Electric Vs Propane Smokers: Which is Best for Your Culinary Adventures in the Yard?

Fed up with all the prep, maintenance, cleaning, and ongoing costs involved in using a traditional, charcoal-burning smoker? If so, don’t go thinking the only solution is to do your cooking in the kitchen and forego that awesomely smoky flavor profile and those afternoons spent cooking in the yard that we all love. Two very simple alternatives to traditional charcoal smokers exist in the form of propane and electric smokers, both of which are far more hassle-free, clean, and convenient options. But which of the two types of smoker is best your culinary adventures in your yard—propane or electric? Below, we offer a straight-talking guide to electric vs propane smokers, breaking down the pros and cons of each type of smoker and running through their performance in each of the metrics that will let you gauge which is the best pick for you.

What are the Main Differences Between Electric and Propane?

Smokers come in various forms, ranging from traditional charcoal smokers and stick or pellet burners to kettle grills and water smokers. Of all these different types of smoker, gas and electric are probably the most efficient, the easiest to use, and offer the best value for money.

As you might have guessed, both of these types of smoke offer a different method of cooking your grub: with propane gas or with electricity.

Generally speaking, electric smokers are highly convenient devices, offering simple temperature control and set-it-and-forget-it ease of use. These smokers are also very easy to maintain and clean.

The only downside to electric smokers is that they are far less portable than gas models owing to their reliance on a power cord, thereby making them less suitable for anyone planning on doing their smoking on camping trips or in a larger yard.

Electric smokers also operate at lower temperatures than gas models, meaning they can be slightly restrictive as regards the type of cooking/barbecuing you plan on doing.

Propane smokers have two main advantages over electric smokers: first, they’re far more portable because they don’t require a power source; secondly, they are capable of cooking at much higher temperatures.

On the downside, gas smokers’ temperatures tend to fluctuate throughout your cook (meaning you might not be able to get the perfect temps required for your specific culinary creations), have ongoing fuel costs, and, of course, use a fuel type than can be dangerous if not used correctly—something that may be a deal-breaker if the device doesn’t have an integrated sensor that shuts off the flow of gas if it detects that the flame has been extinguished.

At-a-Glance Pros and Cons

Electric Smokers Pros and Cons

As with electric cookers used in your home, electric smokers do their cooking using mains power. As with your electric cooker at home, they take a little while to heat up, have a dial that allows you to easily select your cooking temperature, and are very low-maintenance. Some models also have a tray for wood chips to help you give your food that highly coveted smoky flavoring.

Pros:

  • Very easy-to-use, set-and-forget appliance—simply set your temperature and your timer, kick back, crack open a beer, and wait for your food to cook
  • Far safer than propane models—propane is a combustible gas and, as such, requires careful handling
  • Very easy to regulate cooking temperature—while some cheaper models only have three temperature settings (“low”, “medium”, and “high”) most models use a temperature dial like those on kitchen ovens that allow you to be more precise
  • Wood chips can be added to give your food a smoky taste
  • If you live in an apartment block and plan on cooking on your terrace or balcony, an electric smoker will probably be allowed (gas or charcoal smokers probably not)
  • Ability to cook at low temperatures means they can be used as cold smokers, allowing you to cure meats and smoke more delicate foods

Cons:

  • Don’t offer the same high-heat capacity of propane smokers
  • A power outlet is required, meaning you might have to spend extra on an extension cord and won’t be able to take the smoker on camping trips unless you have a generator or visit an established campsite with power hookups
  • Even if you add wood to your electric smoker to get that highly coveted smoky flavor, electric smokers do not burn hot enough to produce a smoke ring
  • Repairing electric units can be tricky and in most cases requires taking the appliance to a professional
  • Cannot be used in bad weather conditions

Propane Smokers Pros and Cons

Propane smokers are fueled by propane tanks (or, less commonly, natural gas) and, compared to electric smokers, can reach much higher temperatures much more quickly. Unlike electric smokers, gas models typically feature a burner at the base of the unit, followed by a shelf on which you can add wood chips to help achieve a smoky flavor, and offer similar end results in terms of taste and texture as charcoal smokers.

Pros:

  • Portability: propane smokers can be used anywhere, just as long as you have the strength to carry them!
  • Capable of cooking at far higher heats than electric smokers
  • Heat up quickly
  • Usually cheaper than electric smokers
  • The taste of food cooked in propane smokers is usually much closer to that cooked in traditional charcoal smokers than electric smokers
  • Easier torepair than electric smokers
  • Easier to achieve smoke rings and bark, the two most desirable features of grill-cooked meat

Cons:

  • Temperature regulation far less precise than in electric models
  • It’s necessary to keep a second propane canister handy for when the first runs out, which takes up more storage space
  • Because they are not well insulated, gas smokers’ cooking temps are affected more by cold outside temperatures
  • More dangerous than electric models owing to their use of combustible gas
  • Most probably not permitted in apartment buildings

Heat Range

The vast majority of electric smokers offer maximum temperatures in the 275F-300F range. While ideal for “low and slow” slow cooking and making jerkies, such low temps mean long cooking times and an inability to crank things up to produce a bark on your food and retain juiciness.

That said, one of the main benefits to having an electric cooker is that they give you the ability to cook at very low temperatures (as low as 150F), thereby allowing you to smoke more delicate foods like fish, make beef jerky, or smoke foods that require a lower heat like cheese and vegetables. Doing the same with a propane smoker, on the other hand, is tricky owing to the difficulty entailed in keeping the smoker at a steady low temperature.

Propane smokers are a different proposition entirely. These appliances can be cranked up to as high as 400F and reach such temps in a matter of only five or so minutes, making them a better choice for cooking foods like crispy chicken, brisket, and filets or patties that require high-heat cooking to retain the best flavor profile.

While most propane smokers can cook steadily at temps in the 220-280F range, however, cooking at lower temperatures is not easy and requires you to keep an eye on the smoker and make adjustments to the vents and fuel output throughout your cook.

Using Smokers in Bad Weather

You invite your friends around for dinner, head to the store and stock up on pound upon pound of tasty meat and veg to cook in your smoker, and then, low and behold, the skies decide to open…

In such circumstances, only one type of smoker will allow you to go through with your plans and avoid disappointing your guests: a propane smoker.

The bottom line with regard to bad-weather smoking is that you should never be tempted to use an electric smoker in even the lightest rain. Beyond the more obvious issues of cooking yourself instead of your meats if any rain gets into the electric current while you cook, just a few drops of airborne H2O could be all it takes to ruin your electric smoker’s control panel and put it out of commission.

Propane smokers, on the other hand, might lose a little in the way of performance and cooking speeds if cooking in wind and light rain, but don’t present any safety issues.

If you happen to live in an area where there are frequent power outages, it’s also worth bearing in mind that a propane-powered smoker will be good to go even when the electricity gets cut.

Ease of Use

Let’s start with the bottom line: if ease of use is high on your list of priorities, an electric smoker will be a far better choice than a propane smoker in all but a few cases.

Although you don’t need a PhD in thermodynamics to operate a propane smoker, they do require a little more careful handling and maintenance than electric models. Also, when cooking with a propane smoker, you’ll have to be prepared to do some babysitting of the appliance to make sure the temperature fluctuations don’t result in uncooked or burnt nosh and/or you don’t inadvertently start a bonfire in your yard.

While with electric smokers you can simply set the dial, throw in your food and then take off to take care of laundry, dessert prep, or grab a quick shower before the guests arrive, etc., with propane models you’ll have to check the smoker’s temperature and adjust gas flow every few minutes.

Cooking with a propane smoker, therefore, requires a degree of knowledge about smoking, an element of skill, and a lot more patience. Electric smokers, on the other hand, require fingers. Oh, and a power outlet. Beyond these two prerequisites, there ain’t much more to it!

Smokers for Better Tasting Food

While this may be a very subjective topic, the common consensus on which type of smoker makes the tastiest food is that propane smokers are the hands-down winner.

Beyond being able to cook outside, one of the main reasons we choose to cook our food in a smoker is for the delicious flavor profile these appliances allow us to achieve. In this respect, propane smokers far outshine their electric smoker cousins, producing a flavor profile that is much closer to that provided by wood and charcoal smokers.

While electric smokers no doubt make tasty grub, because of their lower heat and inability to produce the same chemicals that form a smoke ring or create bark, the end result is all too often too similar to what we might achieve in the oven in our kitchens.

The bottom line? In terms of taste, it’s a resounding win for propane.

Smokers for the Best Value

Gas smokers are usually slightly cheaper to buy than electric models but the value for money offered by any smoker isn’t determined only by the price you pay at the checkout.

In addition to the cost of purchase, both propane and electric smokers have significant running costs that can add up in the long term.

Although the cost of propane gas and electricity can vary widely from one location to another, working on averages we can estimate that the running cost for a propane smoker for one hour comes in at around $0.50, whereas an electric smoker is more likely to be around $0.10.

While this difference may seem negligible, if you’re a big fan of smoking and use your smoker frequently throughout the year, the differentiation between the two running may just be enough to sway your decision.

Reliability and Durability

Both propane and electric models of smoker are, for the most part, very reliable. That said, in the long run, propane smokers are more likely to withstand the test of time without any issues.

This is mainly because of the simplicity of their design. Most propane smokers consist of simply a box or barrel that is connected to a regulator, meaning, in short, that there isn’t a lot that can go wrong.

Electric smokers, on the other hand, rely on an electronic control panel to function. Anyone who has ever owned any kind of electronic device (all of us, right?) knows how liable they are to malfunctioning and breakage.

Sadly, electric smokers are no exception to this rule, and the moist, greasy, and hot environment around your smoker only makes its electric components all the more likely to fail somewhere down the line, particularly in cheaper models in which the control panel is not thoroughly sealed and weather-proof.

Best Smoker Brands

Some of the best manufacturers of electric and propane smokers out there include the following:

Masterbuilt: This brand has been on the go for almost fifty years and makes a wide variety of reliable charcoal, propane, electric, and pellet smokers.

Char-Broil: This brand has been making grills of one form or another since 1948 and today represents the closest mass-market competitor to Masterbuilt.

Smoke Hollow: Bought by Masterbuilt in 2017, this brand makes a number of affordable electric and gas smokers of all sizes.

Camp Chef: Established in 1990, this brand manufactures a handful of high-quality gas models in addition to its staple flat-top grills, pellet grills, and camp stoves.

Bradley Smoker: This Canadian brand’s catalog includes a number of very well-made and reliable electric smokers, all of which can be used with the brand’s flavor-enhancing bisquettes.

FAQs

Q: What is a smoke ring?

A: In the barbecuing world, a “smoke ring” refers to a band of pink-colored meat on the outside of any smoked meat and is commonly regarded as the hallmark of juiciness and tenderness.

Smoke rings are caused by nitric acid that builds up on the surface of the meat when the nitrogen dioxide from the smoker’s burning wood mixes with water in the meat. As such, it is impossible to achieve a smoke ring with propane or electric smokers that do not use wood.

Q: How long do propane tanks last on a propane smoker?

A: A standard 20-pound propane tank should last about 18-20 hours on most grills.

Q: Do electric smokers use wood chips?

A: The split between electric smokers that include a wood chip pan and those that don’t is around 60/40. However, even when your electric smoker does not have a wood ship pan you can still use wood chips to enhance flavor by wrapping a handful of wood chips in aluminum foil or placing them in an empty tin can and stashing these at the bottom of your smoker.

Q: How can I better insulate my electric or propane smoker?

A: Most smoker brands sell optional insulating jackets for smokers that use an aluminum cover to keep in heat and smoke. While you can also pick these up in yard stores or from different sellers online, the versions made by the manufacturer of your smoker are likely to be the best bet because they are designed to fit the smoker perfectly.

Q: How do you clean the inside of a smoker?

A: Remove all of the racks, the water pan, drip tray, and smoker box and wipe any grease or residue toward the bottom of the smoker. Sweep all of the residue and crumbs out of the cooking chamber. Then, using warm soapy water, scrub the interior surfaces of the smoker with a sponge and wipe down with a towel to dry.

Best Propane Smoker

1. Masterbuilt MPS 340/G ThermoTemp XL Propane Smoker

Masterbuilt MB20051316 Propane Smoker with Thermostat Control, 40 inch, Black
  • Temperature sensor controls burner to maintain desired temperature
  • Safety valve shuts off burner if flame is extinguished
  • Tank fuel level gauge indicates the amount of propane in the tank
  • Four chrome-coated smoking racks
  • 15,750 BTU stainless steel burner

Last update on 2020-12-14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

This 40-inch unit wins our vote as the best propane smoker on the market in 2019 on account of one feature that essentially negates the most commonly cited failing of propane models—namely, a thermostatic temperature control feature that allows you to regulate the flow of gas to the burner for far more precise cooking at both low and high temperatures.

This smoker isn’t the cheapest model out there, granted, but it also boasts four chrome-coated racks that provide space for grub for all the family, can cook anywhere between 180 to 350°F for added versatility, is safer than other gas smokers thanks to a sensor that shuts off the gas flow if it detects that the flame has gone out, and uses a single stainless steel burner with a 15,7500 BTU output and a heat diffuser located above the burner that distributes the heat more evenly throughout the cooking chamber.

All told, a very well-made, sturdy, and reliable appliance that goes one step further than most gas smokers thanks to that all-important heat-regulation feature.

What We Like

  • Thermostatic control allows you to cook at steady temperatures
  • Fuel gauge lets you know when you’re about to run out of gas
  • Great temperature range (180-350F)
  • Wheels let you transport the smoker around your deck or yard with ease
  • Glass door frontage lets you keep an eye on your food while it cooks

What We Don’t Like

  • The one-year warranty period is a little on the short side compared to rival brands
Check Price and Reviews on Amazon

Runner-Up Propane Smoker

Cuisinart COS-244 Vertical 36″ Propane Smoker

Cuisinart COS-244 Vertical 36" Propane Smoker, Black
  • 5. 45 SQUARE FEET OF INTERIOR: The spacious 5. 45 square foot interior means there is plenty of room to smoke a variety of meats along with several trays of vegetables. The vertical footprint makes it a perfect size for patios and barbecue kitchens.
  • Product Dimensions: 19.3" L x 18.1" W x 38.6" H | Weight: 69.5 lb
  • FOUR 14 X 14-INCH REMOVABLE STAINLESS STEEL SHELVES: Four stainless steel racks can be easily removed for smoking whole birds or large cuts of meat. Racks are dishwasher safe, making cleanup easy.
  • BUILT-IN THERMOMETER: Features easy-to-read thermometer on the front door for accessible monitoring of the internal temperature.
  • TOTAL TEMPERATURE AND SMOKE CONTROL: An adjustable gas supply gives control over the amount of heat. Optimal smoker access through two doors and a rear vent can be opened or closed to control the amount of heat and smoke exiting the oven.

Last update on 2020-12-14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

For those of you working on a tighter budget, the Cuisinart 36” Vertical Propane Smoker is a great option that doesn’t make too many compromises compared to pricier models of smoker.

Like the Masterbuilt ThermoTemp XL, this smoker uses four removable steel grill racks that allow you to keep different types of food separate when cooking and throw enough in there to feed the whole family (and maybe even a few of the neighbors, too!).

It also features a duo of doors that let you add wood chips without letting all of the heat escape, an adjustable gas supply, a 40-inch hose and regulator that attaches quickly to a standard propane tank, and a built-in thermometer to let you monitor internal temperatures.

It might not have some of the bells and whistles featured in the Masterbuilt model featured above, but in terms of value for money, this smoker’s a winner all day long!

What We Like

  • Reasonably priced
  • Sturdy and well-made
  • 45 square feet of interior space
  • 4 smoking/cooking racks
  • 3-year warranty

What We Don’t Like

  • No window in door to check on progress of your food
  • Difficult to adjust temperature
  • Not good for low and slow cooks owing to lack of temperature adjustment
Check Price and Reviews on Amazon

Best Electric Smoker

Masterbuilt 30-Inch Digital Electric Smoker

Masterbuilt MB20071117 Digital Electric Smoker, 30 inch, Black
  • Digital panel controls on/off, cooking temperature and time
  • Four chrome-coated smoking racks
  • Patented side wood chip loading system allows you to add wood chips without opening door
  • Thermostat-temperature control for even, consistent smoking
  • Fully-insulated body retains heat

Last update on 2020-12-14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker is a wonderfully easy-to-use appliance that is ideal for those who want a low-maintenance, effective, and versatile digital smoker that won’t break the bank.

While available in larger and smaller models, this 30” smoker has 730 square inches of interior space and 4 cooking racks, which should be more than enough for most users not intent on feeding football teams or small armies (!).

It also features a handy, user-friendly, built-in digital control panel that allows you to set the smoker’s internal temperature to anywhere between 100 and 275F and control the cooking time.

What we like most about this smoker, however, is that—unlikely many competitors—it’s very easy to clean thanks to its chrome-coated stainless steel materials and also reaches your chosen cooking temps in just a few minutes after powering up. And unlike the vast majority of propane smokers out there, moreover, this smoker maintains a consistent internal temperature and can be left to get on with cooking while you look after the kids, reply to emails, or kick back, goof off, and/or crack open a beer…!

What We Like

  • Reasonably priced for a 30” smoker
  • Very easy to use thanks to digital control panel
  • Easy to clean
  • Solid insulation means it performs well even in cold temperatures
  • Ideal for cold smoking
  • 730 square inches of cooking space
  • Handy wood chip tray system allows you to add chips without opening the door and losing heat

What We Don’t Like

  • Wood chip tray is small and needs frequent refilling during longer cooks
  • Narrow cooking racks might not be able to accommodate larger cuts of meat
  • Very short warranty period (90 days)
Check Price and Reviews on Amazon

Runner-up Electric Smoker

Old Smokey Electric Smoker

Old Smokey Electric Smoker
  • Color: Grey
  • Size: 15.5"w x 15.5"d x 29"h
  • This smoker has a flat top, so juices drip right back onto the food.
  • On top of the heating element is a chip tray where you put wood chips for smoke flavor.
  • This smoker is controlled by a heat thermostat to allow a wide variety of cooking times and styles.

Last update on 2020-12-14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Old Smokey Electric Smoker is a frill-free workhorse of a smoker that might not win any prizes for fancy features but ticks just about every box that needs ticking for users who want a simple device that gets the job done without any fuss.

This compact, vat-style smoker boasts a respectable 280 square inches of cooking space and uses one of the simplest designs you’re ever likely to come across. This simplicity, we should add, is a feature rather than a bug, essentially meaning there are far fewer parts than can break or fail and making the Old Smokey more likely to maintain performance in the long run.

This isn’t the most spacious smoker out there and only has two cooking trays above its drip pan and chip tray. However, for smaller families, couples, or those who don’t mind reloading from time to time, this stylish little smoker is a winner.

What We Like

  • Easy on the eye…
  • …and the wallet
  • “Plug-and-play” convenience
  • Well-made and durable
  • Easy to clean

What We Don’t Like

  • No access door to add chips
  • Relatively small capacity
  • No window in door to keep an eye on your eats
  • Scanty insulation means it’s not the best performer in cool temps or high winds
  • Exterior metal surface can get very hot
  • No temperature gauge
Check Price and Reviews on Amazon

The Verdict

Your decision on whether to opt for an electric or a propane smoker will ultimately come down to where your priorities lie.

If the top items on your list of desirable capabilities and attributes in a smoker includes taste, fast cooking, and the ability to shift your smoker around the yard or take it on the odd camping trip, then a propane smoker is undoubtedly the way to go.

If, however, you’d prefer a low-maintenance kinda appliance that is safer, easier to use, can operate at lower temps, and lets you get on with other chores while it cooks your dinner, then an electric smoker is likely to be a better bet.

Whichever type of smoker you choose, we’re sure you’ll be smoking up many a magical feast in the years to come!