Why are electric smokers so popular? The answer is simple; they create less mess, smoke, and fuss. They also take less time and cause less hassle. Some feel that an electric smoker doesn’t have the character, capacity, or effect that charcoal and propane smokers have, but that is because the whole smoking process is more clinical when you use an electric smoker.
Electric smokers may not create the same depth of flavor, but they give far more consistent and reliable results. In this article, we’ll answer the question, “How does an electric smoker work?”
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How Does an Electric Smoker Work?
Once plugged in, an electric element at the bottom of the smoker will heat up. This element heats a pan that you fill with wood chips. The wood chips smolder, resulting in the smoker filling with smoke. The resulting buildup of smoke and heat will smoke cook your food.
Some smokers have an additional pan on their element for water to create steam. Adding steam to your smoker can keep your meat moist. Also, steaming your smoker when done can make cleaning the inside easier.
Biochemically, meat smoked in an electric smoker is affected in the same way it is in a propane smoker or a solid-fuel smoker. In fact, with certain foods such as pork roast, you can cut a slice and see how the smoking process has affected the meat’s outer edges by observing the smoke ring.
The difference between the ways an electric and a solid-fuel smoker cook is related to versatility and effect. A solid-fuel smoker is far more versatile, to the point where you can experiment to a far greater degree with the way you cook your food.
Temperature control and ease of operation are the main advantages of most electric smokers. Many electric smokers operate on an adjustable thermostat, either analog or digital. Some electric smokers have a set temperature as a result of the element wattage draw.
In terms of effect, it is fair to say that solid-fuel smokers can create a more robust flavor and a deeper range of food textures and tastes. However, typically electric smokers can operate at lower temperatures than a solid fuel or propane smoke.
We have some reviews of different types of electric smokes.
- Digital – Masterbuilt Smoker, Bradley Smoker
- Analog – Smoke Hollow 26142E Smoker
- Fixed Temperature- Big Chief Top Load Smoker
How Does an Electric Smoker Cook?
Electricity passes through an element that sits at the very bottom of an electric smoker. The element is usually located just underneath the drip tray. Electricity passes through the high-resistance material that makes up the element, creating heat that travels upwards and through the wood chip pan.
As the wood chips heat, they begin to burn and create smoke. This hot smoke moves upwards, next to a water bath, also known as a water tray. The heat produces vaporized water or steam that also travels upwards. The heat cooks the food while the smoke and steam give it that distinct flavor without drying it.
Solid-fuel smokers create a concentrated flow of smoke, moisture, and heat, but an electric smoker works more like the type of electric oven you probably have at home. It may seem viciously inefficient, but electric smokers are often very compact, which means that moisture, smoke, and heat can be condensed and utilized in a small area.
In effect, the way electric smokers cook is very similar to a solid-fuel smoker, but on a much more practical, less powerful, more consistent level, and easier to operate.
Using an Electric Smoker
Once plugged in, you do not need to wait for the device to light. You have to wait for the wood chips to start smoking, which can take as few as 15 minutes. Once the smoke is there, you may add your food and start cooking.
Unlike solid-fuel smokers, you can open the door of your electric smoker without damaging the cooking process. You may open the door, fiddle with your food, and then close the door without losing too much heat, as long as you work quickly. Plus, the heat, moisture, and smoke are replaced so fast, so your food does not suffer if you open the door once or twice during the smoking process.
Many electric smokers have a compartment on the side that you can pull out. It allows you to add more wood chips. Pull it out, put some wood chips in, close the compartment, and then twist it to deposit the wood chips into the smoker’s wood chip burning tray.
That’s is handy for people who do not wish to keep opening the door to refill the wood chips. Plus, it is a safe and convenient way to replace burned-out chips because the wood chip burning tray can get very hot, making replacing the chips rather tricky.
You Lose Flavor, but You Gain Control
One of the most significant downsides to using an electric smoker is that it doesn’t offer the depth of flavor that a solid-fuel burner provides. However, an electric smoker offers the best level of temperature control out of all varieties of smokers.
You can set the temperature on the device wherever you want it, and the smoker will maintain that level of heat using an internal thermometer and a dynamic heat adjustment system.
When using a solid-fuel smoker, you run the risk of overcooking your food, making it too dry and smoky. Yet an electric smoker allows you to set the internal conditions so precisely that you can recreate the same cooking experience over and over again with minimal deviation in cooking quality or intensity.
You may not be able to create the same depth of flavor as you can with other smokers, but you can rely on your electric smoker to make consistently cooked meals.
How Does an Electric Smoker Work with Wood Chips?
The wood chips burn without bursting into flame. The wood slowly burns despite never actually touching the electric element or fire. It is the same as how your bread does not touch the element in your toaster, but it still burns with plumes of smoke if you leave it on too long.
Think of the wood chip compartment as your flavor compartment. You may add in different types of wood or burning materials to create different smoky flavors. Your food may take on a sweeter note if you use fruit tree chips and take on a classic smoked flavor if you use oak.
Most other smokers require a healthy amount of wood chips to maintain a reasonably smoky flavor, but you’ll need far less with an electric smoker. If you have moved from using a solid-fuel or propane smoker over to an electric smoker, then you may be disappointed by the size of the wood chip compartment. However, you’ll only need a small number of wood chips because of the limited space within the smoker.
Is an Electric Smoker Economical or Energy Energy-Efficient?
The answer is that an electric smoker is not economical or energy-efficient, but you shouldn’t rule it out quite yet. In terms of design, electric smokers have the most efficient design of all smokers. They can condense smoke, heat, and moisture into tiny areas for a concentrated cooking process.
An electric smoker is not economical because you have to leave it on for two to three hours, at least if you want a genuine smoky flavor. That means powering a heated element for as much as three times longer than you would if you were using an electric convection oven at home.
A solid-fuel burner is far more economical, especially when you consider that you could power such a smoker with just wood alone if necessary.
Despite not being economical, many people opt for electric smokers because they are more compact, reliable, and create less smoke and less mess than their larger cousins. You could cook your meals in a household convection oven and spend less money, but you would miss out on the smoky flavors and smoker-cooked textures.
As for energy efficiency, heating something for hours is never energy efficient, but manufacturers build electric smokers to be as efficient as possible. For example, electric smokers lose relatively little heat compared to other smokers, even compared to gas ovens. They also heat up and become operational very quickly compared to different types of smokers or BBQ grills.
Electric Smokers with Windows Are Awesome
If you are a smoker enthusiast, then you have probably experimented with the many different ways to cook your food, and you have probably had a great time. The biggest downside is that you cannot watch your food cook or check on it to see how it is progressing.
Yet, more and more electric smokers have a clear-glass window installed so that you may see your smoker in action. It allows you to see your food as it cooks and monitor the smoke levels.
The glass is thick and resistant to high temperatures. It keeps most of the heat inside the smoker with the same efficiency as the other internal walls offer. After an hour, it may be hot to the touch, but for the most part, it keeps the heat inside the smoker while allowing you to see inside.
One notable downside is that you need to clean the window after each use. If you don’t clean the window, smoke residue buildup will make it impossible to see through.
Controlling the Level of Smoke
Let’s say that you have purchased an electric smoker, and you are preparing a fish meal that might be overpowered by too much smoke. Most electric smokers have an adjustable vent at the top of the device, and you can use it to control the amount of smoke on the inside.
You can use your smoker’s temperature controls to monitor and adjust the internal temperature. There is no need to use the vent to cool an overheated electric smoker. Vents on electric smokers control the level of smoke within the smoker.
Vents can be handy in some recipes. For example, if a particular dish kicks out a lot of moisture, you may wish to open up the vent and release the excessive humidity.
Tip: As a general rule for beginners, error on the side of not over smoking your food because too much smoke makes for bitter food.
Are you looking for the best of both worlds? Our top recommended smoker series is the Masterbuilt Gravity Series. They currently make two sizes, 560 square inches and 1050 square inches of cooking surface. We have reviews of both the 560 and 1050 models including a large resource of “How To” YouTube videos to help you make a decision.
Does an Electric Smoker Need Seasoning?
It is a good idea to season or cure your smoker before using it for the first time. That’s simply a case of adding the wood chips and then allowing your smoker to run on high for an hour without any food inside. By adding a light spray of vegetable oil before seasoning, it will make future cleanup easier.
Do not pay too much heed to those who say you need to season your smokers for hours because it is not true. The chemical particulates that remain from the manufacturing process are burned away very quickly when exposed to high temperatures. All you need to do to season or cure your smoker is to let it run for an hour and then open the door and air it out a little.
When using a propane or solid-fuel burner, the advice is to let the smoker get burning hot to cure it. But, since you have an electric smoker, you can set a specific temperature. You might want to set it to 275 degrees Fahrenheit, for example. Any temperate over 200 degrees is enough to burn away any particulates from even the toughest paints and factory-standards sealants.
Some YouTubers say you should season your smoker for three hours. That is incorrect. Any smells that emanate as of first-time use will often disappear after just fifteen minutes of use. Of course, assuming you then open the door to let the odors out. This is not the case when people spray the inside with oils to help the seasoning or apply red gasket sealer to seal cheaply made connectors, joints, hinges, sections, etc.
Nasty smells also occur if you add lighter fluid to the chips to get them burning or add uncommon elements into the cooking process, such as adding spirits into the water bath or using treated/reclaimed wood within the wood chips compartment.
Season your smoker, open the door and air it out, and take a sniff. If you cannot smell anything strange, then your smoker is all set. If things still feel a little acrid or smell like ammonia, or if the smoker still has a chemical-like smell, then run it for another 30 minutes and check again.
Tip: When you are done with your smoke, never leave uncooked organic matter in your smoker. We have heard of people cleaning their smoker, then spraying the inside with vegetable oil or placing fresh herbs inside between uses. Over time the oil will certainly go rancid, and non-dried herbs can spoil and mold in a closed space.
Frequently Asked Questions
Before we go our separate ways, let’s run over a few electric smoker FAQs, just in case you still have a few queries that weren’t addressed in the article.
What are the pros and cons of an electric smoker?
There are tons of benefits to choosing an electric smoker over a propane or charcoal smoker. For one thing, they’re incredibly easy to use, making them a fantastic choice for novice smokers looking to get in on the fun without dealing with a steep learning curve.
The key to good smoke is maintaining the internal temperature of the smoker, and that’s a lot easier to do with an electric model than it is with their charcoal and propane counterparts. All you have to do is set the dial in place, and voilà; you’re done!
With non-electric smokers, you have to constantly monitor their internal temperature, adjusting vents to account for the wind.
As some smokes can take up to 22 hours (we’re looking at you, brisket), this can be incredibly impractical; however, many smokers do enjoy the high maintenance aspect of a more traditional unit.
Electric smokers need no such coddling. You can simply “set and forget”, so if you’re a busy person, they’re the more sensible option.
Then there’s the clean-up to consider. We’re not saying that your electric smoker isn’t going to get a little dirty from time to time, but comparatively speaking, they’re a joy to maintain.
It’s because they don’t use coal, which means they don’t produce ash, making things way easier for us post smoke.
Ironically, some smoke enthusiasts appreciate that electric smokers don’t produce anywhere near as much smoke as charcoal and propane alternatives, and we’re inclined to agree.
Hours of smoke drifting over the yard fence is a sure-fire way to earn the ire of your neighbors.
As electric smoking doesn’t involve any combustible materials or gasses, they’re also considered the safest of the three options.
In light of this, they may be the only type of smoker permitted by building regulations if you live in an apartment complex.
And last but not least, electric smokers are awesome for both cold smoking and cooking delicate foods such as Bluefish or Scallops.
Sometimes, their temperature can be set so low that you can dehydrate foods too, so if you’re a jerky lover, they’re a no-brainer!
The first drawback of electric smokers that comes to mind is the price tag. They’re usually more expensive than fuel smokers, and they don’t get as hot either, which means you can say goodbye to that tantalizing smoke ring you see in all the pictures of smoked meat.
They also need a power source, so unless you’re packing a powerful generator, taking them with you on your camping expeditions is out of the question. What’s more, maintenance and repair costs of electric smokers tend to be a little steeper.
But by far the biggest downside of the electric smoker is the inferior flavor profile.
As it burns, charcoal, and even to some extent, propane, emits complex compounds that imbue the food with more interesting and unique flavors. With no fuel to burn, electric smokers are incapable of adding anything to the finished product.
Do you put meat directly on the rack in an electric smoker?
Yes, the best way to use an electric smoker is indeed to place the meat directly on the rack, but if it’s your first time using it, you’ll need to season the smoker first.
To do so, you’ll need to coat the racks and the internal housing with a very thin layer of high-smoke-point cooking oil, then set the temperature to 275° F for, say…3 hours.
This helps to destroy any of the residual substances that have built up when the smoker was in the factory, in storage, or in transit.
Seasoning your racks before you fire your new toy up for an inaugural smoke will also help to give them a slightly slick surface, preventing your tender food from sticking to it and tearing as you remove it from the cooking chamber.
Can I use aluminum foil in my electric smoker?
The short answer to whether you can use aluminum foil in your electric smoker is yes, you can, and there are certainly some benefits of doing so, but there are also some drawbacks to consider as well.
One positive of aluminum foil is that you can use it to coat either your racks or the food itself, completely eliminating the need for any post-smoke clean downs.
Sealing your food in tin foil can also reduce cooking times and produce more tender meat, as it prevents juices from escaping.
Now for the negatives…
- Aluminum is a reactive metal, which means it can leach into your food, imparting a distinctly metallic flavor.
- The aluminum that soaks into the food is then consumed by us. Humans can only cope with exposure to 2400mg of aluminum per day before it can cause problems, and as we’re ingesting it from other sources too, using it for smoking may send us over the limit.
- Aluminum seals block the smoke from reaching the food, inhibiting flavor acquisition. That’s why if you do plan on sealing your food in aluminum foil when using an electric smoker, we suggest doing it after you’ve already cooked the food to an internal temperature of 135-150° F.
Does an electric smoker use a lot of electricity?
No, electric smokers don’t use much electricity at all. The average electric smoker requires around 800 watts of electricity each hour they’re active.
So, let’s say you’re going to be smoking a piece of food for 5 hours. That amounts to 4000 watts or 4.0 kilowatt-hours. Now, across the US, the average cost per kWh is roughly 13.19 cents. Times that by 4, and it comes to 52.76 cents — not bad, right?
Of course, this sum is based on averages. There are a number of variables that will affect the price of running your electric smoker, including the model you choose, the temperature of the cook, and your energy provider.
Where should I place my electric smoker?
When in use, your electric smoker should be placed on an even, secure surface at least 10 feet from your house. That’s a sufficient distance to prevent the heat from damaging your siding.
It’s a good idea to place it somewhere that provides a windbreak, as it will reduce the risk of toppling and help it to maintain a consistent temperature.
In addition, a spot of cover wouldn’t go amiss either, just in case you come up against some unpredictable weather.
Choosing an easily accessible area with no obstacles is also key. Electric is a lot safer than charcoal or propane, but tripping into your smoker and toppling it over can still cause some serious injuries, not to mention ruin your food.
If you plan on placing your electric smoker on your decking, we’d recommend investing in a grill mat, not just for heat protection, but to catch any dripping grease or sauce from staining the wood.
Through a combination of smart manufacturing and efficient design, an electric smoker can reproduce a solid-fuel and gas-powered smoker’s effects. It can recreate the same smoky environment in a far more condensed space and produce quality food on a far more consistent basis.
Of course, an electric smoker will never live up to its larger fuel-powered cousins’ food quality and versatility. Still, only the haughtiest of food snobs would claim electrically smoked meals are subpar in terms of food quality.