Charcoal grills have been the go-to outdoor cooking equipment for American families, well, since they came out. But, with the emergence of wood pellet smokers, the “pellet smoker vs. charcoal smoker” debate is happening regularly between backyard BBQ enthusiasts. Only you can decide which is the winner. But, first, you need all the facts.
Major Differences Between Charcoal and Pellet Smokers
Pellet and charcoal smokers both work on the same principles of cooking food and smoking it to add flavor. But that’s almost all they have in common.
Charcoal smokers are harder to use because you’re cooking with real fire, which also makes it a bit of a mess to clean up. But most people prefer the flavor produced by a charcoal smoker. A charcoal fire also gets much hotter, meaning you can sear your meat.
Pellet smokers, on the other hand, run on electricity, which makes them easier to use in almost every sense. Aside from that whale-of-a-fact, pellet smokers also seem to offer more versatility in design, size, and capacity for fuel than charcoal models. For example, while they don’t get as hot, you can fine-tune the temperature with the simple turn of a button.
Let’s have a closer look at the major differences below.
Taste and Flavor
A personal preference, and great debate among BBQ and smoking fans, is which flavor you enjoy the most. Further, there is the taste preference of the rest of the family or crew of people you will be feeding the most often to take into account before deciding which one is “best.”
Trying to describe how tasty something is to someone who has never tried it is a challenging feat, and often they have to just take our word for it until they try for themselves. That said, charcoal smoked and grilled foods are something most Americans grew up with. Even the public school systems throw “cookouts” with charcoal grills and smokers. The char-flavor is classic for burgers, hot dogs, chicken, and more.
Wood pellet smoked flavors, though not always as sought-after as charcoal flavors, are much more diverse. This is due to the number of wood types that produce various tones and hues of flavor. Sometimes the aroma of the hardwood pellets can also add to the perceived flavor of the food while it is being smoked.
Ease of Use
Perhaps the biggest factor to consider when shopping for a smoker is how easy or hard it is to set up and use. All the bells and whistles and most advanced options in the world won’t do you a bit of good if you struggle to operate the model.
Between charcoal smokers and pellet smokers, the latter tend to be much easier to use. Sure, wood pellet smokers and ones that use charcoal have about the same run-time, or fuel efficiency if you will. Compared to charcoal models, however, pellet versions start up with ridiculously quicker speeds and require much less effort to operate during the entire smoking or grilling process.
Charcoal units can be considered “harder to use” because they require around 20 to 30 minutes on average just to get properly pre-heated and ready for smoking or grilling; honestly, that’s a fair point. After the initial warmup phase, you will need to watch your temperature gauge and repeatedly probe your food with a thermometer to avoid undercooking or burning your food. While you can add more charcoal to an already hot smoker to control the heat, it’s much more complicated than touching a button or knob and dropping more pellets into the burn box. It also requires fiddling with hot equipment.
Beyond merely being easy for you to operate, a really good smoker will also have great temperature control. Both pellet and charcoal versions are capable of reaching temperatures of 500°F, but depending on the model, controlling that temperature can be a whole different ball game. Some are completely manual, while others are electronically regulated with digital readouts.
Wood pellet grills, as previously mentioned, run on electricity, and therefore often possess superior temperature control. That means, just like with your oven in the kitchen, you can pre-set your temperature, put your food in, and then go about your business while the smoker does its job. If you want to turn the heat up, the hopper automatically drops the correct amount of pellets into the burn box to reach the right temperature. It isn’t that easy working with charcoal equipment.
Charcoal smokers, like most old-fashioned grills and smokers, require a bit more patience and skill than their wood pellet burning counter-parts. There is no automation to the temperature control, first of all. Unless you count being able to manipulate the air-flow a bit via a side or lid vent. Also, with a charcoal smoker, you need to stay put and keep an eye on the food. And as far as actually reading your temperatures, you will have to rely on trial and error, temperature gauges, meat probes, and experience to get things right consistently.
Clean-Up and Maintenance
A smoker that is easy to start up and operate is great. But, all things considered, the best one should also be easy to maintain and clean up after each use. From cleaning up ash and soot to scrubbing down the grates, which of these two contenders is the easier to upkeep?
The answer more than likely lies in which model you choose, regardless if it burns pellets or charcoal. That said, charcoal is generally a bit more of a pain to clean up. Even if it is not so much harder to clean, it is darker, it appears dirtier, and it leaves more of a mess on you and your equipment.
Most wood pellet burning smokers have built-in mechanisms for removing the ashes quickly and painless. Regardless of the make or model, ash created from wood pellets is typically lighter, both in weight and in soot/color, in comparison to charcoal remains and ash. It should also leave less of a permanent residue behind than charcoal if maintained properly.
Costs, Tools, and Extras
The cost of a smoker, regardless if it is pellet fueled or runs on charcoal, is not simply in its initial price tag. Operating and maintenance costs you need to take into account include the cost of the fuel, replacement parts, and cleaning supplies.
Among all the other differences to account for between pellet and charcoal smokers is the consideration of how many tools and extras are available/necessary for each type. Does the smoker require a certain tool to assemble it? Does it come with that tool, or will you need to purchase one yourself? Likewise, does it come with basic smoking/grilling tools? Further, do you want it to have multiple functions, in addition to being a smoker? If so, does it come with the extras needed to be a broiler, an oven, and whatever else you are looking for?
Now you’re no longer just looking at the difference between charcoal vs. pellet, but rather at different models and bundles available in either category.
Pellet vs. Charcoal Smokers Pros and Cons
With all these differences in mind, let us summarize what we like and dislike about each type of smoker.
What We Like About Pellet Smokers
There is no question about it that the pellet smoker is the easier to use of the two. It is also safe to say that, if using premium pellets, they are more fuel-efficient most of the time as well. Even more, pellet smokers are often much quicker and easier to clean as well. In general? They seem to be pretty much superior as far as ease of use and maintenance go, which is great for those who don’t want to spend a bunch of time dealing with messes after cookouts.
What We Don’t Like About Pellet Smokers
Most people tend to envision a burger, hot dog, or piece of steak, slightly charred, sizzling on a charcoal grill when they hear the terms “cookout” or “grilling.” That is because so many of us grew up with a charcoal grill or smoker in our backyard. Now, that is not to say that pellet smokers don’t put out some mouth-watering smoked food; because they do. It is simply a psychological thing, charcoal-grilled food is comfort food for millions of Americans, whereas wood-smoked flavors are more of an acquired taste, albeit equally as savory.
What We Like About Charcoal Smokers
All-in-all, one of the biggest advantages of a smoker that runs on high-quality charcoal briquettes is that so many people genuinely prefer the charcoal-flavored steaks, burgers, dogs, and chicken that they produce over wood-smoked food. That seems to make charcoal smokers the real crowd-pleaser of the two. But, it would not be fair or accurate to say that it is always the case; plenty of folks adore wood-smoked meats and veggies.
What We Don’t Like About Charcoal Smokers
Regardless of the classic charcoal taste that so many of us grew up with, there is one glaringly obvious drawback to this contester in the charcoal smokers vs. pellet smokers debate; the smokers that use charcoal for fuel are much more of a mess to clean up. They create more soot and ashes while smoking, and have a greasier and harder to maintain interior than pellet smokers tend to.
Which Smoker Is Right for You: Pellet or Charcoal?
Who is the winner of the pellet smoker vs. charcoal smoker showdown? The final choice is yours, though hopefully, your best options are that much clearer now. The best smoker for you should be right around the corner now.
If you are looking for the easiest to use, or most advanced, then look no further than the best pellet smoker of your choosing. On the other hand, if you prefer to master the craft of cooking with charcoal, there is obviously only one choice for you; the best charcoal smoker you can find.