Nothing compares to the taste of food cooked outdoors. The unique capabilities of preparing meat and vegetables in the open air allow them to take on flavor profiles unmatched by anything you create in your kitchen. However, cooking the perfect meal requires using the right equipment, and there are big differences between backyard cooking methods. Learn about the differences between a grill and a smoker before you start planning your feast.
Typically, a grill will offer a heating surface in the range of 400 to 550 degrees. The high heat allows you to create a caramelized crust and to cook quickly. Smokers utilized much lower temperatures in the range of 68 to 176 degrees. Those low temperatures allow complex flavors to develop over time and tenderize tough cuts of meat.
Grilling is the quickest way to cook outdoors, and some things take just a few minutes to prepare. Smoking is the slowest way to cook outdoors, with cooking times taking at least an hour and sometimes as long as a day or more. When smoking, be sure to account for these long cooking times so that you don’t end up eating at midnight!
Since grilling goes so quickly, you will need to pay close attention to everything on the grill, or you may risk burning it. Grilling also involves a lot of flipping and rearranging, often on a crowded grill surface. Smoking is relatively hands off. You will need to monitor temperature and check the things you’re smoking occasionally, but for the most part you can sit back, relax, and let the smoker do the work.
Anyone who has cooked over a campfire knows that it is possible to grill over wood, but most use either charcoal or propane. Wood smokers also use charcoal as a heat source, but that heat is used to ignite aromatic woods like cherry, apple, and hickory. After the meat is surrounded by smoke for hours, it begins to take on some of the rich, deep, and unmistakable flavors of the specific wood.
The intense heat of the grill makes it ideal for cooking smaller items like steaks, burgers, and sausages. You can cook those on a smoker, too, but the low and slow approach to cooking makes it better suited for larger pieces of meat like briskets, ribs, pork butts, and whole birds.
Grilled meat or vegetables are usually seasoned in advance, but only lightly so that the seasonings don’t char on the grill. This is not an issue in a smoker, and many backyard BBQ chefs elect to cover meats in a thick seasoning rub. This further enhances the flavor of the finished project and often eliminates the need for any kind of sauce.
Like all things, grills and smokers are available at a wide variety of price points. Grills, however, tend to be cheaper overall. They also wear out faster since they get used more and are not always built for longevity. Smokers may cost a little more, but they are built tough and can last years or even decades.
A hibachi style grill offers a small cooking surface and a limited source of heat, but you can fit one easily on a balcony or store it on a shelf in the garage. Smokers also come in compact sizes, but typically they are bigger than grills to accommodate larger cuts of meat and to allow for ample amounts of smoke to collect.
There are some flavors that you can only achieve on a gill and others that are completely unique to a smoker. Going with one option or the other allows you to pursue a wide variety of recipe options, but closes you off from some other options.
As was noted earlier, both cooking devices come in a range of sizes. In general, you will be able to cook a larger quantity of meats or vegetables on a smoker. This is important to consider if you regularly feed a crowd.
Since there are so many differences between a grill and a smoker, many true BBQ enthusiasts choose to use both. The grill is great for a quick meal, but the smoker is on hand to handle big cuts, large crowds, and special occasions. With both in your arsenal you are fully equipped to explore the vast, complex, and appetizing universe of outdoor cooking.