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Propane vs Electric Smoker: One Makes Better Food

Electric and propane smokers are often the only type of smoker that’s permitted in some condo and apartment areas. They’re also just a good, cheap, and easy to use smoker that’s perfect for anyone who doesn’t want to overcomplicate smoking meat. But, what’s the difference between these two smokers that practically look the same?

Yes, the fuel source is different. Does it impact the flavor of the food? How fuel efficient are each of them to run? And, does one produce better food than the other?

In this propane vs electric smoker comparison we answer these questions plus more.

Here, you’ll find a full and detailed comparison of what each of these types of smokers are, how to use them, and the pros and cons of both to help you decide which is best for you. Then, once you’ve decided which way to go, we’ll also point you in the direction of our favorite propane and electric models so you can get an idea of cost.

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A Quick Comparison of the Propane vs Electric Smoker

Table of Contents

What Is a Propane Smoker?

A propane smoker is a type of vertical barbecue uses a propane burner at the bottom to create the heat needed for smoking. 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.

Because there’s no electricity needed, propane smokers can be a good portable choice. They’re inexpensive to buy and a pretty simple, maintenance-free design.

How Does a Propane Smoker Work?

Propane smokers generally have quite a large temperature range which you dial up and down using your old-school, analog 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.

After a bit of time, you’ll get used to where you need to set the knob to get the temperature where you want. But, when you’re first using a propane smoker, you’ll turn the burner on and give it a bit of time to warm up. Once it’s up to temp, you can dial the propane up or down until you’ve dialed in the heat to where you want, using the built-in temperature gauge as your guide.

Stainless steel burner on Pit Boss Vertical Propane Smoker

When it’s cold, windy or wet, you’ll probably need a higher setting than if you’re smoking in warmer weather.

Once it’s up to temp though, you’ll place your food inside, add some wood chips or chunks and leave it to do it’s thing.

Masterbuilt ThermoTemp Propane 330G

You will need to go back and top up the wood when required. Exactly how often that will be depends on how large the wood tray is, how hot you’re running your smoker, and what type of wood you’re burning. But, every hour or so is to be expected.

When you open the door to a propane smoker, the inside temperature will naturally drop. You don’t need to bump the propane up for it to get back up to temp. Simply shut the door again and it’ll heat up. People adjusting the dial every time they open creates larger temperature swings that you can avoid by simply leaving the dial alone once you’ve found where it needs to be.

Propane smokers also have a water tray that sits above the burner. Adding any type of liquid in it, water is the most common, can help to regulate the temperature throughout the cooking chamber. Some people also think it helps prevent the meat from drying out. The best advice I can give to stop your meat from drying out is to avoid overcooking it by using a meat thermometer. It’s the best bbq tool ever.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Propane Smokers

Pros
Cons

What Is an Electric Smoker?

Electric smokers are a type of smoker that contains an automatically regulated electronic heating element inside a simple smoking box.

Masterbuilt 40 Inch Digital Electric Smoker Loaded Up

It’s pretty similar to your regular indoor oven and won’t produce any smoke unless you add wood chips. Which, like a propane smoker, sit in a shallow tray above the heating element.

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 simple dial that you can use to raise and lower the temperature like on a propane smoker.

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.

How Does an Electric Smoker Work?

Of course you do need electricity access to run an electric smoker. So, to get one going, you’ll plug it in, turn it on and set either the digital temperature dial or the analog one. If it’s analog, you’ll need to adjust the dial up and down until you hit the temperature you want for cooking.

Once it’s up to temperature, you’ll add your meat and wood chips or chunks just like you do on a propane smoker.

Adding Wood Chips to the Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker

You’ll need to come back every hour or so, depending on the model, to add more wood. But, a digital electric smoker will automatically regulate the temperature for you so you won’t have to make adjustments to the dial during your cook unless you decide to run the smoker hotter or cooler.

Like propane smokers, electric smokers also have a water tray. You can add any type of liquid to the water tray. The point of it is to help to regulate the temperature throughout the cooking chamber and keep the moisture content high to prevent the meat from drying out. I rarely add water to the tray and don’t have problems with my meat drying out though. Just make sure you’re cooking to temp with a meat thermometer so that it doesn’t get overdone. It works much better than cooking to time.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Electric Smokers

Pros
Cons

How Similar Are Electric and Propane Smokers Similar?

Propane and electric smokers look similar because there’s quite a lot in common between these two types of barbecues:

How Are Pellet and Electric Smokers Different?

Quality of the Results

Except for smoking fish, I’m not a fan of using electric smokers. Yes, they’re pretty easy to use in that you chuck your meat in there and wait until it’s done, adding wood chips along the way. But, I can and you’ll be able to tell the difference between a piece of meat smoked on an electric smoker vs pretty much anything else.

Generally, anything smoked on an electric smoker will turn out very moist with a light smoke profile and none of that amazing bbq bark that’s my favorite thing about eating smoked meat. It’s just too wet and you don’t have any actual fire that’s needed for the chemical processes that make bark to occur.

Brisket Smoker on the Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker

Check out the video below where they’ve made some major mods to a Masterbuilt Electric Smoker in order to try to get a better result. I personally wouldn’t go that far. You can get a decent tasting result on an electric smoker. It’s just not going to have that same bark or depth of flavor as you’d get on a propane.

These are ribs we did on the Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker. There’s a bit of a smoke ring and they retained quite a lot of moisture.

Ribs Smoked on the Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker

On a propane smoker, the meat tastes more similar to what you’d get from a charcoal smoker.

Best Propane Smokers

I’d describe the flavor profile as light and very similar to the electric smoker (you’re using the same wood chips or chunks as well). But, you’ve got that live flame creating the right stuff you need to dry out the surface of the meat a little for what I think is much better bark.

And, it’s not just us aren’t the biggest fans of electric smokers.

Meathead Goldwyn, one of the most respected names in bbq is very focal about his dislike for this type of smoker.

Since I am really tired of repeating myself in the comments below to irate owners of electrics who rave over their choice of smoker (this is called confirmation bias), let me say it again succinctly in bold type: Electrics make really delicious food. But wood, pellets, charcoal, and even gas make food that is even more delicious.

Unless it’s for fish, nuts, cheese, or another delicate food, we’re with Meathead, buy something else! A propane smoker will produce better food and is only slightly more difficult to use. But, even better is a pellet smoker which is even easier to use than an electric smoker and turns out food that’s a whole lot better.

Check out our best cheap pellet smoker options for something that will compare price-wise.

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 although you do need to add wood chips every hour or so to keep up smoke production.

Using the MEATER Block with the Mastrebuilt Digital Electric Smoker

Using a propane smoker is a little bit more difficult than an electric smoker.

This is mainly because a propane smoker doesn’t regulate the temperature for you. You’ll have to find where the knob needs to sit to hit the temperature you’re after. And, you might need to make adjustments as you go if the external temperature changes or there’s a lot of wind while you’re smoking.

That being said, they’re not hard to use, and you’ll need to be to topping up the wood chips like you would on an electric smoker so might as well check and adjust the temperature dial while you’re at it too.

There’s one exception to this rule and that’s the Masterbuilt ThermoTemp Propane Smoker. Listed as one of our favorite propane models, it’s got an added sensor that controls the burner to maintain your desired temperature.

Masterbuilt ThermoTemp Propane Temperature Dial

It works well and is our go-to recommendation for anyone wanting propane but not to be a babysitter.

Running Cost

It will depend on the cost of electricity vs propane where you live. But, generally, running a propane smoker smoker will cost about 45 cents to run for one hour vs about 20 cents to run an electric. Natural gas prices usually sit somewhere in the middle.

This price will depend a lot on costs in your local area but, can be used as a guide.

Check the specs for the model you’re thinking of buying to see how much each uses as well.

You’ll need to buy a bag of wood chips or chunks to run either. They’re usually pretty cheap and will last a long time. Check out what type of wood to buy for more help with that.

Cost Comparison

You can buy a propane or electric smoker for around about the same price. There’s some better quality, commercial grade electric smokers that are more expensive but, other than those, you’re looking at spending around about the same amount whether you go propane or electric. It’s slightly cheaper to go electric.

Check out these models to give you an idea of price and size below.

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

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

AND….

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 smoker types head to head.

Buying a Good Propane or Electric Smoker

So, are you going gas or electric?

Once you’ve made a decision on fuel type, you can start browsing smoker models to find the right one to fit your needs and budget. Check out a sample of three of our favorites in each category below. Or, click the links for more propane and electric smoker reviews.

Having a look at what’s on the market for both of these smoker types might also help you make the decision on which way to go.

Our Favorite Propane Smokers

Camp Chef Smoke Vault
Camp Chef Smoke Vault
4.3/5
Masterbuilt ThermoTemp Propane
Masterbuilt ThermoTemp XL
4.2/5
Best Propane Gas Smoker
Cuisinart COS-244
4.3/5

Read our full review of the best propane smokers.

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 Propane vs Electric Smokers

Propane smokers make better food than electric smokers with better bark and a richer flavor.

Electric, propane, and pellet smokers are good choices of smokers for beginners because they’re easy to use. But, pellet smokers are the easiest and make the best food. Propane smokers make the next best food. And, I feel electric smokers should be reserved for fish only.

Electric smokers do use a fair amount of electricity. How much they use exactly will depend on how large the heating element is in your particular model. Check the manual for the elements wattage to see how much they’ll use.

I notice a few dollars extra electricity usage on a day that the electric smoker has been running for 8 hours plus.

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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 committed 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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