If you’re wondering what’s the best fuel for smoking meat then you probably already realize that there’s no way that smoking with real wood logs, charcoal and propane can get you the same results. What you’ll be burning to get your smoked meat impacts the flavor, cooking time, portability, ease of use and the cost. And, when it comes to which one is hands-down the best, there isn’t a simple answer. Like everything, they’ve all got their pros and cons.
So, to make it easy for you to find the best type of fuel for smoking to suit your needs, this article gives you a full run-down of smoking with wood, pellets, charcoal, gas and electricity. We’ve also included links to reviews of some of the best smokers in each fuel type category.
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Table of Contents
Wood Logs and Chunks
Smoking with whole pieces of wood is the old school way to barbecue. The heat given off from wood while it burns creates a true polymer reaction which gives a rich smoky flavor and, if done right, perfectly crispy bark.
But, in saying that, smoking with wood takes practice to perfect. If the temperature isn’t quite right, or you’re using the wrong type of wood, you’ll end up with meat that looks black and tastes tart and charred.
Pros of Smoking with Wood:
- Creates a strong, true smoky flavor
- Can be cheap or free to run
- Gives you so much versatility as changing the type of wood you use can completely change the taste of your meal
- Is ideal for perfect bark
- Is natural
Cons of Smoking with Wood:
- Generally takes longer to cook with
- Smoked flavor can be a bit overwhelming if you’re using the wrong type of wood
- Can be expensive depending on what you use and how available it is in your area
- Need to watch the temperature closely as wood embers tend to lose heat quite quickly and a consistent temperature is required to make good smoke
- Takes practice to master
Our Verdict on Smoking with Wood
Smoking with real wood can turn out exceptional results but it does take time to perfect the art and isn’t a set and forget smoking experience.
Smokers that Use Wood Logs or Chunks
If you like the flavor of using real wood to smoke but don’t want the hassle, using wood pellets in a pellet smoker is an ideal alternative.
Most wood pellets are made from 100% hardwood that’s been compressed from sawdust and has had most of the air and moisture removed. They’re automatically fed into a small fire at a controlled rate in order to maintain a consistent temperature without you actually having to do anything. They’re also (depending on which pellet smoker you use), a very economical fuel source.
Pros of Smoking with Pellets:
- Achieves a strong, wood smoked flavor
- Take up less space than hardwood logs
- Very economical
- It’s easy – a true set and forget fuel
- Versatile – simply change your pellet wood for a completely different flavor
- They’re natural (check for additives)
Cons of Smoking with Pellets:
- Pellet fires don’t get very hot so they’re not great for grilling over
- Smoky flavor can be a bit too intense for some meats (try using a lighter pellet wood)
Our Verdict on Smoking with Hardwood Pellets
Using wood pellets to smoke with is our favorite way to get consistently good and authentically smoky results at home. The fact that it’s natural and economical too is just the icing on the cake.
Smokers that Use Wood Pellets
Charcoal Lumps and Briquets
Charcoal is probably the most widely used type of fuel used for smoking. It’s made by partially burning wood until it carbonizes. This makes it capable of burning at low or high temperatures, producing quality smoke for delicious flavor.
Whether you use charcoal lumps or briquets, charcoal can be used in a wide range of smokers and is ideal for grilling too.
Pros of Smoking with Charcoal:
- Produces a nice, smoked flavor
- Suitable for smoking or high-heat grilling
- Longer burn time so doesn’t require very frequent check-ins
- Reasonably cheap
Cons of Smoking with Charcoal:
- Takes 10-20 minutes to start and die down before it’s ready for cooking
- Ash needs to be cleaned up after cooking
- Can be full of unnatural additives
- Takes practice to get used to how much to use to reach and maintain a certain heat
Our Verdict on Smoking with Charcoal
Charcoal is a great go-to fuel for smoking and grilling. It’s portable, versatile and can achieve incredible flavor, especially when combined with wood smoke chips.
Smokers that Use Charocal
Much like an electric oven, electric smokers have a heating element that glows hot to cook meat at low and slow temperatures inside an insulated box. Because there’s no fire, there’s no combustion gases released and therefore, no chemical reaction to create that smoky flavor, a nice smoke ring or bark.
But, by adding wood chips, you can pass some smokiness into electric smoked meat. Think of it like the next best option for smoking in residential areas where smoky fires aren’t permitted.
Pros of Smoking with Electricity:
- Easy to control temperature
- Can be used on apartment balconies or other areas where fires aren’t permitted
- Simple to plug in and start cooking
- Efficient fuel source
- Pretty much a set and forget smoking experience – just add wood chips
Cons of Smoking with Electricity:
- You won’t achieve that true smoked flavor
- Smoke rings and great bark are hard/impossible to achieve
- Not suitable for grilling
- Can’t be used to set up multiple heat zones
Our Verdict on Smoking with Electricity
If fires aren’t permitted in your apartment or residential area and electric smoking is your only option, it’s simple to do and can turn out decent and consistent results.
Smokers that Use Electricity
Propane or Gas
Just like gas grills, smoking with propane is relatively simple and effective. Most gas smokers have a vertical, cabinet design and the gas heating element is linked up to either a propane bottle or natural gas supply via a hose.
The smoky taste is achieved by adding wood chips to a tray above the heating element so they smoulder away and release the good stuff throughout the cooking chamber.
Pros of Smoking with Propane:
- Fast to start up
- Easy to maintain an even temperature
- Propane bottles are portable for simple smoking on the go
- Does create a pretty good smoked flavor
- Pretty much set and forget
Cons of Smoking with Propane:
- Most require you to manually set the temperature by adjusting the gas levels and can’t auto adjust
- Most propane smokers can’t be hooked up to natural gas
- Generally propane smokers don’t double as a gas grill
Our Verdict on Smoking with Propane
While propane isn’t our favorite way to smoke meat, it is relatively easy, portable, hands-off and achieves good results.