If you pay attention to grilling trends, you’ve heard of pellet grills, and you know how much they’ve blown up in popularity in the past few years. Maybe you’re here because you just bought a pellet grill, and you want to know how they stack up. Or maybe you’re considering investing in your grilling future, and you want the best bang for your buck. Maybe you’ve heard friends or BBQ bloggers talking about this revolutionary device, and you want to know what all the fuss is about. You’re in the right place, my friend – this article will cover all the pros and cons of pellet grills, as well as providing some background on their history.
The pellet grill, also known as pellet smoker, was designed and patented in 1986 by Joe Traeger. It functions as a kind of smoker/oven/grill hybrid, and as such, is very versatile. A pellet grill is heated by wood pellets, which are stored in a box on the side of the grill called a hopper, and are funneled into a fire pot where they combust and give off smoke and heat. An internal fan distributes heat and smoke throughout the grill, mimicking the process of a convection oven or a smoker. Your food is separated from the fire by a metal plate, preventing flare-ups or drippings ruining the flavor of your food, and maintaining that steady cooking temperature.
What Are Pellets?
Wood pellets are highly compressed tubes of sawdust made from hardwood. They add real wood smoke flavor to whatever you’re cooking, but they burn more reliably than regular wood, get up to temperature more quickly, and are about 99% efficient, producing very little ash or clean up for even a full day’s smoking.
Food-grade wood pellets are typically sold as a single type of hardwood or a blend, meaning you can choose what flavor characteristics you want in your smoke, just as you would with a traditional smoker. Common options include oak, apple, cherry, maple, hickory, and pecan woods. If you’re interested, you can read more about the best wood pellets here.
Why the Recent Popularity?
A big factor in the pellet grill’s recent popularity is the expiration of Joe Traeger’s 1986 patent in 2006. Before then, they made waves in small circles of expert grillers, but were rarely seen outside of competition. While the original Traeger grills are still the big boy on the market, other companies have started releasing their own versions of a pellet grill based on the Traeger technology. Competition has made it a buyer’s market, meaning there are more options out there, with more features, offered at competitive prices.
Another contributor is a shift in market demand. Your ’86 grillmaster didn’t mind having a traditional gas grill, a separate smoker, and an oven for his various cooking needs. After the tech boom and the conveniences of modern life, there is much more of a market for a do-it-all grill.
Pellet Grill Price Range
A pellet grill will cost at least $300, and most medium/large models go for $450+. This is obviously more than a lot of other grills and smokers, but you should remember that pellet grills are double-duty machines with their ability to both grill and smoke. Considering that along with the convenience provided by electronic components, it’s easy to understand the price range.
Now let’s get down to business, to pros and cons. How does the pellet grill stack up, and will it fit your style of grilling and smoking?
Ease of Use
Maybe the best thing about pellet grills is how easy they are to use. Firing up a pellet grill is as easy as 1-2-3:
- Make sure the hopper is full of pellets.
- Plug it into a nearby outlet, using an extension cord if necessary.
- Switch it on and select your temperature.
Pellet grills provide remarkably consistent temperatures, much like an indoor oven. Rather than a low-high heat gradation, pellet grills have actual temperature settings, allowing you to set your brisket at an ideal 225º and leave it alone for hours, trusting the pellet grill to maintain that temperature within about 15º of variance for the entire cook. An electronic auger system feeds more pellets into the fire pot as soon as the temperature starts to dip.
Most models will also have one or more probes with digital temperature readings, giving you an accurate reading of your meat’s internal temperature without having to open your grill hood.
Pellet grills are known as the all-in-one grill for a reason. The controlled temperature range of a pellet grill is typically 175º – 450+º, allowing for low-and-slow smoking or high heat grilling. Because of the temperature precision of a pellet grill and the convection cooking design, it’s also a fun way to add some smoky flavor to traditional baking or roasting applications, like cookies, veggies, and casseroles.
Wood pellets are an extremely efficient fuel source, producing only about 1/2 a cup of ash for a full 40 lb bag of pellets. Clean up is minimal, and some models make it even easier with an ash-removing system that forgoes taking apart or vacuuming out the grill.
Authentic Smoky Flavor
Electric smokers are also simple “set it and forget it” machines, but they have one major problem compared to pellet grills: they produce a relatively small amount of smoke, and that’s reflected in the flavor of the meat (and its lack of a smoke ring).
A pellet smoker will give you much bigger smokey flavor, and a smoke ring to match. (Note that a smoke ring isn’t a definitive sign of high quality barbecue, but it’s always nice to have from a visual standpoint!)
Another nice feature of some pellet smokers, like my Camp Chef SmokePro DLX, is a “high smoke” setting. This is specially designed to produce a large amount of smoke at a low temperature, and I will often use it at the beginning of cooking sessions when smoke can most easily penetrate the meat.
Additionally, wood pellets are the only fuel source for a pellet grill. That means that even when you’re grilling on high heat, you’re getting the benefit of that smoky, wood-fired flavor.
Increase in Popularity and a Growing Community
Pellet grills have been rising in popularity for years and are now more popular than ever. That’s good for a few reasons.
First, they’re way more readily available than they used to be. You can find pellet grills at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s. Even if you prefer to shop online, it can be nice to check out a grill in person first.
On the resources side, there are now whole sites that are dedicated to pellet grill recipes, as well as several Facebook groups and YouTube channels. Whether you’re hunting for a recipe or having a technical issue, just Google it, and there’s almost guaranteed to be some helpful results.
More popularity, marketing, and competition also means that the spotlight is on pellet grill manufacturing. Competing companies are working out any kinks or frustrations that were present in the original Traeger, as well as adding new features. Even Weber jumped into the world of pellet grills recently with their SmokeFire series:
Weight and (Lack of) Portability
This is not your campsite grill. Pellet grills are large, heavy, and not very portable. They need an electric outlet and are a bit of a pain to disassemble. This is not your tailgating go-to, or your road trip hot dog grill. Set it up on your patio and leave it there.
Less Intense Smoky Flavor
Compared to a true wood fire or a wood and charcoal blend, the wood pellets won’t give you as powerful and immediate a smoky flavor. However, as a mentioned above, pellet grills are definitely a step above electric smokers when it comes to smokiness. So think of the level of smoke as being intermediate.
On the plus side, it’s virtually impossible to over-smoke your food, which can happen quite easily when you’re burning a bunch of logs.
Less Than Ideal Searing Temps
Grilling lore states that a true sear for a perfect steak happens around 750º Fahrenheit. Most pellet grills don’t get anywhere near that hot and max out around 500°. The good news is, some pellet grill models now come with a sear box/plate that does reach those super-high searing temps. You may need some propane to power it, but if a technically perfect steak is important to you, the sear plate may be a good add-on option for your pellet grill.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, pellet grills have a lot of obvious advantages, including ease of use, versatility, consistency, and even a “cool factor.”
If you’ve already mastered running a clean, consistent fire on an offset smoker and also own a separate gas grill, then a pellet grill probably isn’t for you. But if you’re more of a beginner just diving into the world of smoking and grilling, or you just want a single machine that can do it all, then a pellet grill is exactly what you’re after.
I hope my list of pros and cons of pellet grills has answered all your questions, but if I missed something, please leave a comment below!