If you truly love the natural taste of a barbecue and you participate in the process, you will inevitably find yourself having the pellet grill vs smoker debate. Both are excellent BBQ equipment in their individual spaces as they address different demands, and they all have their unique strengths and weaknesses. As to which one will work best for you, we will leave you to decide after our elaborate evaluation below.
This pellet grill vs smoker comparison will highlight their differences beyond the obvious fuel type that you must have figured out (pellet grills use pellets for fuel while smokers use pretty much every fuel source available).
We will compare their fuel efficiency, convenience, practicality, and, most importantly, how they bring out those deep, earthy flavors to your barbecue. You should be better positioned to decide which option works best for your cooking style at the end of the article.
An Overview of How Pellet Grills Work vs Smokers
We need to start with understanding how each BBQ appliance works so that the comparison will have context. Let’s get to it!
How Does a Pellet Grill Work?
This grill plugs into an electric outlet as its controls are powered by electricity. Set the desired temperature and time using its digital controls, which will monitor the ambient heat automatically and regulate it as per your instructions for the entire cooking process.
The grill burns wood pellets for fuel, which are essentially hardwood sawdust and dried tree leaves that have been treated and compressed into small cylindrically shaped chunks. There are different woody flavors of pellets to choose from, so you can customize the flavor to your liking. The pellets are fed to the grill automatically by an auger which is regulated by the digital controller.
The feeding frequency is increased or decreased depending on the requirements of the cooking area in relation to your preset temperature. If it goes below the required temperature, more pellet chips are required to stoke the flame, increasing the frequency. The reverse is also applicable; the feeding rate will reduce when the heat is too much until the heat subsides.
The auger feeds the pellets into a burn cup at the base of the grill, which has a hot rod that is also electrically powered. It ignites and heats the wood pellets, enabling them to provide cooking heat.
Above the burn cup is a heat dispersing plate that distributes the heat evenly throughout the grill’s cooking area. It also diffuses the heat intensity so that the food directly on top of the cup doesn’t get charred or burned by direct heat. Heat distribution is aided by a blower fan which facilitates convective heat transfer while also circulating the smoke across the entire grill.
Many will also have a grease tray where the fat collects, preventing it from falling into the fire and causing flames. You can get your desired smoky flavor without having to babysit the grill.
How Does a Smoker Work?
The traditional smoker grill is offset, so it is also referred to as a horizontal smoker or a side firebox smoker in some quarters. The horizontal cooking chamber is offset by a vertical stack of heaters. This design gives the chef more control over the smoking process.
The grill generates smoke by burning different fuels such as natural gas, charcoal, wood, or even wood pellets. The smoke generated in the firebox travels through the cooking chamber and cooks the food slowly in a controlled smoky environment. The smoke has to be maintained inside the smoking chamber to be effective.
To get the woody flavor, you can add wood chips to any other type of fuel you are using or use actual wood to heat the food. Electric smokers have a separate chamber where the wood is heated to produce the smoke that infuses the food.
Because the smoke being used is generated on one side and used in another section of the grill, it can be tricky to maintain an even temperature throughout the smoking area despite the abundance of smoke.
Maintaining these temperatures become even harder during the cold season with lower ambient temperatures. They require more attention and expert handling than pellet grills and are not recommended for amateurs.
This comparison will be incomplete if we don’t mention these new-age means of bridging the gap.
These are pellet grill and smoker combos which use wood pellets for fuel and can also smoke a mean brisket, enabling you to enjoy the benefits of both sides. They are more fuel-efficient for smoking as the pellets release heat slowly, and you still get the natural smoky taste that you might not get with gas or electric grills.
The pellets generate a steady stream of smoke which is an improvement from the intermittent puffs of your traditional smoker. Additionally, because the grill requires less attention, you don’t lose any of the smoke from constantly opening up the cooking area to check the progress. The taste and aroma are consequently more intense with fewer resources required.
Which Is Healthier: Pellet Grill vs Smoker
Some cooking methods have a higher risk of exposing the food to carcinogenic elements, which is unhealthy in the long run. Cooking meat at high temperatures emits chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which have been linked to cancer.
Additionally, when the fat drips onto the grill, the ensuing flames will cover the food directly above them with polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also associated with cancer.
The smoker has an advantage because it cooks at a low and even temperature, and if it is offset, the flames are never directly under the meat to cover it with PAHs. However, cooking directly with fuels like charcoal and propane is more likely to generate HCAs and PAHs than wood pellets that burn cleaner with less smoke. The food-grade pellets are made from hardwood and given special treatment to eliminate any carcinogenic elements.
In the absence of any other information, we can conclude that wood pellets are the safer fuel, and smoking with low heat is less likely to expose your food to cancer-related chemicals than direct heating.
An offset pellet smoker will therefore get an easy win in this category as it has everything working for it. If the grill is not offset, you might consider introducing a grease tray to collect the dripping fat and prevent it from igniting flames.
Pellet Grill vs Smoker Efficiency
Pellet grills are user-friendly and can be used by all experience levels, meaning a reduced probability of wastage. Wood pellets burn better than charcoal or firewood otherwise used for smoking; there is less ash and smoke emission. The pellets are regulated to suit the desired temperature also means you only use the necessary fuel for your goals, limiting wastage.
Smokers require experience and above-average skills to get the meat done at just the right temperature. Overcooking and undercooking are common for newbies as you need to babysit the food and monitor its progress and the grill temperature throughout the cooking process.
A pellet grill takes care of this as it can maintain a consistent temperature based on your preset instructions. It allows you to reproduce the recipe with accuracy without breaking a sweat. It is more efficient than a smoker.
Pellet grills are more wholesome in terms of the cooking methods they can facilitate; you can grill, roast, bake, sear and even smoke your food. A smoker, on the other hand, can only be used for smoking food.
A pellet grill with a smoker function is the best bet if you want to cover all your needs with one purchase. However, they will come at a price, so if you intend to specialize in smoking, stick to your lane and get the best smoker your resources allow.
Comparing Pellet Grill vs Smoker Dishes
Smoking is usually preserved for large or whole pieces of meat like pork shoulders or briskets. The smoke flavor is more concentrated in a smoker than on any other grill. Pellet grills with smoker functions produce milder versions of the same earthy flavor, but the pellets are not as potent as firewood or charcoal. They offer more flavors as you can play around with the flavors.
At the end of the day, the choice of taste comes down to preference. While some grill enthusiasts love the iconic smoky flavor, others will barely tolerate it. A pellet grill allows you to tone it down without compromising your smoked steak recipe.