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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Doug is a hardcore barbeque enthusiast and connoisseur. While he spends most of his time on editing and research, he sometimes moonlights as a product tester for particularly interesting things he comes across.
Smokers give food an authentic and smoky barbecue flavor. They are a great alternative to grills or an excellent addition to an outdoor grilling area.
Many people find smoking food with charcoal the best barbecuing method. However, using charcoal can be expensive and time-consuming. It can also be challenging to control the temperature accurately. Electric or propane smokers are an excellent alternative as they are easy to use and offer precision control. You simply need to plug in an electric smoker, and propane smokers work with propane tanks and an automatic ignition that is quick and easy to install.
Electric vs. Propane Smokers: What is the Difference?
Every electric smoker has an electric element at the bottom which heats up when plugged in. There’s a pan you can fill with wood chips on top of the electric element. When the wood chips start burning, the cooking chamber fills up with smoke giving food the desired smoky flavor.
Propane smokers are similar in terms of the basic design with a large central smoke chamber and a heating unit underneath. There is a gas burner at the bottom that switches on with an ignition and a shelf or tray directly on top for wood chips. Gas smokers usually run on propane tanks, but some use natural gas.
1. The Difference in Temperature
When comparing an electric vs. a propane smoker, their temperature range is the most significant difference. Both types of smokers can reach the optimal cooking temperature of 300°F. However, propane grills can go up to much higher temperatures, around 500°F.
Propane smokers can reach temperatures similar to charcoal smokers, but they are much easier to use. The high temperatures allow you not only to smoke meat but also to grill and sear it.
However, when using an electric smoker, you can cook at much lower temperatures than propane smokers. Cooking at low temperatures is useful for cold smoking foods and cooking delicate foods such as fish.
2. How Convenient Are They?
When comparing an electric vs. a propane smoker, it’s essential to look at their convenience and how easy is it to use.
Ease of Use
Beginners find electric smokers especially easy to use because you simply plug them in to start using them. You don't have to go through the complicated process of connecting a propane tank to the smoker. However, a downside of electric smokers is that you can’t take them camping unless you have get an outdoor generator.
Controlling temperature is much easier with electric smokers. The dials on electric smokers make it easy to set a specific temperature, set a timer, and leave the food cooking while doing something else. Many electric smokers also feature a digital display that is simple to read.
Propane smokers have a steeper learning curve because the temperature is harder to control. With propane smokers, you must monitor the power at which the gas flows from the propane tank. Most propane smokers have vents and dampers, and it’s necessary to learn how to use them. With all this taken into account, a propane smoker is still more straightforward to use than a charcoal smoker.
People choosing electric smokers over propane ones because of their ease of use will also need to be patient when cooking. The electric element, which heats up using electricity, takes a while to start going. Since propane smokers use an open flame, cooking tends to be much shorter.
Repairs and Maintenance
Because electric smokers feature more advanced technology, repairs can often be complicated and expensive. Electric smokers are slightly less robust than propane smokers, which can stand harsher weather conditions.
If an outdoor cooking space isn’t covered, an electric smoker runs the risk of being severely damaged. When placing an electric smoker outside, you must protect it from the rain. Inclement weather conditions could be a problem for people who want to take their smoker camping or tailgating.
Propane smokers have no problems running in the wind and rain. However, propane smokers aren’t insulated as well as electric models, which means keeping a high heat with bad weather conditions could be challenging, and in the worst-case scenario, it could damage the smoker.
3. Flavor and Smokiness
When thinking about the taste of food cooked in an electric vs. propane smoker, most people agree that the differences aren’t too significant. However, people point out that a propane smoker will give you a smoky flavor closer to a charcoal smoker.
One crucial difference is that you can’t make a smoke ring on food with an electric smoker. Heat needs to be especially strong for meat to acquire a smoke ring. When the wood chips burn at a high temperature, they release the chemicals that create the ring.
4. Difference in Cost
In terms of cost, electric smokers are generally more expensive. The digital and electronic components increase the price. Propane smokers tend to be a lot cheaper to purchase outright.
Since they run on electricity, electric smokers are cheaper to run than propane smokers. However, the cost of repairs could make them more expensive in the long run.
The long-term cost of using a propane smoker could vary. Propane costs more than electricity, but it depends on how often you use the smoker. A propane tank can last for a whole summer if you are only grilling every other weekend.
5. Cold Smoking
Although propane smokers are a little more versatile in cooking styles, electric smokers have better temperature control, which has some advantages, such as cold smoking.
It’s practically impossible to achieve cold smoking on a propane smoker. However, electric smokers can easily maintain a low temperature, making them great for cold smoking.
For those who find charcoal and propane smokers’ flavor too intense, cold smoking with electric smokers can be a great alternative. Cold smoking gives food a subtle and distinct smoky flavor. It’s often used on fish, white meat, vegetables, and cheese.
Electric vs. Propane Smokers: Which Should You Choose?
An electric smoker is easier to use and eliminates the guesswork when smoking meat and vegetables, making it the ideal choice for a novice griller.
However, propane smokers are cheaper and more convenient to carry and maintain. Some models are extremely compact, making them great for camping, traveling, or the beach. In addition to their convenience, propane smokers heat up quickly and create a smokier flavor.
Whichever smoker you decide on, these grills make an outstanding addition to any outdoor entertaining area. They are an excellent choice for creating tender, gently smoked dishes for your next outdoor cookout.