W

e love eating smoked meat. We also love smoking meat. The primal smell and flavor of fire really get the appetite going. When you smoke your own, you have total control over all the factors. You can pick the meat, the wood, how hot, and how long. You can use your smoker for things way beyond brisket, ribs, and wings. You can dream up unique fruit desserts and vegetable sides. You can even make up a batch of smoked nuts to give as holiday gifts. 
Sure, a lot of smokers only do one thing — smoke food — but smoking food is super versatile.

 It helps preserve meat, which is why we started smoking in the first place in the days before refrigeration. It adds a unique flavor. And it’s fun!
Investing in a smoker opens the door to a whole world of cooking. There are many different kinds of smokers, each with their own features. Here, we’ll compare electric vs. gas smoker. These two basic groups are divided by what kind of power source heats the smoker. Each has pros and cons.
Investing in a smoker opens the door to a whole world of cooking. There are many different kinds of smokers, each with their own features. Here, we’ll compare gas and electric smokers. These two basic groups are divided by what kind of power source heats the smoker. Each has pros and cons.

What is a Smoker and What Does it Do?

Before we dive into electric vs. gas smoker features, let’s get familiar with the basic functions. It’s important to understand the process when you’re deciding what features are important to you.
At the most basic level, a smoker needs some kind of heat source and a way to create smoke, usually wood pieces or pellets. They are designed to produce low, steady heat and slow-cook foods, rather than the high-heat searing of a super hot grill. 
Inside the smoker, a smoke source is heated to the point of smoldering. In most cases, this will be hardwood chunks, chips, or pellets made of compressed sawdust. The type of wood used imparts its own unique flavor to the smoke. Hickory is very popular, with a pungent and savory flavor. Fruit woods like apple and cherry are milder and provide hints of sweetness. You can choose a single type of wood or a mixture, depending on what flavor you want to achieve. 

Smokers also include a water pan. The water inside the chamber produces steam and keeps the air moist. This helps reduce the amount of moisture lost by the meat, keeping it from becoming dry and tough during long cooking time. 
You can introduce different flavors by using beer, wine, or juice in the water pan. Remember to clean it out thoroughly after use. You definitely don’t want last month’s leftovers steaming up into your brisket!
Good insulation and heat retention are important for smokers to provide a steady cooking temperature. Ventilation is also essential. Smoke should flow around the meat constantly and then escape. If smoke is trapped and has nowhere to go, creosote can build up on the meat and interior surfaces of the smoker. Creosote is the black gunk that coats the inside of a chimney. It has a strong, acrid flavor and proper ventilation ensures that it doesn’t start condensing on your food.
Smokers have to be used outdoors. Keep your outdoor space in mind when considering what kind of smoker you’d like and where it should be set up at your home.

Introduction to the Electric Smoker

The electric smoker is the king of convenience. It doesn’t take a special fuel source and generates less waste than other sorts of smokers. Since there is no live flame involved, the smoker can be left with much less supervision than a gas or charcoal smoker. 
Most electric smokers are vertical or cabinet style. That is, they look like a small, free-standing cabinet. A door swings outward, opening up the front of the box and exposing horizontal wire racks. At the bottom, the business of smoke and heat production takes place. Some electric smokers have a window in the door so you can see what’s going on inside. 

As its name suggests, the electric smoker is powered by electricity.  You plug it into a socket and switch it on with a button. A heating element in the bottom of the smoker comes alive and heats the interior. Once preheating is complete, you add your choice of wood fuel to power the smoke.
Electric smokers have no open flame, so they burn very clean and require less ventilation. They create a very moist atmosphere, which is good for tender meat but can hinder the development of crusty “bark” on cooked items. 
They are very good at maintaining a consistent temperature. Entry-level smokers may only have a few pre-programmed heat settings, which could take more hands-on management. In higher-end models, the user has the option to set a specific temperature that the smoker will manage on its own.
With no open flame to worry about, electric smokers are not affected by wind. However, they should be kept away from moisture. Their reliance on being plugged into a wall socket limits where you can place them and hinders portability. 
While you don’t need a specialized fuel source, you do need to make sure that the socket your smoker is plugged into can handle it. If you’re using an extension cord to get your smoker where you want it, ensure that the cord is rated for the draw of the device which can be 10 to 20 amps. 

Introduction to the Gas Smoker

Gas smokers use a flame to heat the chamber and burn the smoke-producing wood. Most use an external propane tank to fuel that fire. Some can be attached directly to a home’s natural gas line. The gas-powered flame heats a pan of wood chips, chunks, or pellets, which in turn give off smoke.
Many are available in the same vertical cabinet style as electric smokers. There are also more widely available options for horizontal gas smokers. Horizontal smokers open like a chest and have much more space inside. The smoke is produced in a chamber off to the side and sometimes below the main cooking chamber. This style is called an “offset” smoker.
If you’re using a propane tank with your smoker, you’ll have to be sure you have enough propane left to get through the entire cooking time. It’s a good idea to have a full one in reserve, in general, to avoid being left with cold, half-done food at a party. 
Some gas smokers can pull double-duty as a grill.

A note on mercaptan
A chemical called “mercaptan” is added to propane and natural gas to give them their signature “gas leak” smell. They are both totally odorless on their own, making an undetected leak a huge hazard. 
Some people worry that this chemical will give their foods a nasty flavor. Fortunately, it will not. Mercaptan breaks down when it is burned, turning into a very small amount of sulfur. Sulfur doesn’t sound delicious, but the amount of sulfur that comes from mercaptan is negligible. Onion and garlic, for example, contain substantially more. 

Electric vs. Gas Smoker Throw-Down

But which one is better, gas or electric? That answer ultimately depends on the person using the smoker and what they want to get out of it. Let’s break down a few critical areas to consider and have a look at how both of these smoker types perform.

01

Flavor

Of course, the whole point is to have a delicious meal at the end. While both of these types of devices produce smoke, electric smokers produce smoke only from smoldering wood. There’s no full-blown combustion happening. This does alter the chemical makeup of the smoke and change the character of the flavor that soaks into the meat. Electric smokers will also not typically produce the “smoke ring”, a layer of pink coloration just underneath the exterior of the meat. While this isn’t a flavor component, it is a visual expectation that some people have from a well-crafted barbecue.

On this point, most experts agree that the gas smoker wins. This isn’t to say that an electric smoker does not produce tasty food — it absolutely does. However, the smoke flavor tends to be more nuanced from the gas smoker. The gas smoker also provides drier heat, so if you’re really craving that crunchy bark on the outside of your grilled meats, gas is probably the way to go.

02

Learning curve

 
Electric smokers are the easiest to get started with. Most of them are basically plug-and-play, push-button functional. There’s very little setup to get going, and they excel at handling their own temperature management. For a beginner or someone who really doesn’t want to fool around with it much, electric may be the best choice. 

Gas smokers take more attention and effort to make sure the temperature is correct and the fuel is still going strong. 

 

03

Convenience

 

While both of these smoker types are designed for a more hands-off process, electric smokers really mean it. You can truly “set it and forget it”, which is ideal for long, slow smoking projects that don’t need a lot of checkups. They get plugged into a constant power source, set to a specific temperature, and that’s it. You may want to check that the wood and water levels are still where you want them, but otherwise, you can let this machine do the cooking for you.
A gas smoker offers some degree of portability that you won’t find with an electric smoker. Because it gets hooked up to a propane tank, you can take the entire thing on the go with you. A weekend at the cabin or a cookout in the park doesn’t have to exclude your smoker. 

04

Cost

 

When comparing smoker costs, there are two things to keep in mind: The upfront cost of the device itself and the running cost to operate it. Gas smokers average less expense at the point of purchase than electric smokers. However, propane is more expensive than running an electric smoker. 

05

Safety

 

All home-use smokers have safety features engineered in. A little common sense should eliminate most fire hazard concerns. However, a gas smoker does involve an open flame and needs a closer eye kept on it than an electric smoker.

06

Capacity

 

Similarly, sized models exist in both types, but you have more large options with a gas smoker. You will have an easier time preparing big meals for crowds and full racks of ribs in a horizontal gas smoker. 

07

Other Points

 

The main use of either of these types of smokers is to do hot smoking. That doesn’t mean they can’t offer you some additional versatility. As we mentioned earlier, some horizontal gas smokers offer some high-heat grill functionality. On the other end of the spectrum, the low and steady heat of the electric smoker can work to your advantage with other tasks. With a little work, your electric smoker can be an ideal tool in drying out beef jerky or even doing a little cold smoking. (With care! Cold smoking is tricky — do your food safety research!)

Smoke, whether or not there’s fire

A smoker is a fantastic addition to your backyard cooking setup. Smoking adds a unique flavor to many kinds of food and can satisfy your barbecue cravings year-round. There are many factors to consider when deciding what type of smoker is right for you. The main thing to keep in mind is the kind of cooking you enjoy. The best smoker you can buy for your money is one that will see plenty of use making tasty food and fun memories. 

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