What’s the Difference Between a Smoker and a Grill?

published Jun 21, 2021
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Credit: Courtesy of Weber and Home Depot

One of the best ways to enjoy summer and get a meal on the table at the same time is to cook outdoors. Of course some people grill year-round and in any weather, but tending to a grill or smoker in the summertime is a good way to stay out of a hot kitchen and make your neighbors jealous (thanks to all the delicious smells wafting from your backyard).


Should you get a grill or a smoker? And if you want to be able to both grill and smoke food, do you really have to buy both? Let’s talk about the gear in question.

Credit: Shelly Westerhausen

What’s a Grill?

Both charcoal and gas grills use high heat, so they work well for anything that can be cooked quickly and with hot temps. This includes steaks, chops, chicken thighs, fish, pizza, and vegetables (on their own, skewered, or in a grill basket!). However, a lot of grills are also large enough that you can create hot and cool zones, allowing you to cook things lower, slower, and with indirect heat, like a pork shoulder or beer can chicken. Meaning you can have some things cooking right over the flame while other things cook off to the side.

Read more: What’s the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Heat?

What’s a Smoker?

Now, let’s chat smokers! With a smoker, food cooks at a lower temperature and surrounded by smoke. Smokers can use different kinds of fuel (wood pellets, charcoal, gas, electric, and so on) and also cook either with direct or indirect heat. With a smoker, direct heat means the fire is directly beneath the food, while indirect heat means the fire is located to the side of the smoker’s cooking chamber. Foods that benefit from slow cooking and smoky flavor — like racks of ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, leg of lamb, fish, and even hunks of cheese — are well-suited for a smoker.

However, just because smoking something takes a long time doesn’t mean it’s a “set it and forget it” type of thing. The first time I smoked food outdoors, I was at a friend’s house (who’s a smoking enthusiast) and had to leave for an appointment for a couple of hours. My friend looked aghast. With a smoker, you have to watch to make sure the internal temperature doesn’t exceed 175°F — and it takes a lot of thermometer checking and vent opening and closing to maintain this state of grace. Sure, a big cut of meat could cook at higher temperature (say 225°F to 250°F) and come out okay, but even this will take hours. And the end result will not be as smoky-tasting or delicious, because cooking the outside of the meat too quickly will seal the inside off from the smoke flavor.

Credit: Jessica Pages/Kitchn

Can You Smoke Food with a Gas or Charcoal Grill?

The average gas or charcoal grill is actually a tricky tool for smoking. The roadblocks include, but are not limited to, the following: gaps around the lid that let smoke escape, the need to maintain a consistent indirect-heat cooking zone, and (with charcoal grills) no way to stoke or replenish coals once cooking begins. So, while you could use a grill as a smoker, it will be much more difficult to get the results you want and maintain the consistent temperature needed to smoke something low and slow. There are other issues, too, but if you’re serious about smoking foods and have the outdoor space and money to invest, it’s worthwhile getting a dedicated smoker.

So, as it turns out — and like with most things in life — grills and smokers have their pros and cons. But whether you’re in the market for one or the other (or both!), you’re in for delicious food all summer long (or, hey, year-round!).

Do you have a question about grills or smokers? Leave it in the comments!