Traeger vs Masterbuilt: battle of the best smokers

Two leading smoker manufacturers go head to head for Pit Master supremacy

Traeger lifestyle BBQ
(Image credit: Traeger)

The best smokers are all the rage in the USA, where adventurous low-and-slow smoking is almost a way of life, particularly in the state of Texas where they hold regular competitions attended by hundreds of foodies all eager to taste the winner’s creations. If you’re thinking of jumping on this burgeoning bandwagon but haven’t a clue where to start, this article will help guide you through the jungle and push you in the direction of two key players who, in our opinion, are among the top tier of current smoker manufacturers.

Traeger and Masterbuilt are hugely popular US companies that specialise in the design and production of BBQ smokers in a wide variety of sizes and price points. And when it comes to choosing the best smoker for your needs, chances are you will alight on these two brands along with the likes of Broil King, Pit Boss and Weber.

The interesting thing about Traeger and Masterbuilt is that each company commits its products to running on specific heat sources. In Traeger’s case, its grills are almost entirely wood pellet based while Masterbuilt prefers the use of charcoal and electricity. Both fuels have their pros and that’s partly what we’re looking at in this guide, along with a good glance at these companies’ respective product lines and why one brand may be better for you than the other.

You see, when it comes to selecting the best smoker and the best fuel for that smoker, it’s often dependent on whether the buyer is already well versed in the art of smoking or whether he or she is a complete novice who hasn’t a clue which way to turn.

If you’re already a seasoned Pit Master, chances are you will already know what’s what but if you’re a complete novice and not sure whether you should opt for a Traeger pellet grill or a Masterbuilt  charcoal/electricity option, this guide is for you.  But first a little bit of history…

Traeger vs Masterbuilt: sterling smokers one and all

Traeger vs Masterbuilt: company profiles

Traeger started the whole pellet grill thing in 1985 when its founder Joe Traeger produced his first pellet grill using a then new type of cheap heating fuel – compressed wooden pellets – that was created as a result of the 1973 oil crisis. Fast forward 39 years and the US company has grown from strength to strength with a healthy roster of high-quality pellet grills in all sizes and price points. Granted, the company recently started dabbling in gas for the very first time with the launch of its Flatrock griddle series but the brand is ultimately committed to using wood pellets as its products’ main source of fuel.

By contrast, Georgia-based Masterbuilt started out a little earlier in 1973 when John McLemore and various family members began selling home-made fish cookers from the back of a truck. In 2001 McLemore went on to produce the world’s first electric smoker and that was that. Today, the company produces a wide range of electric and charcoal smokers with a burgeoning fan base in both the US and the UK.

Traeger vs Masterbuilt: what is a smoker?

Weber BBQ smoker

(Image credit: Weber)

In brief, a smoker is a type of barbecue that uses indirect heat to cook meats, fish and vegetables at very low temperatures for hours at a time. For instance, they are especially well suited to cooking tougher cuts of meat like ribs and brisket over a period of up to seven hours at temperatures as low as 107˚C (225˚F). When done Texas style, the meat will literally fall off the bone or tear apart like a piece of pulled pork. Nevertheless, smokers are equally brilliant at slow cooking more delicate meats like lamb, ham, fish and vegetables. You can usually tell when a piece meat has been smoked by the narrow ring of pink meat just beneath the crusty ‘bark’ that slowly forms after many hours of careful nurturing.

Most smokers like those produced by Traeger and Masterbuilt are fuelled by wood pellets, charcoal or electricity. For most novices, compressed wood pellets are the best fuel because everything is controlled by a computer processor which ensures that any preset temperature remains that way for the entire duration of the cook. Like an indoor oven, when you select the temperature you want, it literally stays that way for hours at a time. 

Most pellet grills are equally capable of grilling standard meats like any barbecue and some can even sear steaks. And because they literally burn wood as the main fuel, everything that’s cooked on a pellet grill is infused with an authentically smokey flavour, whether its a rack of baby back ribs, a smoked ham, Moroccan-style lamb or a Texas brisket. If a pellet grill sounds like the best route to smoking for you then Traeger is the company for you.

Charcoal is usually the preferred fuel of most experienced Pit Masters, but it’s a very difficult and volatile fuel to work with, especially if you’re a complete novice using a complicated offset smoker – the type that looks like an old steam engine – for the first time. But it doesn’t have to be like that, at least not if you’re lucky enough to be using one of Masterbuilt’s sterling range of gravity smokers. Masterbuilt’s Gravity Series quite literally takes the guesswork out of both smoking and grilling and you can read more about it in the next chapter.

Electricity is another popular choice of fuel for smoking, not least because it runs for as long as you keep paying the bill. It’s the cheapest form of smoking, too. Masterbuilt is far-and-away the market leader in this regard which isn’t surprising since they invented the electric smoker. Granted, some may argue that electricity could never provide the same level of smokiness and deep flavour profile of wood pellets or charcoal but Masterbuilt have sold so many electric smokers that they must be doing something right. And besides, since all electric smokers feature a small wood chip box near the heat source, the food is still infused with aromatic smoke, so what’s the difference?

Traeger vs Masterbuilt: prices and availability

Want to try smoking meats the authentic way using charcoal? Head straight for the Masterbuilt Gravity Series 560. This set-and-forget model retails between £399 and £580, and is available from Amazon, Pro Smoke and Marks Electrical.

If a pellet grill sounds more up your garden path, try the portable Traeger Ranger which retails at around £549 and is available from The BBQ Shop, Amazon and BBQ World.

Fancy pushing the boat out and having the best pellet grill in the neighbourhood? That’ll be the new, humongous Traeger Timberline. Visit John Lewis & Partners and The BBQ Shop where this sterling beauty is selling for £2,999.

If three grand is several steps too far, try the much cheaper Traeger Pro 575 instead. You’ll find it at John Lewis & Partners for a much more reasonable £899.

Finally, you won’t find a cheaper way to smoke meats than on an electric model and that’s where the Masterbuilt 710 WiFi Digital Electric Smoker comes in. Want one? Try BBQ World (£249) or Amazon, where it’s shifting for a knockdown £219.

Traeger vs Masterbuilt: the best models to choose

Traeger Ranger on balcony

The Traeger Ranger is a brilliant portable pellet grill for balconies and small patios

(Image credit: Traeger)

Now you know the ins and outs of smoking with pellets, charcoal and electricity, let’s take a look at some of the best models in each disciple, starting with Traeger.

If you want to give smoking a go but don’t want to spend too much, your first port of call should be the portable Traeger Ranger. Although it requires an electricity source to function, this cracking model is a brilliant performer that is perfect for beginners. Simply load it with pellets, fire it up and it will smoke and grill anything you put on it. It’s brilliant for slow smoking ribs or a leg of lamb and it makes a better roast chicken than your indoor oven.

Traeger Pro 575

When it comes to increased meal estate, the Traeger Pro 575 is a perfect sized pellet grill for most people

(Image credit: Traeger)

Assuming you’re able to increase the budget a little, we’d suggest opting for Traeger’s Pro 575 which provides much more meal estate for not too much of a price increase. This model also works with Traeger’s brilliant app that lets you command and monitor the pellet grill without having to stand next to it. Again, this is a set-and-forget grill that’s very difficult to burn food on.

Traeger Timberline

The new Traeger Timberline XL. You know you want one

(Image credit: Traeger)

If only the very best in smoking and grilling will do, there are very few models out there that come even close to the stunning Traeger Timberline for design, function and outright performance. This handsome brute is like having a kitchen in the garden and features an induction hob on the side for numerous other cooking disciplines – including searing steaks – one of the prettiest TFT controller displays and enough cooking space on its vast grate for nine whole chickens.

Masterbuilt Gravity Series 560 burn in

The Masterbuilt Gravity Series 560 is a sterling charcoal smoker and grill in one

(Image credit: Derek Adams)

Charcoal smoking is a completely different kettle of beef and very tricky to pull off using a standard kettle grill. What you need is a charcoal grill that works like a pellet grill. And here it is – the all-singing Masterbuilt Gravity Series 560 Charcoal Grill & Smoker

With this system you simply fill the hopper from the top with about five kilos of charcoal and a few hickory wood chunks and light it using a couple of fire lighters. Now head over to the controller and select a temperature for the style of grilling – around 105˚C for smoking, 200˚C for grilling and around 370˚C for rapid searing – and close the lid. The 560 will stay at whatever temperature you select, just like a pellet grill.

Masterbuilt electric smoker 710

Electricity is the cheapest way to smoke without the rigmarole. The Masterbuilt 710 is an excellent contender in this regard

(Image credit: Masterbuilt)

If the electricity method seems better for your needs, consider one of Masterbuilt’s electricity models. There are loads to choose from but in our opinion you can’t go wrong with the keenly-priced Masterbuilt 710 WiFi Digital Electric Smoker. This digital smoker is truly hands off because you can control it from the Masterbuilt app. Simply set your desired smoking temperature and the oven will hold that temperature for as long as you want to smoke. It comes with a wood chip tray, a removable water bowl for keeping meats moist throughout the long smoking process, an integrated meat probe to keep track of the meat’s internal temperature and acres of space for a banquet. If you want to give electric smoking a try but don’t want to spend a fortune, the Masterbuilt 710 is a brilliant place to start.

Traeger vs Masterbuilt: who has the best app?

Traeger app

Whatever BBQ you have, nothing beats the Traeger app for recipes and tips

(Image credit: Traeger)

Most Traeger and Masterbuilt grills and smokers are app enabled which means you can monitor the whole cooking process remotely and easily adjust grill temperatures, set reminders to turn the food and receive notifications when the cook is complete. From my experience the Traeger app is easily the best BBQ app of any out there. It’s literally jam-packed with great recipes no matter what type of barbecue you have. Traeger also produces a range of truly outstanding rubs and spices that are worth checking out.

Traeger vs Masterbuilt: Final verdict

Traeger Timberline

(Image credit: Traeger)

If you want to enjoy fuss-free smoking and grilling using a tried-and-trusted fuel source, a Traeger pellet grill is well worth investigation. However you will need to fork out a sizeable sum for the privilege. Alternatively, an electric or charcoal smoker from Masterbuilt will provide the same hands-off experience for a fraction of the price. Whichever manufacturer you go for, you can be sure you’ll have chosen wisely. However, in terms of outright style and incredible build quality, Traeger just pips Masterbuilt to the post.

For more outdoor cooking advice, check out T3's Outdoor Living Month.

Derek Adams

Derek (aka Delbert, Delvis, Delphinium, Delboy etc) specialises in home and outdoor wares, from coffee machines, white appliances and vacs to drones, garden gear and BBQs. He has been writing for more years than anyone can remember, starting at the legendary Time Out magazine – the original, London version – on a typewriter! He now writes for T3 between playing drums with his bandmates in Red Box (redboxmusic).