Drum Smokers vs. Pellet Smokers: Their Differences Explained

Drum Smokers vs. Pellet Smokers: Their Differences Explained

The ever-developing and intimidating realm of meat smoking creates the need to upgrade your outdoor cooking setup. Drum and pellet smokers are older than the niftiest of modern smoking equipment, yet their potential to add zest to meat remains consistent through the years. But how are they different from each other?

Drum smokers offer the best taste and can work at various temperatures, but there is a learning curve. Pellet smokers are portable, easier to use and clean, and offer extras. They use tech advances like electronic controls and digital displays to simplify outdoor cooking and make it fun.

The dizzying array of brands and models makes the challenge of selecting a meat smoker overwhelming. Even when you’ve narrowed down your choice to drum and pellet smokers, how do you figure out which one is right for you? This article examines both options and how they work while discussing their differences, pros, and cons.

Note: most links in this article are Amazon.com Affiliate links, see Affiliate Disclosure, thank you.

Drum Smoker Overview

Drum smokers, aka ugly drum smokers (UDS), are simple yet versatile tools for smoking and cooking meat to perfection. The Spruce Eats defines drum smokers as basic smokers made of steel drums with fireboxes at the bottom and cooking racks on top.

UDSs produce exceptional results with minimal effort compared to other charcoal smoker types. Professional chefs and barbecue enthusiasts consider them essential meal kits.

UDSs got their name from initial models built with old drums as their bases. The drum length allows an adequate distance between the grill and the wood or charcoal-fueled fire at the bottom. The grill’s position on top of the open barrel is for smoking meat slowly.

What They Are Not

Drum smokers aren’t vertical or offset smokers, which aren’t air-tight, and have cold and hot spots. Offset smokers use water pans to get more water vapor into the smoker. These add more work to the cleanup process.

Are Drum Smokers Any Good?

Drum smokers are definitely good! Even a general-purpose UDS for the casual cook works better than more sophisticated apparatuses. And if you’re adventurous enough to make your own UDS (about $100)—the best option for novices—it’s still worth the trouble.

Here’s why.

These qualities make a UDS stand out from its competitors, whether high-tech or manually powered:

  • Airtightness – UDSs have few openings for air to escape, making them smoke leak-proof. Control temperature and airflow naturally without dependence on electronic mechanisms by adjusting the base and lid vents.
  • Easy to use – All you need is the drum, charcoal, and meat. That means no water pans, no tinkering with control panels or annexes, no need to add more fuel, and no worries about changing the heat source.

How Do Drum Smokers Work?

Drum smokers have an air vent at the bottom that supplies oxygen to the burning charcoal, which heats the air. The hot air rises and cooks the meat before escaping out the top vent. The air flowing up causes more air to get in through the bottom vent. Adjust this bottom vent to control internal temperature.

Because drum smokers don’t have water pans, the radiant energy and direct smoking from the charcoal cook the meat. Seasonings, fat, and meat juices dripping onto the coals produce a humidified vapor that adds flavor to the meat and keeps it moist.

Drum smokers use heat as a smoke source to cure and cook meat. They accomplish this in three ways:

  • Conduction – The grill grates heat up, and hot metal cooks the meat.
  • Convection – It works the same way as a fan oven. The circulating warm smoke’s dehydrating effect simmers the meat while the juices absorb the smoky flavor.
  • Radiation – It’s cooking using heat and light waves without direct contact between these and the food. The main radiant heat cooking methods are microwave and infrared radiation.

Drum Smoker Pros

  • Whether bought fully assembled or not, they’re the simplest smokers to operate. Their simplistic design makes them brilliant options for both novices and veteran users.
  • Basic models are easy to set up because they don’t have complicated controls or gauges. Others are ready to use out of the box.
  • They’re cheap, lightweight, and portable.
  • If you want to DIY and don’t want to spend much, create one from components sourced from junkyard parts. Otherwise, buy a kit, but it’s double the expense of DIY projects.
  • Durable stainless steel with porcelain enamel coating promises a high-quality build.
  • Their huge capacity with ample vertical hanging space accommodates eight racks of ribs.
  • No need for interior washing—dump the ash.

Drum Smoker Cons

  • Their handles look great, but their lids get very hot. So use gloves when lifting them.
  • Many traditional drum cookers don’t have side doors to easily access charcoal, forcing users to add fresh coals through the lid.

Check out the price on a Drum Smoker on Amazon.com

Pellet Smoker Overview

Pellet smokers are thermostatically controlled combo smoker-grills that work the same way as ovens. They automatically maintain your choice of temperature. They’re like splendidly designed indirect heat convention smokers. They use wood pellets to smoke and give a smoky flavor to the meat.

An integrated LED shows the temperature. The best competition pellet smokers allow toggling between the set temperature and the one read by the internal thermostat. The latest pellet smokers come with built-in probes (to monitor internal temperature) and wireless remote controls for monitoring with your smartphones or tablets.

An example is Z Grills’ ZPG-550A, a six-in-one wood pellet BBQ grill, and smoker with automatic temperature control.

How Pellet Smokers Work

Owners start pellet smokers by igniting food-grade wood pellets in the burner’s hopper with a hot rod. A rotating auger connected to the hopper moves the pellets into the burn pot under the cooking grate.

When the pellets burn, they give off heat and smoke, which gives the meat a smoky flavor without adding wood chips, unlike in charcoal smokers.

Click here to read our detailed article How Does a Pellet Smoker Work and …

Pellet Smoker Pros

  • Their ease of use and predictability suit newbies and experts alike.
  • They’re convenient, efficient, and versatile enough to perform many kitchen tasks, including roasting and grilling.
  • Combo pellet smokers grill and smoke simultaneously.
  • Their convection method ensures even cooking, roasting, and baking.
  • They’re fuel-efficient.
  • Their set-and-forget technology prevents BBQ enthusiasts from burning the meat.
  • Automatic temperature control with thermal sensors prevents temperature spikes and dips that adversely affect the meat.
  • WiFi models let users control the units from smartphones or tablets.
  • They’re portable and many models come with foldable double legs.
  • They have multiple power options.
  • Some models have built-in digitally controlled anti-burn systems.
  • Most modern pellet smokers use algorithmic technology to set the units at five-degree increments to ensure precise cooking.
  • They preheat rapidly, avoiding flare-ups.
  • They provide various flavors, including bourbon, hickory, maple, and mesquite.
  • Some brands have cold smokers for smoking salmon and cheese.

Pellet Smoker Cons

  • They depend on electricity, which stunts their portability. Without electricity, you need an inverter or generator.
  • They’re more expensive than offset smokers and other smoke/grill types.
  • Purists claim meat cooked in pellet smokers tastes less smoky than that cooked in traditional and offset smokers.
  • Many (non-combo) pellet smokers cannot be used for grilling because they can’t crank up to high temperatures.
  • They’re more complicated for beginners to operate than drum smokers because users have to perform many steps from assembly to the completion of food preparation.
  • They’re sold as grills but don’t produce grill marks, turning off potential buyers.
  • Increases in cooking temperature reduce the smoke generated.

Click here for our article What Is the Best Pellet Smoker

Differences Between Drum And Pellet Smokers

Both drum and pellet smokers work on the same smoking and cooking concepts to add flavor to the meat. But that’s where their similarities end.

These factors influence the differences between the two smokers:

  • Taste and flavor—Most prefer the flavor drum smokers produce. Hard-core BBQ enthusiasts believe drum smokers are superior to their competitors because they offer authentic grilling. Charcoal, their primary fuel source, enhances the taste of the meat by adding a distinctive smoky flavor.
  • Ease of use—As pellet smokers use electricity, they’re easier to operate at high or low heat. They’re more versatile in size, design, and fuel capacity. Drum smokers are harder to use because they cook with real fire. These factors make pellet smokers easier for beginners.
  • Health aspect—Wood pellets don’t have additives and fillers that are common in charcoal briquettes. That’s why they burn up completely and rarely leave ash. Lump charcoal is preferred for the cleanest burning charcoal fire.
  • Searing ability—Drum smokers’ charcoal fire gets much hotter, so you can sear meat. It’s trickier to sear meat with pellet smokers.
  • Temperature control—Drum smoker cooking temperature is harder to control because it is a manual process that must be learned through practice. Although pellet smokers don’t get as hot, users can fine-tune the temperature with a tap or switch.
  • Clean-up and maintenance—Drum smokers are messy and time-consuming to clean, but the flavor they add to the food makes it worthwhile.
  • Price, tools, and extras—Pellet smokers win here. They’re more expensive, so they have lots of bells and whistles.


All barbecue fans know that combining the best equipment with the proper fuel source produces the best taste in meat. Both pellet smokers and drum smokers strive to achieve this.

But which one has won the showdown? You, as a consumer, have the final choice. We hope that our comparison article has helped make your options clearer.