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Smoker vs Grill – What’s the Difference?

It’s hard to imagine a better way to make memories than by smoking and grilling delicious food with family and friends.

Something about sharing incredibly cooked meals brings people together.

Smoking and grilling are both great ways to prepare your food – but they are not one in the same.

You may also be wondering if a smoker or a grill is better for your needs at home.  Our hope is to help with the answer to that question!

In this post, we’ll go over everything you need to know in a complete comparison of a smoker vs grill.  We’ll touch on pros and cons of each, what makes both of them great and hopefully by the end, you’ll have a good idea of which is the better fit for you.

Smoker vs Grill – Overview

Smokers – Slow and Steady

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

I was fortunate growing up in my childhood and all throughout my life to have access to delicious BBQ.  Out of all of the types of food out there, it’s probably my favorite.

The absolute best BBQ can only come from a smoker.

As the name suggests, a smoker is a cooking vessel that use smoke to help cook and flavor your food.  Smokers can be fueled by charcoal briquettes, lump charcoal, gas, wood, then there are also electric smokers.

Gas and electric smokers are a little more user and beginner friendly, and are a little more of a set it and forget it option.

Charcoal and wood smokers (combination smokers too) take a little more effort and attention, but these are the smokers that deliver incredibly, authentic smoky flavor to your food.

From a high level, the purpose of a smoker is to cook foods low and slow.  Many foods you’d cook in a smoker like ribs, brisket, or fresh ham, can be on the smoker for anywhere from 4 to 8 hours from start to completion.  The low and slow cooking technique leads to incredibly tender, juicy, and flavorful results.

How Do Smokers Work?

Smokers are designed to cook food at a low temperature (typically around 225°F) for long periods of time.  Charcoal and wood smokers have a firebox where your fuel is placed and your fire is lit.  This fire then imparts smoke, which is transferred to your food in the main cooking chamber.

Often times, the firebox is it’s own separate chamber – these are known as offset smokers.  The side firebox is great because you can manage your smoke and heat output without having to lift the lid on the main chamber, which would mean losing valuable heat and smoke.

Electric smokers are a little different.  They rely on a heating element (similar to what you’d find in a traditional oven) to consistently and evenly distribute heat to your food.  The smoke comes from wood chips that are burned in a small tray.  Electric smokers are designed to funnel this smoke into the main chamber to flavor your food.

Smoker Pros

  • When cooked properly, smoked foods are extremely tender, juicy, and flavorful.  The smoking process also imparts a unique smoky and authentic tasting flavor profile to your food, especially if you’re using the best lump charcoal or wood for smoking.
  • Smokers allow for you to cook for an extended period of time with minimal ongoing effort and tending to your smoker.  Especially in tandem with a probe meat thermometer, the actual cooking process for using a smoker is incredibly easy.
  • You can experiment with different types of wood for smoking for different flavors.  Part of the fun is trying new things, and with a smoker you’ll never run out of different ways to prepare your food.
  • Smokers come in all different shapes and sizes.  No matter what your skill level or space available for your smoker, there’s most definitely an option that’s perfect for your needs.  Vertical smokers, for example, take up a minimal footprint on your patio while providing a ton of cooking space.
  • Quality smokers can last for decades.  If you get a well built smoker and take good care of it, there’s a good chance it will last for dozens of years and potentially a lifetime.

Smoker Cons

  • Smoking foods takes longer in the comparison of smoker vs grill.  Even though the end result is undeniably good, a lot of foods can take anywhere from 4 to 8 hours to finish cooking.  Patience is key here.
  • Not ideal for quick meals.  If you’re looking to make burgers or sear a steak, a smoker might not be the best fit as you’ll have trouble getting the temperature high enough to achieve great results.
  • Fire management can take a couple of tries to get the hang of.  Most smokers rely on vents to control heat and airflow, and it can just take a while to learn what you need to do.  Electric smokers on the other hand are plug and play – and great for beginners.
  • Well made smokers are typically pretty expensive.  With grills, you can get away with a lesser quality unit (although that’s still not ideal).  With smokers, it’s of the utmost importance that your unit retains heat.  Poorly made units that leak heat will produce poor results almost every time.

Grills – Turn Up the Heat With Ease

It’s hard to make blanket statements about all grills since there are so many types of grills, but broadly speaking when comparing a smoker vs grill, the grill will heat up faster, get hotter, and make food quicker than a smoker.

That’s just by design – and not necessarily a reflection on quality of the end product.  A grill is just better suited for searing, or cooking things like burgers, chicken breast, veggies, other quicker meals.

Grills are fueled by either wood, charcoal, or gas.  Some electric and indoor grills also exist but they are far less common.  Flavor wise, a charcoal grill will impart some of that traditional smoky flavor into your food.

Some gas grills like the Weber e210 and e310 have features that enhance flavor of your food like a smoker or charcoal grill would, but most agree that food made on gas grills is slightly less flavorful than food made on a charcoal grill.  It’s a very subtle difference though – and one that can only be detected be the keenest of palettes.

How Do Grills Work?

Grills work by cooking food directly over a heat source, which is typically an open flame.  Gas grills rely on ignited propane or natural gas which produces a flame on burners placed directly below your cooking grate.

Charcoal and wood grills have a fire box below the grate, where you light your fuel and burn until you have a smoldering fire below your cooking grates.  At that point, you’re ready to put your food on the grill and get to cooking!

Due to the design of a grill’s main cooking chamber, you can actually convert a lot of them into a smoker.  A smoke tube can light wood pellets on fire, create smoke, and be placed in your grill to add a smoky flavor to your food.

It won’t be the same full effect of cooking your food in a smoker, but it’s a versatile way to add extra flavor to your food.

Grill Pros

  • Grills are able to heat up quicker and burn hotter, meaning they are ideal for searing steak, cooking burgers, and many other practical meals that you’d cook at home after a long day at work.
  • Ease of use is high with grills, especially gas grills and electric grills.  Charcoal grills are easy to use too though, especially when looking at a smoker vs grill.
  • Grills are more versatile than a smoker, and can cook more types of food.  Some grills can even be converted into a smoker and serve the same function with indirect heating methods.
  • You can find some pretty inexpensive grills that are actually quite high in quality.  In fact, we’ve made lists of some very high quality starter grills on this site.  If you’re a budget shopper, you dollar might go a little further buying a grill vs smoker.

Grill Cons

  • You need to actively pay attention to your food most times when grilling.  Since you’re often going to use high heats, you will probably need to turn or flip your food fairly quickly to get the right results.
  • Charcoal grills can be a little bit of a pain to set up and clean up if you are grilling multiple times per week.
  • Compared to a smoker, grills won’t impart the traditional, iconic smoky BBQ flavor to your food.  Don’t get me wrong, a grill will still make delicious food – but a smoker is just on a little higher level.

Smoker vs Grill – Which is Better?

Ultimately, whether a grill or a smoker is better largely comes down to your preferences and needs.  I’d say that for 90% of people, a grill is probably a better choice for your first purchase if you’ve never owned either of these before.

With that being said, there’s no question that smoker vs grill is worthy of a healthy debate.  Both are so great for different reasons.  If you’re troubled over the decision too much, you can just end up buying both like me!

In all seriousness, here are a few key things to consider when comparing for smoker vs grill.

Price

Price wise, smoker vs grill is for the most part pretty similar across the board.  A nice grill or smoker could run you well into the thousands, whereas cheaper ones begin around $200.

We mentioned earlier that specifically when talking about cheaper options, your dollar probably goes a little further with grills.  What we mean by that is that there are some perfectly good, well made $200 grills out there that we’d recommend to anybody.

With smokers, you should probably start your search in the $400-500 range.  There are $200 smokers out there, but in our experience they typically just aren’t great.  Many cheaper smokers aren’t sealed properly and won’t retain heat well.

Versatility

When it comes to looking at a smoker vs grill from a versatility and day to day practicality standpoint, the grill is probably the winner here.

Grills just can cook so many different types of food with less effort, so they’re a little more practical for mid week cooking after a day of work.

Smokers take time, with tender love and care.  Personally I love the process of building my fire and smoking food, but it’s not the most practical all the time.  Bona fide smokers also have trouble reaching high temperatures, so searing steak and other high temperature cooking will be a challenge.

Flavor

I’ll be the first to agree with you that flavor is largely subjective.  But, it’s pretty unanimously agreed upon by professional chefs that you’ll get more rich, complex, out of this world flavor by using a smoker vs a grill.

There’s a reason Aaron Franklin smokes his world famous brisket in a smoker, not using an indirect heating method in a regular ol grill.

The extra time and energy that goes into using a smoker is paid off with better tasting food.

I want to reemphasize that this is all relative – grilled food can still be amazingly delicious.  But a properly smoked dinner is just a rung above.

Ease of Use

Despite the intimidation of using a smoker if you’ve never done it before, they actually aren’t that hard to operate.  But I’ll admit, it does take a few practice runs to get the hang of managing your fire well.

Electric smokers couldn’t be easier to use.  You literally just have to plug them in and turn a dial and viola, you’re smoking.

Grills on the other hand are a little more plug and play compared to traditional smokers.  Most gas grills have a quick ignite system, and charcoal grill flames are usually pretty easy to manage.

It’s tough to pick a direct winner here because there are so many different types of grills and smokers, so I’m going to cop out and call the ease of use category a tie.

What About Kamado and Pellet Grills?

I know some of you experienced grillers have gotten through this article and are wondering why I haven’t brought up kamado grills or pellet grills yet.

For those who don’t know, both kamado grills and pellet grills are pretty versatile types of grills that have the capability to both grill at high temperatures and smoke at low temperatures, all in one unit.

The “catch” is that both of these classes of grills are pretty expensive, and have more ongoing costs than a traditional grill or smoker.

Plus, traditional grills and smokers are both perfectly viable options.  So while you certainly can look at a kamado or pellet grill, the focus of this article is to compare smoker vs grill.

Smoker vs Grill – Wrap Up

Hopefully by this point, you’ve got a nice grasp on what the differences are between a smoker vs grill.  They are both very popular vessels to cook delicious food, but each has their own unique properties and will lead to different results.

Generally speaking, a grill is a great fit for the everyday griller.  If you love to come home from work and sear a steak or grill up some burgers, a grill is the way to go.

But if you’re the type who loves to put a little extra work and craftsmanship into your cooking, a smoker is a great choice.  The end result of a properly smoked meal is the kind of legendary stuff that your friends and family will tell stories about.

I think that it’s not overkill at all to own both a grill and a smoker.  Personally, I started out with a grill when I was a beginner.  After about 6 months, I was ready to add to my repertoire and bought me a smoker.  I use both of them almost every single week.

Which one did you end up with?  Let us know which grill or smoker you chose in the comments section below and why!