If you are trying to figure out the real differences between propane vs electric smokers then I have a few suggestions to get you going down the right path. Let me start by saying that there is not a single right answer. Everybody wants and needs something a little different out of their equipment.
I am going to start with the assumption that you want to buy a decent piece of equipment like a Masterbuilt 40 digital electric or a solidly built propane smoker. If you are looking to buy a cheap piece of junk then you can stop reading now.
High Heat vs Low Heat
Without question, electric smokers are MUCH easier to use for low temperature smoking than propane smokers. Many electric smokers will top out around 275F and can run all day at 225F for smoking ribs. Where an electric smoker really shines is when you want to run it at 160F for making beef jerky. Keeping a propane smoker steady at a temperature this low is TOUGH.
Propane smokers can be run in the 225-275F range pretty easily and can also be cranked up to the 350-400F range. Being able to run at high temperatures is a great feature if you want to improve the texture of your chicken skin or do a Hot and Fast brisket like Myron Mixon.
When it comes to reliability a propane smoker beats an electric any day of the week.
A propane smoker is a box containing a burner that is attached to a regulator. This is a simple mechanical setup and there just isn’t much to break. The biggest reliability issue I have seen with propane smokers is when the floors rust out.
In contrast, the heart of any decent electrical smoker is the electronic control panel. You also have the connections from the panel to the heating element and from the thermometer back to the panel. We are talking about maintaining an electronic system in a moist, greasy and hot environment. This is not a recipe for success. When the control panel, or any of the connections, fails then you are dead in the water.
Bad Weather Considerations
One of the things you need to think about when getting a smoker is what happens when it starts to rain.
You should never use an electric smoker in the rain. In addition to the obvious problems associated with mixing water and electricity you will also be exposing the control panel to more water. If the control panel is not completely sealed then you are running the risk of your electronics getting wet and having the smoker die an early death.
There are no safety concerns with using a propane smoker in rainy weather but there are performance issues. Most propane smokers are not as well insulated as a good electric smoker. A bunch of wind and rain can suck the heat out of a propane smoker and you will need to spend a lot of time babysitting and adjusting your fuel usage.
Something else that us folks down on the Gulf Coast have to keep in mind is that you can still use a propane smoker when the tropical storms knock the power out for several days.
Ease of Use
Hands down it is easier to use an electric smoker than a propane smoker.
When you are using an electric smoker you just need to punch the temperature into the controller and wait about 20 minutes while your cooker heats up. When you are working with a propane smoker you are going to be checking the temperature and adjusting your gas flow on a pretty regular basis.
You will not be tempted to fire up a propane smoker and then go run errands around town for a couple hours. You are going to stick around the house and keep an eye on things. Masterbuilt has a propane smoker with thermostat control but the reviews I have been reading indicate that the thermostat is buggy as heck and loves to keep shutting off the gas. It is a nice idea but give them a few years to get the bugs out.
Taste of Food
I think it is pretty well accepted that a propane smoker will get you a flavor profile closer to what you get with wood/charcoal than an electric smoker.
Propane smokers, when used properly, can get you a much better smoke ring than an electric and will also give you a better bark.
Cost of Running a Propane Smoker ($0.40/hr)
This means a standard 20 pound propane tank contains about 4.8 gallons of fuel with a total heat content of 434,919 BTUs.
The Masterbuilt 44 propane smoker has two burners that are each rated at 8,250 BTUs per hour.
So, if you fired up this smoker at full blast on both burners you will empty your propane tank in about 26 hours.
Of course you aren’t going to run this guy with both burners on full blast. More than likely you will be going Low and Slow with the burners at about 50%. This means you could run your smoker for about 52 hours on a single propane tank.
This gets us into a ballpark estimate that you could expect to do five cooks at ten hours each before you would need to fill up the tank.
Note: This assumes that the propane tank was completely filled. Many tank re-fillers will only fill to 80% capacity.
If it costs you $20 to get your 20 pound propane tank filled then this means each 10 hour cook will cost you about $4 in propane consumption.
Cost of Running an Electric Smoker ($0.06/hr)
If you are running something like the Masterbuilt 40 inch digital electric that has a 1,200 watt heating element then the math works out like this:
- Watt Rating For Unit = 1,200 Watts
- Hours of Cook = 10
- Electric Rate = $.10/KWh(Kilowatt Hour) Estimated Rate
- 1,200 Watts x 10 Hours a day/1000 = 12 KWh
- 12KWh x $.10(Kwh Rate) = $1.20 for a 10 Hour Cook
The value of $1.20 for a 10 hour cook is too high because the heating element will not be drawing the full 1,200 watts for all ten hours. Lets make a safe assumption and cut this value in half. At this level it will cost you $0.60 for 10 hours.
- If you get a propane smoker then you will need two propane tanks. It sucks to run out if fuel mid cook.
- A lot of folks have to use an extension cord for their electric smokers. You need to factor in the cost of a heavy duty extension cord and remember that having cords run all over your deck can look ugly.
- I like playing with fire more than plugging in a device.
I hope my ramblings helped you out. Good luck on your smoking journey!