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So you like to BBQ. Outdoor dinner events are your thing. You’re a pitmaster, equipped with a holiday apron, basting brush, and tongs!
You love cooking for your friends in big events under the sun, be it for big game days or lazy Sunday afternoons. You know your ribs, steaks, sausages, burgers, and briskets.
But here’s the thing - you’re thinking about adding a new piece of equipment to your BBQ armory.
Maybe your old grill is getting worn out and you’re considering searching for a new one, or perhaps the grill you have works fine but you’re looking for a new toy to play with alongside it.
But how can you know what the best new cooking tool to buy is? After all, there are a lot of arguments online between pitmasters about what the best way to BBQ is.
Are grills the most versatile, or is smoking meat the way to go? Sometimes it can be difficult to wade through the smoke of opinion and find the information you want.
If you find yourself confused and struggling to work out what would be your best option, don’t panic! We’ve created a guide to help you!
Below is an ultimate guide comparing smokers and grills, from cooking techniques and equipment to preparation time and different flavors. We’re going to break down each aspect of smoking vs grilling and help you make the best decision you can for your next BBQing event.
We’ve also added a handy FAQ section to give you answers to some of the most pressing questions you might have!
First, it’s best to break down both pieces of equipment and technique so that we can properly understand the difference between them. To begin - let’s look at smokers.
A BBQ smoker is a piece of equipment for cooking meat and or vegetables in a temperature-controlled chamber.
Traditionally, smokers work by using wood as a fuel source to create heat and smoke, this then feeds into the main chamber to slowly cook the food. In recent years smokers have evolved and some are made specifically for different fuel sources such as charcoal.
Smokers usually consist of three main components.
Firstly is the smoking chamber, which is usually the largest part of the equipment. Secondly is an offset firebox which is usually fed with fuel and lit.
Finally is the chimney that releases smoke, which usually pokes out of the side or top of the smoker. Some smokers also feature attached grills which can work the same way as a usual grill, or wheels that allow it to move around easier.
Smokers are the surefire way of infusing unique, smoky flavors into your food. They cook at much lower temperatures than grills and require less supervision.
However, with smokers temperature is very important to monitor and some come with dials on the front or side of their main chambers which will give you updates. Smoking food is a technique that requires a lot more patience than other methods - and to smoke something properly you’ll want to take time to prepare.
It’s also important to note that there are new, highly optimized modern smokers that have a lot more impressive technology. If you have one of these pieces, smoking becomes more of an art.
Digital panels and technology keep track of the temperature in your smoking chamber to ensure your food cooks at exactly the right temperature.
Grills are the more commonly used, and known cooking tool for BBQs. If you’ve ever been to a BBQ event, there’s a good chance you’ve used or had food cooked on a grill.
Grills generally consist of a rack or grate to place a foot on and a heat source that comes from one direction, either top or bottom (though most commonly bottom).
The heat source of a grill can be many different things. Traditionally grills have used charcoal or wood, but as time has progressed and technology has improved electric and gas grills have been invented and widely used.
Different fuel sources are used for different flavors in grilling - generally woodsmoke grills have the most unique flavor, though you can also get
Grills cook at high heat, which seals in a lot of the juices of your meat or vegetables without needing excess amounts of oil or butter. Generally, when cooked properly grilled meat is seared on the outside and juicy on the inside.
Similarly, grilled vegetables can be a great way to infuse some much-needed flavor!
Smokers excel at cooking fatty cuts of meat. Any meat with high-fat content will be slow-cooked to perfection and all the fats will ensure the meat will be moist and tender.
Placing a fatty cut of meat into a smoking chamber and being patient enough to let it cook is sure to infuse your meat with a lot of flavors.
Here is a short rundown of the different foods that smokers make better than other cooking methods!
Smokers are the king of making delicious brisket. Briskets have high fat and collagen content, which are perfect for long cooking at low temperatures.
Ribs tend to be high on fat as well as flaky, tender meat, so smokers are a natural fit for them. Smokes ribs tend to be more tender, moist, and packed with flavor - especially if you marinate them before cooking.
smoked sausage is packaged and sold around the world for a reason. There’s something special about it! If you want a sure-fire way to make hot dogs irresistible and to get people talking - smoking them might be the thing for you!
Some smokers have built-in sausage hooks so that you can cook them alongside other items.
Want a side dish for your BBQ? Just because smokers are great for meats, it doesn't mean you can’t also use them for other food. The slightly tangy, sweet natural flavor of peppers makes them perfect for smoking.
Be a bit careful though with these - vegetables are easier to overcook compared to meat.
Grills work much better as a tool to cook smaller, less fatty cuts of meat. Grilling is all about the flames and a quick hand with a spatula, or tongs, and leaving scorch marks behind. Here are some of the foods most suited for grilling!
You want to cook chicken fast! Grilling chicken is a great way to get it tasting smoky without losing its juices. Typically, wood smoke or charcoal is the best for chicken.
The trouble with smoked burgers is that they don’t offer you the same options you might want for a burger as grilling does. Let’s say you like your burgers rare, or medium-rare - grills give you that option.
Or maybe you have a guest who hates the sight of anything red and wants their burgers well done. Either way, grilling lets you have a fast cooking option where you can keep an eye on your burgers every step of the way.
Grilled steaks are one of the ultimate ways to make them. Steaks, like burgers, require a keen eye and a lot of quick work to make them perfect, so a grill is one of the optimum ways to cook them.
You probably wouldn’t want to smoke corn on the cob, but grilled corn is delicious. Grilling corn is as simple as it gets, simply put them on, add some butter, and serve them infused with an amazing smoky flavor.
One of the main differences between smokers and grills is their cook time. Grills are all about hot flames and fast cooking, whilst smokers require you to be patient and take your time.
Typically grilled food can be done in a matter of minutes if you have the right preparation and technique, whereas smokers need a lot more time and effort from you to get right.
Here is an example of the difference when it comes to ribs. Whilst we would argue generally smoked ribs are better, you can certainly grill them as well.
A rack of grilled ribs can be done in 30 minutes of cooking, whilst a rack of smoked ribs is best left for around 4 hours depending on the temperature and power of your smoker. So this is something to keep in mind when you’re considering which to buy.
When you have people over for BBQ, are you prepared to start cooking hours before? Smokers are independent pieces of equipment but you certainly can’t leave them unsupervised.
Smoking and grilling are often the difference between minutes and hours. It’s an important thing to think about before you make any purchases.
There are also big differences between the temperatures when cooking with a smoker vs a grill.
When it comes to smoking, there are different temperatures for different cuts of meat, and much debate between dedicated pitmasters as to what the optimum temperature might be. But generally, a good smoking temperature is from 225ºF to 250ºF.
With grills, it’s a lot harder to regulate temperature unless they’re electric or gas. Grills by nature end up getting a lot hotter than smokers, which allows you to cook food faster. Grills generally heat up from around 350ºF to 450ºF - so almost double what a smoker might comfortably reach.
The difficulty of using a smoker comes down to two main points.
This is probably the most difficult part of smoking food. It requires a lot of time, which in turn requires a lot of patience.
If you’re somebody who likes fast cooking with lots of flame and actions to take each minute, then smoking might not be for you.
Temperature control is vital when it comes to smoking. You have to make sure the temperature of your central smoking chamber is correct and regulated.
Some modern smokers have digital dials to do this for you which can make this a lot easier, but more traditional sets tend to just have a temperature gauge. Having to constantly monitor this can sometimes be difficult.
The difficulties of grilling revolve around the speed and care which you have to take. BBQing with a grill is a fast, hands-on experience.
Flavor comes from marinades, seasoning, and short decisions. Sometimes with grilling, you’ll have to learn by trial and error. Cooking times can vary depending on the cut of meat or the size and density of the food you have, so often there are no definite answers when it comes to grilling.
The other main difficulty of grilling is temperature control, but it’s the opposite problem that you might have with a smoker.
Whilst many smokers are designed to regulate temperature, with grills (especially traditional ones) you have a lot less control. Whilst grilling food you must watch carefully and monitor your food every step of the way.
Something worth noting when comparing smokers and grills is the time they both take to clean up. Let’s be honest here - either method creates a lot of mess.
Some smokers have handy trays that make clean-up easier, both in the smoking chamber as well as their offset fireboxes. Similarly, conventional grills will have trays that will help you to clean up much easier.
That said, generally, we would say smokers are much harder to clean as they are bigger pieces of equipment. Some experienced smokers advise laying tinfoil down at the bottom of your chamber to soak up any juices or grease released by your food.
We would however advise caution when adding material to your smoker - check a guide online to find the best way to clean up!
In recent years companies have begun to release hybrid smoker/grill combos.
These generally have two chambers - one for smoking and the other that can act as an open-top grill. The fuel from the firebox will heat the grill and the smoker, which will allow you to smoke and grill at the same time!
If you really can’t decide between the two or are looking for something that scratches both the smoking and grilling itch then hybrids might be the product for you! That said they are generally more specialized equipment and are much larger than traditional smokers/grills.
When looking for a hybrid, we’ve generally found that you’re a lot more likely to find a smoker that includes a grill than the other way around.
Over time there has been a lot of debate about the healthiest methods for cooking food. Whilst there has been some argument about how healthy grilled food is, grilled meat tends to release a lot more fat than other methods, this means that the food is lower in calories and better for you.
That said, there are some arguments that say grilling food releases carcinogens, which have been linked to cancer.
That said - it’s clear that grilled food (especially BBQ) is completely fine for you in moderation, especially considering what you might pair it with!
Sugar-filled buns and bread are a sure-fire way to turn your BBQ unhealthy, whereas vegetable sides might make it much more healthy! If you’re worried about it, consider what you’re pairing with your BBQ’d meat.
Hopefully, if you’ve gotten to this part of the article you’ll know the difference, but we thought we’d give a short answer to this question just in case you need it!
In short - the main difference between grilling and smoking is the amount of time you take to cook the food and the general heat levels. Grilling is short cook times with high heats, whilst smoking is long cook times with lower heats.
This question is very subjective in a lot of ways. Whilst there are some people who would swear by smoked ribs over grilled or vice versa, what’s important to understand is that the difference comes mostly down to flavoring.
Smoking tends to give a much stronger smoky taste and texture, whilst grilling is more likely to give you a more fiery flavor with a lot less fat content.
A lot of flavors comes from fuel source - you’ll have a much more neutral taste if you cook with gas or charcoal, and a much more smoky taste if you cook with wood.
We hope our guide has outlined the main differences between smokers and grills and what both tools can do to get the most out of your BBQ event.
By this point, it’s probably clear that when trying to choose a winner between them, it’s a hard choice to make. Which is better comes down to personal preference.
Do you like taking a long time to cook your meat, tinkering with temperatures in order to get the best juicy texture?
Or do you enjoy fiery cooking sessions over a hot grill? Perhaps you want the best of both worlds and choose to go for a hybrid? Whichever you decide we’re certain you’ll make food that will be remembered!
Good luck on your smoking or grilling adventure, pitmaster!