Propane Vs Charcoal Smokers Comparison

Smoking meats adds flavor to an average or advanced cut. With options of different wood types in addition to the types of grills, there are limitless flavor combinations for any number of different types of meats.

When you are considering smoked meats, the type of flame you use to cook over may be one of the most defining factors in the unit you choose. In making this decision, you may want to also consider the Propane vs Pellet smoker debate.

Ultimately, you’ll have to weigh your options, considering factors such as methods to get the most flavor out of your meats, the initial costs, the maintenance, and cleanup processes. We’ve taken all of these things into consideration and created this in-depth guide to help you determine which type of smoker will be the best fit for you.

Propane vs Charcoal: What's the Difference?

When considering the two types of smokers, many differences need to be highlighted, and one big myth needs to be debunked. This complete guide will address all the differences big and small.

Let us start with what is not true about the differences between propane vs charcoal smokers. When cooking with gas or propane, you may notice a very distinct smell. That is due to a compound, called mercaptan. Manufacturers add this compound to propane to alert people of leaks because propane itself is colorless and odorless.

The common myth that by cooking with propane will infuse your meats with this smell or taste is untrue. When gas burns, it uses up the mercaptan compound and turns into sulfur dioxide. This is completely safe and will leave no state on the meat you are smoking.

Besides this myth, however, there are significant differences between the types of smoker and the way they cook your meats.

Differences in the Smoker

The two kinds of smokers have some striking differences. From cleanliness to physical design, you should consider all of the following factors.

Size

Depending on the cut of meat you have, or how much meat you plan on cooking, the size of your smoker can be a real determining factor. Although there are versions of each that will cover every size, the larger smokers available will come in the charcoal style. These can come in sizes up to 879 sq inches.

An additional point of consideration should be that often the charcoal style smokers will come with a second smaller smoking area off to the side. This can be good if you are attempting to smoke and grill at the same time. It’s also handy if you are trying to smoke two different types of meats at two different levels.

Cleanup

For easier cleanup, there is no clear winner. With a gas smoker, you’ll have to prepare to deal with grease buildups below the burners. This can be cleaned by scraping or washing it. However, with a charcoal smoker, you will have to clean it just as frequently to get rid of any black carbon buildup on both the bottom of the smoker and the grates.

In both cases, for health, taste, and safety, it is important to clean your smoker every month or so. Keep an eye on any buildup and be vigilant so as to not ruin your meat with vaporized grease.

The grease buildup may seem to add flavor at first, but the potential hazard it creates is not worth the risk. When using gas smokers, if the grease catches fire, you will have a gas and grease fire on your hands. Grease fires can quickly get out of control and are hard to control and clean.

Both options will come with grease trays to catch any of the accumulated gunk. However, there is no stopping the buildup with every use. Smoke from propane or charcoal will slowly accumulate ash and grease.

A final note is that charcoal grills will require you to clean out the firebox more often. Charcoal creates more ash and leftover remnants.

Accessories

Many gas grills come with side burners that you can attach to keep smaller items warm whereas the charcoal options do not. Gas grills also will often come equipped with lights, racks, hangers, and drawers. The reality is that propane smokers have more customization and accessories. Charcoal smokers tend to be more basic and bare bones.

Control

Often, the gas grill option of smokers will give you more control. They are made with different gauges that allow you to easily control the temperature by allowing more or less gas.

You cannot get this level of control in charcoal smokers. If you want to cool down the smoker, you cannot just stop the charcoal from burning.

Also, the advanced propane options come with thermostats that let you set and maintain a specific temperature. Propane options also tend to come with full control units on the outside of the smoker. This tells you the time of cooking and the temperature. This can be very helpful for beginners.

Other features that you may find on specific propane smokers include:

• Safety valves that shut off any burners immediately after the extinguishing of the flame.
• Heat diffuses to distribute the heat from a burner to the entire chamber.
• Propane tank retention brackets to give stability to an attached tank.
• Click to start lighter controls.
• 15,400 BTU stainless steel burners.
• Flame disk bowls for circular heat distribution.

Price

If you are looking to buy the largest smoker of either type, there is almost a $100 difference between the gas and charcoal smokers.

Propane is the cheaper option. You will find that for the amount of money you are paying, you will get just as much, if not more, use out of it.

On the other hand, the higher prices for the charcoal style smokers tend to come with a slightly bigger size. They are also very durable, ensuring you won’t pay as much for repairs and maintenance.

Fuel costs also can affect the overall price of any smoker. Look into what type of propane your gas option takes. Try and find a supplier who will tell you the price of a tank.

Charcoal is a fuel source that is easier to find, and the prices are a lot more available.

Although these are the ongoing costs of owning a smoker, the difference between constantly buying gas or constantly restocking on charcoal is an important one to understand.

Safety

The final consideration when looking at the physical differences between the smokers is safety. The most important thing to remember when working with flame and smoke is to have a safe understanding of how to use your equipment.

That being said, when comparing the two options, gas can be extremely dangerous. If not handled properly, gas leaks can lead to explosions and gas fires.

However, this does not make charcoal the undisputed better option. When cooking with open flames, you have to consider that sparks or hot objects could escape the smoker and light surrounding items on fire.

In both cases, we caution you to understand fully the smoker or grill before using it.

Differences in the Meat

The two kinds of smokers can have very different effects on your meat. Here is a list of the major things to look for when thinking about how you want to cook up your smoked meats.

Searing

Searing is perhaps one of the most important parts of the smoking process. Smokers let you infuse the meat with the deepest flavors. The caramelization of complex flavors does not come easy.

Consider the surface on which the meat will be cooked and how that may affect flavors as well. The big difference between your two options is that charcoal grills will give more defined and richer sear marks and flavors. The heat produced by a charcoal smoker is more intense and direct. When contacting the meat, it provides the perfect infusion of smoky, savory flavors.

With propane, the searing is not as intense and does not produce such a complex flavor. However, you will get a more even sear across the meat.

This is highly debated over which is better. Whether you desire consistency throughout the meat or a richer, smokier flavor is up to you.

Flavor

The flavors produced by the different types of smokers are very different. The flavors that are made using gas smokers are going to be more consistent with the type of smoke chips you are burning. If you want to secure a specific flavor throughout the entire meat, propane is the choice for you.

However, if you want a richer flavor that varies at every level and depth of the meat, then the classic charcoal will give you what you are seeking.

The flavor is also a result of the juiciness. Gas grills produce more steam-like smoke, which can add moisture to the outside and deeper parts of the meats. Charcoal units allow you to achieve more dry-aged styles of meat. This is best for high-end steaks or more aged cuts of beef.

Color

Finally, the last major difference that charcoal vs propane smokers will give your meat is color. Although it may not seem as important, presentation is a crucial part of cooking and enjoying food.

With a charcoal smoker, the meat will develop a darker and crispier outside, giving it a very charred look. If you want to have meats with less complex coloring and more consistency, propane units are the better option. They allow you to keep some of the original coloring of the meat and serve it in a more traditional style.

Rotisserie

A specific feature that can range from smoker to smoker is the option to attach and use a rotisserie kit. This is an overlooked style of cooking meats in most smokers. By attaching a spit, or rod, through the smoker, you can slowly spin meats as they cook.

This is a great way to get an even degree of cook on the entire cut of meat. The constant turning of the meat seals its natural juices inside. The result will be a moist and flavorful cut.

Propane vs Charcoal Smokers: Pros and Cons

Among the many differences of the two types of smokers, there are a few distinct aspects between propane vs charcoal smokers. The difference is not just in the parts list although that is a significant factor. However, with a completely different method of starting the cooking process, you may find there are more differences in propane smokers than you realized.

Propane: The Pros

Easy Setup

When using a propane smoker, you’ll find they are very easy to get started. The gas in your tank will fuel the fire and give you ultimate control over the heat and how fast or slow you want to cook.

Once your food is prepped and the smoker loaded and heated up, simply add the food to the racks and control the rest from the outside. Remember to check the fuel to make sure you do not run out prematurely.

Customizable Parts

A propane smoker is comprised of mostly replaceable parts, and you can customize the entire unit to suit your personal preferences and cooking needs.

The first major parts are the propane tank and knob. The tank sits outside the smoker and can be turned open or close with just a twist. It is very important to not leave this open as gas leaks are the leading cause of problems with propane smokers. With some of the advanced options, you can find customizable parts for the knob that tells you how much gas is left in the tank.

Other options include gauges that tell you how long the meat has been cooking and how much time it has left as well as temperature readers.

Safer

Now similarly to the charcoal smokers, this style will come with either a wood chip loader or a wood chip box to fill before starting. However, with propane smokers there is often a digital controller you can use to visualize the temperature and better adjust your smoker as it goes. This provides improved safety since you can monitor the temperature and amount of gas you’re using.

Easy to Replace and Clean Parts

All parts for a propane smoker will be more easily replaceable and easier to clean as they do not deal with the harsh smoke a charcoal grill would have.

Better for the Environment

This may come as a surprise, but propane is better for the environment than charcoal. Both of these fuel types emit greenhouse gases, but propane produces less. Compared to charcoal, which emits an average of 11 pounds of CO2 per grilling session, propane emits just 5.6 pounds.

Propane: The Cons

Higher Maintenance

Because propane is a type of gas, you will need to monitor the gas and temperature levels throughout the cooking process. You don’t want the gas levels to suddenly flare out of control. This need for constant monitoring makes these appliances more high-maintenance.

Affected by Harsh Weather

Propane-fueled units often have poor insulation. In turn, this makes the smoker more susceptible to being affected by harsh winds, storms, etc. If you intend to use the smoker year-round, propane smokers will require you to constantly check the food to make sure the insulation is keeping the temperature stable.

Storage Safety

Parents may want to exercise caution when storing their propane tanks. You don’t want to store it in the house with young children, who may fiddle with the valves and release gas.

Charcoal Smokers: The Pros

More Complex Flavor

The old-style charcoal smokers will lead you on a journey of learning and perfecting your food the exact way you want. It may take time to master the skill and nuance of smoking meat using real charcoal, but you may find the complex flavors to be worth it.

Larger Cooking Surface

Charcoal units tend to have larger cooking surfaces. If you plan on hosting parties and cooking for groups of people, or you want to cook a variety of meats, charcoal units will serve you better.

Easier Maintenance

A charcoal smoker is made up of fewer parts than propane. Instead of using a tank of gas, you will start the fire with a charcoal chimney and add charcoal to the wood chip box. The direct heat has no other hoops to jump through before it enters the smoke chamber where you can rack the meat and let it smoke.

One of the larger differences of propane vs charcoal smokers is that instead of an interface you can use to change the temperature, charcoal smokers will have a damper top. This lets the user open it and release smoke, allowing you to have slight control if attempting to lower the inside temperature.

Charcoal Smokers: The Cons

More Labor-Intensive Set-Up

The process of smoking food through a charcoal grill is a longer and more tedious operation. The first step is to add the charcoal in a metal cylinder and begin to heat it. From there you should add the hot charcoal to the smoker, on top of a lesser pile of unlit charcoal. Once the charcoal is loaded, you can add the desired smoke chips and prepare the food as it heats up.

Keep a watchful eye on the temperature. It is much harder to lower and raise the temperature once the process of smoking the meats has started. From there, similar to propane, let the magic happen in the smoker and let it cook for the desired time.

Costly

Both propane and charcoal smokers will require you to purchase a fuel source. While propane tanks may present a more expensive initial investment, charcoal is not cheap either. You’ll have to buy multiple bags of charcoal, which ends up being more expensive than buying 1 tank of propane, which can last 8-10 grilling sessions.

Messy

Charcoal itself can be dirty to handle, and on top of that, clean-up with these smokers also can be a hassle. Charcoal smokers produce heaps of ash, which you’ll have to dispose.

Which Should I Buy?

So, you may be asking yourself, which one of these options is the best fit for you? Well the most important thing to consider is what kind of food you will be grilling, and the desired flavors you want to achieve.

  • If you are willing to put forth a little more effort every time you want to cook, then the charcoal smoker is the best purchase. You will be blown away with the different combinations of flavors you can develop with unique permutations of charcoal and wood chips. The complexity of flavor will suffuse the meat from its outer most layer to its core, giving you a different bite every time you cook.
  • If you want to cook lots of food, at good value, with consistency, you need the propane smoker. With unmatched control, you will be able to discover successful ways to cook different foods and meats and recreate that situation again and again. Additionally, if you do not want to spend more time cleaning and purchasing charcoal every time you cook, the propane will give you the highest quality of meat without taking all your time to cook.

With all the differences and possibilities laid out in front of you, the best way to pick a smoker is to think about the type of food and cooking style that you love. Smokers expand flavor and give you the ability to infuse truly unique aspects into your meats.

Propane Vs Charcoal FAQ

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Is it healthier to cook with charcoal or propane?
In a recent study, scientists discovered charcoal smoke had a noticeably higher number of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons then propane smoked meats. This is likely due to charcoal creating significantly more smoke then propane.

Can you use charcoal in a propane smoker?
No, you should never use charcoal in a propane smoker. It’s very likely the burning charcoal would damage a number of components inside a propane smoker, requiring an expensive repair if not outright replacement of the entire smoker.

Is grilling with charcoal carcinogenic?
Not directly, however charcoal does create smoke with a higher level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons then propane. These compounds are found in all smoke so all smoking or grilling could be considered carcinogenic.

Is propane cheaper than charcoal?
A propane smoker generally costs more just to turn on, however over a long smoke the propane smoker costs approximately 1/4th as a charcoal smoker.