Propane or Electric Smokers? Which is Best and Why?

Sep 18, 2018 | Blog

Smoking meat is a long-standing tradition in many cultures. It was one of the best ways to preserve meat for a prolonged period before refrigerators came along. There is no way to duplicate the unique smoky flavors you can get from smoking meat using anything else but a smoker.

Traditionally, the meat would need to be cured in salt, then hung in a smoker and gradually dried and infused with flavor. These smokers were primarily wood burning, and each type of wood used would give the meat a different flavor. The meat would then be hung high to dry in cold weather, and smoked again for several turns.

Nowadays, meat smoking has been made easier and more attainable with the creation of propane and electric smokers. Let’s take a look at which is best and why.

Differences Between Gas and Electric Smokers

Footprint or Cost of Operation

Both electric and gas smokers require a source of power in order to operate. In the case of gas, they will all use a standard propane tank. Electric smokers are simply plugged into an outlet.

In this comparison, we will be looking at two Masterbuilt models. Masterbuilt is known for their quality in the smoking community.

Cost of a Propane Smoker

To save you all the math. It costs around $0.40 per hour with Propane.

A standard propane tank weighs around 20 pounds. This number can vary by a pound or two depending on the temperature and surrounding air when the tank is filled. This variance is noted by a tare weight or TW. Tanks are filled to around 80% capacity to allow for expansion of molecules as temperature rises.

A gallon of propane weighs approximately 4.2 lbs and a “full” 20 lb tank should contain roughly 4.7 lbs of fuel. The BTU content of 1 gallon of fuel is 91,333 Btu, meaning a full tank contains 429,265 Btu.

The Masterbuilt MPS 250 XL has two 8,250 BTU burners.

Assuming you had both burners at 8,250 BTU, the total heat capacity is 16,500 BTU. Doing some quick math (429265 / 16500) tells us that the smoker can run for 26 hours.

This number isn’t really “realistic” though. Most people don’t run their smokers at full blast. Typically you will run at half of that, so 8,250 BTU across both burners. Meaning your total runtime doubles to 52 hours.

Assuming you already have a propane tank, a refill is normally cheaper than an exchange and only costs $20. This number varies based on where you get it refilled, but you can expect to pay $3 to $4 per gallon.

Lastly, you need to determine the cook time for the item you are smoking. Assuming it’s brisket, most people smoke for an hour and 15 minutes per pound at 225 degrees. Assuming it weighs 8.7 lbs (for the sake of math). That’s roughly a 10-hour cook and will require $4 in propane consumption. Meaning propane costs $0.40 per hour.

Cost of Electricity

Again, if you’re not a fan of math. A quick breakdown tells us it will cost $0.13 per hour at full power.

In this example, we will use the Masterbuilt MES 130 electric smoker. The heating element is rated at 800 watts.

We are assuming the same cook time as the propane grill, 10 hours for the brisket

You then need the kilowatt-hour, an average for where I live is 16.16 KWh (New Hampshire).

Doing some quick math: 800 watts x 10 hrs = 8,000 watt-hours. There are 1,000 watts in 1 kilowatt. So 8,000 /1000 = 8 KWh

Then take this rate and multiply it by your state: 8 * 0.1616 = $1.30 for 10 hours or $0.13 per hour. Similar to the other grill you may not even run at full capacity. Maybe 50 to 75 percent of capacity. Meaning that cost could be $0.07 per hour.

Operation

Without a doubt, in ideal conditions, it is easier to use an electric smoker. Now with that said, let’s break-down a few comparisons of operation.

Reliability

In order to use an electric smoker, all it takes is plugging it in and punching in the desired heat level. Some feature analog dials, but as technology has advanced, most will have digital readouts. If your smoker is decent you can normally set it and forget it.

This assumes that you have electricity and it’s not raining. Electricity and water don’t mix, and you don’t want to risk frying your controls or the grill itself.

If you cook a lot of food that requires a higher level of heat, I’d suggest using propane instead. You could also smoke them in the electric grill and also finish it off in the oven at a higher temperature.

Propane smokers, on the other hand, are quite reliable. Essentially it’s just a propane barrel attached to a regulator valve. That is then hooked up to a box that smokes your meat. As long as you have propane in the tank you will be able to run your smoker.

Similar to electric smokers, in rainy conditions you can still run your smoker. The issue you run into though is performance based. You will definitely have trouble maintaining a steady temperature due to the heat loss of the rain.

Taste and Temperature

Taste is pretty hard to determine. We don’t necessarily know what your taste buds prefer. This can also vary based on what you’re smoking. For instance, if you’re smoking items at lower heat like ribs, electric can do the job marvelously.

Typically you will find that propane can output at higher heat and thus create a more smoky profile than electric. Most electric smokers can achieve up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. You won’t get much more out of them, but due to their low operational costs, they can run forever.

Propane smokers can hit 250 degrees Fahrenheit easily. They can also reach up to the 350 degrees Fahrenheit or more. These temperatures will improve the bark and texture of the food you’re making through the Maillard reaction.

Billy Stewart

Chef and Reviewer for Barbequesmoked.com

Barbeque Smoked

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