How Does an Electric Smoker Work? (Explained from the Plug to the Heating Element)

June 12, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

An electric smoker uses electricity and a metal element to heat wood chips and create smoke. They also have pretty advanced temperature control systems. This makes the smoking process more convenient and consistent than traditional wood or charcoal smokers

I’ve spent countless hours tinkering with my No products found. to get the perfect smoked meats. I’ve learned that the inner workings of this smoker consist of several components that work together to create the ideal environment for smoking.

So, continue reading to find out how an electric smoker works to get the most out of your cooking experience.

how does an electric smoker work

How Does an Electric Smoker Produce Smoke?

An electric smoker produces smoke by heating wood in a tray. As the electric element heats up, the wood chips smolder and smoke. The heat also causes the water in the water pan to vaporize. 

This, in turn, helps create steam that helps the meat stay moist. In addition, temperature control and ventilation systems regulate the amount of smoke and airflow.

Unlike solid fuel smokers which require a continuous supply of wood or charcoal to maintain the heat, electric smokers use an internal heating element to create heat. 

On the other hand, solid fuel smokers create a smoke ring around the edges of the meat. This is caused by the combustion of wood or charcoal. However, don’t expect that in an electric smoker. They do not produce a smoke ring because they don’t generate heat by combustion.

One trick to get this in an electric smoker would be by adding solid fuel like charcoal or wood chips to your wood tray.

Using an Electric Smoker 

Step-by-step, from the wood chip tray to the temperature control, here’s how you get an electric smoker to work:

Filling the Wood Chip Tray and Water Pan

To get an electric smoker to produce smoke, you must start by filling the smoker with chips of wood. Electric smokers have a designated wood chip tray that you can access through a small door on the side or back of the smoker. 

Ensure that you add enough fuel to create a steady stream of smoke. It’s also essential to fill the water pan. This helps to keep the meat moist and regulate the temperature.

Setting the Internal Temperature 

The smoker’s internal temperature is crucial for producing smoke and cooking the meat properly. The cooking chamber must maintain a temperature between 200-250°F to produce smoke and cook the meat.

Thankfully, the cooking chamber is insulated to help keep a consistent temperature. So, you can simply set the temperature digitally and forget it.

Monitoring the Temperature

Once the wood chip tray and water pan are filled, it’s time to turn on the smoker and set the temperature. 

As the smoker heats up, the wood chips produce smoke. Monitor the smoker’s internal temperature and add more wood chips as needed to maintain a steady stream of smoke.

The Inner Workings of an Electric Smoker

Let’s take an in-depth look at how an electric smoker works, by looking at its key components:

Assorted Grilled Meat with Veggies

Heating Element

The heating element is the powerhouse of the electric smoker and provides the heat necessary to cook the food and produce smoke. 

Heating elements are usually located at the bottom or side of the smoker and come in different wattages. A higher wattage heating element of around 1000 to 1500 watts will provide more heat, allowing for faster cooking times and better smoke production.

Wood Chip Tray

The wood chip pan or tray is where you place the wood chips that create the smoke flavor. It is typically located near the heating element and can be accessed through a small door. 

The heating element ignites the wood, creating smoke that infuses the food with a delicious smoky flavor. It’s essential to use the right amount and type of wood for optimal flavor. 

Strongly flavored woods like mesquite, hickory, and oak work best for me. This is because an electric smoker only produces mild smoke. So you need something a bit strong and woodsy to get the smokiness you are used to from a charcoal or wood pellet smoker. 

Water Pan

The water pan serves a dual purpose in the electric smoker. First, it provides moisture to the cooking process. This helps keep the food from drying out. Additionally, it can also help regulate the temperature.

The water pan is usually located above or next to the heating element. It can be filled with water, juice, beer, or any other liquid you choose.

Temperature Control

Most electric smokers come with a built-in thermostat or temperature control dial to adjust the cooking temperature. 

This is essential for achieving the perfect smoking temperature for different types of meat. 

The temperature control is usually located on the front of the smoker. You can adjust it up or down depending on your needs.

Ventilation System

The ventilation system is crucial for controlling the smoke and heat in the smoker. 

Electric smokers typically have vents on the top and bottom of the smoker that can be adjusted to control the airflow. 

Opening the vents allows for more heat and smoke production while closing them reduces the heat and smoke.

Overall, understanding the components of an electric smoker is essential for achieving the perfect smoked meats. 

Optimizing the heating element, wood chip tray, water pan, temperature control, and ventilation system allows you to create the ideal smoking environment for delicious, smoky flavor every time.

Benefits of Using an Electric Smoker

An electric smoker doesn’t give the best smoky effect. So, why should you still go for an electric smoker?

Variety of Veggies on the Grill

Consistency & Convenience

One of the most obvious benefits of using an electric smoker is the consistency it offers in cooking. As I mentioned before, you can set the temperature to the exact degree you want with an electric smoker. 

You won’t have to worry about fluctuations in temperature that can affect the quality and taste of your meat.

Also, with an electric smoker, there’s less risk of starting a fire. You don’t need to constantly tend to the smoker to maintain the temperature.

Instead, you can simply plug in the smoker, set the temperature, and let it do its job.

Well-cooked and Moisturized Meat

The heating element in the smoker produces heat. In turn, the heat produces vaporized water from the water pan. This helps to keep the food moist and tender.


Most electric smokers are versatile and can cook various types of meat, including beef, pork, chicken, fish, and more.

Additionally, many electric smokers have the option to cold-smoke. By the way, cold smoking is a process of smoking at temperatures below 100°F.

This allows you to smoke cheese, nuts, and other foods that cannot withstand high temperatures.


Lastly, electric smokers are much safer to use than regular smokers. With electric smokers, there is no open flame, So you won’t need to worry about the fire risk.

Additionally, since there is no combustion, you don’t have to worry about the harmful emissions that charcoal or wood smokers create.

Downsides to Know

While electric smokers have many advantages, they also come with a few disadvantages. Here are some of the cons of using an electric smoker that you should be aware of:

Limited Temperature Range and Longer Cook Time

While electric smokers are excellent at making consistently-cooked meals, they have a more limited temperature range than solid fuel smokers. 

This can make it challenging to achieve the high temperatures required for some cooking methods, such as searing or blackening.

This can also lead to a longer cooking time. However, remember they are more convenient to use. What’s more, they require less maintenance than wood pellet smokers.

Higher Initial Cost

Electric smokers have a higher initial cost than other types of smokers. While they can save you money in the long run due to their efficiency, the higher upfront cost may not appeal to some.

From Grease to Gleam: Maintaining and Cleaning

I know this is the part no cook wants to deal with. But it is what it is!

Proper maintenance and cleaning are essential for keeping the smoker running smoothly and producing excellent BBQ. 

Regular cleaning is crucial if you want to maintain the quality of your BBQ and the performance of your electric smoker. Overtime, the buildup of grease and food particles can cause the smoker to produce “off-flavors” or chemical-like smell. It can also cause uneven heat distribution. 

Additionally, a dirty smoker can harbor bacteria that can transmit to your food. So don’t skimp on maintenance.

Sausages and Burger Patty on the Grill

Steps for Cleaning an Electric Smoker

  • Turn off and unplug the smoker: Before starting the cleaning process, ensure that the smoker is turned off and unplugged.
  • Remove the racks and accessories: Take out the cooking racks, water pan, drip tray, and other removable parts.
  • Clean the interior: Use a soft-bristled brush, a sponge, and a mild soap solution to clean the smoker’s interior. Be sure to clean all the surfaces, including the body, ceiling, and floor. You can also use a specialized smoker cleaner to remove tough stains and buildup. For this, I recommend the Goo Gone Grill and Grate Cleaner Spray
  • Clean the racks and accessories: Soak the cooking racks, water pan, and drip tray in warm soapy water. Use a brush or a sponge to remove any food particles or debris. Rinse the parts thoroughly with clean water and let them dry.
  • Clean the exterior: Wipe down the exterior of the smoker with a damp cloth or a sponge. Meanwhile, avoid the use of harsh chemicals.
  • Reassemble the smoker: Once everything is clean and dry, reassemble the smoker and make sure all the parts are properly placed.
  • Season the smoker: Before using the smoker again, it’s a good idea to season it. This involves coating the interior surfaces with a thin layer of olive oil and running the smoker at a high temperature for a short period.

Tips for Troubleshooting Your Electric Smoker

While electric smokers are generally reliable and easy to use, there are a few common issues that you may encounter. Here’s how to troubleshoot and fix them.

Common Problems 

  • Temperature fluctuations: Earlier, I mentioned that electric smokers are consistent in smoke or heat production. If the temperature in your electric smoker is fluctuating, it may be due to a malfunctioning thermostat or heating element. Check the thermostat and heating element for signs of damage or malfunction. Replace any parts that are not functioning properly. You should also clean the ventilation system to ensure air can flow freely throughout the smoker. 
  • Smoke production issues: If your electric smoker is not producing enough smoke, it may be due to insufficient wood fuel or a clogged wood chip tray. Ensure you are using enough wood chips and placing them correctly in the tray. Also, clean the wood chip tray regularly to prevent clogs.
  • Electrical issues: Electrical issues such as blown fuses, damaged cords, or malfunctioning switches can cause your electric smoker to stop working. Check these components for damage and replace them. If the problem persists, you may need to contact a professional repair service.


1. Is an Electric Smoker Better Than a Regular Smoker?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Electric smokers are generally more convenient and easier to use than conventional smokers like charcoal or pellet smokers. However, some people argue that they produce less flavorful or smokey meat. It ultimately comes down to personal preference and what you value most in your BBQ experience.

2. Do You Soak Wood Chips for an Electric Smoker?

While it is unnecessary, I like to do this when I don’t have a lot of fuel on hand. Soaking the wood chip fuel can help them last longer and produce more smoke. However, it can also cause them to have less heat, resulting in longer cooking times. If you choose to soak your wood chips, use only water and avoid using other liquids like cooking oil or beer. This can add unwanted flavors to your meat.

Griller with Barbeque Cooking


An electric smoker is an excellent option for anyone looking to enjoy a delicious BBQ without the hassle of traditional smoking methods. Its convenience, versatility, and safety make it an attractive choice for beginners and experienced BBQ enthusiasts. 

An electric smoker can provide years of flavorful meals with proper maintenance and cleaning. By understanding the components and inner workings of the electric smoker, as well as its advantages and disadvantages, you can make an informed decision on whether it’s the right choice. 

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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