Electric vs propane gas vs charcoal smoker | In-depth comparison

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  July 3, 2021

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A smoker is a must-have cooker for every home because let’s face it – there’s nothing quite like smoky BBQ for a casual lunch or weekend get-together.

But, how do you know what type of smoker to choose?

Electric vs propane gas vs charcoal smoker | In-depth comparison

The electric smoker is the most convenient and easiest to use because you set it and leave it. A propane smoker offers convenience and intense smoky flavor. But, if you want strong wood smoke flavors and a smoke ring, nothing beats a charcoal smoker.

In this article, I’m sharing the differences between electric, propane, and charcoal smokers. I also explain the pros and cons of each and offer some general guides on fuel cost, unit prices, and the best options for each category.

Let’s start with a quick cost overview:

Smoker Average cost ($) Fuel cost (per hour)
Electric 180-700 $0.06 
Propane 200-1000 $0.40
Charcoal 100-700 $0.50-1.00
  • Best easy-to-use: electric smoker
  • Best for flavor: charcoal smoker
  • Best for convenience: propane smoker

Keep reading to find out more about each type of smoker and see why I recommend each.

Electric smokers

  • Average cost: $180-700
  • Skill level: beginners
  • Fuel cost: approximately $0.06 per hour

An electric smoker (like these ones we’ve reviewed here) is entirely powered by electricity. That’s right, you simply plug it in, and it cooks the food, so there’s no ash to clean, charcoal to light, and no need to refill the propane tank.

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

This makes an electric smoker an easy-to-use, set-and-forget style smoker. The heating element and controller help you maintain a fixed temperature throughout the smoking process.

As soon as you plug it in, the unit heats up, and you select the desired cooking temperature.

More expensive electric smokers have a special built-in thermostat that regulates the temperature throughout the cooking process.

Advantages electric smoker

The electric smoker is the top choice for beginners or those buying a smoker for the first time. Electrics are by far the easiest to operate because you set the temperature, place the food and let it do the work for you.

Let me detail all of the advantages of an electric smoker:

  • Very user-friendly because you use a switch to turn the smoker on. Then you set the temperature and wait for it to cook the food.
  • Easy to turn on and off
  • This is a set-it and forget-it type of cooker because you don’t need to attend to the smoker while it cooks.
  • You can cook at low temperatures for a long time, so it’s ideal for low & slow BBQ.
  • It smokes very well at low temperatures (150F), and with other types of smokers, it’s hard to maintain such low heat.
  • Electric smokers are therefore perfect for cold smoking. They can maintain very low temperatures for a long period of time.
  • Electric smokers are generally small and compact, so they are an excellent fit for small spaces.
  • Small units are suitable for smoking up to 30 lbs of meat and other foods. Therefore, they have a large enough cooking surface for whole chickens, large pork cuts, beef cuts, and ribs.
  • They are very energy efficient and cost-efficient because electricity is still the cheapest source of fuel for a smoker.
  • You don’t need to spend money on propane gas or charcoals.
  • There is no open flame to worry about, and electric smokers are safe units. Thus, they are safer for children and pets.
  • Many electric units are portable or easy to move.
  • The heat inside the unit is distributed evenly, so all the food cooks evenly. This is great for cuts like ribs which have a complex structure that requires a constant temperature to cook properly.
  • Many are indoor and outdoor use.
  • Maintenance is easy and cheap because they are quite durable.
  • Most units have a water tray to make food juicy and tender.
  • A wood chip tray lets you add your favorite flavored smoking woods.
  • The constant dry heat gives the meat a crispy outer crust.
  • Electric smokers cook the food faster than most other units.
  • It can have Bluetooth and WIFI features so you can control the smoker from your smartphone.

Disadvantages electric smoker

The main disadvantage of electric smokers is that you just don’t get that classic smoky flavor or a charcoal or propane smoker.

In order to enrich the food with the characteristic smoky flavor, wood chips are put in the wood chip tray.

Most experts agree that although delicious, the intensity of the flavor you get with an electric smoker is not as strong as a propane smoker, and definitely not even close to the taste of a charcoal smoker.

Many pitmasters are therefore fans of charcoal smokers and claim that the taste of electric smoked meats is not comparable to other smokers.

Here are the main disadvantages:

  • Not the same smokey flavor as propane or charcoal.
  • You need to set up the smoker next to an electrical outlet so that placement might be limited outdoors.
  • Electric smokers impart a smaller amount of smoke than other types.
  • You don’t need to tend to the cooker, so you don’t experience that outdoor smoking experience of tending to the unit.
  • It might take a while to figure out the features and determine the best cooking time for each type of food.
  • Internal components can malfunction, and repairs are costly.
  • Electric smokers can be problematic to use in the cold winter months because they might not be able to heat up to the desired temperature.
  • Cheap electric smokers are not as well insulated.
  • They can suffer in the wind or cold breeze and thus cool down slightly, which is not good, so you need to get an external thermostat.
  • Smokers are susceptible to water damage, and rain can cause your unit to break down.
  • When you cook with electric units, you don’t get a smoke ring because there is no fuel combustion.
  • Usually, you have a smaller cooking surface than with other types of units, so you have to batch cook.
  • The grease plate requires cleaning after each use to avoid a fire.

Top electric smoker: Char-Broil 17202004

Best choice electric smoker vs propane vs charcoal smoker Char-Broil 17202004 Digital Electric Smoker, Deluxe, Silver

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If you’re looking to try smoking with an electric unit, the Char-Broil 17202004 is one of the best on the market, and best of all, it’s affordable and spacious.

One of the fun parts of smoking is seeing the meat cook, and this smoker has glass doors so you can see everything. The wood chip tray is quite large, and you can fit 4 cups of chips, allowing you to smoke for 7 hours uninterrupted.

That’s quite impressive because it really is a set-it and leave-it type of smoker!

There are 725 sq. inches of cooking space, plenty for rib racks, brisket, and lots of sausages. The smoker has a 750-watt heating element which is ideal for low and slow smoking.

I recommend this smoker for all skill levels, but even beginners will appreciate how easy it is to operate. You set the desired temperature, add water and flavored wood chips, and you’re good to go.

Check prices and availability here

Also read How to Use An Electric Smoker: Step by step guide

Propane smoker

  • Average cost: $200-1000
  • Skill level: beginners & medium
  • Fuel cost: approximately $0.40 per hour

If you’re looking for a great smoker for all skill levels, a propane unit is a great investment. This type of smoker runs on propane gas and has a burner underneath the firebox.

Like charcoal smokers, a propane one permits the use of wood chips or chunks that give smoky flavor. Basically, it’s almost as good as charcoal for flavor and almost as easy to use as an electric.

But, like the electric, this one also cooks food in a controlled environment. Therefore, you can set the temperature and then leave and only attend to it occasionally.

Propane smokers don’t have digital controllers, so the temperature control consists of adjusting the burner’s power. It is a very convenient solution compared to the charcoal smoker but is not as precise as the electric smoker.

Advantages propane smoker

The primary advantage of a propane smoker is that it keeps the temperature in the cooking chamber steady and gives pretty intense smoky aromas.

Think of propane smokers as in-between electric and charcoal because they offer the best of both worlds.

Let’s look at the main advantages:

  • Propane smokers are very versatile, and you can cook any food on them.
  • Comes in all kinds of sizes and budgets.
  • Many small units help you save space, and since they’re compact, they’re easy to store.
  • It’s easy to use and turn on. When you want to raise or lower the temperature, you only have to turn the gas knob.
  • Long-lasting and easy to care for.
  • Many models are portable, and some even have wheels so you can move them around when needed.
  • Smaller units are ideal for camping and outdoor entertaining. A propane tank is portable, and then you don’t have to worry about lighting charcoal. Also, you don’t have to control the fire.
  • Cooking time is reduced because you don’t need to preheat the smoker.
  • The propane units have temperature regulation mechanisms, and you can adjust heat manually to ensure the best cooking conditions.
  • Can cook at higher temperatures than some other smokers.
  • There are single and dual door options on the market, and some have glass doors so you can see the meat cooking.
  • More eco-friendly than charcoal with fewer by-products.

Disadvantages propane smoker

The main disadvantage of a propane smoker is that it’s more expensive to buy and run such units. Propane gas is a bit more expensive than charcoal and electricity.

Also, the propane tank will run out and needs to be refilled – sometimes mid-smoking, and it is frustrating!

Here are the other disadvantages you need to know about:

  • Propane smokers are generally more expensive than electric or charcoal units.
  • The propane tank can run out mid-smoke, so for a longer smoke, you need to have a spare tank.
  • During the winter, the unit can lose heat. Thus, the temperature fluctuates, and it’s hard to use.
  • You need a separate meat thermometer with 2 or more probes to check the temperature while cooking.
  • The thin gauge-metal exterior can be poorly insulated, so it can lose heat.
  • Gas smokers are not suited to cold smoking since propane burns hot. There are modifications that would allow you to adapt a propane smoker to be able to reach low temperatures in a stable manner, but these are complicated and not supported by the manufacturers.
  • Over time, people claim that the propane smoker leaks potentially dangerous gas.
  • Maintenance is expensive, but you need to check it frequently because gas is a potential fire hazard.
  • Some vertical models have a reduced cooking surface, so it may be hard to smoke large rib racks and briskets.
  • These smokers are sensitive to rain and cold weather, so you have to keep them covered and protected to avoid damage.
  • Gas smokers can get too hot, so you need to keep an eye on the temperature more often than with electric smokers.

Top propane smoker: Masterbuilt MB20051316

Best choice propane smoker vs electric vs charcoal Masterbuilt MB20051316 Propane Smoker with Thermostat Control

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When it comes to using a propane smoker, earlier models were harder to operate because they didn’t have temperature control functions.

But, this new Masterbuilt model has a temperature control feature that controls the gas flow from the burner to ensure even heat.

Therefore, it’s a suitable smoker for all skill levels, and beginners looking for intense smoky flavors will appreciate this one more than the flavors from the electrics.

There is plenty of cooking space (792 sq. inches) with 4 chrome racks so you can make whole chickens, ribs, and lots of sausages.

But, what I like most is that you have a good temperature range between 180-350 F, so you can do low and slow as well as other smokes with this unit.

If you want a juicy smoked chicken with crispy skin, then you’ll appreciate that the smoker hits those high temperatures you need. The wood chip tray is easy to operate on the lower deck and won’t disrupt the smoking process.

Check the latest prices here

Charcoal smoker

  • Average cost: $100-700
  • Skill level: medium & experienced
  • Fuel cost: approximately $0.50 – 1.00 per hour

As any true BBQ fan would say, the charcoal smoker infuses the meat with an intense smokey aroma and gives it a smoke ring and sear marks.

When you think of large briskets, ribs, and chicken wings, it’s hard to beat the flavors of charcoal-cooked food. The flavor is the main advantage of a charcoal smoker.

Charcoal smokers are the go-to option for professionals and anyone who likes to experiment with the art of smoking. However, smoking with charcoal takes a lot of effort and expertise.

Sure, it’s hard to operate, and you have to tend to it throughout the entire cooking process to regulate the temperature, but the end result is worth it!

Advantages charcoal smoker

Charcoal smokers are budget-friendly and come in many shapes and sizes, from barrels to egg-shaped and classic horizontal offset models.

When you fill the water pan, it makes the food moist and tender.

Also, the flavors of natural wood smoke are unmatchable, and I’m sure you’ll be satisfied with the aromas of charcoal-grilled meat.

Here are a few more advantages:

  • The taste you get from a charcoal smoker is far superior to propane and electric smokers.
  • Smoking with charcoal produces a smoke ring.
  • The meat gets a nice outer bark and crust, which is unachievable with electric and propane smokers.
  • A charcoal smoker is great for cooking all kinds of foods, including meat, vegetables (with recipes like these!), seafood, and cheese.
  • Since you don’t need electricity or gas to run it, you can use the charcoal smoker anywhere.
  • Most units are portable and easy to set up.
  • You can use all kinds of flavored wood chunks or chips depending on the food you’re making.
  • Charcoal is very accessible, and you can find it at all grocery shops and specialty stores, sometimes at bargain prices.
  • These models are less weather-sensitive than many others, and they can last a long time because they’re well built and durable.
  • They are also some of the most affordable types of smokers, and because they are super simple in design, they are also very durable and don’t often malfunction.
  • Outdoor-friendly and they give off that smokey scent that will have everyone craving BBQ.
  • Many charcoal grills are small and portable, so they are ideal for small spaces and patios.
  • These smokers generate enough heat to sear the meat and leave those attractive BBQ sear marks.
  • If you modify a charcoal smoker, you can even use it to cold smoke.

Disadvantages charcoal smoker

The problem with a charcoal smoker is that it’s best suited for medium and experienced smokers. You need to control the temperature, and this includes using vents and dampers to control airflow.

Here are some other disadvantages:

  • Lighting the charcoals can be challenging, and you need to use lighter fluid or special lighters to get the heat going.
  • It takes longer to cook food with a charcoal smoker, so be ready to spend an extra 40 or so minutes.
  • You need to tend the charcoal at all times during the smoking process.
  • The temperature fluctuates, so it’s easy to burn and overcook the food. Thus, it’s best for experienced smokers and pitmasters.
  • You need to use dampers and vents to control airflow.
  • The water pan and wood chips need to be refilled every now and then.
  • These smokers are quite old school and lack many of the modern features like WIFI and Bluetooth connectivity.
  • It’s hard to clean up the smoker because there is lots of leftover ash and charcoal.
  • Charcoal is the most expensive fuel source when compared to electricity and propane gas.
  • Cheaper smokers are poorly built and can rust or break down quite easily because the metal is not of good quality.
  • The heat distribution is not even so some areas of your grill will be hotter than others and you might need to rotate the food.

Top charcoal smoker: Weber 14-inch Smokey Mountain Cooker

Best choice charcoal smoker vs electic vs propane Weber 14-inch Smokey Mountain Cooker, Charcoal Smoker

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The Weber Smokey Mountain grill and smoker (like more of these combo’s here) is a beloved classic among pitmasters.

This bullet-shaped smoker is pretty easy to use and offers plenty of cooking space (726 sq. inches) for a nice big BBQ gathering.

You can cook up to 60 lbs of meat (or other foods), which means you can cook all of your favorites, including ribs, chicken, and pork loins.

Since it’s made of porcelain-enameled steel, it is great at heat retention and won’t let the heat escape.

What I like about the design of this smoker is that it promotes good airflow. Therefore, the food is infused with lots of delicious wood smoke.

It can reach an internal temperature of 190 F, which makes it ideal for smoking. As long as you’re careful and tend to the smoker, you can cook up tasty meals for the family.

Pros will find this smoker really easy to use with the three vents. You won’t struggle to control the temperature.

Check the latest prices here

Takeaway

Choosing a smoker is no easy task because they all have unique features.

Some, like electric smokers, are much easier to control because you set the temperature and let it smoke for 6-8 hours without intervening.

But, if you like to have strong smoky aromas and similar set-it and leave-it temperature control, a propane smoker will be better.

And finally, if you can’t give up a good old smoke ring and intense wood smoke, the traditional charcoal smoker is the best choice.

It all depends on your skill level and how much work you want to put into smoking. Regardless, the results will be mouthwatering!

Next, let’s compare fuel: Wood pellets vs. charcoal vs. wood chips vs. wood chunks

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.