Smoker vs. Grill – The 5 Key Differences You Need to Understand

Apr 26, 2018

One of the biggest decisions when it comes to backyard cookin’ is the age-old question: smoker vs grill?

Two different tools, both are there to get your food cooked, but they do it in very different ways. The end-result will end up tasting a lot different depending on which style of cooker you go with. Like any tool, it’s all about choosing the right one for the job.

They’re both great with plenty of pros and a few cons, but it really comes down to how you’ll be using it. How can you choose between a grill and a smoker if you aren’t sure of the differences between them?

Let’s look at the key differences between these two devices and, in the process, we’ll help you choose exactly which one is the best fit for you, your budget, your lifestyle, and your needs.

5. The Price Differences

You’ll encounter a full spectrum of prices for either type of device, from cheaper ones to very expensive ones. As a rough rule of thumb, grills tend to cost less than smokers, but there’s a little more to it.

With a smoker, you can make great things with lower-quality and less expensive cuts of meat so that you may spend more for a smoker upfront, but it can save you money in the longer term. Buying larger cuts of meat, even at the same quality, costs less than buying smaller cuts which have been processed by a butcher.

4. Smoking meat is a labor of love

When someone gets really into BBQ’ing, usually a smoker is right around the corner. There’s a lot to master on the grill, but smoking takes it to the next level. It’s not like a Crockpot where you throw it on before work, get home, and you’re good to go. It’s a lengthy, and involved process.

On the contrary, throwing something on the grill is a fast way to cook. It’s still a matter of heat and timing like a smoker is, but the process is much more condensed, leaving less of a window for possible errors when you’re grilling.

Grilling could is considered more straightforward, whereas smoking has a lot more for you to tweak, fine-tune, and perfect in the process… and it’s always worth the effort. There is something out there for everyone, be sure to check out our grill reviews and find something perfect for yourself.

3. Grilling is faster, BUT…

You can grill around 400-500+ degrees, whereas a smoker is going to be more in the range of 70 to 170. All that extra heat on the grill might get your food cooked more quickly, but it comes at a price. When you allow it to cook slowly, it’s like you’re reading a love letter from the intricate and unique flavors of your sauces and meats.

2. Making the most of what you’ve got

If you’ve got a tougher cut of meat, the smoker is the way to go, the lengthy process at low heat will work to tenderize the meat, whereas tossing it on a piping hot grill could leave you with rubber.

1. Size Matters

Another important consideration as to whether you should grill or smoke your meat depends on the size of it. Larger cuts of meat like roasts, whole chickens, shoulders, those are much better suited to cook in a smoker since the lower temperature has more time to heat up and cook the center before the edges become burnt.

A grill is better for steaks, burgers, dogs, chicken breasts because those things aren’t as large and thick, and by the time the outside is cooked, the inside will also be good to go.

Alright, we’ve covered a lot of ground, but you still might not be exactly sure on which to go with, so let’s quickly recap some of the important points, and pepper in some new information as well.

Should I Buy a Smoker or a Grill?

Just to reiterate an important point, if you’re going to be dealing with larger pieces of meat and you’re not super pressed for time, a smoker is a clear winner. The lower temperature allows you to cook larger pieces of meat evenly, and gives them a delicious flavor and texture – even if you aren’t using the most premium of cuts.

On the contrary, if you don’t want to cook a lot at once and you’ve got smaller portions to prepare, and if you don’t want to wait very long for it to cook, then the easy answer is a grill.

That’s simple enough, right? But for most of it, we don’t fall perfectly into one of those categories or the other, it’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. That’s when it gets more difficult to decide, and we can start looking at things like your budget, your space, and possible additional uses. Can’t decide? We can’t blame you. There are options out there and they are referred to as Combination grills, you can learn more here.

The Most Important Aspect

Let’s not forget about taste, either. Isn’t that one of the most important factors to cooking your food, after all? If you enjoy the smoky tastes of hickory, Applewood, cherry, and more – you’ll get that from a nice smoke session of your favorite meats.

Now, you can still get a smoky flavor on the BBQ too, especially if you have a BBQ that allows for wood, but it’s just not going to be the same. Adding a squirt or two of liquid smoke is another option, but at the end of the day, if it’s smokiness you’re after then you’ll want to get a smoker, there are no real substitutes. If you want a perfect steak with cross-over grill marks, you guessed it; you’ll want to throw it on a grill.

Whichever option you go for, the most important thing is your preparation and seasoning of your meat, choosing nice cuts (They don’t have to be the most expensive!), and getting your heat and cooking times down just right. Nothing can bring the best out of a slab of meat like a perfect cook, and nobody likes over-cooked, dry meat – so start with a good guide for cooking and temperatures, based on the size of your meat, and then just dial it in from there.

You’ll probably need to make some minor adjustments since every smoker or grill is a bit different, but after a few rounds, you’ll be making some perfect proteins, with either option.