Just a decade or two ago smoked meat was something that was reserved for southern barbecue traditions and hunters who liked to smoke their own sausages or jerky but didn’t have a brick smokehouse available. Today smokers are more popular than ever before, with a lot of popular grill manufacturers tossing their hat into the ring with both propane and electric smokers peppered throughout a wide price range.
If you are new to cooking with a smoker, or you’re just looking to upgrade from old fashioned charcoal, wood-fired smoker, then you might be wondering which is better a propane smoker or an electric smoker?
Both propane and electric smoker have their own strengths and weaknesses, though a lot of experienced outdoor chefs will tell you that a propane smoker is better. This is largely due to the longer overall life of the burner compared to an electric element.
Though this isn’t to say that electric smokers aren’t valuable. There are plenty of people who adore electric smokers for their precision temperature control.
To find out which one is best for you, a propane smoker, or an electric smoker, we’re going to have to take a closer look at how they work, what they do best, and the special features that let one shine over another.
What’s the Big Difference Between Propane And Electric Smokers?
While propane and electric smokers tend to share a lot of similar features, there are some serious nuts and bolts differences in how they work.
You might also want to factor in where you will be using the smoker most often.
If you are going to be smoking up game meats while you’re out in the bush, or you want to smoke ribs at a stadium tailgate party, where there’s no power available. you might want to wipe electric smokers off the list.
On the other hand, if you hate the idea of having to lug and refill a liquid propane tank around, then the convenience of an electric smoker might make more sense.
COST OF OWNERSHIP
Less convenient to replace gas canister
More convenient and easy to use
Prone to flareups and swings in temperature
Easy to accurate control the internal temperature
Can be prone to artificial flavors at low temperatures
Meat can dry out without a water pan, but produces clean flavors
Capable of higher temperatures and struggles to maintain low temperatures
More consistent low temperature control though not as hot
Wind can sometimes blow out burner element. Cold and wet conditions can make temperature control difficult.
Not as prone to weather problems.
Less overall maintenance beyond routine cleaning
Electric element can fail over time
More larger models available
Generally smaller capacity with compact design
Electric Smoker Overview
An electric smoker relies on an internal electric element. Standard 120 Volt AC passes through the element which acts just like a large resistor. This produces heat, which is then transferred to a heavy-duty metal bowl or receptacle full of wood chips.
The smoldering heat gradually produces smoke, with little risk of a flare-up. The smoke then passes up or over into the primary smoking chamber that holds the meat.
Most of the best electric smokers are linked to an accurate control system. You can set the temperature to where you want it and the electric element will respond accordingly.
I like how an electric smoker can be used for low-temperature applications like smoking skin-on, wild-caught salmon and trout, as well as shellfish.
You can also get more accurate control for so-called cold smoking, of things like cheese, vegetables, and even shrimp.
Though that’s not to say that electric smokers are perfectly convenient. The electric elements are essentially just large resistors.
As time goes on they will inevitably fail, and need to be replaced. As they degrade, they can also cause short circuits and flip circuit breakers in the process.
With most, you should expect an average lifespan of 3 to 5 years. Though less if you use a water pan in your smoking sessions and it sometimes boils over.
Some Of The Best Electric Smokers
There are a few electric smokers that stand out in this niche. Some are from long-standing manufacturers, and some are relatively new brands that are looking to make a major splash in the electric smoker industry.
1. Bradley Smoker BTDS108P 990223 Bradley Digital 6 Rack Smoker
Bradley is a fast-growing name in the grill and smoker industry.
Their smokers depart a little from traditional wood chips in that they use specially prepared bisquettes of wood.
While you do have to buy them separately, when paired with a high-quality electric element and sophisticated controls, this smoker cabinet gives you the ability to smoke pretty much anything.
2. Char-Broil 17202004 Digital Electric Smoker
Char-Broil might be best known for its value-priced gas and charcoal grills, but that doesn’t stop them from throwing their hat into the electric smoker ring.
This particular model comes with accurate controls as well as easy cleanout features.
The glass window in the front is a nice touch and lets you watch the food being smoked. Though it will inevitably cloud upon you as time goes on.
3. Masterbuilt 20072115 Bluetooth Smart Digital Electric Smoker
Masterbuilt is another strong name in the grill and smoker industry.
You get the feeling they engineered this model to stand toe to toe with Char-Broil’s electric smoker.
Though you have to like that this particular model was designed with Bluetooth wireless controls.
It’s great for times when you want to be away from the smoker to entertain, yet still keep tabs on what’s going on inside.
2. Old Smokey Electric Smoker
Electric Smoker Pros
- Accurate Temperature Control – The thermostats and digital controls of an electric smoker make it easier to set the temperature and trust that it isn’t going to flare up on you.
- Cold Smoking Capabilities – Most electric smokers with digital controls are capable of temperatures low enough to cold smoke sausages, seafood, fish, and even hard cheeses.
- Convenience – Almost all electric smokers run on standard 120 Volt AC electricity that you get from a standard household outlet. You simply turn it on, set the desired temperature, and add wood chips.
- Cost-Effectiveness – The per-unit cost of electricity is typically less than propane, and you don’t have to run to the store to refill a tank.
Electric Smoker Cons
- The Lifespan Of The Electric Element – Electric elements are essentially just large resistors that need to be replaced in 3 to 5 years on average.
- Potential Short Circuits – As electric elements age and degrade, they can start to trip circuit breakers in the middle of a smoking session.
- Potentially Dry Smoke – Water pans and electric heating elements don’t play well together. If you don’t add a water pan to a long smoking session it can dry out the meat.
- Can’t Use Them Off The Grid – Electric smokers need reliable power and don’t typically work well with generators. They’re not a good choice for primitive campsites, trips to the beach, and stadium tailgating.
Propane Smoker Overview
Propane smokers have a larger presence in the smoker marketplace and have held their popular command for years.
They work very much like a traditional charcoal smoker in that a flame heats a heavy-duty metal pan full of wood chips. As the chips slowly burn they emit smoke into or over to the primary smoking chamber.
Something else I like about propane smokers is that you can easily add a water pan to the equation.
The pan of water or seasoned marinade sits above the wood chips and adds steam to keep meat from drying out and retaining more of its natural juices.
Even if the water pan does simmer to the point of boiling over it’s nearly impossible for it to put out the flames or damage the burner element as you get with electric smokers.
Most propane smokers need to be connected to a liquid propane tank to have the pressure they need to maintain a consistent flame.
Though there are a few rare, small propane smokers that can be adapted to run on a 1-pound DOT 39 propane cylinder. This makes them exceedingly portable for times when you want to take a smoker with you off the grid.
The BTU heat production of most propane smokers is superior to an electric smoker of the same size.
This is great for times when you want high heat to finish off a piece of meat, or you are in the market for a large smoker that can handle an impressive amount of meat.
Temperature control can be a little bit more of a problem in more ways than one, with a propane smoker.
With most, the only temperature control you have in your eyes staring at a thermometer in the door or a probe. If the temperature goes too high, you have to dial down the burner element or turn it off.
This leads to another problem with propane smokers, which is poor oxidation at low temperatures. Unlike natural gas, propane doesn’t burn as efficiently at low temperatures.
If the flames of the burner element look more yellow then blue, chances are not all of the hydrocarbon chains are completely burning.
This means they are floating around the smoking chamber, where they can land on the meat, giving it an artificial “Butane Flavor.”
Though a lot of the best propane smoker manufacturers are aware of this and they work to engineer models that burn more efficiently at low temperatures. Just be prepared to pay a little bit more for the superior engineering.
Another temperature control foible that rears its ugly head from time to time with propane smokers is the inevitable flare-up of the wood chips.
When wood chips get hot enough, they can go from smoldering to burning. At this point, the chemical energy trapped in the wood becomes heat energy that can temporarily drive the temperature in the chamber too high.
When this happens not only do you end up with a tough dry bark on the food you’re smoking, but you have to reload the wood chip tray sooner.
One way to prevent this from happening is to use wood chunks. If you want to use wood chips for a long smoking session, you might want to try soaking them overnight in water to reduce the chance of flareup.
Some Of The Best Propane Smokers
There are a few well-established names in the propane smoker niche that rise to the top. Though since they tend to be so easy to build and engineer, a few newcomers have shown up on the scene in recent years with quality propane smokers are a very reasonable price.
1. Camp Chef Smoke Vault 24"
Camp Chef is one of the stronger names in the smoker and outdoor cooking appliance industry. Their 24-inch smoke vault is one of the most popular models in their line.
This heavy-duty cabinet smoker has enough internal volume to smoke just about anything from whole racks of ribs, multiple briskets, and up to four pork shoulders at a time. It has a built-in ignition system and can be dialed down low for “Cold Smoking” applications.
2. Cuisinart COS-244 Vertical 36" Propane Smoker
Cuisinart might not be the first name you think of when it comes to outdoor cooking appliances. Yet they bring their reputation for quality and value to bear all throughout the grill and outdoor smoker industry. This 36-inch vertical cabinet smoker does a great job of holding in the smoke and heat.
It has sophisticated temperature controls that let you better control the flame of the burner element.
I also like the porcelain coating on the wood chip tray and water pan, which make for easier cleanup and a much longer life.
3. Masterbuilt MB20050716 Mps 330g Propane Smoker, 30" Thermotemp
Masterbuilt is a grill and smoker manufacturer with a decades-long reputation for quality and value at prices that often beat the competition. This particular propane smoker represents a refreshing embrace of innovation on their part. It as a glass window in the front to let you see what’s going on, as well as a highly accurate Thermotemp control system to dial in the temperature precisely to what you’re smoking.
The internal space includes four chrome racks which let you pack this Masterbuilt smoker with an impressive amount of meat.
Propane Smoker Pros
- Higher Temperature Range – The flames of a propane smoker tend to offer much more heat production than an electric smoker of the same size.
- Water Pan For Moisture & Steam – Most propane smokers will accommodate a water pan to add steam without having to worry about a boil over damaging an element.
- Long Life Span – The burner element in a propane smoker tends to last much longer than the resistor heating element in an electric smoker.
- Portable – You can bring a propane smoker with you on a camping trip, hunting trip, tailgating party, or a trip to the beach and you know you can fire it up without any hassle.
Propane Smoker Cons
- Recurring Cost Of Propane – Propane smokers inevitably need to be refilled. Propane is also linked to the price of oil as it’s produced while refining gas, so the price may fluctuate.
- Flare-Ups – The high heat of a propane burner can cause dry wood chips to burst into flame.
- Temperature Control – Propane smokers sometimes roar out of control and can end up burning the exterior of a piece of meat in the process of cooking the interior through to the desired temperature.
- Low-Temperature Issues – Propane smokers tend to struggle at true “Cold Smoking.” Some also produce off-putting “Butane Flavors” when set to a yellow or otherwise low flame.
Comparing Propane & Electric Smokers Head To Head
There are a few key criteria to consider in the debate between propane and electric smokers. It can help to look at their strengths and weaknesses head to head.
Initial Purchase Price
While they can range from one brand to the next if you put an electric smoker and propane smoker of similar size and features next to each other the electric smoker general will have a higher price tag.
It’s also worth noting that the lower end of the propane smoker niche can be significantly cheaper than the lower end of the electric smoker range.
Though you are at greater risk of running into quality issues with a cheap propane smoker.
Cost Of Ownership
There are a few different factors to consider when you compare the cost of ownership between propane and electric smoker.
When it comes to the cost of wood chips, propane smokers tend to burn through wood chips and chunks faster. They are also more prone to flareups. This all translates into a higher cost of smoking woods in the long-term.
When it comes to energy costs, the propane smoker tends to cost more per unit than the electric smoker does.
You also don’t have to worry about driving to the store or lugging a bulky liquid propane tank every month or two with an electric smoker.
Reliability & Maintenance
The place where an electric smoker struggles a little bit is in the cost to replace the electric resistor of the heating element.
With some models, the cost can be prohibitively high, to the point where it would be cheaper to simply buy a new smoker than two or three replacement elements.
Though you can extend the life of your electric element by being smart about using the water pan and properly storing it away in the winter.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that soot and grease buildup on the temperature probe can affect the thermal accuracy of both propane and electric smokers.
Left unchecked it can compromise the thermometer, which is a more expensive replacement in an electric smoker than a propane
Here again, there are a few convenience factors to evaluate. With an electric smoker, you don’t have to worry about connections and refilling tanks.
You just plug it in, load it up and turn it on. You could be smoking a slab of fresh-caught salmon in under two minutes.
The place where propane smokers are more convenient is in their portability.
You can veritably take them anywhere, which makes a propane smoker the preferred option for people who like to tailgate, or smoke meat on camping trips.
Electric smokers tend to have more accurate temperature controls. Especially those that can be linked to a wireless Bluetooth app.
Though some high-quality propane smokers have embraced innovative ways to improve temperature control. Even with that in mind, electric smokers tend to do a better job as “Cold Smoking” things like cheese, jerky, and seafood.
Electric smokers tend to be able to maintain consistently low temperatures better than propane. Though propane smokers can typically get hotter.
Some of the larger propane smokers with a high BTU rating can even get hot enough to do things like roast meat or bake cornbread in a cast iron skillet.
Both propane and electric smokers range in size. Though there are some very large propane smokers on the market for a much more affordable price than the equivalent electric model.
When properly dialed in, there is very little difference in flavor between meat smoked in an electric smoker as opposed to a propane smoker. Where the flavor starts to come into play is when things go a little bit wrong.
Propane smokers are significantly more prone to flareups caused by wood chips igniting. When this happens the bursts of heat can overcook the exterior of a piece of meat.
This might not be a big deal on something as forgiving as a pork shoulder or a brisket, but it could be disastrous for a lean piece of meat like bone-in chicken or salmon fillet.
Propane smokers can also have flavor problems at the low end of the temperature range. A low-end burner might be prone to oxidation issues at low temperatures. You usually see this with a yellow flame, instead of a rich-blue flame.
This means that some of the hydrocarbon chains in the propane are being released into the smoky air, where they can land on the food and give it an artificial flavor.
Both propane and electric smokers have some concerns when it comes to the elements. With a small propane smoker you need to worry about the a strong wind blowing the flame out.
Most larger propane smokers are impervious to wind, but a small one needs to be put in a somewhat sheltered area on a windy day.
You also need to be mindful of the outside temperature. Cold air, rain, and snow that land on the smoking chamber can rob some of heat energy from inside.
You might be able to compensate for it by turning up the flame, but this increases the risk of a wood chip flare up.
If you want to run a propane smoker in very cold or wet conditions, you should consider wrapping it in an insulated grill blanket.
With an electric smoker you have the concern of water getting to the electric element. Though this is only an issue if you are running the smoker in a strong downpour.
Otherwise most electric smokers have sealed or protected elements that won’t be exposed to a passing shower.
Another nice thing about electric smokers is the temperature control makes it easier to regulate the heat on a cold day.
Which Is Better A Propane Or Electric Smoker?
Propane and electric smokers have their own strengths and weaknesses depending on how you want to use them, and how much budget you have available.
If you like to take your smoker with you off the grid, and you are a fan of big fatty and forgiving meats like pork shoulder and brisket than a high-quality propane smoker is like the best for option. Just make sure to look for one that has a reputation for good heat control. If you like to cold smoke or simply enjoy smoking more delicate meats and cheeses, then an electric smoker is probably the best for you.
They tend to have more accurate heat control and more cost-efficient performance. Just do your best not to abuse the electric heating element, and be prepared to sink money into a replacement three or four years down the line.