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cold smoker vs hot smoker

Cold Smoker or Hot Smoker (Differences Explained)

Everyone loves that dark, delicious mahogany-looking smoked meat or the flavor of smoked fish, don’t we?

When it comes to smoking, you cannot really choose the best way of smoking between a hot smoker and a cold smoker, as both are equally imperative.

BBQ smokers and cold smokers are used to achieve different results. A BBQ smoker will flavor as well as cook meat at the same time, whereas a cold smoker will only impart a deep smoky flavor to the meat.

What are the differences between the two? What type of meat can you smoke with each one? What are the pros and cons of both? Let us see the key differences between a hot smoker and a cold smoker.

At a Glance: Hot Smoker vs. Cold Smoker

Key FactorsHot SmokerCold Smoker
Ideal operating Temperature165°F to 300°F68°F to 86°F
PurposeCook and infuse smoky flavor into the foodInfuse smoky flavors and preserve the food
Ideal Smoking ProcessMarinate, Create pellicle, Hot smokingCuring the meat, Air drying to create pellicle, Cold smoking
Time1.5 hours to 6 hoursSeveral hours, days or even weeks (30 days)
Common foods smokedMeat, ribs, steaks, corn, potatoes, turkey, chicken, etc.Sausages, cheese, beef jerky, tofu, salami, fish, lemons, olives, etc.

What is a Cold Smoker

A cold smoker is the equipment used to impart a smoky flavor to the meat through a slow-and-low process of cold smoking. With a cold smoker, you can infuse the exquisite smoky flavor into eggs, meat, cheese, veggies, and fish.

Generally, a cold smoker keeps the smoking food separate from the firebox or whatever may be the heat source. And this is the reason why a cold smoker does not really cook your food. It only infuses delicious smoke flavors to the cold smoked food without really cooking/heating it.

In short, a cold smoker will slightly dry out the food, whilst introducing antioxidants and antimicrobials to the food. And this is what makes it one of the best ways to preserve food for a long time.

cold smoker vs hot smoker

How Does a Cold Smoker Work

A cold Smoker is a unit designed to introduce an exquisite smoky flavor to the food in order to prep it up for tasty dishes. The firewood chamber is generally away from the compartment where food is stored. Thus, there is no transfer of heat in a cold smoker.

The temperature inside a cold smoker is between 68 °F to 86 °F. This temperature range is perfect for cold smoking meats, veggies, butter, cream, lemons, fish and eggs, without drying out their moisture. It uses wood chips to create intense smoke inside the firebox.

You can either leave the food in the food chamber or hang it from the rack. The smoke will eventually cover the food, permeate deeply into it, and deepen its color and flavor. The process can go on for hours, days, or even weeks.

Often, meat smokers hang the meat in a dry environment to create a pellicle and then use the cold smoker to infuse the smoky flavors into it. After cold smoking, you can bake, steam, roast, sauté or grill the meat, as per your liking.

Z Grills

In other words, a cold smoker is a unit where you can preserve meat after you cure it. Only thing is that the temperature must be below 86°F.

To be able to smoke meat needs to master the control of airflow and flow of smoke, as less airflow means less heat. Learning to use a cold smoker sure takes time, but the results are definitely worth it. To say the obvious, cold smokers work best in the winter or fall season.


Which is the Best Cold Smoker?

The best cold smoker is the one that is able to operate at temperatures below 85 °F. In such a smoker, you can even smoke foods like cheese and sausages, as these are prone to spoil if you heat them too much.
Not to mention, hardwoods work best with cold smokers. For amazing results, make sure you smolder wood dust or pellets really slow-and-low. You don’t want to create high heat in the chamber, so it is better to avoid wood chips.

cold smoker vs hot smoker

Types of Cold Smoker

Cold smokers are mesh grid type- both electric and non-electric.

  • Electric cold smokers make use of an internal heating element that gets hot and causes the fuel to create intense smoke. Such smokers don’t need to be ignited with match sticks; hence you can use them with any containers. Here is a diy cold smoker article on how to build a cold smoker out of a refrigerator.
  • On the contrary, non-electric cold smokers are usually ignited with a matchstick, as it uses fine sawdust or wood chips as fuel. The fuel is stored in a maze-like chamber, and it creates smoke as it is lit. Cold smokers are able to create intense smoke if you use larger wood chips with it.

The size of the cold smoker is a crucial factor to consider when selecting the size of fuel. A large-size cold smoker would naturally require larger wood chips. But if you’re using pellets, then make sure to check whether the size is optimal for your smoker.

Advantages of a Cold Smoker

The best thing about using a cold smoker is that it deeply gives a smoky flavor and deepens the color of the meat, without cooking it. Such a process is best suited for foods that do not really require cooking such as veggies, tofu, cheese, etc.

The cold smoker is one of the best ways to preserve food and then cook it later. This way, you will be able to cook multiple batches of meat later on and not just a single cut.

Another key point is that smoking in a cold smoker requires little to no attention. It can smoke the meat on its own, as the process is slow-and-low.

Prerequisites for Using a Cold Smoker

The internal temperature of a cold smoker must be kept optimal, or else the preservation process might pose a threat to your health. External weather conditions also tend to affect the performance of a cold smoker.

  • Meat exposed to different surfaces and tools is likely to carry pathogens, microorganisms, and pollutants. In a hot smoker, the microorganisms tend to die, but cold smokers have relatively low temperatures. This is why the meat is likely to go through rapid microbial growth.
  • It is highly recommended to use a cold smoker only when you have cured, fully salted, or fermented the meat.

Cons of Using a Cold Smoker

Since a cold smoker does not really cook your food, you will have to cook it later on to prevent health/food poisoning issues. Additionally, though a cold smoker adds a delicious smoky flavor to the meat, it can sometimes dry out the meat if you don’t cure the meat properly prior to smoking.

Cold smokers operate on a very low heat to preserve and add a smoky flavor to the food. According to the USDA, the bacteria growth is faster between 40°F to 140°F temperature. In cold smoking, the food will rest in this exact temperature range. Hence, it is extremely important to master the technique of curing meat prior to cold smoking.

cold smoker vs hot smoker

What is a Hot Smoker

A hot smoker or we can call it just a smoker is a unit that not just flavors but also cooks the meat simultaneously.  You can smoke your food in a hot smoker for about 3 to 12 hours, and its internal temperature ranges from 165°F to 200 °F. This high temperature is enough to partially or fully cook the meat. And, there is no preservation involved here.

How Does a Hot Smoker Work

In a hot smoker, the food comes in close contact with the high heat, unlike in cold smoking. This is the reason why hot smokers can cook the food, as the temperature is nearly 3X higher than in a cold smoker.
The internal temperature in a hot smoker can be anywhere from 145°F to as high as 300°F. Such a high temperature kills the microorganisms or dangerous pathogens introduced to the food.

  • To use a hot smoker, you simply need to place your meat or other food items on clean grill grates.
  • Then, add your favorite wood pellets to the chamber and ignite them (either through a match stick, gas burner, or electricity). This will smolder the wood and create high heat and smoke in the chamber to cook as well as smoke the meat.
  • You can control the smoke with the air vents provided in the unit.

Types of Hot Smoker

Hot smokers can be fueled by propane gas, wood pellets, charcoal, or electricity.

  • Charcoal smokers: Charcoal and wood pellets are conventional types of fuels that provide deep smoky flavor to your food. Moreover, these are cheaper than the other types. Charcoal smokers use charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal as fuel. These are cost-effective, as charcoal burns longer and evenly with time.
  • Electric smokers: Electric smokers are somewhat similar to the stove. All you need to do is plug the smoker in and add wood, meat, and water to the water pan. Using soaked wood chunks will allow for nice smoldering to give off smoke. It is much easier to adjust the heat in such a type of smoker. Today, we also get computer-controlled electric smokers- where you can simply configure settings and it will run until the meat is ready.
  • Pellet Smoker: Pellet smokers run on electricity, and it ignites the wood pellets to create heat and intense smoke. These have the advantage of electric smoker, while also giving that delicious smoky flavor as that of charcoal smokers. Pellet smokers are best suited for novice meat smokers. Plus, you get to experiment with different wood flavors, which is a win-win!
  • Propane gas smokers: Propane hot smokers provide high temperatures quickly and are quite easy to use. They do not require power outlets and are easier to carry. Such smokers use a propane gas burner to ignite the smoke chamber (usually filled with wood chips). But, you need to make sure the flames don’t overheat the chips.
  • Wood smokers: In these types of hot smokers, wood splits/logs are the only fuel used. But, the meat smoker needs to maintain the right amount of wood and airflow in the chamber. The smoke created here is much clearer and intense.

Advantages of a Hot Smoker


With a hot smoker, you can not only infuse smoky flavors but also cook the meat at the same time, which makes it more convenient.

Plus, smoking in a hot smoker does not require you to fully cure the meat with salt to prevent health hazards. As the internal temperature in a hot smoker is high, all the microorganisms and pathogens die in the process.

Cons of Using a Hot Smoker

A hot smoker requires you to pay close attention to the meat, or else it might burn due to high temperatures.

Another downside is that your food might lose a slight amount of nutrients in a hot smoker, due to high temperatures.

Wrap Up

No doubt, hot smoker and cold smoker- both are quite conventional methods to infuse that aromatic, rich smoky flavor to the foods. Both the units differ in their purposes, design, and smoking results. There’s no clear winner between the two, as it really comes down to your skill level and taste preference. Cold smokers are recommended for smoke masters- people who’ve mastered using hot smokers.

The flavor is a deciding factor to choose between a hot or cold smoker, while wood chips will also greatly affect the taste. Hot smoking infuses subtle smoky flavors into the food, whereas cold smoking deeply permeates full flavors into the food.

No matter which type of smoker you choose- hot or cold- you are sure to get that intense, rich flavor with each one of them.

Cold Smoker or Hot Smoker (Differences Explained)