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Pellet Smoker vs Electric Smoker: One Clear Winner

They both use power, so are they pretty much the same?

No way, Jose! Pellet smokers and electric smokers work completely differently, one produces much, much better results than the other, and the one you’re probably thinking is easier to use, actually isn’t.

In this pellet smoker vs electric smoker comparison, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about both of these types of smokers to help you decide which is best for you.

And, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t some generic article. We’ve got extensive experience using both of these types of smokers, and we share that knowledge with you. We cover how they work, what we like and don’t like about using each, and how their performance differs.

At the end, you’ll also find a cost comparison of both so you can see around about what each will cost you, plus links to reviews of our favorite models.

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A Quick Comparison of the Pellet Smoker vs Electric Smoker

Table of Contents

What Is an Electric Smoker?

Electric smokers are a type of smoker that contains an electric heating element that’s used to heat and automatically maintain a set temperature inside a simple box. There’s no smoke produced from the electric element so, wood chips or chunks are often added to a dish above the element to smoulder as they heat, producing smoke to flavor the food.

There’s no real fire inside an electric smoker. This means they’re suitable to be used in condos or apartments where fires aren’t permitted. But, without fire, it’s actually not scientifically possible to create the same bark that you get on a wood-smoked piece of meat.

Brisket smoked on the Masterbuilt Gravity Series 560

Meat smoked on an electric smoker is often pretty moist with a softer exterior, a lighter flavor, and a shallower smoke ring.

How Does an Electric Smoker Work?

An electric smoker is pretty similar to your regular indoor oven. The heating element is thermostatically controlled.

There are two types of electric smokers, digital ones and analog ones. On a digital electric smoker, you’ll have a digital control panel where you can set the temperature precisely. On an analog electric smoker, you’ll have a dial that you can use to raise and lower the temperature but, you’ll have to watch the smokers temperature gauge to get it dialed into where you want it.

These days, analog electric smokers aren’t even that much cheaper than a digital one. I wouldn’t even consider buying an analog one, they’re just not worth the extra work and hassle when you can pick up an electric smoker really cheaply.

Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker Control Panel

The smoke in an electric smoker comes from wood chips placed in a dish above the heating element. These don’t burn as such but do smoulder to produce smoke that circulates in the cooking chamber, exiting through the damper on the top of the smoker.

Wood Chips Loaded into the Tray Via the Side Loading Wood Chip Port

Electric smokers also usually have a water tray that sits near the wood chip tray. You can add water or another liquid with the idea that the moisture will stop the meat from drying out. I hardly ever use water in an electric smoker and never have a problem with dried out meat as long as I’ve cooked to temp, not to time.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Electric Smokers

Pros
Cons

What Is a Pellet Smoker?

A pellet smoker, which is also known as a pellet grill, is a fully-automated barbecue that uses heat and smoke from a hardwood pellet fire to cook and flavor food.

It’s pretty much half way between an electric smoker and an offset smoker. You’ve got the convenience of automatic, electric temperature regulation combined with the flavor you get from using real wood.

In recent years, pellet smokers have become one of the most popular types of smokers because they’re so easy to use, and they make undeniably, really great food.

While electric smokers are often thought of as an easy, set and forget option, most require you to keep adding wood chips every hour or so. To me, that’s not really set and forget. Pellet smokers don’t. You literally set the temperature you want, throw your meat on there and go back when it’s done. You can go about your day doing other things and have restaurant-quality barbecue when you’re done.

How Does a Pellet Smoker Work?

Like electric smokers, pellet smokers do require electricity to run. But, instead of using the power to heat an element that’s similar to the one in your oven, the electricity is used to power the control panel which tells the auger how fast to turn to feed hardwood pellets into the firepot to reach and maintain the temperature that you’ve set to be your target.

Z-Grills ZPG-700XL Control Panel

So, yes, you do need electricity to run a pellet smoker, and you’ll need pellets too. You can’t run a pellet smoker without electricity, even if it’s from a portable power option.

As well as regulating the temperature automatically, you don’t have to manually light a pellet smoker. Simply follow the start-up procedure which is usually turning it to a smoke setting while the fire gets going, then setting the temperature you want shortly after.

Inside, the an auger turns, moving pellets from the storage hopper to the firepot that’s situated underneath the cooking grates.

Z Grills Cruiser 200A Firepot

Above that you’ll see a baffle plate that absorbs and radiates heat while blocking the direct heat that’s not ideal for smoking. The smoke moves through the cooking chamber through holes or gaps, circulating in the main chamber before leaving the smoker’s body through the chimney, smokestack, or other vents.

Inside the Z Grills 11002B Pellet Smoker showing how it works

So, what do you need to do to smoke on a pellet smoker? Simply choose your temperature, throw your meat on, go back to wrap it part way if you want to, and get it off the barbecue when it’s ready.

It’s best practice to smoke to temperature instead of to time. This ensures that no piece of meat is ever over or underdone (you can’t always tell just by looking at it). Some pellet smokers also come with meat probes that plug directly into the control panel so you’ve got that essential feedback right there with you. You can also buy meat thermometers separately to use with any pellet or other type of smoker.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Pellet Smokers

Pros
Cons

How Similar Are Pellet and Electric Smokers Similar?

They seem quite similiar but, pellet and electric smokers really aren’t that alike. They do have these things in common:

How Are Pellet and Electric Smokers Different?

Heat Source

The heat in an electric smoker is generated by an electric element while the heat in a pellet smoker is generated by a hardwood fire.

At the end of the day both do the same job. But, the fire is a stronger source of heat, and it’s just not possible to get the same results in a smoker that doesn’t have any combustion. Most people will taste the difference between wood smoked meat and electric smoked meat. We’re not just being snobs. You don’t need to be a bbq judge to notice the difference.

Source of Smoke Production

Just like the source of heat is different between an electric and pellet smoker, so is the source of the smoke.

In a pellet smoker, the hardwood fire naturally puts out wood smoke that flavors that food. In an electric smoker that relies on the electric element for heat, there’s no natural source of heat. So, to get that all-important smoke, you add wood chips which sit above the heating element and smoulder away to provide some smoke to flavor the food inside.

Adding Wood Chips to the Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker

Now, smouldering wood chips or chunks simply don’t provide the same type of smoke as a wood fire. The wood chip smoke isn’t as good a quality as smoke that’s produced from an actually burning fire, the flavor will be lighter, and you will need to top up and make sure there’s enough wood chips to produce that all important smoke throughout your cook.

For that reason alone, I don’t really think of an electric smoker as set and forget.

In something like the Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker, you’ll need to add wood chips every 45 minutes to an hour to keep up that smoke production. The East Oak 30″ has a larger wood chip tray that can give you 2 or 2 and a half hours tops before you need a refill. And, some more expensive models can smoulder wood chunks for a longer unassisted smoke time. But, you do need to be there and remember to pop that wood in so you don’t end up with low and slow baked meat instead of smoked meat.

Flavor Profile

With the source of the heat and smoke both being different inside a pellet smoker vs electric smoker, the meat that they produce will naturally taste a bit different.

While you can get a decent smoke ring in either type of smoker, the smokey flavor will be lighter in meat smoked in an electric smoker, compared to the moderate flavor you’re going to get in a pellet smoker.

But, the biggest tell-tale sign that it’s been smoked in an electric smoker, not a pellet is the bark. Bark is that sort of crispy exterior on smoked meat. It’s something they look for in competitions. I care about it because it’s my favorite part of anything smoked. And, without the fire in an electric smoker, you won’t have the right chemical reactions occuring to create good bark.

Brisket Smoker on the Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker

It’s not that you’re doing anything wrong. It’s simply that meat smoked in an electric smoker isn’t subject to the same reactions. That coupled with the fact that electric smokers hold the moisture in really well, leaves the meat more moist and without that crispy bark.

My kids love it that way, they don’t like any crispiness in their meat. And, it’s actually pretty perfect for smoking fish where you want a light smoke profile and lots of moisture without any bark. But, for your heavier meats, most people are looking for that signature wood smoked sign.

Cold Weather Performance

Most electric smokers do have basic insulation but it’s not good enough to really protect it during very cold weather smoking sessions.

I really notice the difference electric smoking in summer to winter-time temps where the smoker takes longer to get up to temp and then fluctuates a lot more than it does on a warmer day.

Temperature Dip from Opening Door on the Masterbuilt 40 Inch Digital Electric Smoker

In terms of pellet smokers, some are affected by the cold weather. If it snows where you live or just gets darn cold, you’ll get better perfromance out of one of these pellet smokers that’s got full insulation. But, it’s easier and cheaper to find a pellet smoker that won’t struggle away when the weather gets cold.

Versatility

Electric smokers do one thing, low and slow. Most don’t even reach higher temperatures, they’re simply set up to smoke.

That’s not a bad thing if that’s what you’re after. I personally love using an electric smoker as a dedicated fish smoker. The low temperatures protect the delicate meat from burning, the flavor is perfectly light, and it’s so good not to have to mix fishy smells and leftovers with cooking meat as well.

Hot Smoked Salmon on Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker 140B

But, if you do have visions of baking, roasting, or grilling on the one barbecue as well, a pellet smoker gives you that.

With a higher temperature range, you’ve got much more versatility. And, while grilling on a pellet smoker, depending on the model, is a bit like trying to sear in a really hot oven, it does a decent job. You can even get pellet smokers that are better set up for grilling without compromise as well.

Testing the Z Grills probe against the MEATER probe on the Z Grills Cruiser 200A

Quality of Build

Most electric smokers are cheap, pretty poorly made boxes that tick the box in terms of affordability and getting the job done but, just aren’t that strong.

We’ve used and tested a lot of electric smokers over the years and they do get a bit banged up quite quickly even when you’re trying to be careful with them.

The smoker sides are usually made of thin metal that dents easily, the water and wood chip trays tarnish quickly, and the cooking racks are almost always cheap chrome-coated wire.

Masterbuilt 40 Inch Digital Electric Smoker Loaded Up

You can get a decent life out of an electric smoker. And, there are some models that are better built. But, the majority are pretty poor in terms of quality and will need to be kept out of the rain and treated pretty gently to ensure a good long life.

On the other hand, even cheap pellet smokers can be pretty decent quality. The metal used is generally significantly stronger and more durable, you can get porcelain-coated or stainless steel racks for better durability, and I’d expect to get a good long life out of one if kept out of the rain.

Cost Comparison

An average electric smoker is a lot cheaper than an average pellet smoker. And, while there’s a huge range of pellet smokers on the market from very cheap to very expensive, there just isn’t the same sort of range with electric smokers.

In fact, most electric smokers are pretty poor quality so there aren’t even a lot of good or better quality options on the market to compare with.

Here’s a sample of some of some of the electric and pellet smokers you can buy to show you what your money will get you.

So, What’s Better? Pellet or Electric Smokers?

When it comes to the flavor of the meat, the results you’ll get from a pellet smoker are without a doubt, better than an electric smoker. Pellet smokers are also a much more versatile smoker that can grill as well, are actually set and forget, are generally much better built, and perform better in cold weather.

That being said, the only time I prefer to use an electric smoker over a pellet smoker is for fish.

Buying a pellet smoker is more expensive than buying an electric one. You can get pretty decent budget pellet smokers that will come closer to the cheap price of an electric smoker. But, unless you want a fish smoker or want to buy a really cheap smoker, I’d go pellet over electric every single time.

Nothing compares to the flavor you get from a real wood-smoked piece of meat. Yes, the running costs are a bit higher too because you’ve got pellets to buy and electricity to pay for. It’s worth it though. Pellet smokers are incredible.

Buying a Good Pellet or Electric Smoker

Have you decided which type of smoker you’re going to roll with?

Whether you’re going pellet or electric smoker, check out a sample of our favorite of each of these smoker types below. Having a look at what your money can buy might also help you make the final decision.

We’ve also included links to our full best of reviews for more recommended models for a wider selection.

Our Favorite Pellet Smokers

Traeger all new Ironwood
Traeger Ironwood
4.9/5
Recteq RT-1100 Flagship
recteq Flagship
4.7/5
Z Grills Multitasker 7052B
Z Grills Multitasker
4.7/5

Read our full review of the best pellet smokers, the best value pellet smokers, the best pellet smokers under $500, or the best pellet smokers for cold weather for more models worth considering.

Our Favorite Electric Smokers

Masterbuilt MB20071117 Digital Electric Smoker
Masterbuilt Digital
4.6/5
East Oak 30 inch electric smoker with glass door
East Oak 30 Glass
4.7/5
Cookshack SuperSmoker SM045
Cookshack SuperSmoke
4.8/5

Read our full review of the best electric smokers and the best electric smokers under $300.

FAQs About Pellet vs Electric Smokers

Pellet smokers are the clear winner here. They’re 100% set and forget unlike electric smokers that require you to come back to add wood chips regularly, they make better food, and they’re a more versatile barbecue that can bake, roast, and even grill as well.

No, an electric smoker might seem like an easy option. But, because there’s no actual fire inside an electric smoker, you simply can’t produce as good a meat as you can in a wood smoker. Yes, you can get some wood smoked flavor by adding wood chips. Overall though, you simply can’t create that same sort of bark (or exterior), the flavor isn’t as strong, and meat smoked in an electric smoker often turns out overly moist.

Meat smoked on a pellet smoker will taste and look very similar to meat smoked on a regular wood smoker. Most people won’t be able to tell the difference between the two. But, it’s a lot easier and less time consuming to make the meat that’s smoked on a pellet smoker than on a wood smoker.

No. You can’t grill on an electric smoker because the temperature won’t get hot enough. And, they’re designed to heat the entire cooking chamber like an oven instead of focusing high heat over the heating element. You wouldn’t expect to be able to sear in an oven and it’s the same in an electric smoker.

By themselves, electric smoker don’t produce any smoke. You need to add and top up a tray of wood chips or wood chunks that sits above the heating element in order for there to be any smoke.

The wood chips or chunks then won’t produce as much smoke as you will from a hardwood fire on a pellet smoker. It’s still enough to get a mild smokey flavor but won’t be as intense.

How often you need to add wood chips to an electric smoker depends on the model of electric smoker. Some only have trays that are large enough to puff away for 30 minutes to an hour while others can go up to 2 or 3 hours.

Wood chunks generally have a longer smoke production time than smaller wood chips as well. Your smoker manual should tell you which type of wood chip or chunk is best to use in that electric smoker.

I personally love electric smokers for fish. They’re easy to use, help to prevent the fish from drying out, are well suited to the mild flavor you’re trying to achieve, and can hold a lot at once which is ideal for processing your weekend catch.

But, in terms of smoking meat, I’d absolutely go a pellet smoker over an electric one. Even a cheap pellet smoker like one of these will produce meat that tastes a whole lot better compared to what you’ll get from an electric smoker. It’ll be easier to cook too.

Kate Brown, the founder and voice behind Burning Brisket, is not your typical pitmaster or restaurateur. Her expertise in barbecue grew from a humble desire to cook exceptional meals for her family. From overcoming burnt brisket mishaps to establishing her boutique cattle ranch, Kate shares her passion to help 'ordinary' individuals cook extraordinary barbecue, believing that simplicity often yields the best flavors. Kate is commited to making great barbecue accessible to all with the right resources and some tasty practice.

About Burning Brisket

Burning Brisket is one of the leading, independent authorities on all things barbecue. Family-owned and run, it's our mission uncomplicate the art of smoking to help you enjoy making incredible food at home for your family and friends to create memories over.

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