Smokers and grills are staples at summer cookouts, but the two are not the same. Grilling your meat won’t give it that same smoky flavor that you’ll get with a smoker, and a smoker won’t give that same grilled flavor you love with hot dogs and hamburgers. So, what’s the difference between the two? Is one better than the other? In this guide, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of smokers and grills and how the two compare in the performance department.
Smokers: Mastering an Art
As you may have guessed, smokers use smoke to cook food. Smokers can be charcoal, gas, wood or electric. Gas and electric smokers are much easier to use and require less tending to. However, charcoal and wood smokers produce a more authentic “barbeque” flavor.
Smokers generally follow the same design. A water basin and a wood chip basin are placed in the bottom of the smoker chamber. Either water or sand can be placed in the water basin. The wood provides the smoky flavor and produces the smoke, while the water (or sand) helps keep the internal temperature stable.
The type of wood that you choose will have a direct impact on the end taste, and some woods are better suited for certain foods than others. Serious Eats has a great guide on how to select wood for your smoker if you’d like to learn more.
Smoking foods, meats in particular, also helps to preserve them. Our ancestors used to hang meats from spiked sticks over a smoky fire pit, and smoke houses have been used for centuries by many cultures around the world to preserve meat. The smoke contains chemical compounds that inhibit the growth of bacteria. With smoking, the goal is to cook meats for an extended period of time and at a low temperature.
There are advantages and disadvantages to using a smoker.
Pros of Smokers:
- Foods are flavorful and tender
- Gives foods a smoky flavor
- Electric smokers are convenient and easy to use
- Smokers allow for extended slow cooking with minimal tending
- Creates an authentic barbeque flavor
Cons of Smokers:
- Smoking foods takes longer than grilling and other cooking methods
- Charcoal and wood smokers require more tending to
- Temperature is not always easy to control
- Food safety can be a concern
Without a meat thermometer, it can be difficult to discern whether or not the meat is fully cooked when using a smoker. Meats that are not cooked all the way can be dangerous to consume.
Grills: Easier and Flavorful
Grills can be found in most backyards all over the world.They may be powered by electric, charcoal or gas. Everyone has their own opinion on which type of grill produces the best flavor, but charcoal and gas are preferred to electric models.
Grilling allows for quick cooking, and foods need to be rotated frequently for even heating. Foods can be grilled over high or low heat, depending on the type of food being grilled. Grills tend to be most efficient at cooking smaller pieces of food, like chicken breasts, chops and steaks.
Grills also have some advantages and disadvantages:
- Cooks foods quickly
- Easy to use
- Healthier way to cook as excess fats drip off meats
- Vegetables and meats retain more vitamins
- Foods stay moist and flavorful when basted
- Foods need to be turned frequently to avoid burning
- For beginners, charcoal grills can be difficult to get started
Grilling is often preferred over roasting, baking and frying simply because it allows you to cook with less oil and excess fat drips away from the meat.
The Difference Between Grills and Smokers
Grills and smokers may look similar, but the two are very different in several ways.
Grills and smokers use different temperatures to cook foods. No matter whether you’re using a charcoal or gas grill, the internal temperature can be very hot – as high as 400 degrees or more in some cases. This is because grills use direct heat to cook foods, whereas smokers use indirect heat.
The internal temperature of a smoker will range anywhere between 160 and 300 degrees F. Lower temperatures are better suited for fish, cheese and vegetables, whereas most meats are smoked at about 200-220 degrees.
A smoker and grill may have similar appearances, but their internal designs are very different. Grills are designed to apply direct heat to the foods being cooked on the grates. No matter whether you’re using gas, charcoal or even electric, heat is applied directly to foods. This is why cooking times are much shorter when foods are grilled.
Smokers, on the other hand, use indirect heat to cook the food. With a charcoal or wood smoker, heat is typically vented into the cooking chamber from the fire chamber.
The cooking techniques used to grill meats is very different from the cooking techniques used to smoke meats. With grilling, it is essential to turn the food frequently to prevent it from burning. The direct heat cooks food quickly, but it can also burn food quickly if the food is left unattended.
With a smoker, it’s generally not necessary to turn the food as indirect heat is what cooks the food. It creates an environment that’s similar to the oven in your kitchen. The food cooks slowly, which allows more smoke flavor to penetrate the food.
Smoking is a great way to preserve foods when done properly. This is something that really cannot be achieved with grilling. Before refrigerators, people relied on smoking and salt to preserve their foods.
Preserving meats is done through hard smoking. The end product is similar to jerky. Recipes use a lot of salt and meats are smoked at low temperatures until almost all of the moisture is cooked off. The salt prevents the growth of bacteria as does removing the moisture from the meat. Providing you smoke your meat properly, you can create jerky with an indefinite shelf life (although the jerky is best if consumed within six months to a year).
Smokers vs Grills – Which is the Best Choice?
Whether or not you choose a smoker or a grill will depend on your own personal taste preference and the type of food you want to cook. Grilling is a simple and direct way to cook foods, while smoking will provide you with some unique options. For example, you can use your smoker to smoke cheese or create beef jerky. These are two things that you cannot do with a grill.
Grills on the other hand, allow you to cook foods quickly. This is why they’re better suited for cookouts (or barbeques) than smokers. You can cook a large amount of food in a relatively short period of time. Smoking, on the other hand, takes hours. For ease of use, most people prefer grills. However, it’s hard to beat the flavor produced by smokers.
For large cuts of meat, like roasts, ribs, briskets and ham, smoking is the preferred option. Smoking is also the best option for making jerky. If the food can benefit from a smoky flavor and slow cooking is preferred, smoking is the best choice. However, small cuts of meat such as chicken breasts, steaks and chops are better cooked on the grill.