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One of the most heated rivalries when it comes to grilling is whether charcoal or propane produces the better final product.
Proponents of propane extol the fact that you get to taste the meat, not the fuel, while consumers of charcoal charge that the point of grilling is to taste something that wasn’t produced on a range.
Therefore, it isn’t all that surprising that the rivalry has made its way to smoking meat.
Fear not, your days of searching ‘propane vs. charcoal smoker’ to find the differences are over.
While there may be a lot of confusion, hopefully this article will help clear the air about the differences between propane and charcoal smokers.
Differences between charcoal and propane smokers
For thousands of years, humanity has smoked meat using wood and charcoal.
Charcoal is just wood that has been essentially baked at a low enough temperature so as to remove the vast majority of sap, essential compounds, and bugs, leaving behind only carbon.
Charcoal can burn at a high temperature and while some compounds may remain from its pre-charred existence, most of it smells about the same.
Propane, on the other hand, is a gas that burns even cleaner than charcoal.
While charcoal is almost pure carbon, with some other elements left over, propane consists of solely hydrogen and carbon.
This means that it burns very clean, even compared to charcoal.
However, you’re not likely to get pure propane.
Because of the dangers of any form of natural gas, there are often trace elements mixed in to impart a smell.
This doesn’t have an impact on the food, but is something to keep in mind.
Types of meat to smoke
Both propane and charcoal can cook a wide variety of meats, and each can be used rather interchangeably.
Instead, this really becomes a question of the size of meat and how long you want to spend watching it.
Propane will be better able to maintain a more stable temperature over time.
For many smoker aficionados, that makes it a clear-cut winner.
However, others will counter that propane is ‘cheating,’ since it handles a lot of the work for the cook.
Those individuals will insist that only charcoal is a legitimate source of heat.
Either works, to be frank. In this, it is a matter of personal preference.
When discussing cooking time for smokers, propane has a quick first advantage.
Propane is ready to smoke within seconds of being lit.
Charcoal, on the other hand, requires time to come ash over before it can be used.
Otherwise, the temperature would be too volatile to ensure proper smoking.
Therefore, propane smokers have a clear advantage over charcoal smokers, certainly when cooking time is less than a few hours.
Ease of use
Once again, propane has a number of clear advantages when it comes to ease of use.
To start a charcoal smoker, you’ve got to either use lighter fluid, which impacts a taste on whatever it is that you’re smoking, or you’ve got to use a chimney starter.
Either way, it is an involved process.
To use a propane smoker, you turn a knob and twist another.
With a little luck, the igniter lights, meaning that your heat source is prepared.
Also, assuming that your tank doesn’t run out, you’re good to go for hours.
Someone using a charcoal smoker has to make sure that the charcoal level is sufficient to keep the smoke going, but not so high as to allow the meat to go from being smoked to being roasted.
There is, however, one scenario in which charcoal is the winner.
If someone needs to replace the fuel source in the midst of cooking, it is easier to throw on a bit more charcoal than it is to replace a propane tank.
Given that propane tanks weigh more than the heaviest bags of charcoal, this can present an issue.
Both charcoal smokers and propane smokers have a number of safety considerations that are worth acknowledging.
First of all, there’s the obvious. When using either, you’re playing with fire.
Make sure that you have a fire extinguisher nearby, that children and pets are kept far away, and that you know how to control the fire.
Doing this should be done any time you’re cooking with a live fire.
However, each has its own issues.
Charcoal produces a number of little embers that can quickly get away from the smoker if a lid is open and a sudden gust of wind emerges.
Even one of these is enough to burn a hole through a deck or scorch a patch of your yard.
Also, charcoal produces a lot of carbon monoxide, in addition to other dangerous substances from smoke.
Make sure that you are using your charcoal smoker outside in a well-ventilated area.
Propane smokers also produce carbon monoxide.
However, the bigger issue at play with a propane smoker is the risk of the propane leaking, or being on unintentionally.
Charcoal out of its bag is inert; propane leaking into a confined area reduces the amount of available oxygen, resulting in loss of consciousness or even death.
Additionally, if any spark occurs in an area with a buildup of propane, the gas will ignite, creating a fireball.
The moral of the story is simple – no matter what kind of smoker you use, make sure that you are ever mindful of safety concerns.
One of the most striking differences between propane smokers and charcoal smokers is the cost.
In this, there are both upfront costs and continuing costs.
From the beginning, propane smokers tend to be much more expensive than charcoal smokers.
After all, a propane smoker requires a lot of parts when compared to a charcoal smoker, which is essentially two metal containers welded together with a chimney (at its most simple).
When it comes to continuing costs, on the other hand, charcoal is much more expensive.
Depending on where you live in the country, refilling a propane cylinder is less than thirty bucks, and that’s plenty of propane for several smokers worth of meat.
Meanwhile, charcoal costs about half of that for a twenty pound bag at the cheapest, and often much more.
Even assuming you use a chimney starter and avoid lighter fluid, the cost of ownership for a charcoal smoker goes much higher over time.
Propane imparts very little in the way of additional flavor on the meat. If you’re using a light smoking wood like peach or citrus, this is ideal.
Such aromas may be quickly lost if using charcoal.
Meanwhile, if you’re smoking with anything stronger than pecan, chances are you won’t notice too much of a difference in taste.
There is one exception. Charcoal briquettes, because of the additives used to shape them into neatly formed shapes, will obscure the taste of all but the strongest woods.
For this reason, it is best to completely avoid such charcoal when smoking; even if you’re using a more robust smoke, the amount of time that you’re using briquettes would cause some dulling of flavor.
Always use 100% pure all natural chunk charcoal if using charcoal.
As you can see, the answer to the question of propane vs. charcoal smoker is really one of personal circumstances and preference.
Each has a number of advantages and disadvantages, with the best general rule being that those with more experience and a greater ability to watch their heat source may prefer the authenticity of charcoal, while those who have worries about maintaining temperature will likely prefer propane.
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