Looking for a decent smoker at a low price that means you don’t need to mess around with lighting charcoal?
With electric or propane, you’re on the right track.
These smokers are relatively easy to use and can hold a huge amount of meat while not taking up a lot of space on the ground.
But, although they look pretty similar on the outside, electric and gas smokers actually work quite differently.
In this guide, we’ll talk you through what’s different and the same between the propane vs electric smoker to help you decide which is right for your backyard.
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Table of Contents
A Quick Propane Vs Electric Smoker Comparison
Temperature range approx 100 - 270°F
Temperature range approx 150 - 400°F
Suitable for smoking and cold smoking
Suitable for smoking, baking and roasting
Food has subtle smoky flavor
Food has stronger smoky flavor with more pronounced smoke rings
Set and forget
Most models require you to monitor the temperature throughout your cook
Requires power source
No electricity needed
Small to large cooking capacities available
Small to very large cooking capacities available
Cheap to buy
Cheap to buy
Low running cost
Moderate running cost
About Propane Smokers
A propane smoker is a type of vertical barbecue uses a propane burner at the bottom to create the heat needed for smoking, baking and roasting.
Most models will have a wood chip tray and water tray above the propane burner where smoke and water get released to flavor and moisten the food.
Propane smokers generally have quite a large temperature range which you dial up and down using your typical knob. Most don’t auto-regulate the temperature. So, you’re setting the temperature based on how much propane you need released to hit the heat you want, it’s not a simple 225°F setting.
When it’s cold, windy or wet, you’ll probably need a higher setting than if you’re smoking in warmer weather.
Because there’s no electricity needed, propane smokers can be a good portable choice.
They’re inexpensive to buy, there’s a good range of sizes available, and, they’re a pretty simple maintenance-free design.
Pros of a Propane Smoker
Cons of a Propane Smoker
About Electric Smokers
Electric smokers have a very similar setup to propane smokers.
They’re the same vertical box shape, a wood chip tray and a water tray. The difference is that instead of there being a propane burner at the bottom, in an electric smoker there’s an electric heating element just like the one you’d find in an electric oven.
There’s two types of electric dials you’ll see on an electric smoker – analog and digital.
An analog control is the more basic more heat and less heat dial. With these, you might need to check on the temperature and adjust slightly throughout your cook.
On a digital electric smoker, you’ll set the exact temperature you want and the controller will measure and maintain close to that for you.
While we’re talking temperature, we’ll also mention that the temperature range on an electric smoker is generally lower than that on a propane smoker. Depending on the brand and model, you’re looking at maxing out at about 270°F only.
So, they’re a dedicated smoker, there’s no roasting or baking. But, as a bonus, some can be used for cold smoking or you can buy an attachment for one.
Of course you do need electricity access to run an electric smoker. So, unlike a propane smoker, they’re not really considered portable. But there is no reason you couldn’t run one off of a portable power station or deep cycle battery setup if you really wanted to.
Like propane, electric smokers are generally one of the cheapest types of smokers to buy. They’re simple to use and you’ll have a fair bit of choice when it comes to size.
Can you get bark with an electric smoker?
Short answer, no.
There’s no actual flame inside an electric smoker so you don’t get the necessary chemical reaction needed to form that nice pink smoke ring around the edge of the meat.
Your meat should still taste reasonably smoky. But, you won’t have that distinctive sign of a well-smoked piece of meat.
Some pitmasters claim to have found ways to increase that smoke ring and produce a more distinct bark.
But, using an electric smoker as it is intended to with a normal bbq rub, you won’t get the same smoke ring and bark as you’d get in a different type of smoker.
Pros of an Electric Smoker
Cons of an Electric Smoker
A Detailed Comparison of Electric vs Propane Smokers
When it comes to propane vs electric smokers, there is no clear winner.
Your winner is going to depend on what you want to use it for, the running costs that you’re happy paying, and, the flavor that you’re after.
So, lets break it down to help you decide.
Meat Flavor, Smoke Ring and Bark
Electric smokers do have a reputation for just not being able to turn out results that are as good as on other types of smokers.
In an electric smoker you’re essentially just cooking meat low and slow in an outdoor electric oven. The woodchips are there to create that smokey flavor. But, to get a real smoke ring and bark, you need a real flame which you don’t have in an electric smoker. Read more bark formation here.
Can you still get good results in an electric smoker?
Why yes! Meat smoked in an electric smoker can taste darn good. But, it’ll never be that competition-grade thick pink smoke ring with a crispy bark.
On a propane smoker, you can expect more of your typical stronger smokey flavor.
The flame will help you get a deeper smoke ring and the bark should end up that much crispier.
Temperature Range and Versatility
Electric smokers generally have a lower temperature range than propane. They’re designed to do one thing, low and slow and do it easily.
As a bonus, you can usually cold smoke on an electric smoker (you might need an attachment like the Masterbuilt Slow Smoke). But, they’re ideal for smoking cheeses, nuts and fish as well as your heavier meats like ribs, chicken, brisket and even turkey.
With a higher maximum temperature of what’s usually about 400°F, you can roast and bake foods on a propane smoker as well. But, they’re not ideal for cold smoking.
You won’t be able to grill on either an electric or a propane smoker.
EXCEPT FOR the Masterbuilt MB20073519 which has a broiling element at the top of the cooking chamber so you can grill or finish things off with a higher direct heat.
Ease of Use
Electric smokers are often talked about as being one of the best smokers for beginners because they’re so darn easy.
Turn it on, set the temperature and load it up with your wood chips, water, food and you’re away laughing. There’s really not much to them, particularly digitial electric smokers.
Using a propane smoker will take a bit more practice to perfect. And, you’ll need to keep an eye on the temperature while you cook because they don’t automatically regulate the temperature.
But there’s an exception to that too!
Masterbuilt do the MPS 330G MB20050716 Thermotemp Propane Smoker. It’s got added sensor that controls the burner to maintain your desired temperature. It’s our go-to recommendation if you don’t want to have to babysit your gas smoker.
Most electric and propane smokers are a bit flimsy. They’re not the best quality smokers out there and I wouldn’t ever expect them to last a lifetime.
Over time you might run into problems with the electrical components on an electric smoker too.
But, they’re inexpensive to start with so replacing it won’t cost you an arm and a leg either.
For a better quality electric smoker, check out the Smokin-It range. They’re not the ‘prettiest’ but, they’re better built than the standard brands.
Or, read our round-up of the best electric smokers under $500.
Size and Cooking Capacity
Either way you go, the electric or propane, you’ve got a good choice when it comes to the cooking capacity of your smoker.
If you need an extra large capacity, you might have a bit more choice going propane. But, this shouldn’t make or break anyones decision.
Both propane and electric smokers sit upright so they take up minimal space on the ground compared to what you can cook in them.
Purchase Price and Running Cost
But, the running cost of the propane vs electric smoker is where the bigger difference comes in.
First you’ll have to buy your propane tank (unless you’ve got one for your grill as well). Then, you’ll need to get it refilled pretty frequently.
Check the specs for the model you’re thinking of buying.
But, as of 2022, you’re looking at about 40c to run a propane smoker for an hour vs about 6c per hour for electric. Natural gas prices usually sit somewhere in the middle.
What Can You Buy? Propane Vs Electric Smokers
Budget Propane vs Electric Smoker
Insulated steel with chrome-coated wire grates
Powder-coated steel with stainless steel grates
100 - 275°F
100 - 350°F
711 sq. in of cooking space
784 sq. in. of cooking space
800 watt heating element
1 year warranty
3 year warranty
Mid-Range Electric vs Propane Smoker
Double-wall carbon steel exterior with stainless steel interior and grates
Steel with nickel-plated wire grates
Up to 250°F
572 sq. in. of cooking space
600 sq. in. regular racks, 300 sq. in. jerky tray
500 watt cooking element + 125 watt smoking element
1 year warranty
1 year warranty
High-End Electric vs Propane Smoker
100% stainless steel
Steel with chrome-coated racks
100 - 250°F
175˚ F to 350˚ F
1,247 sq. in. of cooking space
961 sq. in. of cooking space
800 watt element
15,750 BTU burner
3 year warranty
3 year warranty
Our Verdict on the Propane vs Electric Smoker Choice
Electric smokers are just so easy to use. But, propane smokers definitely have the edge when it comes to mouthwatering results.
But, as a guide, we generally recommend electric smokers to anyone who:
- Appreciates really easy, low fuss smoking
- Needs a fire-free smoker to fit requirements for condo/apartment living
- Wants to be able to cold smoke
- Is on a budget and/or likes the lowest possible running cost
Propane smokers are ideal if you:
- Like your meat to taste more smokey with a better smoke ring and bark
- Don’t mind checking the temp throughout your cook (unless you go Masterbuilt ThermoTemp)
- Are going to use it as a portable smoker
If you want even better results than you’d get on a propane smoker while still having the ease of use of an electric smoker, have you thought about a pellet smoker?!?
They’re the bomb! You can get vertical models too. And, you can get some pretty great value for money models these days.
Check out our pellet smoker vs electric smoker comparison to see these two head to head.
Or, jump straight to our round-up of the best pellet smokers for the money.
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.