Smokers Vs. Grills: The Best Of BBQ
Barbecue enthusiasts have many fiery debates, the most popular of which I have addressed on this website. When people have their favorites, it’s easy to see people picking sides, but this is not the case with grills vs. smokers’ debate.
There seems to be mutual respect for both cooking methods, and this is probably because the benefits of both cooking devices are apparent. Grills help you enjoy convenience and versatility while BBQ smokers deliver the best smoky flavors.
In this post, I highlight the differences between grills and smokers, give you the pros and cons of each, help you navigate the variety of grills and smokers available, and answer a few frequently asked questions.
Let’s jump right in!
A Quick Introduction
What are Grills?
Grills are the most popular BBQ cookers. They use direct heat for cooking the food and being efficient and easy to use. They also come in many varieties like gas, charcoal, dual fuel, infrared, and electric grills. These grills are further divided into various types. Read more about all the different types of grills.
Being the more versatile option, grills come in all budgets, shapes, and sizes. So, depending on your requirements, you have a range of choices to pick from.
You can cook in a broad range of temperatures in grills, so whether you want to sear your meat or slow-cook it, there will always be a grill that can get the job done.
You can convert your gas grill to a smoker! All you will need is a smoker box, and you can have that delicious smoky wood flavor on a regular grill!
What are Smokers?
A smoker is a device that uses indirect heat to cook the food in a slow and controlled process. As the name suggests, it uses smoke to cook the food. This adds a rich flavor to the food. BBQ Smokers are mostly fueled by charcoal, but today you can find ones that use pellets, electricity, and even gas.
Smokers often come in two configurations – vertical and horizontal. The horizontal configuration (also known as offset smokers) are more popular since they can double up as BBQ grills when required. Smokers also come in various sizes, but they are almost always bigger than regular grills. You can even find smokers large enough to feed a small village!
By using indirect heat, the meat cooks low-and-slow. This low and sustained heat causes the meat’s collagen and fat to break down, making the meat tender and juicy. When smoked the right way, the meat falls off the bone and melts in your mouth!
Feature-By-Feature Comparison of Grills and Smokers
Grilling and smoking both have sufficient unique perks to earn a spot in the BBQ enthusiast’s backyard. Here is how they compare on features:
Grills are more versatile than smokers since you can use it for both, searing your food and for indirect heating by setting up two-zones in your grill. A two-zone setup is one in which the meat is placed away from the coals so that the heat it receives is mainly indirect.
Smokers can only be used for smoking and not for searing your meat. Theoretically, you could grill on the bottom grate of your vertical grill vertical grills, but its lower position makes it impractical.
Even though the versatility of grills enables them to be used for slow cooking, without a dedicated firebox, managing slow cooking on a grill isn’t easy.
Since food is prepared at low to medium temperatures in a smoker, it takes more time to cook with smokers. Cooking times can range from a few hours to even a whole day! This makes smokers ideal for cooking tougher meats since they take time to tenderize.
Grills employ the hot-and-fast cooking method. It’s essential to flip the food often when grilling to prevent burning.
I define cooking convenience as the planning, attention, and effort required for the process.
Grills are inherently more convenient since they take less time to cook. Depending on the type, they can range from super easy-to-use (electric or gas grills) to medium difficulty (charcoal grills). However, you can have your meal ready quickly and with relative ease.
On the other hand, smokers can be challenging to use if you’re not familiar with the science behind the cooking method. BBQ smokers require you to plan your meal much in advance. Longer cooks will also demand more of your attention and effort since you have to replenish the fuel regularly.
When smoking, I recommend using a digital food thermometer to remotely monitor your cook. This makes the monitoring process much more convenient. Here are the best cooking thermometers you can buy worldwide.
The most significant difference between smokers and grills is the difference in temperature used for cooking food.
Grills are made to be used for cooking food at relatively high temperatures.
Some grills heat quicker than others, and the internal heat of grills can range between 500⁰F to 1400⁰F (260⁰C to 760⁰C).
Smokers, on the other hand, are all about cooking low and slow.
The meat is smoked between 300⁰F to 450⁰F (140⁰C to 232⁰C) for cooking the meat while infusing it with a wood-smoke flavor. The ideal temperature range is between 225°F to 250°F (107⁰C to 121⁰C).
There is also another method of smoking known as ‘cold smoking.’
There is also another method of smoking known as ‘cold smoking.’ The temperature for cold smoking is between 68⁰F to 86⁰F (20⁰C to 30⁰C), which is lower than regular or ‘hot smoking.’ This method is used for adding flavor and curing the meat rather than cooking it.
I don’t recommend trying cold-smoking at home because it could be dangerous if done incorrectly. It is best left to the professionals since it’s very difficult to avoid food contamination using this method.
Grills are cheaper to run because the food is cooked for less time. You can also use less expensive fuels like gas to further reduce the running expenses of a grill.
On the other hand, smokers need a lot of wood and charcoal since they have to be replenished multiple times during a single cook. To reduce expenses, people cook more food in a single batch, but even then, smoking generally entails more running costs.
Smokers seem to be less beneficial in all the above points, but smoking enthusiasts believe that great flavor trumps all other benefits. There are three basic flavors that a BBQ cooker can render onto your food:
- Charcoal Flavor: This is produced when charcoal is used in the cooking process. It adds an unmistakable earthy flavor to the food. The flavor varies depending on the type of charcoal used.
- Smoky Flavor: This Flavor is because of the food and fat drippings being vaporized and added back into the food. The flavor depends on the ingredients used.
- Wood-Smoke Flavor: This flavor is produced when the wood’s moisture and other organic contents burn to release the food’s flavor. The flavor depends on the type of wood used.
Both grills and smokers can produce all three flavors as long as they use charcoal and smoking woods, however, there are a few differences.
Grilled meat will have sear marks, and you will be able to slightly char the meat (if that’s what you like).On the other hand, smoking your food produces an unbeatable smoky flavor and a beautiful barbecue bark. Smoked meats are also more tender and juicy because of the rendering of fat and collagen. This is why people don’t mind spending a day to prepare BBQ meat in a smoker.
Grills tend to be affordable, while smokers tend to be more expensive. This is because smokers tend to be thicker because of the insulation used to enable it to hold a steady, low temperature for a longer time. Grills have thinner walls because they are made for hot-and-fast grilling.
You will find that both smokers and grills will come in a range of prices. The more expensive ones tend to be better, so if you grill/smoke frequently, it may make sense to invest in a better grill smoker. However, beware of excessive technology. The more electronic gadgets it comes with, the more likely it is to fail, and the more expensive it will be to fix it.
Buyers’ Guides for Grills and Smokers
Buyers’ Guide For Charcoal Grills
Buyers’ Guide For Gas Grills
Buyers’ Guide For Dual-fuel/Hybrid Grills
Buyers’ Guide For Barbecue Smokers
Maintaining Your Grill
If you want to ensure your grill/smoker’s long life, cleanliness and regular maintenance is a must.
Some grills are easier to clean than others. Electric grills are the easiest grill type to clean since you have to simply wipe off the grease. In contrast, charcoal, gas, hybrid, and infrared grills require a lot more cleaning since they leave behind ash, have more parts to clean, and leave behind food particles.
Smokers are more difficult to clean because, in addition to food drippings and more parts to clean, they produce the maximum amount of ash because of the long cooking duration. This ash is so much that smokers don’t just need to be cleaned after each cook, but it has to be cleared out during the cook itself. If this is not done, the accumulating ash could affect your cook by smothering the fire, blocking air-flow, or ending up in your food.
Barbecue smokers also need to be seasoned after every use to prevent it from rusting and increase its life. This involves removing moisture from your smoker and coating it with oil. Learn more about how to season your smoker.
When buying a grill or smoker, you have to account for the vertical and horizontal space it takes up in your backyard. If you don’t have a backyard, you may want to opt for an electric grill.
Smokers are generally made bigger than grills because people prefer cooking large batches of food on account of the time and cost it takes to smoke.
Grills are smaller in size and therefore require less space. However, depending on the type of grill you are using, you may still need a large clearing when grilling to avoid flare-ups.
Smokers are safer than grills because they operate at a steady, low temperature. They also do not have an exposed flame, which drastically reduces the risk of a fire.
When using grills, you may encounter flare-ups. Flare-ups are caused when the oils and fats drip from the food on to the burner burst into flames. They are one of the leading causes of household fires. When using a grill, always ensure that there are no combustible decorations, trees, or shrubs around the grill.
If you want a grill, but want to avoid flare-ups at all costs, you can go in for an electric grill. The absence of flare-ups and smoke reduces the likeliness of housefires, making them a comparatively safer grilling option. Just be sure to keep them away from water.
Pros and Cons of Grills and Smokers
Benefits Of Owning a Grill
- They can rise to higher temperatures
- They come in a larger variety of shapes and sizes
- They are versatile
- Give you an authentic smoky charred flavor
- Great for searing meat
- They are perfect for cooking lean meat
- Cooks the food quickly
- They are relatively inexpensive
Limitations Of Owning a Grill
- Depending on the type of grill, they may require high maintenance
- Can only be used outdoors (except for electric grills)
- Cleaning can be difficult if you don’t know the right way to clean your BBQ grill.
- Ongoing costs can be high, depending on the type of grill.
Looking to Buy Charcoal Grills?
Here are the best Kettle Charcoal Grills, Barrel-shaped Charcoal Grills, or Kamado Charcoal Grills you can buy in the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK.
Benefits Of Owning a BBQ Smoker
- It adds a unique smoky flavor to the food
- It tenderizes the meat so that it is soft and juicy to the bite
- The food is less likely to get burnt while smoking
- They do not have flare-ups
Limitations Of Owning a BBQ Smoker
- It’s challenging to master cooking on a smoker
- The temperature is difficult to control
- It is not suitable for short and quick cooks
- The food can get overcooked and soggy
- Requires constant monitoring
- You will have to add charcoal or wood every hour or so
- Using a smoker can be expensive
What are the Types Of Grills?
As discussed before, versatility is a significant draw of BBQ grills. They can be big, small, used indoors, and so much more! Let’s talk about the three most popular types of grills.
The most common type of grill is gas grills. They are known for their convenience and can be found in the backyards of almost every American household. Gas grills come in many sizes. The medium-sized grills are suitable for backyard grilling while the larger ones are used in steakhouses.
Most steakhouses use gas grills for cooking the food since gas grills are versatile and produce the most reliable results.
Gas grills heat up quickly, and the temperature is incredibly easy to control. By turning the knobs on your grill, you can have your grill heated up in less than 20 minutes. However, they often don’t hold heat very well. However, this can be easily remedied using heat diffusers like Lava Rocks, Flavorizer Bars, or Ceramic briquettes. Here’s a comparison of the 5 types of heat diffusers.
Charcoal grills are considered to be the most authentic grills on the market. Charcoal grills offer a clean chargrilled flavor and a traditional grilling experience, which has earned it the biggest fanbase.
Charcoal grills take a while to heat up. But once they get hot and burning, they can reach high temperatures. You can use either charcoal lumps or briquettes to fuel your grill. A charcoal briquette fire can reach 800⁰F to 1000⁰F (430⁰C to 540⁰C), while lump charcoal can burn at 1400° F (760⁰C). Adding wood chips into the mix gives your food a desirable wood-smoked flavor.
Looking to Buy Charcoal Grills?
Here are the best Kettle Charcoal Grills, Barrel-shaped Charcoal Grills, or Kamado Charcoal Grills you can buy in the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK.
Electric grills convert electricity to heat energy and operate smokelessly to enable indoor grilling. They are the most convenient of grills and take no more than 15 minutes to heat up, which saves time for the rest of your cooking.
They are compact, lightweight, and typically come in smaller sizes. So, you can place it on your kitchen top or your tabletop, and when not in use, tuck it away inside your closet.
The downside of using electric grills is that you won’t get the same authentic grilled flavors. However, if the taste is not high on your priorities, electric grills are a great fit.
What are the Types Of Smokers?
Smokers offer a variety that is meant to suit different tastes and preferences. Mentioned below are some common smoker variations:
Drum Smokers Or ‘UDS’
Drum Smokers, also known as ‘Ugly Drum Smokers’ or ‘Oil Drum BBQs,’ are made out of steel drums. They are the original grill/smoker built with recycled oil drums. Learn more about the basics of Oil Drum BBQs.
The firebox, located at the bottom of the drum, is loaded up with charcoal and wood chunks. A grill grate sits about a foot above the firebox, and a lid covers the barrel with a tight seal to prevent smoke from leaking. The air vents of the drum smoker help you control how hot the drum gets.
Drum Smokers are simply a masterpiece. They are the purest form of the smoker because they’re basically a firebox and a grill grate. This makes them inexpensive but gives you top-notch results.
Propane Or Gas Smoker
A gas smoker, also called a propane smoker, marries the convenience of gas grills with the flavor of smoked food. This makes them perfect for aspiring pitmasters.
Most gas smokers have a cupboard-like design. It contains a burner at the bottom, above which a water pan is placed to maintain moisture and steady heat in the cooking chamber.
Like electric smokers, gas smokers don’t naturally produce smoke, so wood chips are used to achieve a smoky flavor.
The Kamado Grill
Kamado grills are often marketed as grills, but they do a fantastic job at smoking. These grills are based on a 3000-year-old stove design built originally by the Japanese. At the time, the stoves were made out of clay. The modern versions use a ceramic shell, which improves its insulation and durability.
Kamado grills have a removable heat deflector plate positioned between the firebox and the grill grate that helps cook the food with indirect heat. Its compact design enables them to be filled with smoke quickly, which means you save a lot on refueling.
If you want your Kamado grill to function as an ordinary grill. Simply remove the heat deflectors and cook the food over direct fire.
There’s a roaring debate as to which is better – lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. The truth is that the answer varies depending on your needs since both have some really great features. Read more about Charcoal Briquettes vs. Lump Charcoal.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s The Difference Between Grills And Smokers?
The most significant difference between grills and smokers is the temperature at which they cook the food. Grills cook the food at searing hot temperatures while smokers cook the food at relatively low temperatures. Read about their differences in detail.
Can BBQ Smokers Be Used As Grills?
Unless you own a Kamado smoker, BBQ smokers cannot be used as grills. Since smokers are generally built for low-and-slow cooking, they cannot bring the cooker up to searing/grilling temperatures.
Can BBQ Grills be used as Smokers?
Yes, you can easily smoke food on a BBQ grill. All you have to do is place your food away from the direct heat and add some BBQ smoking wood to a smoker box. Here’s a list of the best smoker boxes on the market.
Are BBQ Smokers Healthy?
Yes, cooking food on a smoker is healthier than grilling since you can guarantee that you won’t burn your food by cooking it at extremely high temperatures. However, an excess of all good things causes problems, so be sure to consume responsibly.
Is Smoked Meat Bad For You?
Smoked meat is not bad for you when eaten in moderation. If you’ve spent any time looking up health concerns on the internet, you have definitely found claims about everything under the sun, including the sun itself, causing cancer. Read this article to find out if your fear of “BBQ Causing Cancer” is justified.
Is It Difficult To Use A Smoker?
When compared to BBQ grills, smokers can be challenging to use. Mastering the art of maintaining consistent and low indirect heat takes patience and practice.
BBQ smoking and grilling both offer a unique experience. Pick the one that is best suits your interests and preferences.
I hope this article gave you a better idea about grills and smokers. Feel free to ask me your questions in the comment section below, and I will be sure to address them.
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