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Charcoal vs Pellet Smoker: Which Is Better? A Detailed Look At 6 Major Differences, Plus The Pros & Cons Of Each Grill

By Daniel Cdebaca

June 5, 2023

Hot on smoky flavors? Or, are you all about a wood-fired flair?

Are you a hands-on griller… Or would you prefer a grill that can do the brunt of the work for you?

The type of grill that’s right for you comes down to your personal outdoor cooking style…

And when you’re looking for a smoker, specifically… You’ve got options!

That’s why today, we’ll be putting charcoal and pellet grills head to head.

We’ll give you the must-know facts and mull over the main differences… And by the end of the article, you should have a better idea of which’ll best fit your backyard!

So before your briquettes burn to ash… Let’s get started on our charcoal vs pellet smoker debate.

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An Overview of Charcoal and Pellet Smokers

To get our pellet smoker vs charcoal grill debate cooking… Let’s quickly run through what makes these grills tick.

What Are Charcoal Grills?

coyote built in charcoal grill

Charcoal grills have been and continue to be a popular choice for backyard BBQ… And for good reason!

These grillers come in all shapes and sizes.

They’re suited for searing or charring at high temperatures, and can even operate well in the lower temperature ranges.

Though there’ll be a bit of a learning curve for beginners… Once you get the hang of it, charcoal grilling is a straightforward affair, with great (smoke flavored) payoff!

Now, charcoal smokers are certainly the more traditional choice… But they’re no longer your only outdoor smoker option.

Speaking of…

What Are Pellet Smokers?

traeger timberline xl with food grilling on it

In recent years, pellet grills (also known as pellet smokers) have taken the outdoor cooking scene by storm.

At the very least, you’ve likely heard of the well-known pellet smoker brands Traeger, Camp Chef, or Pit Boss…

But today, there are so many more pellet grill brands to pick and choose from!

As with charcoal grills, you won’t have a problem finding a wood pellet grill of practically any size, shape, or configuration.

These outdoor appliances are better suited for cooking low and slow (it’s what they’re best known for)… But don’t be fooled! There are plenty of options that can reach those scorching hot cooking temperatures required for high heat searing.

Though pellet grills haven’t been around as long as charcoal smokers… They’re a worthy contender!

Incredibly easy to use and undeniably versatile… There’s a lot to love about these hardwood-fueled powerhouses.

But can they really beat out something as time-tested and dependable as charcoal grills?

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Is a Pellet Smoker Better Than Charcoal?

When it comes to charcoal or pellet smokers… Does one outdo the other?

To get a feel for which grill matches your tastes… Let’s break down some key differences.

Pellet Smoker vs Charcoal: Fuel Type

open charcoal tray in grill

First, let’s talk about fuel source.

Of course, this is the main difference between pellet and charcoal smokers!

Obviously, charcoal grills are fueled by charcoal…

And pellet grills run off hardwood pellets.

While that’s easy enough to understand… There’s more to it.

So, let’s start with charcoal.

Charcoal grills need only charcoal and a lighter to start cooking.

And when cooking with charcoal… You’ll have a couple options!

Both charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal are commonly used.

Generally, charcoal briquettes are considered the better choice for low temperature, slow cooks… While lump charcoal (which lights easier, burns hotter, and stays lit for longer) is best for cooking at higher temperatures.

While lump charcoal is certainly the more fuel efficient option… It does come at a slightly higher price, so keep that in mind!

That said, many prefer to spend the extra dough on lump charcoal… Since certain briquettes come with lighter fluid or other additives that can negatively impact your food’s pure smoke flavor.

Now, how do wood pellets compare?

Well, for starters… Pellet grills require both wood pellets and electricity to operate (a lot of digital components go into firing up a pellet smoker)! So, you’ll effectively be paying for two fuel types.

That said, a bag of pellets isn’t all that expensive. While fuel costs may be a bit higher to run an electric smoker, the price difference isn’t substantial.

As for fuel efficiency… Wood pellets are incredibly slow-burning (even more so than lump charcoal)!

Depending on the temp you’re cooking at (and the size of your grill)… A standard 20 pound bag of hardwood pellets can last up to 20 hours or longer.

While a load of charcoal can also sustain longer cooks at lower temps, even lump charcoal can’t rival this outstanding cook time. Though, it does come quite close.

But all in all, you’re likely to spend more time adding fuel while charcoal grilling…

And if you’re leaning towards a pellet smoker… Expect a slightly higher operating cost!

Charcoal vs Pellet Smoker: Efficiency & Ease of Use

couple using their built in coyote pellet grill

How about efficiency and ease of use? Does charcoal or pellet take the cake (or should we say steak?)

Well, there’s no denying that using a pellet grill is exceptionally easy.

Simply set a desired temperature on a digital control panel…

The grill will then dispense pellets through an auger into the firebox, where they’ll be ignited…

The cooking surface will preheat in about 10-20 minutes…

And for the duration of your cook, your smoker will automatically dispense pellets as needed, to maintain a consistent temp for you.

It’s no more difficult than operating an oven!

In fact, in some cases it may be even less hands-on. Certain pellet grill models function with WiFi control… For a completely remote grilling experience.

If needed, you can adjust your grill’s temp output from virtually anywhere, which is undeniably convenient.

As for charcoal grills… Well, we won’t sugar coat it. These require much more effort to use.

You’ll need to manually ignite your charcoal… Wait 20 or 30 minutes for it to come to temp… And then add them to your cooker below the grill grates.

But that’s not all. Unlike pellet grills, charcoal smokers don’t offer precise temperature control.

Rather, they have built-in vents that you can open or close to control airflow, to manually adjust cooking temperatures.

Once you get the hang of it… Getting a charcoal grill close to your desired temp isn’t all that challenging.

But it’s clear that the process is much more involved than pellet grilling!

Ultimately, pellet grills allow for a lower maintenance, automated cooking experience.

And charcoal grilling is less efficient, more involved, and will certainly require more fiddling to achieve the right temps.

Pellet Smoker vs Charcoal Smoker: Temp Output, Control, and Cooking Versatility

rec tec grill showing temperature

We made mention of it earlier… Both charcoal grills and pellet grills can function at various temperature ranges, from low to piping hot.

But as temperature control is crucial to successful outdoor cooking… It’s important to know exactly what to expect from each.

So, let’s take a closer look!

On average, wood pellet smokers can cook at temps between 200 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit… But the best pellet grills can reach lower temps (around 150 degrees), as well as much higher temps (700 degrees or more).

On the other hand, the sweet spot for charcoal grilling is between 450-550 degrees. That said, they can also function in the lower ranges… And can even be used for high heat grilling, at temps pushing 800 degrees.

As you can see, temp ranges aren’t all that different… And because of this, many high-quality charcoal and pellet smokers alike can be used for smoking, roasting, grilling, and searing!

That said… There are some noteworthy differences in the way these smokers cook that play a role in their overall versatility.

Namely, pellet grills have outstanding insulation, which allows them to maintain extremely precise temps, for long periods of time.

Because of this, pellet smokers can also be used for baking!

Unfortunately, charcoal grills typically don’t have the best heat retentive qualities. This means they won’t be able to hold consistently steady temps, particularly in the lower ranges.

So, charcoal grills really aren’t suited for outdoor baking.

And to keep the temp of your charcoal grill as consistent as possible, you may need to spend time adding coals or adjusting airflow.

You’ll certainly need to monitor a charcoal grill more closely than you would a pellet smoker!

But when you enjoy that deliciously smokey, charcoal-grilled fare… That extra effort may be worth it.

On that note, let’s talk about taste.

Charcoal vs Pellet Smoker Taste

Charcoal grillers and pellet smoker aficionados alike will tell you that their preferred grill type dishes out the better flavors.

But who’s right?

Well, when it comes to pellet smoker vs charcoal flavors, there really is no right answer. Everyone has different flavor preferences!

But personal palettes aside… Charcoal grills are largely considered to be the most flavorful option.

Charcoal wood chunks dish out an overall smokier flavor… While pellets will provide a more refined, subtle, wood flavor. (Depending on your preferred tastes, wood pellets come in flavors like mesquite BBQ, hickory, apple, and maple, to name a few.)

If you want the best of both worlds… You can always add a charcoal tray to your pellet grill, or a wood chip box to your charcoal smoker (to make things even smokier, we’d suggest soaking your wood chips in water, and adding them directly to your charcoal!)

Since charcoal will also dish out more concentrated heat than pellets… You’ll also get a more distinctive, charred crust when cooking on a charcoal grill.

But while you’ll get the smokier flavors and crispier crust with charcoal… Pellet grills will provide juicier dishes!

As we mentioned earlier… Pellet grills are great at retaining heat.

Like a convection oven… Fans will continuously circulate that internal heat around the cooking chamber, allowing for even heat distribution, top-to-bottom cooking, and more moisture in your foods.

With charcoal grills, you’ll constantly have new air circulating throughout the grill to keep your wood chunks ablaze… Which means there’s a higher chance that your food will dry out!

But really… There are pros and cons to each option! And again, this point really comes down to your preferred tastes.

Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Smoker: Which is Easier to Clean?

Whether cooking on a charcoal or pellet smoker… Ash is inevitable.

You will have to put some elbow grease into cleaning each type of grill. It’s unavoidable!

But, is one easier to clean than the other?

Well… Charcoal grills fall short. When cooking with charcoal, soot gets pretty much everywhere. (Both inside and outside of your grill!)

Pellet grills also produce some ash buildup… But not nearly as much.

And in most cases, the ash from wood pellets will be neatly contained, making it easier to vacuum out or dispose of.

Point is, charcoal grilling can quickly become a messy affair… So be prepared to spend more time cleaning out a charcoal smoker!

Charcoal vs Pellet Smoker: Bells, Whistles, and How They’ll Affect Your Budget

rta outdoor kitchen with built in traeger grill
outdoor kitchen kit with built in charcoal grill

As the final point of contention in our pellet grill vs charcoal grill debate… Let’s touch on features and affordability.

Kicking off with the latter… How much can you expect to spend on each type of grill?

Well, these smokers are on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Charcoal grills are often one of the least expensive outdoor cooking appliances. Depending on your budget, you can find models from as low as $100, up to $5,000.

Now, pellet grills tend to come with a larger price tag…

While cheaper pellet grills hover around $500… Higher end models can hit prices as high as $10,000!

For a high quality pellet grill, expect to spend at least a few thousand.

Though it may give you pause… This higher price isn’t unjustified! It’s clear to see why pellet grills have a heftier initial cost.

They’re much more technologically complex, have more digital and automated components, and come with features which are more expensive to produce (WiFi control, digital touch screens, rotisserie attachments, and meat probes are a few common bells and whistles)!

Because of this, replacement parts will also be more expensive down the road… So keep this in mind!

As far as fancy features go… Charcoal grills tend to be more barebones.

Here, you can expect removable charcoal trays, built-in thermometers, and rotisserie kits… But not much else. By and large, these cookers are more of a no-frills option!

But, that brings our charcoal vs wood pellet smoker comparison to a close.

Now that you know the ins and outs of both pellet and charcoal smokers… Which is better?

Pick The Perfect Grill for You

Using our free 3D design tool you can pick the perfect pellet or charcoal grill for your outdoor kitchen. Get started today.

The Takeaway: Is a Pellet or Charcoal Smoker Better?

built in charcoal grill

Charcoal Grill Pros

  • Charcoal grills don’t require electricity to function.
  • Charcoal grills are one of the most inexpensive cooking appliances.
  • Charcoal smokers are great for those who prefer no-frills grilling.
  • You’ll get deliciously smokey, charred flavors.
  • Charcoal is an inexpensive fuel source.
  • Charcoal grills are versatile: You can grill, smoke, roast, and sear.

Charcoal Grill Cons

  • Charcoal grills can get super messy, and take more effort to clean up.
  • Charcoal grills don’t have outstanding heat retention, and can’t sustain super precise temps.
  • Charcoal grilled food runs a higher risk of drying out.
  • There aren’t as many technical bells and whistles available for charcoal grills.
pellet grill rta outdoor kitchen

Pellet Grill Pros

  • Pellet grills are super versatile: You can grill, smoke, roast, sear, and bake.
  • Pellet grills churn out moist foods with unique wood-fired flavors.
  • Pellet grills are extremely low maintenance, and do much of the work for you.
  • Pellet grills can sustain super precise temps throughout your cooks.
  • Pellets are an efficient fuel source.
  • Pellet smokers produce less ash buildup, so they’re easier to clean.

Pellet Grill Cons

  • Pellet grills have a bigger price tag.
  • The operating cost of pellet grills is slightly higher.
  • Pellet grills don’t offer as robust, smokey flavors.
  • Pellet grills require an electric hookup to operate.
  • Pellet grills aren’t as commonplace as charcoal smokers, so you’ll have fewer options.

To round out our charcoal vs pellet smoker conversation… It’s time to tackle a tough question. Which grill is better?

Well, each type of grill has their own set of advantages and disadvantages… But even so, there’s truly no way to gauge which grill is better for you.

And that’s because only you know what you’re looking for!

So, if you have a smaller budget, like to be involved in your outdoor cooking, and don’t want to skimp on smokey flavors… A charcoal grill may be calling your name.

But if you’re looking for a low effort grill, and don’t mind something a bit more expensive… A pellet grill is the clear winner!

Whichever way you choose to go… You really can’t go wrong. Both charcoal and pellet smokers will bring outstanding versatility (and unique flavors) to your next BBQ party.

But if you really want your cookouts to go without a hitch this grilling season… You’re going to need more than a shiny new smoker for your space!

Your New Smoker Deserves a Spotlight... Here’s How To Make That Happen

With our wood pellet vs charcoal smoker debate squared away… Let’s talk through yet another discourse.

Should your new smoker be the star of a summer kitchen?

Or, will it sit in solitude on your patio?

Luckily, there’s no long-winded debate in order… The answer to this question is quite clear!

There’s no better solution for your space than adding an outdoor kitchen.

Your charcoal or pellet smoker will get the spotlight it deserves… And a grill station will make your life so much easier.

With storage steps away from your smoker, you’ll have a safe spot for stowing away your fuel…

Expansive countertops will give you ample room for outdoor food prep…

Outdoor trash cans and a sink will make it easy as can be to clean up any leftover soot and ash…

And with an outdoor bar, you’ll have the perfect place to sit and enjoy the summer weather, as you wait for your low and slow smokes to cook through.

Not to mention… An outside kitchen opens up a realm of other outdoor cooking possibilities!

Factor a propane or natural gas grill into your design, for even more searing power…

If you’re a sucker for smoking, include a kamado grill in your setup…

Or, consider a side burner, pizza oven, or flat top grill, to truly take things to the next level!

Feeling excited yet? If so, how do you make this all happen?

Well, here at RTA, we offer a simple and streamlined solution, to make your outdoor kitchen come to life!

Your custom kitchen can be designed online, in minutes…

You’ll have your pick of premium appliances from Coyote Outdoor Living, including their high quality built-in pellet and charcoal smokers…

And once your design is squared away and sent to your home… It’ll be mere hours before you can start smoking!

Want more details on what’s possible? Check out our Learning Hub!

Or, just reach out! We’re happy to help you get started.

Need Help With Your Plans?

Talk to one of our expert designers and they will guide you from planning to installation. Schedule a call today.

FAQ

A pellet smoker isn’t necessarily better than a charcoal smoker. Each type of grill has their own set of pros and cons!

That said, pellet smokers are a better option for those looking for a low maintenance smoker, that’ll do the bulk of the work for them.

And though charcoal smokers are more involved, many would say that they dish out better flavors!

Really, the type of grill that’s best for you comes down to your personal preferences.

When deliberating between pellet vs charcoal smokers… Operating cost is likely top of mind!

Generally speaking… It’s cheaper to cook with charcoal than it is to cook on a pellet grill.

Not only is charcoal a less expensive fuel source, but you also won’t have to pay for electricity when using a charcoal grill! (As you would when pellet grilling).

That said, pellets do tend to be more fuel efficient. So, there’s a good chance that a bag of pellets will last you longer than a load of charcoal.

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