Smoker vs. Grill: Which Outdoor Cooker is Best for Your Backyard?

Find out the pros and cons of smokers and grills, so you can decide which is best for your next barbecue.

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Many people love to cook outdoors, and there are grills and smokers to suit just about every yard size and budget. However, the smoker vs. grill debate can be confusing. While the two methods are similar in many ways, there are important differences. Plus, trying to choose the right type isn’t made any easier by smokers that come with grill attachments, and grills that have smoker boxes.

In order to help clear up confusion, this article is an in-depth look at both of these popular cooking methods. The following can help you decide whether smoking or grilling is best for your outdoor get-togethers.

A grill uses direct heat to cook food, while smoked foods are cooked using smoke.

Most of the time we think of a grill as using direct heat, like grilling a burger or a hot dog over hot charcoal, or searing a steak on a griddle that has been heated by a gas flame. Smoking relies on the food being surrounded by warm smoke from wood chips rather than direct heat. In a nutshell, grilling is fast and smoking is slow.

However, the smoker vs. grill question isn’t quite as simple as that quick explanation. To find the right solution it’s also important to think about the variety of foods that can be cooked, plus things like preparation time, and the way individuals like to cook.

Related: How to Clean a Grill

Grills offer more cooking methods. 

A grill offers greater versatility than a smoker. Whether it’s a charcoal, gas, or electric grill, the grill surfaces can reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit or more, allowing for searing of meat or slight charring of vegetables. It also means that a pan can be brought to the grill for frying or making sauces.

If the grill has a lid, it can be used like an oven and an even wider variety of food can be prepared. It is possible to steam fish or even bake bread. Some large grills have rotisserie attachments that can cook whole chickens. It is typical to choose a grill based on surface area and the number of burners.

Adding wood chips to a charcoal grill, or a tray of chips to a gas grill, can even create a smoker grill of sorts Purists may be horrified, and performance can’t be compared to a dedicated smoker. However, it is one way to add some of that smoked flavor at a minimal extra cost.

smoker vs grill

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Smokers have a much lower cooking temperature.

Smokers can run as low as 70 degrees Fahrenheit, though typically they cook at temperatures between 200 and 250 degrees. There is an important difference between cold smoking (which we’ll look at in a moment) and hot smoking.

Hot smoking is the common method used for cookouts. The heat source is kept away from direct contact with the food so more of the original juices are retained. The smoke adds a flavor that can’t be achieved with a grill.

Hot smoking is not a process that can be rushed. Small items like burgers and sausages can take a half hour or more. Large cuts might take 6 or 8 hours. Successful smoking for a party means planning ahead.

Related: The Best Vertical Pellet Smokers and Accessories

Grills cook food faster, smokers add more flavor.

Grilling is much faster, and it could be argued that it is a much more sociable way to cook outdoors. Someone has to keep an eye on the grill while the food is cooking, because there is a danger that food can burn. Far from being a chore, grilling often attracts an audience which adds to the atmosphere of the event. Smoking is more about the preparation and then waiting, although the ‘reveal’ can be fun group activity.

What a grill can’t match is the depth of taste from smoked food. A wide range of flavored wood chips are available such as apple, hickory, mesquite, and even whisky-soaked, allowing the cook several creative options. There also is an extra tenderness to smoked meats, because the juices have been retained and haven’t been cooked off by the grill’s higher temperature.

smoker vs grill

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Smokers can preserve foods.

Cold smoking not only imparts a fabulous smoky flavor, it also preserves meat and fish by removing moisture that would otherwise allow bacteria and fungus to grow. However, cold smoking temperatures are between 70 and 85 degrees so there isn’t sufficient temperature to actually cook the food. Meat and fish treated this way either needs to be cured beforehand (flavored barbecue rubs are popular), or cooked after cold smoking and before eating.

When done properly, cold smoked meats and fish can last months without refrigeration. Patience is needed as the process can take 24 hours or more. Smoking cheese, nuts, and fruit also is popular, but smoking makes little or no difference to how long these foods will last.

Related: The Best Wood Pellets for Smoking

Smokers are best for large cuts of meat.

Although most grills have lids, cooking is generally done with it open so that foods can be turned regularly to ensure they are cooked through. Often the lid is only closed to keep things warm after cooking is finished.

A meat smoker is mostly kept closed. The amount of internal space is one of the most important features. In addition to horizontal models there also are upright chest smokers. These have removable shelves and can be used to hang much larger cuts of meat than could ever be accommodated by a grill. They also offer great versatility. Meats, fish, sausages, cheese, and more can all be smoked at the same time.

The downside of that extra capacity is the lack of portability. A smoker is for use at home. It’s true that many have wheels to help move them around, but it’s not like a portable grill that you can easily use for tailgating, camping, or RVing.

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Smoker vs. grill: the bottom line.

There is no real winner or loser in the smoker vs. grill debate because both offer excellent ways to cook outdoors. For most people, a grill offers convenience and versatility, and they tend to be more affordable. However, there is no denying the mouthwatering flavors that a smoker can create. If budget and space allow, then keen outdoor cooks may want to own both.