Learn all the differences between smoker boxes and pellet smoker tubes, how to use these great smoking devices to smoke great BBQ on ANY grill, and which to use in various situations.
What are Smoker Boxes and Smoker Tubes Used For?
Smoker boxes and smoker tubes, sometimes called “pellet tube smokers” are two different devices used to hold wood chips and wood pellets respectively primarily for smoking on a gas grill.
Yes, you CAN smoke great food on ANY gas grill using these devices.
Simply set the grill up for indirect cooking and place either the box or tube over the lit burners on the hot side and your meat on the cool side and smoke away!
Ok, so if they both do the same thing, what’s the difference between the two?
Well they have some distinct differences that we will get into next.
Basically a smoker TUBE is designed to hold wood pellets, like the ones used in a pellet grill uch as a Traeger or a Camp Chef.
A smoker BOX is designed to hold wood chips, not pellets.
Let’s look at each one individually and why you might pick to use one over the other.
Why Use a Pellet Tube Smoker?
Smoker tubes, or, pellet tube smokers are a handy accessory to have
They allow you to take advantage of the benefits of hardwood pellets for smoking without even owning a pellet grill.
Wood Pellets are much denser and more compressed than wood chips, which you would use in a smoker box.
Because of this, they burn much slower and, pound for pound, produce a lot more smoke during a long cook.
Benefits of a Pellet Tube Smoker
One particular challenge when it comes to cold smoking is often being able to expose your food to the smoke without actually heating it up.
This can cause a whole range of issues, like melted cheese making a big mess all over your grill.
If you have a pellet tube smoker, you have a portable device that you can set far away from the cold food, and you can even keep some ice and water trays in between your food and the tube.
Having a pellet tube smoker almost completely eliminates the need to go buy a high priced smoker or pellet grill, allowing you to create not only traditional BBQ, but a variety of smokey food like prime rib, ham, bratwurst, and even a thanksgiving turkey right on your gas grill using indirect heat.
How Does a Pellet Smoker Tube Work?
It’s actually pretty easy to use a pellet tube smoker
First, fill up the pellet tube using wood pellets, not chips.
The pellets require more oxygen to smolder than chips, and chips in the tube smoker will likely just ignite, causing an unwanted fire on or worse, IN your grill.
Place the pellet smoker tube upright on the grill with the open end facing up.
Next you will need to light the pellets on the top for about 15-30 seconds with a butane torch.
Note again that you can’t use a standard cigarette lighter – it has to be a butane torch.
Heat one end of the pellets in the tube until they are thoroughly ignited and there is a visible flame burning.
Keep the pellet smoker tube where it is and let that flame burn for about 5-10 minutes to thoroughly ignite the pellets.
Then you can blow out the active flame and the pellets will continue to smolder almost like charcoal.
Wearing a good pair of heat resistant BBQ gloves, because the pellet smoker tube WILL be HOT, carefully lay the smoker tube down horizontally on the grill grates.
For best results, don’t place the pellet smoker tube right over DIRECT heat while you cook your food or else it may ignite all the rest of the pellets in the tube and they will burn too quickly.
Hot Smoking with a Pellet Tube Smoker
Set up your grill for cooking with INDIRECT heat by light one burner or pushing the lit charcoal to one side of the kettle.
Place the pellet tube smoker somewhere out of the way of the food but not DIRECTLY over the hot coals or burner so that it can fill the cooking chamber with smoke while your food cooks low and slow.
Cold Smoking with a Pellet Tube Smoker
If you are Cold Smoking food like gouda cheese, keep the burners off and light up the far end of the pellet filled tube directly with the butane lighter.
Once lit, place it down horizontally (wear good heat resistat bbq gloves because it WILL be HOT).
Let it burn for a little bit and fill the chamber with smoke and then place your food you want to cold smoke on the other side of the grill.
Make sure to keep your dampers fairly open because the pellet smoker tube smokes better when it has plenty of oxygen to work with.
Things to Consider Before Purchasing a Pellet Tube Smoker
There are a plethora of different pellet tube smokers on the market, and first glance they all tend to look very similar.
That’s why we put together a list of our FIVE favorite pellet smoker tubes HERE to help you narrow down your choice.
Ok, now let’s take a look at the counterpart to the smoker tube, the smoker box.
What is a Smoker Box?
A smoker box, or smoking box, is essentially a small rectangular box with slots cut in the top. The box is typically made out of stainless steel or cast iron and the top part flips back or comes completely off.
You’ll put your favorite kind of wood chips in this box and then close it before putting it in your grill.
Just like you shouldn’t put wood chips in a smoker tube, don’t put pellets in your smoker box.
Nothing will likely happen because they wont get enough oxygen to ignite and smolder.
How Does a Smoker Box Work?
The idea is pretty simple. You fill the small box with wood chips to heat up on the grill and add smoke flavor to whatever you are cooking.
As the grill heats up the box, the wood starts to smoke. The small slits in the box limit the amount of oxygen that reaches the wood, allowing it to smolder and smoke rather than ignite and catch fire.
Using a wood chip smoker box is kind of like adding an additional layer of seasoning.
How much wood you put in the box and how many times you refill it during the cook will determine how much smoky flavor you get in the meat you’re cooking.
A smoker box gives you the ability to apply smoke to food on a conventional grill where you can’t easily limit the airflow. (Notice the large open vent on the back of your typical propane gas grill).
The smoker box keeps the wood contained and allows it to heat up to the 500 degree range where smoke begins to occur.
Contrary to popular advice:
YOU DO NOT NEED TO SOAK THE WOOD CHIPS prior to adding them to your smoker box.
It will not hurt to do it, but it is an unnecessary step and it will just end up taking longer for the wood to smoke as you wait for all that water to evaporate.
The smoke is created by the lack of oxygen in the smoker box, not by soaking the wood chips in water.
If you place the smoker box down in the coals or near the burners under the meat you are cooking, the smoke will gently rise out of the box and begin the flavor your food above it.
How to Use a Smoker Box on a Gas Grill
First, preheat your grill.
Turn all the burners on the highest setting and let it get nice and hot. Make sure to always clean your grates with a good grill brush after it preheats.
While you’re waiting, fill up your smoker box.
Now it’s time to throw that smoker box in there. The ideal placement is resting on the burners but below the grill. Again, depending on the size and style of your grill you may need to play with this setup.
If you have a grill with flame deflector bars, we like this design of smoker box for positioning the box securely under the grill grate.
DO NOT turn the gas burner the smoker box is sitting on up to HIGH.
Even with limited oxygen inside the box the chips may still ignite at these high direct temperatures.
If you need to cook your food at a very high direct temperature, use the burners next to the smoker box burner to actually cook the food.
Its OK to put the smoker box on the grill grates next to the meat, you just may lose a lot of smoke out the rear air vent before it ever reaches the meat, so below the grate is a better option.
Smoking Times of Smoker Tubes vs. Smoker Boxes
The main difference between the two devices is going to be how long each one produces smoke.
Pellet Smoker Tubes
Hands down the winner for length of smoking time will always be the Pellet Smoker TUBE.
As we mentioned, pellets are made from compressed sawdust and therefore smolder and burn very slowly.
A full pellet tube can provide even smoke for up to 4-5 hours before needing to be refilled.
For most large cuts of meat, this is all the amount of time they can absorb smoke anyways, so you likely only ever have to fill up the pellet tube once per cook.
Wood Chips on the other hand are made from just, well, wood.
Small bits and shavings of it usually about an inch long to be exact.
These will smolder and smoke much quicker than the pellets, with a full smoker box usually only lasting about 20-30 minutes at best.
This is great if you are just quick-smoking some lobster tails, or a couple of steaks or chicken thighs.
But if you are trying to smoke a large pork butt or beef brisket, you are going to find yourself dumping and refilling the smoker box many times during the cook in order to keep the smoke going.
Costs of Using Smoker Tubes vs. Smoker Boxes
While the price of a smoker tube and a smoker box are roughly the same (with the smoker box being possibly a little cheaper in some instances), the bigger difference is in the price of using wood pellets vs. chips.
Many people balk at the price of wood pellets, especially name brand pellets like those put out by big companies in the space like Traeger.
They compare the prices by volume to wood chips and quickly declare the pellets a “rip-off” and buy the wood chips instead.
Knowing what we know about how pellets burn slower than wood chips, this is not really a fair comparison.
While you may pay more by volume for pellets than chips, if you compare them pound for pound and based on how much smoking time you get out of the pellets, the cost differences are are not as great.
In many cases, especially if you do a lot of long low and slow smoking, you may actually come out ahead using the wood pellets due to their longer burn time.
You can also find less expensive off brands of wood pellets other than ones put out by the bug pellet grill manufacturers.
For instance, we are big fans of the Bear Mountain Brand, and you will generally find brands like these to be significantly less expensive than say the Traeger brand pellets.
Smoker Tubes vs. Smoker Boxes: The Verdict
So in the end, your choice really comes down to how much smoking you do and for how long you want to smoke the foods you are making on your gas grill.
If you just want to add a little wood smoke here and there to your steaks and chops, then a smoker box will work just fine for you.
If, on the other hand, you want to do some longer low and slow cooks on your gas grill like ribs, pork butt, and beef brisket, then a pellet tube smoker is probably the better investment to make.
Moving on to Full Size Smokers and Pellet Grills
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using smoker tubes and soker boxes on the gas grill you already own.
For many of us self proclaimed BBQ aficionados, this is exactly how we too started down the path to smoked meat enlightenment.
However, if you are ready to take your BBQ game to the next level, and really have some fun, there are a bunch of great, affordable, easy to use smokers on the market today that are great for beginners.
We put together a list of our FAVORITE Smokers for Beginners HERE so go ahead and check it out.
Also, if you like how the pellet tube smokers work and want to learn more about using a full size pellet grill, we’ve got you covered too.
Check out this in-depth tutorial on how a pellet grill works, as well as our list of our FAVORITE pellet grills on the market priced under $500.
Thank for checking us out and good luck smoking!