A Comparison of Conventional Barbeques versus Smokers - Which is Better?

We’re all familiar with the traditional barbecue where food is cooked on a grill above hot coals. But if you’re looking for something a bit different, both in terms of the cooking process and taste, you might want to consider a smoker.

Smokers are becoming increasingly popular with several models available. Producing a distinctive ‘smoked’ taste, the textures and flavours created by smoking are quite different to conventional charcoal or gas barbecues. Smokers are particularly good for smoking food such as cheese, a wide variety of fish, certain cuts of beef, bacon, ham and sausages.

If you are weighing up whether to invest in a conventional barbecue or a smoker, we’ve highlighted some of the advantages and disadvantages of smokers below. But first, let’s look at exactly what smoking is and how smokers work.

What is smoking?

Smoking is a cooking technique used for flavouring, cooking or preserving food in smoke. The smoke is usually created by burning wood and traditionally smoking was done by farmers and huntsmen in a specially designed building known as a ‘smokehouse’. Smoking provided a practical way to preserve meat and fish in the days before refrigeration.

There are two main methods for smoking food – ‘cold smoking’ and ‘hot smoking’.

Cold smoking is carried out at temperatures below 100⁰F and does not cook food but gives it a smoky flavour. This technique is used for giving food a smoked flavour before cooking it using another method such as baking, grilling or roasting.

Hot smoking provides heat and smoke to both flavour and cook the food at the same time with temperatures of around 165⁰F to 185⁰F. Once smoked using this method, the food is ready to eat.

What is a smoker?

For most of us it wouldn’t be practical to build a full-size smokehouse in our back garden but fortunately, we can get the smokehouse experience albeit on a smaller scale, using a domestic smoker. A smoker is a unit used for cooking food in a smoky atmosphere. Unlike a traditional barbecue which is designed to let the smoke escape, a smoker has a lid which traps the smoke where it used to flavour and cook the food.

The smoking process varies slightly from model to model but generally the smoke is created using wood chips or wood pellets and a smoke generator. Different flavours can be achieved by using different types of wood pellet – for example maple or hickory.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a smoker

Whether you choose a smoker or a barbecue will depend upon your own personal taste and how often you like to enjoy smoked food. Here are some things to think about:

Advantages of a smoker

  • Versatility: Although the primary function of smokers is to smoke food, many can be adapted to cook in other ways such as grilling, roasting and steaming. So you may find that investing in a smoker provides you with everything you would want from a traditional barbecue but with the added convenience of being able to smoke food easily too.
  • Ease of use: If you’d prefer to be chatting to your guests, or relaxing in the sun rather than slaving over a hot barbecue, then a smoker might be a good option. Once you’ve got the process under way, you can leave your smoker to get on with cooking the food without having to constantly tend to it.
  • Texture: Food cooked in a smoker is often tenderer than food cooked on a barbecue. This is due to the slow process by which the meat is cooked. Because the food isn’t at risk of burning, it’s also likely to be more succulent.
  • Health: When smoking food you don’t need to add oil to prevent it sticking to the grill, so you can cook without adding additional fat to the food.

Disadvantages of a smoker

  • Cost: Traditional barbecues come in all different shapes and sizes and if you’re on a budget it’s possible to pick one up cheaply. Smokers are more specialised and therefore tend to be more expensive.
  • Time: Smoking food takes time and so if you are in a hurry or want fast results then a smoker probably isn’t the right choice for you.
  • Taste: Some people find that food cooked in a smoker can take on a bitter or chemical taste. This often occurs when the smoker is new and can be overcome by ‘curing’ the smoker before you use it for cooking. This means letting it smoke without any food the first time you use it.
  • However, smoked food isn’t to everyone’s taste, so investing in a smoker is a good idea if you and your family love smoked food but if you are planning to use it for entertaining, you may find that some of your guests would prefer traditional barbecue flavours.

Alternative to a smoker

If you want to experience the taste of smoked food from time to time without investing in a smoker, you can recreate the smoking technique on a traditional barbecue as long as it has a lid. The smoky taste won’t be as distinctive as using a smoker but you can still get good results.

This method creates a smoky atmosphere within the barbecue grill using wood chips. First soak a large handful of wood chips in water for 30 minutes and then drain. Next take a large square of tinfoil and place the wood chips in the centre. Create a pouch by folding the tinfoil over the wood chips. Next punch around 10 small holes into the pouch to allow the smoke to escape. Put the tinfoil pouch onto the barbecue above the hot coals and wait for the wood to start smoking. Once this happens you can place your food onto the grill rack and close the lid to trap the smoke.