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Propane vs Electric Smoker – What’s the Difference and Which is Better?

If you’re comparing a propane vs electric smoker, odds are you’re the type who values the convenience and ease of use factor.  Both of these cookers are fantastic types of smokers that don’t require for you to actively manage a flame, and therefore are very easy to use and user friendly.

While electric smokers and propane smokers share some similarities, these are definitely two different cooking vessels.  Each has their own set of pros and cons, and our goal is to help you understand the differences.  And more importantly, is an electric or propane smoker better for you and your needs?

In this article, we’ve compiled a complete round up of the propane vs electric smoker conversation.  We’ll go over the benefits and drawbacks of each, and by the end you should have an idea of which is the best choice for you.

Propane vs Electric Smoker – High Level Overview

Relative to all of the other classes of smoker out there, propane and electric smokers definitely share the most in common.  Aesthetically, they even look quite similar – so it’s easy to see how one might think they are basically the same thing.

Both electric and propane smokers have a vertical body design, with multiple racks aligned on top of one another where your food is placed to cook.  Because of this design feature, each of these smokers can cook a generous amount of food at once in a unit with a relatively small footprint.

photo courtesy of Masterbuilt

On top of that, both of these product types are super budget friendly.  Many offset smokers, kamado grills, and other common smoker types can run you into the $500 to $1,000+ range.  With both electric and propane smokers, you can expect to only pay around $200 give or take for a quality cooker.

Even though they share many similarities, these are in fact two very different smoker classes.

Electric smokers are super easy to use, and utilize an electric connection to generate heat through a heating element that’s similar to one you’d find in your oven.  By nature, electric smokers can’t run very hot, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since most smoking cooks are done at a range of 200-275°F.  This also makes electric smokers an ideal vessel for cold smoking.

Since electric smokers rely on a plug in electrical connection, they aren’t particularly portable and also aren’t ideal for using in the rain.

Propane smokers on the other hand are much more portable and a little easier to take on the go.  You can also get away with using them in a tiny bit of adverse weather, and they cook your food by igniting propane gas and creating a flame via burners inside of the smokers.

Propane smokers are also capable of reaching higher temperatures vs electric smokers – which isn’t necessarily a great thing for smoking.  It can come in handy to crisp up the outside of say, a chicken, after you smoke it, but otherwise you’ll need to make sure you don’t set your temperature dial too high on a propane smoker.  So in that regard they require a little bit more babysitting compared to their electric counterparts.

Propane Smokers – What You Need to Know

Most gas smokers utilize a connection to a standard 20 pound propane tank as the source of fuel.  Some natural gas smokers are built which hook up to your home’s gas line, but these are far less common and not widely available.

By design, portable propane tanks have a knob at the top that allow you to open and close the flow of gas out of your tank.  For a smoker, this feature comes in handy and allows for you to control exactly how much fuel flows into your cooker.  Because of this, you can get your cooking chamber up to temperature extremely fast if you wanted to – provided your propane tank connection is fully opened.

Typically, a propane smoker will feature burners at the bottom of the cooker.  Just on top of the cooker you’ll likely find a tray to add your wood chips for flavoring your food.  The burners will smolder the wood chips – which then emit smoke that rises vertically throughout the smoker to flavor your food.

Most of the best propane smoker models will also feature a water bowl that can be refilled with water before and during your cook to help maintain a moist environment while your food cooks.

Benefits of Propane Smokers

  • Propane smokers are highly portable – perhaps the most portable of any type of smoker.  You can take them on the go to be set up anywhere along with your propane tank – or anywhere on your back patio or backyard for that matter.  They’re an ideal choice to take tailgating or camping.
  • Ongoing costs are fairly low.  Propane tanks are cheap to refill, and propane is widely available – so your ongoing costs and hassle associated with running your smoker are pretty low.
  • These smokers are very cheap.  If you’re on a budget, you really aren’t going to find a more entry level price point.  And even though the average price is on the low end, the quality of food you can make on an affordable propane smoker is really high.
  • Propane smokers have a simple design and function with very few “moving parts”.  Because of this, they’re straightforward to use and also will typically last a long time.
  • Comparing propane vs electric smokers, propane fueled smokers are capable of making slightly tastier food with deeper flavor.  This point is definitely up for debate, but based on conversations and the opinions of master chefs and experienced pit masters we visit with, something about the propane smoker just creates results that are closer to what you’d expect out of a traditional offset smoker.

Drawbacks of Propane Smokers

  • Some propane smokers have a tendency to run too hot, especially if you buy a knock off unit made by an off brand.
  • Refilling your propane tank can be a hassle if you utilize your smoker frequently.  Running out of propane mid cook is bad news.
  • Propane smokers tend to not be insulated the best, so they can be challenging to use in cold or windy conditions.
  • The design ethos is pretty bare bones, so you won’t find any high tech features like you would on an electric smoker (such as bluetooth connectivity or phone apps to control your cooker).

Electric Smokers – What You Need to Know

As the name suggests, electric smokers utilize electricity to slow cook your food at low temperatures.  An electrical connection powers a heating element which warms up and emits heat throughout your cooker’s chamber.

The heating element itself is similar to the tube like heating elements you’d find in your home’s oven.  Similar to a traditional oven, these heating elements need a little bit of time to get warmed up.  Your electric smoker is going to take a little longer than a gas smoker to get to temperature.

With all of that in mind, an electric smoker functions in many of the same ways that a traditional oven does.  The difference being that all electric smokers have a door or a tray where you can add wood chips for smoking.  This is how you achieve some of that delicious, traditional smokey flavor that we have all come to love on our smoked foods.

On top of that, many of the top electric smokers also feature some sort of water pan.  The water pan’s function is to keep the cooking environment moist and ensure that proper moisture levels are maintained for the end results of your food.

Benefits of Electric Smokers

  • Ease of use is incredibly high.  Electric smokers are probably the easiest type of smoker to use, and are bona fide “set it and forget it” style of smokers.  You can set your temperature, load up your food, and walk away to enjoy a drink or watch the game while your food cooks.
  • Precise temperature control is available on most medium and high end units.  You can set your exact temperature and not worry about your unit overheating.
  • Prices are very friendly.  In the propane vs electric smoker conversation, electric smokers tend to run slightly more expensive, but compared to most smoker types they are still very cheap.
  • Electric smokers are very safe, and in some cases approved for apartment use.  Since you aren’t dealing with any flammable gasses or extensive amounts of smoke, these units are about as safe as any outdoor cooker is going to get.
  • Since the temperature settings are so reliable and can maintain at low temperatures, electric smokers are ideal vessels for cold smoking.  Especially for cold smoking cheese, where it’s vital to keep the cooking chamber at a low temperature.
  • Some electric smokers have bluetooth connectivity and phone apps that come with them so you can monitor your cook and set temperatures from the convenience of your phone.

Drawbacks of Electric Smokers

  • Electric smokers rely on a connection to electricity.  So it quickly becomes inconvenient to use it in an on the go setting – you’d either need a long extension cord or a portable power generator to get the job done.
  • You won’t be able to achieve as much smokey flavor as you would on other smokers.  That’s not to say that you can’t make delicious food on an electric smoker – because you can.  The smoker just won’t burn hot enough to release the full potential of your wood flavoring chips onto your food.
  • Since electrical components and more design features are involved, electric smokers are a little more prone to break.  And if they do, they are also a little more complicated to fix.
  • Virtually unusable in adverse weather.  Since electricity and electrical components are involved, they are almost impossible to use in the rain or harsh cold.  And no, setting up your electric smoker in the garage is not a viable alternative.

Propane vs Electric Smoker – Which Is Best?

As with anything in life, what is “best” is a little bit arbitrary and dependent on your personal preferences.  For some, a propane smoker might fit your needs better.  For others, an electric smoker might be the clear winner in the propane vs electric smoker debate.

We can’t make the final decision for you, but here are some of the top factors you should consider to help you decide which is best for you between the propane vs electric smoker.

Food Taste

Taste is another topic that’s a little bit (or a lot) subjective, but the general consensus is that their is a marked difference between the flavor an electric smoker produces vs the flavor a propane smoker produces.

That’s not to say one is better than the other per se, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.

Electric smokers will produce milder flavors, particularly in the smoke department.  Due to the nature of their electric heating elements, they just naturally don’t impart the same level of smokey flavor that other smokers do.

Propane smokers on the other hand will achieve a little bit higher of a level of smoke and “traditional” smokey flavors.  They won’t achieve the same levels as traditional charcoal and wood fired smokers, but they are somewhere between those and electric smokers in terms of flavor.

Price

Obviously price factors into any major purchase decision.  On average, propane smokers run a little bit cheaper than electric smokers.  But, the ongoing costs of fuel for a propane tank are higher than that of an electric smoker.

At the time of this writing, it costs about $15-$20 to refill a 20 pound propane tank.  Most smokers will get about 30-35 hours of smoking done per full tank.  The cost of electricity for a full tanks worth of cooking is much cheaper than refilling a tank.  Just something to consider if you’re planning on using your smoker multiple times per week.

General Ease of Use

Both of these types of cookers are easy to use compared to others.  But from my experience, I would definitely consider electric smokers even easier to use than propane smokers.

The reason has to do mostly with temperature control.  For some reason, propane smokers have a tendency to fluctuate in temperature from time to time, especially when used in windy conditions.  Because of that, they require a little bit more monitoring throughout the duration of your cook.

Weather

On that note, you should think about the weather and climate you live in.  If you live in a place where light rains are extremely common, the combination of wetness and electricity might not be the best idea.

Propane smokers can take a little bit more of a beating weather wise.  That’s not to say you can or should use them in a downpour, but a light rain isn’t going to get in the way of your smoking fun.

Of course, you could also just invest in a BBQ canopy instead to deal with the problem of rain and ensure that your setup is ready to handle the elements.

Cleaning

For the most part, cleaning an electric smoker and a propane smoker are pretty similar.  Especially compared to charcoal smokers, these two are some of the easiest cookers to clean out there.

With that said, I’ve found that propane smokers are maybe a little bit harder to clean.  Specifically, foods cooked in propane smokers tend to drip more fat and drippings down to the pan – I don’t know if that’s a function of the heating mechanism or not, but that’s just been my experience.

So Which is Better?

To be fair, it’s hard to pick a winner here. It’s not about which is stronger – you should choose based on your own needs.

For instance, the lower range of electric smokers is valued by folks interested in cold smoking. Powerful gas smokers probably aren’t suitable a task like this that requires some finesse.

On the other hand, gas smokers suit cooks who may want to crank up the heat from time to time for a roast. If you really want to, you can use it to grill or even sear your food.

So ultimately, it comes down to your preferences, needs, and which types of food you plan to cook – and for how many people.

Propane vs Electric Smoker – Best Brands

Unfortunately there are a lot of knock offs out there in the world of outdoor cookers.  Here is a brief list of some of the most reliable brands in propane and electric smokers.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, just a few names to help get you started!

Electric Smoker Brands

When it comes to electric smokers, some of our favorite brands include Masterbuilt, Char-Broil, Dyna-Glo, and Cuisinart.  Each of these brands have many years under their belts and are have solid reputations for making quality products and offering good customer service.

Masterbuilt MB20071117 Digital Electric Smoker, 30 inch, Black
  • Digital panel controls on/off, cooking temperature and time
  • Electric Smoker dimensions – 20.47" W x 19.88" L x 33.26" H | Max temperature setting – 275ᵒ F | Inside capacity – 2 Turkeys, 4 Pork Butts, 4 Racks of Ribs, 6 Chickens
  • Patented side wood chip loading system allows you to add wood chips without opening door
  • Thermostat-temperature control for even, consistent smoking
  • Fully-insulated body retains heat

Propane Smoker Brands

On the propane smoker side, our favorite brands include Camp Chef, Masterbuilt, Pit Boss, Cuisinart, and Dyna-Glo.  Similarly, each of these brands have solid reputations in the outdoor cooking space and are known to make high quality propane smokers.

Masterbuilt MB20052318 MPS 230S Propane Smoker, 30" (Newer Version), Black
  • Four chrome-coated smoking racks
  • Built-in temperature gauge
  • Push-button ignition lights burner quickly and easily
  • Patented porcelain-coated flame disk bowl allows flame to reach wood chips while shielding burner from grease
  • 15,400 BTU stainless-steel burner

Propane vs Electric Smoker – Final Thoughts

No matter which you choose between a propane vs electric smoker, you’re well on your way to smoking delicious food.  The only next step is to decide which meats you’re going to smoke!

At the end of the day, both of these smoker types are perfectly viable.  Either one is just slightly better suited for different cooking situations and different preferences.

Which type of smoker did you end up with?  We’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!