Of all the different methods to cook food via the ‘low and slow’ smoking method, pellet smokers are the latest option. Previously you had the option of basic charcoal kettle grills and the more advanced/expensive kamado smokers. However, there is another type of smoker which sits between kettle and kamado smokers in terms of price point, and that’s offset smokers/stick burners. So with this article, I wanted to discuss how pellet and offset smokers compare and their individual pros and cons. While I personally play for the pellet team offset smokers do have their benefits over pellet smokers, so let’s get into this.
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Introduction To Pellet VS Offset Smokers
First, I better do a quick summary of how each of these smokers works and in what way they are actually similar. You see, both a pellet smoker and an offset smoker/stick burner are purely wood smokers.
While a pellet smoker uses wood pellets as the only source of heat and smoke an offset smoker will typically use charcoal as the main source of heat (either briquette or natural lump charcoal) and then wood chips/logs as the source of smoke.
In both cases though, as charcoal was originally wood, both of these smokers are using wood for both heat and smoke.
You can smoke to a degree on a gas grill with the assistance of wood chips or pellets for smoke and you also have electric smokers which with the assistance of wood chips or pellets produce smoke.
However, neither of these types of smokers will create the depth of flavour compared to a smoker which is using wood as both the source of heat and smoke.
Horizontal and Vertical Pellet Smokers (How They Work)
So the first thing to note is there are two types of pellet smokers. Horizontal pellet smokers are also pellet grills, whereas vertical pellet smokers are purely smokers, they have no ability to grill/sear.
I have an article on the pros and cons of horizontal vs vertical pellet smokers. However, for this article, I’m going to be referring to the pros and cons of pellet smokers in general. In terms of how a pellet smoker works, I also have a detailed article (see here) if you’re not sure.
However, the image below explains the general principle of how all pellet smokers operate with a hopper that holds the wood pellets, an auger that feeds the pellets to a burn pot where a fan/ignitor starts and feeds the fire. There is then a control panel that manages the combustion process.
In terms of the BBQ wood pellets themselves, they are made from a range of different wood species to produce different flavour profiles. You have oak as the staple of pellet cooking which will work well to cook pretty much anything, then you have other wood species best suited to specific foods.
For instance, applewood pellets are great for cooking pork whereas beef or fish would be better suited to mesquite pellets.
Offset Smokers/Stick Burners (How They Work)
An Offset smoker is essentially two chambers, the largest chamber is the cooking chamber and the smaller chamber offset to the left or right of the cooking chamber is the burn box.
The chimney is placed on the far end of the cooking chamber and the air inlets for combustion are on the far side of the burn box. Hence, as combustion takes place the heat and smoke is drafted through the burn box and within the cooking chamber towards the chimney.
With an offset smoker/stick burner, there are no fans, augers, control panels, there are simply manually adjustable vents/dampers. Hence, on an offset smoker, the operator is in full control of the combustion process.
Either briquette or natural lump charcoal is placed in the burn box to produce the majority of heat for the cook. However, commonly wood chips or logs are placed onto the charcoal fire once it’s established to produce more smoke flavour and also more variation in smoke flavour.
As with BBQ wood pellets as stated above, you would typically use applewood chips, chunks or logs for pork and maybe mesquite for beef/fish. Now there are lots of different hardwood species available as pellets, chips, logs etc which can be used, applewood and mesquite are just two examples.
Pellet Smoker Pros and Cons
Now that you are familiar with the basic principles of how both pellet and offset smokers work we can discuss the pros and cons of each. With a pellet smoker the first and most obvious benefit is how the combustion process is automated.
A control panel is controlling the process, feeding in the right amount of fuel (pellets) along with the correct amount of air to achieve and maintain a set temperature. Now, certain pellet smokers are better than others at maintaining temperature depending on the technology within the control panel.
However, as a general rule, compared to an offset smoker, the combustion process is automated for the user. Hence, pellet smokers can be used by anyone.
Because the combustion process is controlled via a control panel it opens up the possibility of remote monitoring/control of a pellet smoker from your smartphone via WiFi.
More and more pellet smokers are being launched with WiFi/App functionality, and it’s a feature I see more people looking for. So what pellet smokers really offer is the simplest/easiest means to cook/smoke with real wood, so what are the downsides/cons?
Well, to achieve an automated combustion process it requires a pellet smoker to feature lots of components, augers, fans, control panels etc. Hence, it’s more expensive to produce a pellet smoker than any other type of smoker.
While there is a growing range of pellet smokers for under $500, as a general rule you will be spending more to purchase a pellet smoker than other types of smoker.
Now, to many people time is money, and pellet smokers can save time due to their automated nature, however, the additional cost of pellet smokers is still a downside.
The other downside, for some people anyway, is the intensity of the smoky flavour you will get from a pellet smoker. Charcoal/offset smokers will produce food with a more intense smoky flavour compared to a pellet grill.
Now, for me personally, I prefer a lighter smoky flavour to my food. However, if you are someone that’s looking for really smoky-tasting food you may end up disappointed with a pellet smoker.
Offset Smoker/Stick Burner Pros and Cons
With an offset smoker/stick burner, it’s possible to produce food with a higher smoke intensity than food cooked on a pellet smoker. Therefore, if really intense smoky tasting food is your preference, your likely to be happier with the results from an offset smoker.
When it comes to cost, due to the simplicity of offset smokers/stick burners there are models on the market that start below prices commonly seen for pellet smokers when you compare cooking areas.
Hence, for the same money, you will typically be able to get a larger offset smoker than a pellet smoker. Furthermore, due to their simpler/lower-cost construction, you will typically find offset smokers made from thicker/heavy-duty steel compared to your average pellet smoker.
Another benefit from an offset smoker/stick burner is there is no need for a source of power to run the smoker. On a pellet smoker, if the power goes out that’s going to cause some issues to get the cook going again.
While there are means to provide a power backup for a pellet smoker to avoid issues with disruptions to the source of power, to do so is an additional expense. Hence, an advantage of offset smokers is the user is in complete control of the combustion process.
However, the advantage of an offset smoker/stick burner in terms of its simplicity of construction is also a downside. There is a learning curve to be able to cook/smoke proficiently on an offset smoker, which will take time to learn.
Furthermore, the operation of an offset smoker/stick burner also takes much more time than a pellet smoker, for instance, it will typically take longer to get an offset up to temperature. With an offset smoker, you have to constantly maintain/manage the fire.
For instance, if the ambient temperature changes or the wind increases/decreases that will require subtle adjustments to the vents/dampers on the offset smoker to maintain the internal temperature.
Pellet vs Offset Smoker Pros and Cons Summary
- Pellet Smoker Pros/Benefits
- A highly automated combustion process
- Precise/automated cooking chamber temperature management
- Possibility of WiFi/App monitoring/adjustment.
- Pellet Smoker Cons/Disadvantages
- Above-average purchase cost compared to other smokers
- Requires a consistent source of power for the duration of the cook
- Lighter smoky flavour profile compared to charcoal/offset smokers
- Offset Smoker Pros/Benefits
- More intense smoky flavour compared to pellet smokers
- No reliance on a source of power to run an offset smoker
- Generally, a lower purchase price with thicker/heavier duty steel compared to a pellet smoker
- Offset Smoker Cons/Disadvantages
- More time to get the cooking chamber up to temperature and maintain/monitor
- The success of the cook is purely down to the user having sufficient skill
- No ability to monitor and adjust the cook remotely (via WiFi)
Conclusions On Pellet Smokers vs Offset Smokers/Stick Burners
I hope you can appreciate from the above information, there is no outright winner here. As with all methods of cooking/preparing food, there are strengths and weaknesses to the different methods.
Where a pellet smoker shines is providing much better flavour than you will get from a gas grill with a similar level of convenience. In fact, a pellet smoker can be even more convenient than a gas grill when fitted with the latest PID/WiFi control panels.
With an offset smoker on the other hand while being very basic in the hands of a skilled user it can produce food with a deeper smoke flavour compared to a pellet smoker.
With an offset smoker when the cook goes well the user can feel genuinely proud of themselves for taming the fire to their will to produce great tasting food.
The downside being of course not everyone will have the time to learn those skills and the time to manage an offset smoker/stick burner cook. Therefore, in the wrong hands, an offset smoker is going to be too much to handle.
That’s it! Thanks for reading, I hope you found this comparison of pellet and offset smokers interesting/useful. If you think a pellet smoker would be your best option please check my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide. 🙂
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.