I spend a lot of time writing about the various makes and models of wood pellet smokers on the market today. However, as yet I’ve never actually written a post just about one of the first and most important topics, why would you actually want one? While many horizontal pellet smokers can also perform as good grills, in this article its the smoking (low-and-slow) side of things I want to discuss. I also want to discuss the pros and cons of wood pellet smokers vs other alternatives such as charcoal or electric smokers. To start off though, I recommend watching the video below from the BBQGuys as a quick introduction to the general benefits of BBQ smokers.
Personally, I believe pellet smokers overall provide more convenience/versatility over charcoal and electric smokers. I’ll discuss why below. You can also smoke on a gas grill with a pellet smoking tube/box. In fact, the first time I ever used pellets for cooking it was with a BBQ’s Delight cast-iron smoker box. While I’d been working in the world of pellet manufacturing for several years prior it was the first time I’d appreciated the true benefits hardwood pellets could offer to barbequing.
Introduction To The Benefits Of BBQ Smokers
There is something that all BBQ smokers have in common, they all need a source of wood to actually produce smoke. In the case of pellet smokers, whether that’s a horizontal grill/smoker or a vertical pellet smokers wood in the form of pellets is used to produce both the primary heat source and the source of smoke. The same is true for charcoal grills such as Kamado smokers, though the smoke produced is different, more on that below. When it comes to electric smokers or gas smokers/grills the primary heat source is obviously not wood. Though they need a supply of wood, either in chips or pellets, placed in the bottom to actually produce smoke. Later in this post, I discuss the pros/cons of these different BBQ smokers. But first a quick summary of the actual benefits of smoking food as a cooking method.
Great Flavour From A Range Of Hardwood Choices
If we put the convenience and ‘set and forget’ nature of pellet smokers etc to one side for a second, let’s discuss the main benefits of BBQ smokers, getting amazing flavour into your food. Sure, when cooking BBQ rubs and sauces can make food taste pretty good when its cooked on a gas grill. However, cooking that same piece of meat on a pellet/electric or charcoal BBQ smoker just takes its flavour up to 11! As Randy discusses in the video above, there are many different types of hardwoods which can be used to provide a flavour profile perfectly suited to different types and cuts of meat.
BBQ wood pellets for grills and smokers have grown significantly in popularity: Image – Amazon.com
For instance, Applewood pellets are perfectly suited for smoking pork, while Cherry wood is typically seen as a good allrounder. Hickory is great for cooking ribs, with Mesquite well suited for pretty much all red meats and Walnut ideal for game red meats. Alder is great for cooking fish such as salmon, along with chicken and other poultry. Maple is also really nice when smoking vegetables or cold smoking cheeses. Oak is essentially the bedrock hardwood when it comes to smoking, while not providing the most specific/intense smoke taste, it can be used for smoking any choice of meat, fish, vegetables etc. Learn more in my BBQ wood pellets post.
More Tender and Juicier Meat
If you have ever used a slow cooker in your kitchen you will already know what cooking meat on a low steady heat for several hours can do. Exposing the meat to heat for an extended period of time breaks down the connective tissue within the meat. Therefore, when cooking ‘low and slow’ you can take even a tough piece of meat and the end result will be soft and supple. Add on top of that the flavour you get from cooking with one (or a mixture) of the hardwood species above, and you are producing some of the best food you will ever taste, right at home in your backyard.
Besides breaking down the connective tissue within the meat to make it soft and supple at the end of the cook, the other important benefit is going low and slow also breaks down and renders the fat within the meat. This provides two benefits. First, the fat within the meat contains a lot of flavours naturally, but it also readily absorbs the flavours of the wood smoke and BBQ rubs/sauces. With the low and slow process rendering that fat it distributes it through the meat, carrying that flavour all the way through. It also provides the benefit of keeping the meat moist during the cook. Though, depending on the type of smoker you may have to use a water pan to help stop the smoking process drying out the meat. More on that below.
Enjoying The Cooking Process, Plus Its Fun Hobby
Spending time with friends and family while grilling is how many of us enjoy spending our time. Well, BBQ smoking is no different, the process is just longer and your not constantly flipping meat over on the grill. As I discuss below, with a charcoal smoker in particular it does take more skill to manage the airflow of the process, particularly if the wind intensity/direction keeps changing. Wheres certain pellet grills (not all) will just keep their temp steady no matter what the wind is doing, the same for electric smokers. While with a pellet smoker you are less involved with managing the temperature, its still a fun hobby due to the huge range of pellet flavour types/mixtures and the individual cooking stages you can try out to produce the best results possible for your personal preference.
How Do The Different BBQ Smokers Compare?
I’ve previously written some comparison articles discussing the pros and cons of pellet smokers vs other types of grills/smoker, so I’ll link them through the subheadings below and provide just a quick summary of my main points from each article. While its true that on average you have to spend more on a pellet smoker than say a typical electric smoker or steel charcoal smoker, kamado smokers are often more expensive than many pellet smokers. I have separate articles on the best pellets smokers under $500, under $1,000 and under $2,000.
Pellet vs Electric Smokers (Pros and Cons)
Now both pellet and electric smokers require a source of electricity and wood. The difference is in a pellet grill a small amount of electrical power is used to run the control panel/feed auger/fan etc and the heat/smoke comes from the wood pellets. With an electric smoker significantly more electricity is used to generate the requried heat. Its basically the same electrical element you would find in the bottom of a kettle, but larger. Wood pellets/chips are then placed on that hot element to produce smoke.
On average electric smokers are cheaper, simply from the fact, there are fewer components, therefore they cost less to make. However, in terms of the amount of smoke produced, as an electric smoker does not use wood as the main fuel/heat source less smoke is produced. You will also have to check from time to time whether the electric smoker needs topping up with wood chips/pellets. Hence, an electric smoker is not as convenient as a pellet smoker, which if you know there are enough pellets in the hopper to last through the cook, it will do the rest for you. Furthermore, on many of the latest pellet smokers, you can set the smoke level independent of the temperature. Hence, why I feel pellet smokers are the superior BBQ smoker.
With an electric smoker more than any other, you need to be really careful it doesnt dry out the meat. In almost all cases, you will want to use a water pan in the bottom of an electric smoker. The reason is, pellets actually contain 5-10% moisture, the same goes for wood chips. Even charcoal contains some moisture, though a lot less at between 0-5%. When a gas grill is used as a smoker the combustion of gas actually creates moisture from the air. An electric smoker will produce the driest heat of all, hence why a water pan is almost always required.
Pellet vs Kamado Charcoal Smokers (Pros and Cons)
Now Kamado smokers are not the only type of charcoal smoker, there are much cheaper steel kettle charcoal smokers. However, generally, anyone who is willing to consider a pellet smoker and spend at least several hundred dollars will more likely be considering a Kamado smoker. But what the heck is a Kamado? Basically, its a ceramic charcoal grill/smoker that is highly insulative. The benefits being you get a more efficient combustion process due to the superior heat retention over a steel grill. I go into more detail about Kamado smokers through the link above. I discuss how both pellet and Kamado smokers have their benefits and drawbacks.
So the key highlights of my comparison article linked above are as follows. With a Kamado smoker, you will typically get a more intense smokey flavour over a pellet smoker. Whether that’s a good thing or not comes down to personal preference. When comparing a pellet grill/smoker a Kamado will also typically get up to higher grilling/searing temperatures. However, a Kamado charcoal smoker requires more skill and attention to get the best results consistently. Furthermore, as I discuss in the article above a Kamado smoker cannot automatically adapt the combustion process to suit outside ambient weather conditions as a pellet smoker with a PID control panel can.
You can actually get a Kamado smoker with WiFi control which may be a surprise to some people. However, its a compromised solution and does not compare the WiFi integration found on say a Traeger pellet smoker with WiFire. Finally, with natural lump charcoal used in the Kamado, you have a more limited range of flavours. You really only have the option of either oak, mesquite and hickory. That’s obviously significantly less than the BBQ wood pellet options discussed above, and that doesn’t even account for the custom BBQ pellets made with various alcoholic spirits etc. So while in some cases a Kamado smoker may be deemed superior by some people, I feel they generally are a less flexible/higher maintenance option that’s equally as expensive if not more so.
Pellet Smokers vs Gas Grills (Pros and Cons)
As discussed above, while you can use a gas grill as a smoker, its not ideally suited to the job. However, when it comes to actual ‘grilling’ that’s where gas really comes into its element. For instance, as I discuss in my pellet vs gas grill article if you have a working gas grill I actually recommend holding on to it. In that scenario, I recommend getting a vertical pellet smoker to sit alongside your gas grill. The pellet smoker handles the low and slow and towards the end of the cook you remove the meat from the pellet smoker and slap it on the gas grill to get an excellent sear on the outside.
This is not to say that horizontal pellet grills/smokers cannot actually grill. I’ve written several posts on this topic such as which pellet grills get the hottest and which pellet grills offer direct-flame broiling. The other option that seems to be picking up steam for those who do not already own a gas or pellet smoker are combo pellet/gas cookers which are maybe worth considering. The point being, a gas grill on its own is not going to be ideal for smoking but can work well in tandem with a dedicated BBQ smoker, whether its electric, charcoal or a pellet smoker.
Conclusions On The Benefits Of BBQ Smokers
On the topic of BBQ smokers, in general, their benefits are simple, to provide you with some of the best food you will ever taste, right from your back yard. Now, there are portable pellet smokers to also consider, so there is no reason you cannot take that great food far and wide. The point being, the ‘low and slow’ cooking process breaks down the fibres and fat within the meat to produce something very special. While there are gas, electric and charcoal smokers out there that can produce great tasting food, I personally believe none of those options are not as well suited to the low and slow process as a pellet cooker is, especially the latest models with PID/WiFi control panels. With a modern pellet grill, you can truly set it and forget it, even on a work/school day, and you can then come home to some amazing food!
That’s it! Thanks for reading, I hope you now more appreciate the benefits of BBQ smokers over just grilling. Now, there are some pellet grill disadvantages. However, I feel their benefits outweigh the downsides. You may also want to check out my article on the best pellet grills for outdoor kitchens. If you do want to explore pellet smokers in more detail please check our my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide. I believe its one of if not the most comprehensive resource on the internet to learn about all things to do with cooking with pellets. 🙂