You know it's time to replace your tired, old charcoal kettle barbecue. It's seen its fair share of hamburgers and hot dogs. You've charred chicken – sometimes on purpose. There's even a perfectly steak-shaped spot where the finish has come off the grate, and you remember exactly what happened that one time.
Now comes the big choice – buy a grill or buy a smoker. You know that smokers can do some grill stuff and grills can do some smoker stuff, but choosing which one is right for you isn't easy. Before you shell out hard-earned cash, we want to let you know about the functional differences between grills and smokers that can make or break your decision. We want you to love cooking, no matter how you want to do it, so this isn't about which is better. We're going to show you what makes grills and smokers different and how you can use the features of each one to cook delicious meals.
The Difference Between Smokers & Grills
We need to establish the key differences between these two right off the bat. The easiest way to look at this is that smokers cook food indirectly while grills cook food directly. Some smokers can cook directly and most grills can be set up to cook indirectly, but that's not what they were really meant to do.
When you're choosing between a grill and a smoker, the most important decision you can make is to choose the tool that does the job you are the most interested in doing. We're going to get into this in depth today, but you should know that this is the key difference between the two.
The term "grill" gets used a lot for tools that are not grills. So, before we start talking about anything else, let's make a distinction between grills and barbecues. A grill uses gas to create heat. A charcoal grill is actually a barbecue – or rather cooks food barbecue-style using a grill.
When we talk about grills, we are talking specifically about gas-fueled grills. A gas grill is fueled by propane or natural gas but never charcoal. Smokers on the other hand can use wood pellets, charcoal, or even gas.
Types of Smokers
There are several types of smokers on the market that offer various features to give you excellent smoke flavor. We are going to talk about pellet smokers, charcoal smokers, and gas smokers. The obvious difference is the type of fuel you use to cook.
- Pellet Smokers: This type of smoker uses pellets of compressed wood chips and sawdust to generate smoke. A hopper stores pellets while an electric auger draws the pellets into a burn box. The burn box uses an electric coil to ignite the pellets and a digital thermometer to regulate the temperature by speeding up or slowing the auger. An example of a pellet smoker is the Traeger Ironwood 885.
- Charcoal Smoker: There are several designs of charcoal smokers. One type that is common is the vertical smoker. These look like R2-D2 from Star Wars and use charcoal in the base, a water tray or convection plate, and a grate with a tight fitting lid. Horizontal smokers burn charcoal in a separate burn box and vent smoke through the smoker. They look like a barrel on it's side. Kamado smokers look like eggs. These are made of heavy ceramic that retains heat and works great for smoking or grilling.
- Gas Smoker: This is the least common variety of smoker. They look like a mini-fridge and are most often fueled by propane. They function as a vertical smoker and use a gas flame to smoke chunks of hardwood chips, chunks, or pellets.
How They Work
Grills and smokers both function in unique ways that allow them to produce distinct flavors. The main difference is the way that heat is applied to the cooking area. Grills produce direct heat while smokers are indirect heat sources. There are ways to make grills do indirect heat and some smokers can do direct heat.
Direct Heat and Grilling
Direct heat is essential for cooking hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, chops, and chicken wings. A grill lets you crank up the heat, often to 500 degrees or more. You can sear with a grill which is the perfect way to cook a steak or vegetables. Good quality grills can also run lower temperatures, usually around 300 degrees. This will let you slow-roast or slow-grill thicker pieces of meat like roasts and whole chickens.
Indirect Heat and Smoking
One of the key components of a smoker is the ability to separate the flame from the cooking zone. Since the food isn't exposed to direct flame, it cooks slower. Smokers typically operate at temperatures below 300 degrees with the ideal temperature for most smoked meats coming in around 225 or 250 degrees. Low temperatures allow the smoke flavor to set into the meat. An indirect heat source takes longer to cook, so you should plan on spending time on the process.
The Different Methods of Grilling
Grilling offers a certain amount of versatility that you can take advantage of to create lots of unique meals. There are different ways you can use a grill when cooking that depend on the type of protein you are working with. The main advantage of using a gas grill is that you can raise and lower the temperatures rather easily.
- Low-temp grilling: When you are cooking thicker pieces of meat like chuck roasts on a grill, you want to lower the burners as much as possible. Your grill temperature should be around 300 degrees. Lower temperatures are essential to cook the meat all the way through without overcooking it.
- High-temp grilling: This is what you want when you are searing steaks or cooking hamburgers. A high heat will quickly cook the outside of the meat, creating a crackly crust while locking the moisture in. When you cook meat that shouldn't be too rare, high-heat is a great way to go.
- Direct or Indirect heat: You can easily create different temperature zones within a gas grill. This is often called a two-zone cooking style. The trick is to set one side of your grill on medium-high while leaving the other side off or on very low. You can use water trays to further regulate heat in a gas grill.
- Smoking on a grill: Even though a grill isn't designed to be a smoker, you can make it work that way with a little ingenuity. Start by setting up a two-zone, indirect heat zone. Place wood pellets or chips in a tin foil pouch and place it in the direct zone. Keep an eye on the pellets, you don't want the pellets to ignite but just start to smolder. You will need to move the pellets toward or away from the flame to find the ideal spot. You may even need to place them below the grate near the burner.
Using a Smoker
Before you set your sights on a smoker, it's important to understand the differences between charcoal and pellet smokers, the two most common types. Pellet smokers are as close to "leave it and forget it" as you'll get. They use digital thermometers to control the temperature so you can close the lid and walk away. As long as the hopper doesn't run out of pellets, the temperature will remain relatively stable.
This is ideal when you are smoking something big like a butt roast or a brisket. Keeping a charcoal smoker at a consistent temperature for eight to twelve hours is an art. When you use a high quality smoker like the Big Green Egg, you have excellent control using airflow through the top and bottom of the smoker.
One advantage to using a charcoal smoker is that you can convert them easily into a grill. Vertical and kamado-style smokers use either a water tray or a convection plate to block direct heat from reaching your food. Simply removing the plate or pan allows for direct heat. A kamado grill can reach temperatures in excess of 500 degrees, perfect for searing.
Both grills and smokers have disadvantages. Some of these issues can be worked around, while others are simply limitations of the design. Understanding the disadvantages of grills and smokers may help you narrow down the ideal product for you.
Disadvantages of Smokers
Pellet and charcoal smokers both need proper fuel. Pellets can be relatively expensive. A 20 pound bag of pellets will last between six and 20 hours depending on temperature according to Traeger. That means if you are smoking a brisket for 12 hours, you'll need two bags of pellets.
Charcoal can be less predictable. It isn't a good idea to smoke with briquettes as they use chemicals and questionable wood products. Instead, you should use lump charcoal and chunks of hardwood to get the ideal balance of flavor and smoke. How long a bag of lump charcoal will last depends on the type of wood, the size of the pieces, and the temperature you are aiming to hit.
A key disadvantage of pellet smokers is the need for power. The auger and burner are electric, so you'll need to plug the smoker in. This limits the locations you can choose to set your smoker up and enjoy. Charcoal smokers tend to be somewhat messy, so you should also consider that even a good kamado-style smoker will leave charcoal dust and some ash on the ground.
Disadvantages of Grills
Just like with smokers, you need the right fuel for a grill. Most grills are fueled by propane. In some places, getting a propane tank filled is fast, easy, and inexpensive. Other places, filling an empty propane cylinder is a big hassle. When your propane suddenly runs out on Sunday afternoon, finding a place to fill the tank can be impossible. It's a good idea to have at least two tanks so that one is always full as a back-up.
The biggest disadvantage to cooking on a gas grill is the lack of flavor the device contributes. Gas burns cleanly without leaving any residue, so there is also no flavor. You'll want to use more seasonings and spices when cooking on a gas grill to make up for the lack of flavor. Alternatively, you can use pellets or wood chunks indirectly to add flavor, but you will lose effective cooking space.
Which Should You Buy?
Choosing between a smoker and a grill is a challenge. The best way to pick the best option for you is to consider the types of food you cook most often. If you really love making hamburgers and hot dogs, grilling steaks, and searing fish – a smoker probably doesn't make a lot of sense. But if your goal is tender, juicy ribs, brisket, and the ability to make your own bacon – a smoker is your best bet.
Knowing the difference between a grill and a smoker may not seem very important, but when you're getting ready to invest serious money into a piece of equipment, you want to know it's capabilities and limitations. When you go shopping for a new grill or smoker, you'll be able to notice the differences and make the best choice for your cooking dreams.
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