There are definitely two sides to the fence in the argument of electric smokers versus charcoal. This debate mainly comes down to what type of outdoor cook you are. If you are a fix it and forget it person, you’re probably on the electric side of the fence. If you enjoy puttering around with coals, wood chips and regulating heat by vent and coal rotation, you’re probably not going to concede to electric. Each option provides a good end product, but there will be some differences. Are you willing to give up some of the smoky flavor and charred exterior to be able to load the smoker and not come back until finished? It’s all a matter of preference, and this guide will help lead you to your perfect match!
Electric Smoker vs. Charcoal- Which One is Better?
As the prices of electric smokers drops, their popularity increases. A base model electric smoker is about $100 and can be used both indoors and out. This alone allows an entire segment of apartment dwellers to have the ability to smoke items at home. That being said, charcoal smokers have been around for a very long time and have cult followings in many of the top BBQ regions of the United States.
Electric smokers are, for the most part, going to be on the smaller size. The heating element requires less room than coals and wood do. and air flow is not as important because the heat is continually monitored and maintained by electric devices. Charcoal smokers require enough room for a hefty set of coals to provide heat throughout the cook time. There also has to be enough space for the cook to maneuver the heat source and wood for smoke. Once the space for heat source is allocated, the size of the smoker will be determined by its capacity. Both electric and charcoal lines of smokers have models from small to smokehouse, volume will not be the limitation of your choice.
3. Space Requirement
Where do you prefer to cook? Charcoal is going to be an outside only affair due to safety precautions. Depending on the model, electric smoking can be done either indoors or outdoors. Some models, like the Bradley Electric Smoker are outdoors only as there are precautionary measures due to the bisquettes which are heated to provide the continuous smoke. Other models like the Smokin-It may be used indoors or outdoors. Charcoal smokers not only need to be used outdoors, but there does need to be a significant area cleared around the smoker during use to avoid fire hazards. The Charcoal smoker is likely to be stored outdoors, as well. Some of the electric smokers are more portable and may be used on a tabletop or placed on a cart for easier mobility.
4. Fuel Source
The fuel source and your temperature goals are going to be the key factors in determining what type of smoker best suits your needs. Electric smokers, even high end electric smokers, don’t attain temperatures much higher than 325 to 350 degrees. Some of the lower end electric versions will not get higher than 200 degrees, making it truly a cool smoker or a dehydrator that infuses smoke. Charcoal and wood smokers have a much more variant temperature spectrum, but also require the knowledge of how to build and maintain the heat source. Charcoal smokers allow you to cook your protein low and slow and then finish off at a higher temperature for a nice burnished crust on the exterior.
Other than flavor from seasoning and the protein itself, even the best electric smokers are not going to infuse as much smoky flavor as a charcoal smoker does. Having heat release the tannins and natural oils from the wood and allow them to mingle over low heat and really lock flavor into the protein. Charcoal smokers are tops in this regard. Their flavor is far better than electric smokers.
6. Heating or Cooking Process
An electric smoker generates high intensity radiant waves producing heat and then powers off. After that it re-energizes the heat coils on a timer or whenever the temperature drops. This is much like cooking with an indirect heat source because the heat is maintained mainly by the thermostat and the insulation of the smoke box.
Charcoal smokers provide continuous heat that breaks down the fibers of the protein and yields tender, juicy results. In my opinion, the results are in direct proportion to the skill of the cook. Maintaining continuous, slow heat is its own art form and does require patience, practice and being accessible throughout the cooking process.
Once the smoke clears, the decision really comes down to what you want to achieve. What types of proteins do you see yourself smoking on a regular basis and how often and much will you be cooking? Are you willing to invest a little more into the cost of an electric smoker and not be an active participant in the cooking method? Or are you in the market to learn a craft and save a little on the front end by doing so. If Boston Butts, brisket and ribs are on your mind, you’ll probably want to put your money and time investment into a charcoal smoker. If you have a steady stream of fresh salmon coming to you, you’re definitely going to benefit from a cool smoke apparatus to effectively cure the salmon steaks. Whatever the case, just like choosing one restaurant over another, each provides perfectly acceptable end results with slight variations on each side of the experience.