Battle of the BBQ: Smokers vs. Grills

You like the idea of cooking outdoors, but should you use a grill or a smoker? The differences come down to more than just taste.

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Cooking outdoors is one of the best ways to enjoy great food and great times with family and friends. Choosing between a grill or a smoker has a big influence on how this fun unfolds. Learn the differences between grills and smokers, and equip yourself with the best possible choice for your backyard gatherings and tailgating feasts.

Grill vs. Smoker: What’s the Difference?

Grills are mostly about heat, and smokers are mostly about flavor-enhancing wood smoke. We say “mostly” because grilling food does involve some smoke, and smokers do generate heat. It’s all a matter of emphasis, the design of the grill, or the smoker you choose and the way you use it.

Pros and Cons of Different Grills

The most popular kind of grill uses propane or natural gas for a heat source, providing fast cooking with no need to start a fire the old-fashioned way. Turn on the gas, hit the igniter button and you’ve got lots of heat right way. If you’re interested in the simplest and most convenient option for cooking outdoors, a gas grill is definitely the way to go. Small electric grills are also an option, but they’re not as popular.

Back in the day charcoal grills used to be the only game in town, and there are still some people who swear by their charcoal grill. Why? Flavor, mostly. A charcoal grill uses ready-made hardwood lump charcoal or briquettes under the cooking grill for a heat source. This delivers more smoky flavor to food, but long startup time is one drawback. It can take a charcoal grill 30 minutes to get as hot as a gas grill gets in 30 seconds. It’s also much easier to control the heat on a gas grill versus a charcoal grill.

Over the years I’ve tested dozens of grills and produced training videos for grill repair technicians, and my all-time favorite gas grill is the Weber Summit series. For a while I had 10 grills sitting on my deck, and I’d always use the Weber Summit if I had a choice.

Pros and Cons of Different Smokers

If you’re a connoisseur looking for the ultimate in taste, a smoker is probably for you. Food takes longer to prepare in a smoker than on a grill because smoking temperatures are always lower than grilling temperatures, allowing more time for the smoke flavor to penetrate the food.

As with grills, there are simpler smokers and more skill-demanding options. One of the simplest smokers to operate uses ready-made wood pellets. Fill the hopper with the pellet of choice (hickory, maple, applewood or mesquite, among others), hit the ON button and let the machine handle the process. Traeger makes some of the world’s best pellet smokers.

At the other end of the convenience spectrum are charcoal smokers. These use the same kind of fuel that charcoal grills burn, but the distance between the combustion and food is greater, allowing for that all-important increased smoking time and lower cooking temperatures. The Weber Smoky Mountain Cooker is so good it has a cult-like following among smoked meat enthusiasts.

Smoking food has been around since before recorded history. The truly traditional approach involves burning wood that gets piped into a small building where food is hung or placed on racks. The modern equivalent is gas- or electric-fired smoker cabinets that use real wood or purchased wood chips. The heat burns the wood, making smoke that flavors your food. The best electric wood smokers are easy to control and operate pretty much on autopilot.

Grill vs. Smoker vs. Hybrid

The easiest way to decide which is best for you comes down to several basic questions. Do you fancy yourself a crafter of fine food? Do you mind investing a few extra hours to make top-grade beef taste even better? If you answer yes to these questions, a smoker is probably your best bet.

On the other hand, if you want quick cooking results and are willing to sacrifice some smoky flavor in exchange for less time waiting to eat, you’re a gas-grill kind of outdoor cook.

As with many things in life, the difference between grills and smokers is not black-and-white. There is some overlap. Choose a gas grill with a smoke box that you fill with wood shavings, and the enhanced smoke flavor will up your grilling game considerably.

Want something a little closer to smoker performance without spending hours waiting for that beef brisket? A charcoal grill with a tightly sealable lid gets even closer to smoker performance, while still grilling food at a hotter temperature when you want faster cook times.

You could always get a dedicated smoker when you’ve got the time and inclination to let meat slow-smoke for hours, but then fire up the gas grill when unexpected visitors turn into dinner guests.

Steve Maxwell
Steve Maxwell is an award-winning content creator who has published more than 5,000 articles, shot countless photos and produced video since 1988. Using his experience as a carpenter, builder, stone mason and cabinetmaker, he has created content for Mother Earth News, Reader's Digest, Family Handyman, Cottage Life, Canadian Contractor, Canadian Home Workshop, and many more. Steve lives on Manitoulin Island, Canada with his wife and children in a stone house he built himself. His website gets 180,000+ views each month, his YouTube channel has 58,000+ subscribers and his weekly newsletter is received by 31,000 subscribers each Saturday morning.