The debate is on. Which are better? Grills or smokers?
Most people already own a grill. It’s a fast and easy way to cook, especially in summer when you don’t want to heat up your house with the oven. These last years, smokers have gained in popularity. How are grills and smokers different? When should one be used over the other, and which should you get? Read on for some answers.
Grills are easy to use. They can cook a lot of food in a short amount of time. Grills normally use direct heat to cook, so they char the surface of the meat and seal in the juices. Because of the high temperature used for grilling—200 degrees Celsius and more—the food needs to be turned often to avoid burning.
Grills are fueled by charcoal, gas, pellets or electricity, and are best for small cuts like chicken breasts, steaks and chops. Cooking on a grill makes for healthier meals since the fat drips off the meat.
Charcoal, pellet and gas grills all allow you to cook with direct and indirect flame. Although they are not smokers per se, they can still fill in as one occasionally.
Today’s pellet grills use modern technology to give you excellent temperature control. Some models allow you to use indirect cooking as well as open-flame cooking, and certain high-quality brands even have a cold smoke box on the side of the grill.
A gas grill allows you to cook with either a direct or an indirect flame. It can also occasionally fill in as a smoker if you use it with a smoker box filled with wet wood chips. Some models also have a charcoal tray as an option. The homemade version of a smoker box is a pouch of heavy-duty aluminum foil filled with wood chips and poked with holes on top. Leaving half of your grill off and the other side on high, put the pouch on the hot side. When it starts to smoke, turn the burner to low, place your meat on the unlit side, and close the lid. You can change the aluminum pouch about every thirty minutes. Remember to keep the temperature at a steady 120 degrees Celsius.
Charcoal grills need more manual input to use, but the unique taste produced by the coal smoke makes it worthwhile. Some high-end models are designed so that you can easily use your charcoal grill to roast or smoke. With a little work, you can also smoke your meat on basic charcoal models. If that is what you have, you need to manually make a hot and cold zone. You can do that by stacking your coals on one side of your grill, or by making a train of coals along the perimeter of your grill. Put some chunks of wood on the coals, and a pan of water in the cold zone, where there are no briquettes. The advantage of the train method is that your coal burns gradually, like a fuse, and you can add some briquettes at the end of your train if you need to extend your cooking time. Once the temperature comes up to 120 degrees Celsius, put your meat on the cooking grill, over the water pan. Close the lid and open it as little as possible. Keep the temperature at a steady 120 degrees Celsius by opening or closing the vents.
Smokers give meat a smoky flavor. Because the meat is cooked with indirect heat at temperatures between 70 and 150 degrees Celsius, it is a long process that can take between one hour to one week.
There are wood, gas, electric and charcoal smokers. While the gas and electric smokers are easier to use and need less tending to, the wood and charcoal smokers lend the meat a more authentic flavor. A water basin and a wood chip basin are placed at the bottom of the smoking chamber. The wood provides the flavor, while the water helps keep the temperature stable. Smokers are best for large cuts of meat like hams, roasts, ribs and briskets. Since the heat is indirect, you do not need to turn the meat.
There are two types of smoking: cold smoking, and hot smoking.
Cold smoking is mainly used for flavor. The meat is smoked at a temperature of 20 to 30 degrees Celsius. The meat must be grilled, baked or steamed before eating.
Hot smoking is used to cook. The meat is smoked at a temperature varying between 50 and 80 degrees Celsius and becomes very tender and full of flavor.
You can use hard smoking to preserve your food. The end product is very similar to jerky. A large quantity of salt is needed to do this, and the meat needs to be smoked at low temperatures until there is almost no moisture left. The salt removes the moisture and prevents bacteria growth.
Choosing Your Wood
When smoking meat, whether with your smoker or grill, the wood you use gives its distinct flavor to your food. Consider the wood as a spice. Make sure it complements the food you are cooking.
For big grills or smokers, use two to three wood sticks of six to fifteen inches long. For smaller grills or smokers, use smaller wood sticks, five to seven inches long, or 3″ x 3″ wood chunks. For your wood to last longer and smoke more, soak it in water, wine or beer for about 12 to 24 hours.
Alder: Alder is known as the best wood to smoke salmon. Especially good for poultry and fish, it has a light flavor with sweet undertones.
Apple: Applewood is good with chicken, pork and beef. It has a dense, fruity flavor with a hint of sweetness.
Cherry: Cherry Wood is good to use with pretty much any food. It has a mildly sweet fruity flavor.
Hickory: Hickory is the most popular wood used for smoking. It is good with most foods but is especially delicious with ribs and pork. It has a pungent bacon-like flavor.
Maple: Maple Wood is best with pork, chicken, cheese and vegetables. Similar to the fruit woods, it has a slightly smoky, sweet flavor.
Mesquite: Mesquite wood burns hot and fast, so it is best for grilling, or experienced smokers. It goes well with most vegetables and meats but is especially good with beef. It has an earthy, robust flavor.
Oak: Oak Wood is good with fish, lamb, pork, beef and heavy game. It has a heavy, smoky flavor, without being overpowering.
Pecan: Pecan Wood goes well with most foods. It has a delicate, woodsy flavor with sweet undertones.
Many other kinds of wood can be used for smoking, but the following are to be avoided at all costs: cedar, cypress, elm, eucalyptus, fir, oleander, pine, poison oak, redwood, sassafras, spruce, sycamore and treated wood.
Grill or Smoker?
Which one is best for you? A grill or a smoker? It all comes down to personal preferences, and the flavors you are striving to achieve.
While grills are easy to use and cook your food fast, smokers result in flavorful and tender meat.
Grills can occasionally fill in as smokers, but smokers cannot fill in as grills. If you do not intend to smoke frequently, investing in a good grill is an all-around solution. Our We Love Fire partners can help you find the best model for your needs.