Electric smokers: probably the easiest to get into, but the smoke flavor?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 28, 2022

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Electric smokers are essentially box smokers or vertical smokers with a steel hot plate for thermal generation.

Because there is no burning, there is no cellulose, lignin, char, or even oxygen combusted, there are no combustion gases.

What is an electric smoker?

It is an electric device, usually used outdoors or indoors, that smokes and cooks using hot electric rods.

Since the heat source is electrical, it’s different from using charcoal or pellet smokers like some of these models, which create a lot of smoke. Electric smokers are cleaner and easier to use because they don’t require as much supervision.

Electric smokers come in many sizes, from small indoor ones to large indoor smokers for commercial purposes and outdoors smokers. Although designs can vary, most are made of stainless steel or cast iron.

Features may vary, they can have different sized cooking areas, warming racks, smoking racks, and cool modern features. These include:

  • smartphone-operated Bluetooth features
  • one-touch power buttons, automated heating, and cool-down cycles
  • digital control panels
  • remote controls

The bottom line is that electric smokers make delicious food that’s smoky and flavorful, and they are easier to use and operate. With an electric smoker, everyone, including beginners, can smoke tasty foods.

How to buy a bbq smoker video
How to buy a bbq smoker video

For this I would recommend you get the Masterbuilt Electric Smoker, which is also in our top brands post because it’s a digital smoker which you can set and leave:

Masterbuilt vertical digital electric smoker

(view more images)

There is also no smoke flavor because there is no smoke.

To overcome this, electric smokers also use wood chips or pellets, placed on a metal tray with a lid to prevent flash fires (this is optional) to get that smoked flavor from the wood fire.

Advantages of a vertical electric smoker

  • Electric smokers are affordable and they usually sell for $200 – $500 apiece.
  • They are lightweight and easy to use, plus you can use a lot of them indoors!
  • Luckily, there is no need to worry about smoke because they don’t produce any outside of the chamber.
  • Some brands have advanced computer controls. These take the cooking tasks off your hands so you can do other important things while you wait for the meat to cook.

Disadvantages

  • The temperature doesn’t get high enough to get that desired seared meat. Additionally, you can’t use them outdoors, not without some sort of weather protection at least. When it rains, its electrical components can get damaged.
  • There is no smoke ring and most agree you can’t get that ideal taste of smoked meat.
  • They have limited capacity due to the issue of heating problems.

Are electric smokers any good?

Unfortunately, there are some myths floating around that electric smokers aren’t as good as the ‘authentic’ wood-fired ones. The truth is, they are just different. 

In fact, electric smokers are healthier than other types. They are also safer to use and there’s less chance of injury when you use them.

When cooking the electric smoker reduces the smoke and heat leakage. This eliminates flare-ups and smoke from the open flames.

Finally, keep in mind that an electric smoker cooks in less time, therefore it’s more efficient and cost-effective.

How do electric smokers work?

An electric smoker is a relatively simple smoking device, and it doesn’t have too many components.

The smoker has a cooking chamber and hot rods, which heat up when plugged into a power outlet. These rods heat the cooking chamber by circulating hot air.

Thus, the basic principle is this: the electric smoker heats food through convection.

The smoker also has grill racks where you can place food, a water pan to keep enough moisture, and a place to put wood chips or chunks for smoke flavor.

The wood burns alongside the heaters, and these are responsible for giving meat that classic smoke flavor.

Main components of an electrical smoker

Before you can become a master at using your electric smoker, it’s important to understand how it’s built and how it works.

Here are the main components:

Heating rods

Each smoker has at least, but usually more metallic heating rods. These are located at the bottom and heat up the space (cooking chamber) and cook the meat.

The heat builds up slowly; thus, the meat cooks slowly. After all, smoking is all about cooking low and slow.

Wood chip tray

Each model is slightly different, but each contains a wood chip tray near the electric heater. You have to place wood chips or small chunks into the tray.

These burn slowly and produce flavorful smoke. Of course, you can only use wood chips that are safe for smoking, such as fruitwoods, and select hardwoods like hickory.

The chips are added to the firebox about a quarter of the way into the smoking process. Usually, you add about a couple of cups to add flavor to the meat.

Water pan

The water pan is usually located under the wood chip tray or under racks if the wood chip tray is on the side.

At the start of smoking, cold water is added to the pan to ensure the temperature in the smoker doesn’t get too hot too quickly. As soon as the water starts to heat up, it releases steam, and that helps the convection cooking process.

Also, the water ensures the food stays a bit tender and moist and doesn’t end up hard and chewy. Humidity is essential for the best-smoked foods.

How to or should you use an electric smoker water pan?

It’s best to use the water pan. This piece of equipment makes temperature control much easier.

When it’s cold outside, you can add some hot water to the pan. It helps the smoker reach a high temperature quicker.

On the other hand, when it’s hot outside, but the smoker temperature is getting too hot, you can add some cold water to the pan. It can help maintain a stable temperature in the cooking chamber.

Learn more: Why put water in a BBQ smoker? Benefits + when NOT to

Grilling racks

The grilling racks are where you put the meat or other foods when you smoke. Most of these racks are made out of non-stick stainless steel.

You place the food straight onto the racks (especially filet cuts of meat). You can also place your cast iron skillets right onto the grilling racks for roasted foods.

Dampers and vents

Without dampers and vents, you can’t control the smoker’s temperature. The temperature settings in an electric smoker are controlled by airflow.

Since oxygen feeds the flames, you need to be able to control how much oxygen goes in.

Dampers at the bottom of the smoker unit open, so they allow air to enter. When more air enters, the oxygen feeds those flames that increase the temperature.

Vents at the top of the smoker can be opened and closed as needed. They allow the heat to escape when the temperature gets too hot.

Some heat also escapes when you open the unit’s front doors when you check on the food.

How do I choose an electric smoker?

If you have the right electric smoker, you can prepare the perfect piece of smoked meat. Imagine smoking your own sausage or a couple of cornish hens for a family dinner.

It’s all about the equipment.

Here’s what to look for when buying an electric smoker:

Cooking Capacity

Consider the size of the smoker. The product description usually states how much of one food you can cook at once. For example, some smokers will say you can smoke 2 whole chickens at once.

The size you need depends on how many people you want to feed.

If you cook for a small family, buy a small smoker. For occasional family events or guests, choose a medium-sized one. Finally, if you cook for large groups on a regular basis, invest in a commercial-grade electric smoker.

How Much Space it Requires

A smoker can be large or small, but it depends on how much storage space you have in your home. Never choose a large device that takes up all the kitchen space or outdoor patio area. Besides, a small smoker can do the job just fine and there’s no need to buy bulky equipment.

Features

Looks for special features like temperature control, sturdy materials, and a see-through door.

If you want to see the meat smoking and you are a beginner, choose a smoker with a window on the door. This way you can see the food smoking and you aren’t tempted to open the door to check how well the food is smoking.

Controller

You can buy an analog smoker which shows you the temperature on a gauge. The disadvantage to this is that it’s hard to control.

An electric smoker is much easier to control. You can set the temperature and time and let the device do the smoking. The smoker maintains heat at a constant temperature during the cooking process.

An Electric Smoker’s Temperature Safety Zone

The USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service recommends users of electric smokers to maintain temperatures between 225 °F and 300 °F all throughout the cooking process. This is the reason why an electric smoker is unsuitable for cooking food that is not fully thawed. Meat is done whenever internal temperatures reach:

  • 165° F for poultry
  • 160° F for pork, lamb, ground beef, and veal
  • 145° F for beef, lamb steaks, roasts, and veal

As mentioned earlier, the best electric smokers come with their own temperature probes. There are even those with wireless thermostats that enable you to monitor your smoker’s temperature on your mobile phone or tablet.

They’re great features as they let you ensure everything is going smoothly and the ‘doneness’ you want for your cooks is achieved.

Depending on your electric smoker’s construction, it is important to take note that the following may impact your equipment’s temperature stability:

  • Seal integrity of the door
  • Kind of insulation used
  • External temperatures
  • Smoker’s power capacity

How to use an electric smoker

When you’re cooking with your electric smoker, you’re using a low-heat, slow cook, convection oven. How it works is that the hot air surrounds the meat (or other foods), and it heats up the internal temperature of the food while adding a smoky flavor.

The heat is provided by a hot metallic rod. These devices are easier to use than traditional pellet or offset smokers because you simply set the temperature, and then you can go about your day.

You will need to occasionally add more water and flavored wood chips but only once every few hours.

Here is a step-by-step guide on using an electric smoker:

  1. Turn on the smoker by plugging it into an electrical outlet and turn the ignition on. Use the smoker’s instruction manual to check how to do it best because each smoker model varies.
  2. Fill the water tray with water (hot water in the winter). You can add some herbs if you want extra flavor.
  3. Add wood chips to the wood chip tray or wood chip loader. Close the loader.
  4. Some smokers also have a small tray under the grates where you can store wood chips if you don’t have a separate storage solution. Residue from the wood loader can accumulate there but don’t worry; this only enhances the smoky flavor. Don’t empty this tray; let the wood bits add flavor.
  5. Now it’s time to add the food. Marinated meats, seafood, cheese, and vegetables can now be added straight to the grates or in cast-iron pans. Position the food well, lock the grill and make sure to secure the lock.
  6. Look for the temperature gauge and the timer settings. Depending on your food, you should set the ideal temperature and time to cook.
  7. Once smoking is well underway; you may have to adjust the vents and dampers. The airflow regulates the temperature, so keep an eye on it; even if you are a distance, don’t leave the smoker unattended for too long.
  8. After the food is smoked and finished, clean the smoker to remove residue and grime.

Check out this short video in which a woman demonstrated how to use the Masterbuilt electric smoker in 5 easy steps. It’s short and easy to understand and follow along to:

Can barbecue meats be smoked well in an electric smoker?

Of course, it’s simple to make very smokey and tasty meat in your electric smoker. The secret to making delicious smoked meat recipes is to learn how to set up and use an electric smoker properly.

Once you get the hang of it, you won’t stop smoking. An electric smoker cooks meat well, helping the meat retain juiciness and tenderness while infusing it with smokiness, often from flavored woods.

There are pitmasters like Meathead Goldwyn who insist that an electric smoker is not as good as traditional charcoal, gas, or pellet smokers.

But he admits that electric smokers can cook very tasty foods, and they are easy to use.

Convenience is important after all, and if the meat is full of flavor, there is no reason not to buy an electric smoker.

What are the pros and cons of electric smokers for cooking?

Pros

  • Easy to turn on and off and start smoking
  • Most are portable or at least easy to move
  • The cooking surface distributes the heat evenly
  • Maintenance is easy
  • There are indoor and outdoor models
  • It doesn’t require constant monitoring. Once you set it up and add the wood, you only need to check the water and wood every four to six hours.
  • Available for all budgets
  • Not costly to use
  • If you have a water-based smoker, you can add additional ingredients like herbs to flavor the food.
  • The food is moist and tender
  • It’s pretty affordable to use
  • Dry heat smokers give the meat a crispy layer, and it’s very delicious
  • Takes less time to smoke food

Cons

  • The newest and most innovative electric smoker models with Bluetooth and smartphone-controlled apps are more expensive than charcoal, pellet, or gas smokers
  • Depending on the model, it can be hard to assemble and learn to use
  • Some models are not suitable for both indoor and outdoor use
  • Outdoor electric smokers require a nearby outlet
  • They can create unpleasant smoke and smells
  • You constantly have to clean the grease pans to avoid fires

Electric smoker vs. charcoal

Electric smokers are different because their heat source is electricity.

An electric smoker has a heated rod near the bottom of the unit. The hot air circulates and combines with the smoke to cook and infuse the food with a smoky flavor.

Once you set the timer and temperature, you can basically let it do the work.

The charcoal smoker functions on a simple principle – hot charcoals burn and generate heat to cook foods. Wood chunks or chips burn on top of the charcoal and add that smoky flavor.

The disadvantage of charcoal smokers is that they constantly require attention. The temperature fluctuates, so you have to adjust the dampers and vents more often.

A charcoal smoker gives a smokier flavor to the food than an electric unit. Also, it can give the meat that crispy skin that an electric just can’t.

The bottom line is that although charcoal smokers are usually cheaper and more popular, they are more difficult to use.

Read more on Wood pellet vs. charcoal vs. wood chips vs. wood chunks

Electric smoker vs. pellet smoker

Electric and pellet smokers both have to be plugged into an electrical source. While the electrical smoker cooks the food with electricity, the pellet smoker works with combustion.

But the main difference between the two is that pellet smokers use special hardwood pellets that burn and smoke your food. The pellets provide an indirect heat source that cooks the meat.

The advantage of a pellet smoker is that you can cook all kinds of foods, and it’s not just for smoking. Cooking options for these units include baking, grilling, smoking, charring, and roasting. How about pellet smoker bacon?

In terms of flavor, the pellet smoker gives a more intense smoky flavor because the combustion of wood imparts a different flavor from electric units.

The bottom line is that pellet smokers are great because they give food that classic smokiness pitmasters are after. They are still more difficult to use, though, than electric smokers.

Electric smoker vs. propane smoker

An electric smoker is best when you want to control and cook delicate foods like cheese and fish. When you use a propane smoker, you have less control over temperature.

Gas smokers are more versatile, and they can cook at a higher temperature but require constant monitoring while you use them.

Propane smokers have a propane tank that acts as the fuel source. You can add wood chips to the smoker, too, and so you get amazing wood smoke-flavored food.

The gas smoker is most similar to charcoal smokers, and you can get the same kinds of results.

What makes the propane smoker is that you don’t need electricity to run it, but you’ve got to fill up that propane tank regularly.

But, for outdoor smoking, it’s very convenient. Also, these smokers are cheaper than electric smokers.

Electric smoker temperature range

Electrical smokers, like the Masterbuilt, have a temperature range between 100-275 degrees F (37-135 Celsius).

But, there are some electric smokers with a wider temperature range between 100 F all the way to 500 F. That’s the best option if you plan on smoking a variety of meats and other foods.

Before you start to worry that your electrical smoker doesn’t get hot enough, you should know that the ideal temperature for smoking is between 225 to 250 F.

This is just a generalization, and some meats require other temperatures to cook well. Also, take into account cold smoking vs. hot smoking.

What wood chips to use for an electric smoker

The wood chips have different flavors. Fruitwoods like apple are sweet and fruity, for example.

The type of wood chips you use will influence the overall flavor of your smoked food. That’s why choosing the best wood to pair with your food is of utmost importance.

Wood chips are just as important as seasoning. Using the wrong wood can ruin the meat’s flavor.

If you want the meat to have that cant-get-enough aroma, then choose a wood that complements the type of food you’re smoking.

There is no difference between wood chips you use in an electrical smoker compared to offset or other smokers.

Here is a list of the most popular wood chips for electrical smokers:

  • Hickory
  • Oak
  • Mesquite
  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Alder
  • Pecan
  • Walnut

Best tips for smoking with an electric smoker unit

One of the advantages of electric smokers is that the unit regulates the temperature for you, so less guesswork and supervision are required.

1. Use a temperature probe and don’t rely on the built-in one

Electric smokers have a built-in thermometer called a thermostat. But, in most smokers, these aren’t the best quality and are often inaccurate.

Sure, if you buy a very expensive smoker, the thermostat might be good, but your best bet is to use your own external temperature probe.

Use it and it’s going to show you the actual temperature so you can smoke the perfect meat every time.

2. Always cook at the right temperature

Not all foods cook at the same temperature. I know, it sounds like common sense, but people usually forget to check the ideal cooking and smoking temperature for each cut of meat or food.

For example, you have to cook poultry at a higher temperature of 275 degrees F, while brisket and ribs are smoked at 225 F.

3. Maintain a clean smoker

It may be tiring, but you always have to clean your smoker before using it. If a smoker is not clean, it doesn’t perform optimally, and the flavor of the food won’t be as good.

An electric smoker is so appealing because it burns very clean. Therefore, remove any charred food or buildup from the smoker.

Ashes and grease deposits must be removed to keep the smoker in good shape.

After each smoking session, clean each cooking surface well, especially the grates and pans.

If you want less clean-up, you can always use a drip pan at the bottom of the smoker. This collects grease and drippings, and you can clean it as soon as you’re done or when you clean the unit.

You’re probably wondering how often to clean an electric smoker?

Well, the answer is after each use, as I mentioned above. But every few months, you need to do a deep clean of the smoker.

Then you have to re-season it also to keep it nice and oily. This not only prevents rusting of the metallic components, but it will make the food taste much better.

4. Always give yourself extra time

Smoking involves a lot of planning and time management. Some meat, like ham, can take up to 24 hours to cook. So, on that day, you’ll need to do some supervision day and night!

Here’s the thing. Electrical smokers cook food slower at a far lower temperature than regular charcoal smokers. The meat has to become tender, smoky, and well cooking inside.

For that, you have to prepare for a long cook. Some foods like ribs take several hours to smoke. But if the weather is cooler, it can take an extra hour or two.

So, the best tip is to give yourself enough time and avoid frustration.

5. Experiment with wood flavors

The fun part of smoking is deciding which wood flavor to add to the smoker. The smoke then flavors the food.

Most electric smokers come with a wood-burning option, and you can add flavored wood chips of your choice. Fruitwoods like apple, cherry, and apricot are popular.

But so are hardwoods like hickory, alder, and mesquite. There’s nothing quite like the bacon-y flavor of hickory paired with ham or brisket.

If you’re feeling experimental, you can even blend woods. Apple and hickory are good pairs that complement each other.

Beef works best with hardwoods, while delicate poultry tastes best with apple or cherry.

How to season an electric smoker

Before you use your smoker, you have to season it. Don’t worry; it’s not hard to do.

The role of seasoning is to remove and burn off the residue on the grill racks, chip tray, or the rest of the smoker. You will often find lots of residue on the sides of the smoker, especially all over the stainless steel.

During the manufacturing process, some residues still remain inside the smoker, so you must clean it before you use it for the first time.

Grab a small brush and cover the interior surfaces of the smoker with a light coat of cooking oil. It doesn’t have to be dripping all over the place but make sure to use a generous amount of the cooking racks.

Then, run the smoker for 3 hours at 275 degrees F. If you want to do it like the pros, after 2 hours, add some wood chips to the tray. This creates smoke and primes the smoker with that smokey aroma before you even cook meat for the first time.

What to cook in an electric smoker?

Electric smokers are just as versatile as pellet, charcoal, or gas smokers, and this means you can smoke any food you like.

Here are some great food ideas to smoke in your new electric smoker:

  • Brisket
  • Beef cuts
  • Ribs
  • Pork (loin, shoulder, butt, bacon)
  • Ham
  • Chicken
  • Wings
  • Turkey
  • Gamefowl
  • Seafood like lobster
  • Fish
  • Salmon
  • Cheese
  • Tofu
  • Vegetables
  • Prime rib
  • Lamb

Derrick Riches of The Spruce Eats recommends easy cuts of meat like small pork shoulder roast or picnic roast for beginners.

These cuts are inexpensive and quite forgiving because they pair well with most woods, so you can’t really go wrong with the flavors.

How to smoke pork shoulder in an electric smoker

Smoked pork shoulder is one of the most delicious foods you can make with your smoker. But, for some reason, people always think it’s very hard.

People always ask, “is smoking a pork shoulder easy in an electric smoker?”

Let me clear this up: there is a simple way to do it!

If you want to make pulled pork that you can shred easily and add to your sandwiches, you’re going to have to smoke for approximately 7 to 8 hours, but a large cut of meat can take up to 12 hours.

After all, it all depends on the size of the meat cut. It’s actually one of the easier foods to smoke if you follow the low and slow method, and there’s not much you can mess up.

Here are some basic rules to follow:

  • Add your dry rub about 12 hours before you start smoking.
  • Take the meat out of the fridge 1 hour prior to smoking, so it has time to warm up.
  • Preheat the electric smoker and add your wood chips (apple and cherry are best).
  • Place your pork with the fat side up in the smoker.
  • Start to smoke at 250 degrees F. You have to smoke at this low temperature.
  • It takes about 60 to 90 of smoking per pound of meat. Since pork shoulder is fatty, it’s best to let each pound for 90 minutes.
  • The meat is ready once the internal temperature reaches 195 to 205 degrees F. Make sure to use a meat thermometer and measure the temperature inside the meat, not in the smoker.

Pros and cons of indoor electric smokers

Like all smokers, indoor ones have pros and cons you should consider before investing in one. I highly recommend getting indoor smokers if you have a small business or restaurant and want to serve fresh smoked foods.

Pros

  • You can use the smoker at any time of day all year round, regardless of the weather.
  • An indoor smoker is the best solution when you don’t have outdoor space or your patio is just too small.
  • With indoor smokers, you don’t waste expensive utilities like charcoal, lots of wood, or gas/propane. These smokers use fewer wood chips than other types of smokers.
  • You’ve got more control over how the meat cooks. Unlike other smokers that you have to keep checking, electrics require minimal intervention. Once you set the temperature, you have to fill the water tray and add wood chips but only once every 4 hours or so.

Cons

  • Indoor smokers can stink up the house, especially if you have a small kitchen and apartment.
  • They still take up quite a lot of space, so you may have to skip out on other appliances.
  • Indoor smokers are pricey and often more expensive than outdoor models.
  • You need to be careful and watch over the smoker to prevent any fires or damage. The smokers get extremely hot.

Also read: an indoor electric smoker is perfect for those of you looking for convenience.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.