Ok, you have decided you’re interested in jumping on the BBQ wood pellet proverbial ‘bandwagon’. Before you even start to browse the ever-growing range of brands/models of pellet cooker, you have an important decision to make. Should you choose a horizontal pellet smoker or a vertical pellet smoker? Well, the first important thing to note is only a horizontal pellet smoker can also grill. Therefore, does that automatically mean a horizontal pellet smoker/grill is the best option you for? Not necessarily, that will also depend on your available budget and other factors such as do you already own a working gas grill? Also, the smoking performance between horizontal/vertical pellet smokers can differ. So let’s discuss all these factors you need to think about to make the best decision.
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So just to further emphasize this, there is a key difference between vertical and horizontal pellet cookers. A vertical pellet smoker is purely for ‘going low and slow’, typically around 250 degrees, it cannot grill at temperatures of 450 degrees and above. A horizontal pellet cooker can smoke and grill. However, the grilling performance on some horizontal pellet grill/smokers is not that great. Furthermore, the smoking performance of a horizontal smoker may not produce results equal to that of a vertical smoker, which in many cases will also be the cheaper option. So as you can see, there is lots to think about before making your choice between the two types of pellet cooker.
Horizontal vs Vertical Pellet Smokers – Smoking Performance
Ok, if we put aside for a second grilling and purely focus on smoking performance, you may actually find that a vertical pellet smoker produces a more intense smoky flavour compared to a horizontal pellet smoker. Why is that? Well, its due to their design of where the food is held in relation to where the smoke is produced and where it leaves the pellet smoker. With a vertical pellet smoker, all the food sits directly over the pellet fire and the chimney is directly above. Therefore all of the food typically gets exposed to the same amount of smoke, and the smoke distributes around the food evenly.
Now, with horizontal pellet smokers, there are quite a few different designs used. Not only where the pellet burn pot is located (centrally or off to one side) but also where is the chimney located and what is the chimney design? For instance, on some of the cheapest pellet grills, they don’t really have a what most people would think of as a ‘chimney’, they just have vents straight out of the back of the horizontal pellet smoker. This type of design produces the poorest smoking performance as the smoke can easily leave the cooking chamber. The smoke is not forced to circulate around the food.
The next step up in design is the typical chimney stack on the side of the horizontal pellet smoker which most people expect to see. This is an improvement over just open vents on the back of the cooking chamber, as it does force better circulation of smoke around the food. However, there is likely going to be places on the cooking grate where smoke does not evenly circulate. You have some brands such as Oklahoma Joe’s who are using a dual chimney stack design with a centrally located burn pot. This will likely provide more even smoke circulation around the cooking chamber.
I currently think one of the best chimney designs found on any horizontal pellet smoker is the downdraft chimney found on Traeger Ironwood and Timberline models. While it may appear at first similar to the rear chimney vents found on some budget pellet grills that’s not the case at all. This downdraft chimeny design pulls the smoke up and over inside the cooking chamber before the smoke is vented out of the back. Hence, it can help to provide more even cooking and smoking throughout the cooking chamber.
Horizontal vs Vertical Pellet Smokers – The Cost Difference
Again, for this scenario, let’s presume you are purely looking to experience the benefits of a BBQ smoker, and you are not looking for a grill. Well, for the amount of cooking area provided you are more often than not going to find a better deal with a vertical pellet smoker than a horizontal pellet smoker/grill. For this example, let’s compare the cooking area/price of my current favourite of the domestic vertical pellet smokers the Camp Chef XXL. It provides a total cooking area of over 2,400 square inches over 8 racks and currently retails on the Camp Chef website for $650.
So what sort of horizontal pellet smokers can you get for around $650? Well, if you check out BBQGuys.com they have a Gen 1 Traeger Pro Series for just under $700 which provides a cooking area of 884 square inches. A Camp Chef SmokePro horizontal pellet grill for $700 which provides 570 square inches and a Broil King Barron horizontal pellet grill for just under $800 that also provides 570 square inches of cooking area. The point being, when it comes to the best pellet smoker for the money you will often find a much better deal with a vertical smoker over a horizontal smoker.
Now, up until recently, you would only find advanced features such as a PID temperature controller and WiFi on horizontal pellet smoker/grills. However, the Camp Chef XXL vertical pellet smoker is now fitted with the Camp Chef Gen 2 WiFi controller, all for just $650?! Hence, that’s why its currently my favourite domestic pellet smoker and why a vertical pellet smoker maybe your best option if you are purely looking to be able to smoke foods ‘low and slow’. If you already own a working gas grill which can be used for grilling/searing I think many people should consider a vertical pellet smoker as their best option, provided they have the storage space.
Horizontal vs Vertical Pellet Smokers – Space Requirments
As you can probably tell by now, I’m quite a fan of vertical pellet smokers. However, their key limation is they have no grilling/searing ability at all. Therefore, to finish off the meat you have been smoking you really are going to need a gas grill as well. Hence, while its often a cheaper option to purchase a vertical pellet smoker over a horizontal pellet smoker/grill that’s only really true if you already have a gas grill for your searing/grilling needs. There are other factors to consider in the scenario of owning both a vertical pellet smoker and a gas grill, and that’s storage space.
While you may have enough space in your backyard/patio/deck to position both a vertical pellet smoker and a gas grill, should you really leave them outside all your round? Unless they are fully stainless steel, I don’t really think so, even with a cover. The simple facts are if any grill/smoker is left out in the elements all year round and its not stainless steel its just not going to last as long as one that’s stored in a well-ventilated garage/shed. The problem is if you own both a vertical pellet smoker and gas grill they are going to take up quite a bit of storage space. So that’s something to really think about.
If space is really limited and furthermore if you don’t already own a gas grill, that’s a prime scenario to consider a horizontal pellet smoker grill instead as your best option. Now, if that is the case, you want to make sure its grilling performance is up to par. Therefore you should probably check out my posts on which pellet grills get the hottest and which pellet grills have direct-flame access. Furthermore, I also recommend you seriously consider a set of GrillGrates for any horizontal pellet grill to improve its grilling performance. You could also consider a pellet/gas combo grill as a compact combined solution to smoking and quick high-temperature grilling.
Conclusions On Horizontal vs Vertical Pellet Smokers
So as you can see from the above when it comes to smoking performance and value for money I often think a vertical pellet smoker can the best option for many people. However, that does also depend on a couple of other factors. Such as gas grill being available for high-temperature grilling/searing and there being sufficient space to store both a vertical pellet smoker and gas grill. If you do not already own a gas grill and storage space is at a premium then a horizontal pellet smoker/grill maybe your best option. Just make sure you check that the horizontal pellet smoker/grill you are considering is going to provide the grilling performance you’re after. I suppose the other scenario to consider is if you are looking for a pellet smoker for an outside kitchen. In that scenario, a horizontal pellet smoker is likely going to be the best option.
That’s it! Thanks for reading, I hope my comments above have helped you to decide if a horizontal or vertical pellet smoker is going to suit your needs best. Please check out my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide to learn about pretty much all your current options on the market right now. 🙂
Back in 2007 when I first become aware of pellet grills and smokers the only brand I was really aware of was Traeger. Traeger is really where this whole concept of cooking with pellets started in the 1980s. It was a ‘slow burner’ (pardon the pun) but since the 2010s is really when pellet grills and smokers started to get mainstream awareness, discussed alongside gas and charcoal grills. There are now over 30 pellet grill/smoker brands that I’m aware of, and the link above goes to my A to Z list of brands article.
Now, you may already be aware of a few of the other brands such as Pit Boss, Camp Chef, Z Grills and I’m sure you are aware of Weber, though you may not have known they have entered the pellet grill game. However, they are now many, many more brands to look into. Some may be what are commonly referred to as ‘Traeger clones’, but many others are offering their own unique designs and features.
A pellet grill/smoker is only as good as the BBQ pellets you put into it. The type/quality of the BBQ wood pellets you use will impact temperature performance and smoke flavour. There are many pellet flavours including Apple, Hickory, Mapel, Oak and Walnut to name but a few. However, some brands are hardwood blended pellets whereas others are 100% single wood species.
In this article, I provide details on over 20 brands of BBQ wood pellets, their range of flavours, whether they are 100% single wood species or hardwood blended pellets, their typical price and where they are available. I also provide tips on how to get the best deal when buying BBQ wood pellets and how to test pellet quality. Finally, I discuss the new kid on the block, charcoal pellets and their special attributes compared to all other hardwood BBQ pellets.