wood flavor going since they have large hoppers to hold wood pellets. With electric smokers, you have to replace the chips fairly regularly if you want to get more wood flavor.
Masterbuilt has included a slide-out tray to replace chips during the cook for convenience, but you need to open the door on most other electric smokers to replenish the wood chips.
Winner – Pellet Grills.
Pellet grills have a bigger range of temperatures which makes them much more versatile than electric smokers. Many models can reach 450°F with higher-end models reaching higher than that.
While it may not be the same as grilling over direct heat on most models, you can still effectively grill on pellet grills. Some manufacturers even made it easy to provide access to the firepot for direct heat searing.
Electric smokers are designed for one purpose, to smoke food low and slow. If you want to grill burgers or hot dogs, you’re going to need another piece of equipment to do so.
Winner – Pellet Grills.
Generally, pellet grills are more costly than electric smokers.
However, high-end electric smokers are comparable in price to base-level pellet grills with some models in the $600 range.
If you are just getting into barbecue and don’t want to invest a lot of money, you can buy a good electric smoker for around $200-300.
If you want a pellet grill sufficient for most backyard applications, you are looking at $500-1000.
Winner – Electric Smokers.
Electric smokers do not generally come with a lot of bells and whistles (with the exception of higher-end models like the Masterbuilt 40” Bluetooth Electric Smoker).
In fact, part of the appeal of electric smokers is the fact that they are simple, and easy to use – without multiple different functions making things confusing, or attachments getting in the way. Pellet grills, on the other hand, can be quite different.
A number of pellet grills come with WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity with apps. If you want to be able to check in on your food sitting in the smoker from inside the house, a pellet grill is much more likely to give you that option.
Pellet grill manufacturers are much more aggressive with investing in R&D. Some of the more advanced features you can get on a pellet grill are variable smoke control, smoke boost, remote start up and shutdown, pellet sensors and much more.
Winner – Pellet Grills.
One of the first things people see when they tear into a smoked piece of meat is the smoke ring.
Electric smokers rarely produce enough of the necessary gasses to create the smoke ring without a lot of help. Pellet grills consistently produce the gasses due to burning wood as both the heat source and the flavor source.
Winner – Pellet Grills.
Top pellet grill and electric smoker brands
Pellet grills continue to grow as part of the overall grilling and smoking industry. Between June and December 2020, pellet grills saw 52% sales growth over the same period in 2019.
The amount of options on the market continues to grow, while industry stalwarts seek to improve their models or introduce new ones. You will recognize names like Traeger, Rectec (Rec Tec), Z Grills, Camp Chef, and Pit Boss as some of the well-known industry leaders, but Weber has also joined the fray recently.
If you are looking for an electric smoker, two of the best brands we’ve reviewed are Masterbuilt and Char-Broil. You can look at our wrap-up of the best electric smokers for 2022 if you want more information.
Wrapping it up
With both electric smokers and pellet grills being easy to use, your decision comes down to what exactly you’re looking for.
If all you want is an easy-to-use smoker to start learning the basics of smoking at home, then an electric smoker is a great option. They don’t need much in the way of extra equipment and aren’t expensive.
If you’re looking for one piece of equipment that allows you to both smoke and grill while giving you wood flavor, then you want to look into pellet grills. While they are more costly, the versatility and flavor are worth saving for the investment.
Do you have a particular favorite between pellet grills and electric smokers? Do you have a unique blend of pellets that gives you the best smoke every time? If you do, we’d love it if you’d leave us a comment below and let us know!