Grills and Smokers: Your Ultimate Guide for Different Types


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I love being at my grill. I have a cool combo grill that has a propane side, a charcoal side, and a smoker attachment (called a firebox). But despite my years of using them, I don’t know everything there is to know about the different types of grills and smokers.

So I decided to brush up and expand my knowledge.

The different types of grills and smokers include propane gas, charcoal and wood, combination grills, electric grills, and pellet grills and smokers. Pellet grills and smokers have grown in popularity in recent years but the Big Green Eggs remains one of the most popular grills available.

But there’s so much more to know about grilling, BBQs and smoking meats, so let’s dive in!

Get ALL my Top Recommendations on Grills, Smokers, and BBQ Accessories with descriptions and direct links for easy browsing!

What are the different types of grills?

There are a lot of different ways to grill meats and vegetables.

Of course, the main types would be:

  • Charcoal or wood chunk grills
  • Propane grills
  • Electric grills
  • Kamodo-style grills (Big Green Egg type)
  • Pellet grills

But even within those categories, there are several different types.

For example, in grills that use charcoal briquettes or lump hardwood charcoal, you can find several styles. There are also a number of portable grills which can be propane or charcoal.

Flat open grill

Often this is just a rectangle shaped metal box with legs and sometimes wheels at the bottom of the legs.  This is a simple grill, often charcoal, but you can get propane too. You lift the grates and add the charcoal.

Sometimes they have a flat lid as you see here, and other times no lid at all.

I used these back when I used to work at Whole Foods Market and we needed to cook a large quantity of food; often for employee gatherings or special events in the parking lot.

They work great in that you can have some zones that are hotter than others since you have plenty of room and as things get cooked, you can scoot them down into a cooler zone to keep warm but not burn to a crisp.

Of course, in addition to those you also have small portable grills which usually charcoal. Those work great for an apartment balcony or on a camping trip.

Covered grill

This is a much more common type of grill with a large hinged lid.

Unlike the lid you see above for the flat open grill, these grills have a lid designed to be closed while cooking to keep the heat inside where the food is.

This type is common both in charcoal or propane. The lid allows you to open it or close it to retain heat when needed (and keep smoke down for charcoal grills) or open it to cool it down and/or get some airflow to the coals.

This is usually a much smaller cooking surface than the open top grills which are sometimes 5 or 6 feet long.

Some closed top grills allow for a rotisserie rod attachment to rotate a whole chicken or other meats on what is essentially a large skewer which keeps it turning while it cooks. That way it cooks cleanly and evenly without your needing to constantly flip it.

One question a lot of people have is whether propane grills are safe.

After all, you’re essentially cooking with a giant gas tank near an open flame, right? I dug into the safety concerns of propane grills and wrote a quick article which answers that question in great detail, including the top 2 reasons that could cause a propane tank to explode.

So just click the link to check it out!

Big Green Egg/Kamado-type ceramic grill

Big Green Eggs are becoming quite popular. They aren’t the only brand of what is more commonly called a kamado-style charcoal grill, but they are the best-known brand.

They are recognizable from both the egg-like shape as well as their ceramic shell (often green, but other brands have other colors.

It’s also more versatile than most grills as it serves as a grill, oven, and smoker.

But with prices starting at around $400 for a tiny one, going up to about $3,000 for their largest one, the Big Green Egg may be out of reach for many. That being said, a lot of the knock offs of the Big Green Egg, are considerably cheaper. But check the reviews to make sure it’s a quality product.

Pellet grills

If you thought Big Green Eggs were pricey, wait till you meet pellet grills.

Pellet grills (and smokers) are a fairly new entry into the BBQ world. The big name in pellet grills is Trager but there are some other great companies too such as Pitts and Spitts. Pellet grills use small hardwood pellets as the fuel source but take advantage of technology to help monitor and regulate temperatures.

In some ways, they can take the fun out of grilling, but in many ways, they can get you exact results every time. Many pellet grills even have built-in wifi, allowing you to set or monitor temperature on an app on your smartphone.

Pellet grills typically start at around $800 and can easily move well into the thousands.

Electric grills

I’m going to just state the obvious. An electric grill really isn’t a grill.

The whole idea behind grilling is cooking meat or veggies on an open flame. So just setting your food over what essentially is a stovetop burner just really doesn’t meet the test. And a George Foreman indoor grill, which is really just a glorified panini press, takes that even further.

Want to grill? Get a real grill. Don’t get an electric grill.

I’m not saying you can’t make good tasting food on an electric grill, but it just isn’t really in the same ballpark.

That being said, there might be times when you want to grill indoors. After all, the weather doesn’t always cooperate with us and some of us (Texans like me included), just can’t be stopped from grilling!

But using most grills, even propane grills indoors can be hazardous.

So I recently wrote an article about some of the dangers of using a propane grill indoors in this article.

In it, I also mention what I would use instead for outstanding indoor grilling results without the carbon monoxide dangers or fire hazard. So just click that link to see it on my site.

What are the different types of smokers?

Like grilling, there are many different types of smokers available.

Bullet Charcoal Smokers

This is what I started with back when I first decided that as a Texan, I needed to know how to cook a good brisket.

These are fairly cheap (around $100). You put the charcoal in a pan at the very bottom. Then there’s a grate which holds a water pan that sits above it.

The water pan both blocks the flames from hitting the meat directly and keeps the food moist as it smokes. Then a 2nd grate above that is where your meat (or fish or veggies) go.

These work well, but you’ll need to monitor and add wood frequently through a hatch at the bottom.

Firebox Grill Attached Smokers

This is what I have now. It’s basically a small grill with a box that is attached to the side of my grill.

Where it connects is a vent I can open or close. If I’m not smoking and just using the grill, I keep that vent closed so it’s not letting heat out. You can adjust the vent to let a little or a lot of the smoke in or out.

I like this quite a bit. I can open the firebox to add more wood or charcoal without opening the lid where the meat is which would let both heat and smoke out. Like the bullet-style smokers, it does need to be monitored and maintained, adding wood or charcoal as needed.

I like to use all natural hardwood charcoal briquettes and then take chunks of wood like hickory, apple, or cherry (I find that less bitter than mesquite) and keep the chunks in a large bowl of water. Soaking them means they give off more steam/smoke and they don’t burn up as quickly.

The briquettes keep the fire and the wood chunks give the smoke, so both are needed.

Pellet Smokers

The Cadillac of smokers. Like pellet grills, these are fancy, high-tech devices.

These range in price anywhere from around $700 all the way up into the thousands, so this isn’t for everyone. For purists, these also might meet with some criticism as they tend to be “set it and forget it” and don’t require much art or skill to make outstanding smoked meats and vegetables.

But if you want perfectly smoked foods EVERY TIME, even if you’re hosting a party and not able to closely monitor the smoker, and have a little bit more to spend, one of these babies would be awesome!

Like pellet grills, the big brand name here is Traeger, but there are plenty of others too.

Use the meat probe to monitor internal temps from your smartphone and make adjustments on the fly, right from your screen.

Propane Smokers

I’m not a fan of these since they still require a wood source to generate smoke, and if you’re smoking a brisket for hours, you’re going to use a lot of propane.

Natural gas can be fairly cheap, so if you have a natural gas line at your house you can run to your BBQ area, that could be a cost-effective way to go, but if you just use small propane tanks, I’d steer clear of these.

The plus of these is being able to dial in the exact temp you want, which is obviously hard to do burning wood or charcoal. Wood chips are your source of smoke.

But I wouldn’t just throw a brisket in and head off to work as I might with an electric model. For one, I don’t like the idea of an unmonitored propane tank. For another, if the tank runs out mid-day, the brisket would be ruined.

Price-wise, these tend to be on the lower end, but above basic smokers like the bullet or firebox.

Electric Smokers

Some of these are cabinet-style, but they also make bullet-style too.

It has the convenience of a propane smoker in terms of being able to set the exact temp and walk away. If you have ever eaten BBQ prepared onsite at a grocery store (such as many of the Whole Foods Market stores I worked at), chances are, it was smoked in one of these.

One plus of these is they tend to be lower temp than gas smokers, which means you can cold smoke items too, such as cheese or fish. They can also do jerky.

Because these don’t have as much heat as propane smokers or traditional smokers, you don’t quite get the full flavor of the smoke. You also aren’t likely to get that smoke ring on the meat.

The good news is these are fairly cheap, starting at just under $200.

Cabinet Charcoal Smokers

This looks a lot like the electric and gas smokers in that it’s a cabinet with a door.

With the bullet-style smokers where you just have a small hatch to add more wood or charcoal to. Need to refill the water pan? You have to take the meat and it’s grate out first, which is a pain.

Here you just open the door like a refrigerator to get access to everything being smoked and a 2nd door to get access to the charcoal and wood. Like gas and electric smoker cabinets, these usually have multiple shelves for meat and veggies allowing you to smoke a lot of food at the same time.

You do get some leakage with these typically, but that happens on just about any kind of smoker under $800.

This is a good compromise for those on a budget who want some modern conveniences but still want real wood smoke flavor. Harder to find, and a little pricier than gas or electric.

Barrel drum Smokers

Picture a big oil drum standing upright.

Not entirely unlike a bullet-style smoker, these are inexpensive (starting at around $200) and like the bullet smokers are fairly portable too.

As with the bullet-style smokers, you put the wood and charcoal at the bottom, then a water pan, then your food. These can be a little larger than bullet-styles so the capacity is sometimes a little better which is a real plus.

All-in-all, a great choice for real wood smoking on a budget.

What is the difference between a grill and a smoker?

Grilling is cooking your food over an open flame. So you typically have your meats and veggies on a metal grate with the flames coming up from underneath. Some foods cook faster than others, so you might opt to have different parts of your grill hotter than others.

With a propane grill, you can set your burners to be higher or lower, or have 1 or 2 off and 1 on. Most propane grills have 3 burners, making it easy to set up.

When the food isn’t cooked directly over the flame that’s known as indirect heat, and your grill starts to work more like an oven.

Smoking meats and veggies (or even fish and cheese) works by having a barrier in between the food and the fire but allowing the smoke from the wood that is burning to get to where the food is. That way the food cooks more slowly and it takes on a lot of the wood flavor.

My grill has a smoker attachment on the side. So I just build the fire in there, and there’s a vent I open between the grill and the smoker that allows the smoke to pass into the grill.

I set my food (often brisket) in the grill with no heat or flame going underneath it. Then the smoke simply passes through the vent and smokes the brisket over a period of hours.

Personally, I like to smoke my brisket for about 4 hours and then finish in the oven at about 225 degrees. I find that smoking for 8-10 hours gets the right tenderness, but I can no longer taste the meat, just the smoke.

Can a smoker be used as a grill?

The short answer is yes in many cases.

In the case of my smoker though, it’s quite small. It has about 250 square inches of total space, so if I was grilling hamburgers, for instance, I could maybe get 6 patties on the grates if I was lucky.

But in terms of how it functions, it functions the same; build a fire, place the grate above the coals, cook your food on the grate.

Before my current grill/smoker combo (the Char-Griller Triple Play), I had a Brinkman smoker which is a tall upright smoker. In it, you built the fire at the bottom, then had a middle grate where you placed a pan with water (to keep the food moist) and then a top grate where the food went.

In that one too, if I just wanted to grill, I could have just not used the water pan, and I would probably have put the food on the middle grate to keep it closer to the fire.

Which is better gas or charcoal grill?

Ask 10 different BBQ’ers this question and you’ll get 10 different answers.

Ultimately it comes down to personal preference. Propane is easy. You turn the knob, press the light button, and in a minute or two, your grill is hot and ready to go. You also don’t have to clean out any burnt wood pieces or debris, just the occasional food that slips through or burned on fat that rendered off the meat.

BUT, propane imparts no flavor.

You don’t get any wood smoke or flavor the way you do from charcoal or lump hardwood and THAT is the cornerstone of the debate.

Personally, since I have a combo grill with a charcoal side and a propane side next to each other, I like to start things on the charcoal side. This gets the food that flavor that can only come from grilling with wood. Then I move it to the propane side where I often will brush on some sauce or marinade to seal in the flavor and help keep it moist.

Generally, I’ll keep the propane side cooler when I do that.

But with a charcoal grill, you have to clean out the debris where the fire was each time you grill. It goes without saying (hopefully) that you have to wait until the coals and debris are totally cool before you dump it in your trash can.

So ultimately it comes down to easy or flavor when deciding between propane and charcoal.

Even still, with charcoal, there’s a lot of debate about whether to use lump hardwood charcoal or normal charcoal briquettes. So if you’re undecided, check out my article on all the key Differences Between Wood and Charcoal for grilling.

Can I use charcoal in a gas grill?

No is the short answer.

Propane grills have somewhat delicate burners under the grate and each is covered by a metal cover so the flames don’t hit the food directly. This allows the grill to get hotter without destroying the food.

The burners are connected to each other, and to the knobs on the front panel, and then a line is run to your propane tank (or natural gas line if your house has one).

If you just dumped charcoal into the bed of the grill, you’d destroy the burners, risk starting a fire if you still had it connected to the gas, and render it inoperative as a gas grill.

Found an old gas grill on the side of the road and just want to use it as a gas grill?

That could work, but I’d remove the burner assembly and gas lines. But I would be concerned that the bottom of the grill, where you now plan to put charcoal, isn’t as thick as the metal on a charcoal grill since it was never designed to hold fire. If that’s the case, over time, it could wear through.

But hey; you found it on the side of the road, so you’re not out much.

What is the best smoker gas or electric?

No question here.

Electric smokers, which use pellets are the way to go if you don’t want to use a traditional wood burning smoker.

For starters, propane smokers still have to have a source of wood to create the smoke, so they use wood chips. For another, since smoked meats often take a long time, we’re talking about a LOT of propane.

I don’t know about you, but where I live, propane tanks are $15-$20 to exchange an empty one for a full one. I haven’t used a propane smoker, but I bet smoking a brisket for 10 hours uses a lot of propane.

So just being able to plug it in and not continually have to buy propane tanks is a big plus for me. If you are able to hook yours up to a natural gas line, that might change my opinion though.

Are pellet grills good?

I’ll just say this. There’s a reason these range in price from the high hundreds well into the thousands. So yes, is the short answer. Pellet grills (and smokers) are great!

And while purists might turn their noses up to the fancy tech involved, there’s just nothing quite like being able to get perfectly grilled meats and vegetables every time with the convenience of propane and the flavor of wood.

No forgetting and ending up with lumps of coal on your grates and no steaks burned to a crisp that are still raw on the inside.

You fill up the wood pellet bin and then they automatically get dispensed as needed. The thermostats automatically adjust the heat based on your settings.

If you’re hosting a party, my biggest frustration is socializing, getting called away from the grill, and getting distracted, all of which can hurt what you’re grilling. That just isn’t an issue with pellet grills, many of which have built-in wifi and an app for your smartphone.

Adjust temps, get doneness alerts and warnings no matter where you are in relation to the grill.

What is the best grill for a beginner?

For beginners who just want to cook food outside and don’t know much about the process, the easiest way is with a propane grill. Or, if money is no object, a pellet grill.

Propane grills are basically just like an oven. They have burners, knobs, and the knobs go from warm to hot. Many have built-in thermostats although as quickly as the thermostats wear out, they are kind of worthless.

That being said, it’s important to get one with good BTUs.

BTU stands for British Thermal Unit and basically refers to how hot your grill gets. The higher the BTUs on your grill, the better it will cook for you. For s standard 3 burner propane grill, about 13,000 BTUs per burner will get you what you need.

Many propane grills also offer what’s called a side burner.

This is basically just like a stovetop burner and sits off to the side of the main grill area. It’s great for cooking beans or some other side dish without having to run back and forth to the kitchen.

Weber, of course, has traditionally been the most recognized name in both wood and gas grills. But you’ll pay for the name. So if you’re just wanting a good basic propane grill to get started with, and you’re on a budget, I’d go with one of the grills from Nexgrill who make decent starter grills for around $200.

One of the biggest rookie mistakes is burning stuff on your grill by putting meat and veggies on too soon or not knowing how long to cook stuff. So if that sounds familiar, check out my article on How to Not Burn Veggies on the Grill.

What is the best smoker for a beginner?

It depends. Do you want to become a prized pit-master or do you just want to make great food every time without a lot of hassle?

If you want to learn the art of smoking, there’s no question you need to be cooking with wood, so a grill with a firebox would be the way to go.

But if you are just wanting amazing smoked meats and veggies every time without the inconsistency that always comes with learning how to smoke the old fashioned way, there’s no question I would get a pellet smoker.

That is if your budget allows.

The pellet smoker uses hardwood pellets you pour into a hopper. It automatically feeds them into a chamber where they catch on fire (generated in most cases by being plugged into an electrical outlet). It maintains perfect temp automatically. Most have not only thermometers inside to monitor temps but also meat probes to monitor internal temps of your food.

On the higher end ones, control it all from a smartphone and walk away. Throw a brisket on and then head to work. It will be perfectly smoked by the time you get home.

Who makes the best grill?

As with anything, the word best is pretty subjective.

Ask a bunch of pitmasters what their favorite grill is and everyone is likely to give you a different answer. Do you just want perfect food every time without the headaches and hassles that come with learning the art of barbequing?

If money is no object then a pellet grill or Big Green Egg might be the way to go.

Want the most authentic experience with burning wood, timing the cooking, and monitoring flare-ups, a covered grill or combo grill like the one I have are the way to go.

But maybe you want something portable, or something big enough to feed a large number of people?

You get the idea. It’s hard to narrow down the list to just 1 best grill. That being said, there are some brands that stand out as best, such as Weber, Blackstone, and Char-Griller.

So let’s narrow our list down to the 3 best grills under $500 by category and then 1 deluxe grill over $500:

Best All-Purpose Grill

Char-Griller Triple Play Gas/Charcoal Combo Grill with Smoker Firebox

This is literally the grill that is in my yard. I’ve had mine for well over 2 years at this point and bought it used on Craigslist (without the firebox which I added later).

It’s held up great, just make sure and get the cover for it too to keep it from rusting.

Almost 1500 square inches of cooking space! Use the propane side, the charcoal side or both! Plus it has a side burner too that runs off the propane. The attached smoker firebox is perfect for smoking briskets and other meats or veggies.

Well under $500, mostly great reviews (almost 100 of them) and free shipping. Get the best of both worlds in a grill at a price that won’t break the bank.

Best Pellet Grill

Camp Chef SmokePro DLX Pellet Grill

Large pellet hopper and easy cleanout system. Auto-start ignition makes lighting easy every time. Temp readout shows grill temps and internal food temps. Dispenses more pellets automatically whenever needed.

Right at the top end of our $500 price range with free shipping and outstanding reviews.

Best Portable Grill

Char-Griller Akorn Jr. red or black Kamado Grill

An Amazon’s Choice product with near-perfect reviews (well over 300 of them). 153 square inch cooking area, easy dump pan, dual air flow dampeners, ceramic grills for more cooking with less charcoal.

Perfect for RVs, camping, tailgating or picnics. Free shipping on Amazon too!

Best Deluxe Grill

Traeger TFB42LZBC Wood Pellet Grill and Smoker

Just under $700 with free Prime shipping, this is actually a mid-line for Traeger, but for the money and features, this is really a great grill.

Excellent reviews and the ability to grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise and BBQ all in one unit!

Traeger created the pellet smoker and they still rule the market. Dial in temps accurate within +/- 20 degrees with the turn of a knob. Genuine wood just tastes better than charcoal and gas just doesn’t provide much flavor.

Get it with the optional shelf and cover for convenience and long life!

Get ALL my Top Recommendations on Grills, Smokers, and BBQ Accessories with descriptions and direct links for easy browsing!

Which smokers are the best?

Best Budget Smoker

Weber 711001 Smokey Mountain Smoker

No question a bullet smoker is what you want. Weber makes the one you want, although the Brinkmann I had (not sure you can still get those) was good too. I like Weber overall for a few reasons:

  • The fuel door is removable (rather than hinged) making it easier to add charcoal and wood
  • I think it resists rust better
  • 2 adjustable vents allow for better temp control

I smoked many a brisket in mine before I upgraded and they came out great! It’s an Amazon’s Choice item with over 2000 awesome reviews and free shipping.

Best Budget Pellet Smoker

Z GRILLS Wood Pellet Grill and Smoker

This little guy is amazing for being well under $400. It also comes not only with free shipping, but a cover too.

Sturdy legs and wheels and only 84 pounds make this fairly portable. Enough room for 3 whole chickens at over 320 sqaure feet of cooking/smoking space. Since it’s both a grill and a smoker you get the best of both worlds. Cooking Temperature range is 160°F to 450°F.

Did I mention the Lifetime Guarantee? Outstanding reviews too.

Best Budget Verticle Smoker

Camp Chef XXL Vertical Pellet Grill and Smoker

A verticle smoker is simply a cabinet-style smoker with racks that sit above one another giving you lots of room for smoking a wide variety of meats and veggies at the same time.

It features 4 meat racks, 3 jerky racks, plus a sausage rack with 12 hooks. Great for smoking items that don’t fit well in a pellet grill.

Digital temp control & Smart Smoke technology means you don’t have to babysit your smoker to get perfect results every time. Dual meat temperate probes and a temperature range from 150° F to 350° F.

Free shipping and well under $600. While it currently only has a small number of reviews, they are 100% 5-star and all from verified purchasers.

Best Deluxe Smoker

Traeger Pro 780 Smart Wood Pellet Grill and Smoker in Black with Wifi Technology

You knew I’d get around to recommending one with wi-fi, didn’t you?

You also probably knew I’d eventually recommend another Traeger, who invented the pellet smoker. Like all Traegers, this one too is a grill/smoker combo. Like all Traegers, this one too is a grill/smoker combo.

Control your grill from anywhere with the Traeger app. Set it and forget it and get perfect results every time. Did I mention that aside from great smoked meats, you can also use it as a pizza oven or even bake an apple pie?

Comes with a 3-year warranty too.

Get ALL my Top Recommendations on Grills, Smokers, and BBQ Accessories with descriptions and direct links for easy browsing!

Did I cover all you wanted to see about the different types of grills and smokers?

In this article, we created the ultimate guide to grills, BBQs, and smokers.

We looked at all the different types of grills and smokers, examined the pros and cons of each type. Then we explored the most popular brands in each category and what makes them special.

If you love to grill or smoke meats and vegetables, chances are we answered every question you had.

What is your favorite way to grill?

Get your free vegetable grill time cheat sheet!

No pesky emails to enter, just 1 click and you can download a PDF to your phone. All the main veggies you might grill with times and temps and tips!

Just CLICK HERE to get it now!


Photo credits which require attribution:

Grilling eggplant on George Foreman grill by Gloria Cabada-Leman is licensed under CC2.0

The Grill by Will Powell is licensed under CC2.0

Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett Pellet Grill by sousvideguy is licensed under CC2.0

Review: Brinkmann Gourmet Grill and Smoker by Murdock Derek M. is licensed under Public domain

fred barr by readyzeal.com is licensed under CC2.0

Best bradley electric smoker in white picket fence yard ready for smoking meat and fish for weekend family bbq by Your Best Digs is licensed under CC2.0


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Jeff Campbell

Jeff was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades and is now a recovering foodie. When he's not spending time with his wife & 3 daughters, he can usually be found practicing martial arts, making music, blogging on his main blog over at newmiddleclassdad.com or, of course, in the kitchen.

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