People frequently ask what I think is better: a pellet grill or a charcoal grill.
It’s a difficult question to answer because while they can both be used to smoke or grill meat, they operate very differently.
Personally, I prefer a charcoal grill. I even own three of the ones listed in my best charcoal grill article, while not currently owning a single gas grill! (Though I will change this soon, for the sake of content for this site ;-))
In this article, we’re going to dig deep into the comparison of a Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Grill.
We will discuss their similarities and differences, weigh the pros and cons, and if you’re sitting on the fence, help you decide which one would be best for you.
Note: This article is one of four comparing the different fuel types used in grills, so please do also check out: Pellet Grill Vs Gas Grill, Charcoal vs Gas Grill and Electric vs Gas Grill.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
Pellet Grill Vs Charcoal Grill — Contrasts and Comparisons
Let’s dive right in and begin comparing pellet grill vs charcoal grill to see what sets them apart, and what about them is similar.
Impact on Flavor
Pellet smokers are cooking with wood, so it should come as no surprise that the taste of the wood comes through in the finished product.
Although, some people complain that food cooked on a pellet grill is not as smokey as the food they’ve cooked on a charcoal grill with wood chunks.
With charcoal grills, you will always have the unmistakable flavor of cooking over charcoal. Also, because of the higher temps you can achieve, it’s easy to give your meat a good sear.
Many say that adding wood chunks or chips to a charcoal grill can give a strong wood flavor, stronger than you get from a pellet grill.
The best pellet grills are typically going to be a more expensive investment than most charcoal grills. The best Traeger grill is close to $2000, Camp Chef pellet grills anything from $600 to over $1300, and most other pellet grills priced upwards of $1,000.
Now that’s not to say you can’t get a charcoal grill that costs just as much. However, it is easily possible to pick up a brand-new kettle grill for under $200, a used kettle grill for under $50, or even a brand-new compact charcoal grill for under $50 if you will only ever cook small amounts.
When it comes to pellet grills, you, of course, burn wood pellets for heat instead of charcoal.
Like charcoal, the best pellets for smoking are more expensive than others. With the more expensive ones tending not to jam up the auger that feeds pellets to the hopper.
Outside of pellets, you need to consider the cost of replacement parts that may break down the road when the grill is out of warranty.
Charcoal briquettes are relatively inexpensive and can be used for grilling hot and fast or low and slow.
Lump charcoal tends to be a little more expensive per-pound and can burn a little hotter and quicker. Many people prefer to use lump for grilling only, given the added expense. Outside of fuel, there really are no other costs associated with a charcoal grill.
Ease of use
A pellet grill is a very easy grill to learn to use. Using one is as simple as filling the hopper with pellets and setting the desired cooking temperature. An auger that inside feeds the pellets down to the firebox where they burn. Turning up the temperature results in pellets going to the firebox at a faster pace, and in turn, creating a hotter fire.
There is a little more work involved in cooking on a charcoal grill.
You can use lighter fluid or a charcoal chimney to light your charcoal, but it will take 20 – 30 minutes for them to be ready to cook on.
From there you will have to learn how to set up your charcoal grill to reach your desired temp. With some practice, you can easily learn how to both grill at temps of 500 °F and slow smoke at 250 °F by controlling air flow and opening/closing vents.
Let’s be frank; a pellet grill is designed to be used as a smoker — that is what it’s good at.
You can easily achieve lower temperatures, but the higher temperatures for grilling will be hard to reach.
One thing you can do to increase your temp is to utilize GrillGrate, an accessory you can purchase that will sit on top of the existing grill grates and get up to 100 °F hotter than without.
Whereas with a charcoal grill you can easily grill steaks or burgers hot and fast, or you can easily smoke low and slow.
Pellet grills are somewhat limited to their temperature range with most being able to go no higher than 500 °F and even some that have a hard time getting that hot. They do excel at being able to hold a steady lower temp.
Charcoal grills are able to get much, much hotter easily. Depending on the size of the grill you are using and the type of charcoal you are using (lump tends to burn hotter than briquettes), it is not impossible to achieve temps over 800 °F. They can also be used to cook at much lower temps for smoking.
You will never have an easier time controlling a low and slow smoke than by using a digital pellet smoker. We already touched on this, but the operation is as simple as turning a dial and setting your temp — much like how you would operate an oven.
It is a little more work to control temp with a charcoal grill. You typically increase or decrease the temperature by opening or closing air vents at the top and bottom of the grill. The more air you can get to flow through the grill, the hotter it will get and vice versa. Regardless, there is a learning curve to controlling temp with a charcoal grill.
With a wood pellet grill, most grills are designed to be able to cook for 8+ hours without needing to add more pellets. Even if you do start to run low on pellets, you merely need to open the lid to the hopper and dump more pellets into it.
With charcoal, you have an almost unlimited amount of ways to prepare your grill to cook with. Regardless of the grill, it is easily achievable to cook for 12+ hours on a single load of charcoal during a low and slow smoke, but it is also possible to burn through all your charcoal in as little as a couple of hours if you are grilling hot and fast.
Like anything in the grilling world, there are always accessories to consider purchasing. Some will come from the manufacturers of the grills, and others will be aftermarket accessories made by third-party companies that are meant to compliment your grill.
There really are too many options to list, but just be warned, that once you go down the rabbit hole of grilling accessories, there may be no turning back!
Summing it all Up
Let’s summarize all points raised into handy little bullet point lists:
You May Prefer a Pellet Grill if…
- You like the added flavor of smoke from real wood
- You want to be able to cook with fire, but not have to manage a real fire
- You want to smoke meat at lower temps mostly
What we Like About Pellet Grills
- Their quick and easy ability to fire up — push a button and your grill is lit
- Their ability to maintain constant and steady temp by simple programming
- Different flavors of wood pellets mean different tasting meats
What We Don’t Like About Pellet grills
- They run on electricity, so you will need to be near an outlet to throw down
- They require a regular cleanup every couple of cooks
- In most models, once you load up the hopper you’ll need to burn all the pellets before you can change wood flavors
A Pellet Grill is Best Suited to Those Who
- Want to be able to smoke meat low and slow, without having to manage a fire
- Love the idea of adding smoke flavor to meat, and the ability to use different types of wood pellets to change the flavor
- Want to be able to occasionally turn up the temperature and sear some meat with direct heat
- Camp Chef vs Pit Boss pellet grills
- Camp Chef vs Traeger pellet grills
- Pit Boss vs Traeger pellet grills
- Traeger vs Rec Tec pellet grills
You May Prefer a Charcoal Grill if…
- You love to play with fire and love the idea of building and maintaining your fire
- You want the added benefit of smoke flavor, no matter what you are cooking
- You want to be able to reach incredibly high temps for searing
What We Like About Charcoal Grills
- The low cost to purchase and operate
- The versatility of being able to slow smoke meat, as well as sear at high temps
- The added flavor of smoke, anytime you cook
What We Don’t Like About Charcoal grills
- There is a significant learning curve when it comes to learning how to cook with charcoal
- Charcoal is by nature a messy type of fuel; you will have to clean your ashes after every cook
- While the smells coming from your grill can be defined, charcoal tends to smell when first lit
A Charcoal Grill is Best Suited to Those who…
- Are in love with the idea of cooking over real fire
- Those who think it isn’t real barbecue without wood and charcoal
- Love being able to take their grill with them to places like the beach
People will be debating which type of grill is best for many years to come. While there are definite pros and cons to each style of grill, the open flame, smoked flavor, and super-hot temps for searing make the charcoal the winner here — in our opinion.
And it is only our opinion. Not everyone will agree. And that’s OK because if everybody were the same, the world would be a dull place. And we’re not saying pellet grills are bad, far from it. They are just different, but can still produce amazing quality food.
What do you think? Do you prefer the ease and simplicity of a pellet grill over charcoal? Do you think there are any major points that we missed? Please leave us a comment down below with your thoughts!
Mark, very interesting article.
I would like to comment on today’s charcoal. It is in my opinion complete junk. The charcoal today just does not last like the charcoal of old. The briquettes are so small and compressed that one is for refueling. Also, as I see it, using a Weber Smokey Mountain for example, you can only go for about 3 hours before you have to work the controls. The only charcoal today that is good is Weber charcoal, nice flavor, burns a long time compared to the competition. Only it is $1.00 a pound! I believe pellet grills are the wave of the future due to their ease of use, constant temperature, and finished product. The poor quality of today’s charcoal (with the exception being Weber) caused me to shift to pellets.
Also, some pellet grill makers have a chute to let you drain the pellets for the next cook. Some have a sear station, so you can sear the steak at 900 degrees! So as you can see, pellet manufacturer’s are closing in on charcoal. The poor quality of charcoal will cause the demise of charcoal grilling. And the ease of use that the pellet grill brings will cause more people to convert. I used to love charcoal grilling, however when they started to make the briquettes smaller, that became a game changer for me.
Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂
Though I do agree a fair bit of charcoal is…lacking shall we say, there is still good charcoal to be had.
Generally speaking though, I use single species lump wood charcoal, rather than briquettes, because I tend to cook the most on my kamados and briquettes produce too much ash and can restrict the airflow too much. I do use briquettes on the WSM, and as you say, I’ve found Webers’ to be the best basically. But when it comes to lump you can find small producers, who do it sustainably from coppiced woodlands, single species that add slightly different flavors, zero additives etc. You do have to pay a ton more though!
On the whole pellet vs charcoal grill: Although I don’t — yet — personally own a pellet grill, my friend does, and I’ve cooked on and eaten from it many times. I find food from a pellet smoker and a charcoal grill is very different. Both are good IMO, but they do taste different. The pellet grills produce a lighter smoked taste, and don’t seem to taste as complex for me. They are … I don’t know, hard to describe, but I miss the charcoal added flavor and the food is a lighter smoke taste. BUT, I really like food off a pellet grill, and I will be getting one, I never diss the owners, and want to become one. I love the whole ‘set and forget it’ they offer, the ability to turn it on, set it, walk away. Life is damn busy, and you need and can appreciate that convenience sometimes. Charcoal grills are catching up to pellets in terms of convenience with the flame boss, BBQ Guru, iKamand etc. though. And as you say, some pellet grills have a searing station now. And the Traeger Timberline I’ve eaten from with it’s ‘super smoke’ setting, gets a fair bit closer to the deeper smoky flavor I miss when not using charcoal too.
Anyway, with a bit of luck, there will continue to be innovation and strides forward with both charcoal and pellet grills…and some quality charcoal and wood pellet producers remain, and others surface, as I, for one, want to be able to have many options going forward and forever! I like to be able to play with different bits of kit, cook different ways.
Thanks for your article. Did you ever get a pellet grill? If yes, what did you get and why? I’m looking but frankly, I am overwhelmed by the choices. I don’t really feel I have time to look at all the options. I would love to see your thoughts based on your charcoal vs pellet grill article.
I haven’t bought one yet actually. My last two purchases were a kadai fire bowl and a kamado Joe Version III, both with accessories, and if I bought a pellet grill so soon, I might end up in the dog house by my wife! Lol. I do have some recommendations here: Best pellet grills, but the list is far from exhaustive.
Personally, I’ve been eyeing up the Traeger Timberline and will likely buy one of those later in the year / early next year. I’ve a couple of friends that own them, and they love them. They certainly look the part, produce great food and are incredibly easy-to-use and full-featured — but of course, at a price!
Thanks, I really like the detail of the article. I have cooked mostly with gas over the past 20 years and just now moving in the smoker world. I cook by internal temperatures and I can get the pork and other items to the desired texture, but prefer sauce as an option, not a requirement.
I’ve recently bought a Traeger grill, it operates great, but I can’t say I’ve truly enjoyed the flavors I’m getting. I’ve tried using different pellets including Traeger and other brands and types of pellets (i.e. Apply, Hickory, and Cherry), but have not tried blending. I like smoked pork, beef, wings, etc. just haven’t been able to master the taste I’m looking for.
Are there any tricks or processes where the smoke is not so overpowering?
Sadly, there’s not a lot you can do in a pellet grill to minimize the smoke flavor profile, apart from choosing more subtle flavored pellets (which you’ve done with apple and cherry), or wrapping early to shield from the effects of the fuel.
The entire cook is done with wood pellets. With a charcoal smoker, you can use no wood, or as much or as little as you like, same with using a gas grill as a smoker, but with a pellet grill, 100% of the fuel is wood for the entire cook, so there’s no getting away from it.
Thing is also, most ‘long time smokers’ find the smoke flavor from a pellet grill actually too subtle and weak, so it may just be you have a palate that is too sensitive to smoke flavors and dislike it. I have come across this before, and know a couple of people who cook in kamado style grills / smokers, using single species charcoal only for most cooks with no added wood, and only a single chunk or two of wood for large cuts like brisket or pork butt.
With single species charcoal, if made absolutely 100% correctly, then everything that sets different woods apart from each other is burned off, and all you are left with is 100% carbon. This, in my opinion (others argue it) means pure charcoal, no matter which wood it comes from, should impart no difference in flavor as it’s all just 100% carbon.
However, this is rarely the case, and you can certainly often see where the charcoal isn’t 100% completely carbonized, and you can certainly taste the difference in the end product when cooking with different single species charcoals.
So I would suggest perhaps cooking on charcoal with no added wood, seeing if you like that flavor. Use different species, see how you get on. If you like it, try adding a small amount of wood, and ramp up from there if you like it.
Hopefully you have a friend or relative with a charcoal grill where you can have a day around theirs and try this, without having to buy a grill?
But when it comes to pellet grills, yes, I’m afraid there’s not a lot you can do to minimize smoke flavor, I just don’t think it’s ‘your thing’. All you can do wrap is early to shield from adding extra flavor.
Hi. Great, informative article. I have a big gas grill for convenience, and a huge smoker for the low and slow. I’m considering either a Rec Tec pellet or Master Built gravity smoker. I’m not sure if I want to give up the charcoal yet. Have you seen or used a Master Built gravity series? TIA
Hi Michael. I’ve had no exposure to the gravity series yet. I’ve seen it mentioned a lot. Marcus Bawdon of CountryWoodSmoke (UK Facebook BBQ group) has used it a lot and loves it, plus a few others in the group have jumped on board and say it’s great so far. But I can’t say much about it as never seen or used one yet.
Head on over to that Facebook group perhaps, do a search for ‘master built gravity series’ and check out the posts. There’s a few reviews, a couple of videos, etc.
I wanted the pros of both so iv got a Weber Kettle for searing and really smoky food, and a Traeger pellet grill for long low and slow smokes
Love it. This is how addictions (cough) I mean collections start 🙂
Great article. Just curious what do you think of the Masterbuilt gravity fed charcoal grill? It seems to be the best of both worlds cause it works as a pellet grill and you also have the option of adding wood as well. What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s a gimmick and someone like me who is purchasing their first pellet style grill should just stick to wood pellets?
I’m afraid I’ve not yet used the gravity fed charcoal grill from Masterbuilt. I love the idea of it though! I have seen mixed reports on it from others, so the jury’s out a bit for me. I would suggest joining a Facebook group called ‘country wood smoke’, and using the search function to look for ‘Masterbuilt gravity fed grill’ and for ‘Masterbuilt 560’ and see what people have said there. Over the last many months, there’s been a few threads on it where people have discussed its pros and cons. These are real comments from owners after weeks and months of use, so would give you a great idea of it ‘out in the wild’ so to speak.
Do I think it’s a gimmick though? Not at all, I think it’s a great idea, but have read it sometimes fails to keep temp or feed the fire, so I’m not sure it’s quite there yet and needs improvement.
Do I think you should just stick to wood pellets? Well, they are different things to be honest. The Masterbuilt is a TRUE grill! You can sear over the flames of burning charcoal, over extremely high temperatures. This is what it does first and foremost, and you can also smoke low and slow on it. A pellet grill…is actually a low and slow smoker first and foremost, and you struggle to grill at high temps, and typically over very little or no actual flame at all.
So one is a grill that can smoke low and slow, the other is a smoker that can supposedly — but struggles to — grill. So they serve different purposes. And because one is charcoal, and one is fueled by wood pellets, they will have different flavor profiles too.
Nothing beats charcoal & fire for flavor. Sophisticated grills are for the elite rich! NOT THIS KID!!
Excellent article. Maybe it is time to try something new; like a pellet grill. However, I love charcoal — all I know really — and the flavor I get on my meats … I am certainly nothing near an expert, but I don’t mind learning.
I will check out your buyers guide first, before I decide which type grill to buy; whatever it is, it must be a smoker.
Regarding this comment: In most models, once you load up the hopper you’ll need to burn all the pellets before you can change wood flavors
As you know, more and more pellet grills come with a pellet dump to allow for changing pellet flavors. Additionally, it is fairly easy to scoop the pellets out of the hopper to allow for a flavor change.
Agreed! Most models now have a way to dump out the hopper. This article was originally written some 4 years ago now, and it needs updating. We’re slowly going back over everything and updating, but there’s a lot to do and it’s taking a lot of time. But we will get to updating this later in the year.
Thanks for your neutral view of these products. Nice not to see a slant towards a product because of being a spokesperson for an item.
First, your article is excellent. It hits all the facts, in my opinion.
I have been cooking with charcoal for about 7 years (in terms of true management for low and slow cooking, obviously I’ve cooked with charcoal just burning steaks for much longer), and pellet grills for about 4 years. I have a Traeger 575 Pro, and a Traeger Pro 22. I have 2 Pit Barrel Cookers, an Ugly Drum Smoker, A Weber Smokey Mountain, and a Weber One Touch Gold 22 inch kettle.
What I’ve personally found, is that pellet smokers are good for things that you want a smoke flavor, but not a lot. Examples of this are hunter snack sticks, summer sausage, chicken, fish, and meatloaf are all better on a pellet grill, as they are all foods that really pull in smoke flavor. All of those foods, on charcoal, get too smokey over charcoal and wood. Obviously, much more can be cooked well on a pellet grill, but those items really do well. I’ll tell you one other thing you must try on a pellet grill: Frozen pizza. Doctor a Jack’s Pizza up a bit, cook it on a pellet grill, and you’ll be amazed vs the oven. Cook it directly on the grill grates.
Now, in terms of low and slow, charcoal is my favorite for long smokes, like brisket, ribs, pork shoulder, chuck roasts, prime rib, and the other big cuts that can really stand up to smoke.
Overall, in my opinion, pellet grills are no-brainers. I have dubbed them outdoor ovens, when people ask my opinion. They’re versatile, but not the best for searing. The WiFire models are amazing, to be able to control the heat from anywhere.
But, charcoal will always be my champion. I know true BBQ is done over hardwood, but I don’t really have a cooker to do that. Charcoal and wood chunk flavor is hard to beat. And after a few YouTube videos, fire management becomes very easy.
Again, great article!
Very good article presented well for both units on all points be it good or bad. Also tapped on areas I had not considered. Keep Cooking!
Your article sealed the deal for me. I was on the fence between a pellet or charcoal to replace my current charcoal grill and your write up was spot on for the answers to the questions I had! I’m sticking with charcoal! Thank you for a very well written and to the point article! Well done! (Although I like mine medium rare!)
Thanks, Bob. I’m happy it was helpful.
Although I have multiple of both types of grill, I prefer charcoal myself. I just much prefer the flavor profile it gives.
So after reading this article, I am encouraged to gain more knowledge about both types of grills. I love cooking, its an undeniable passion of mine, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, although Charcoal grills do seem like the clear favorite, I would be that individual who purchases both for the heck of it lol. Thanks for the great read, keep it coming!
The answer to: ‘how many BBQs do you need?, is always: ‘One more than I already have!’
I have cooked on charcoal for 50 years. When I retired I was given a new pellet grill. I have cooked on it off and on for the past 12 months. Short and sweet too much technology for me. I am not likely to ever down load an app. But for someone who struggles to cook everyone can make good food. I have made great food for years after years of learning how. I will be going back to charcoal.
I have a Webber kettle and I’m going to try to smoke a brisket with the snake method using charcoal briquettes. Someone mentioned to me that the smoke from the briquettes can be dangerous and give the meat a strange taste. Your thoughts?
There are many different types of briquettes. Some are ‘all natural’ and will be fine to use in a snake for low and slow. Some have lots of additives and fillers, to help them light easier, or burn better, and these can be bad to use in a snake low and slow. It’s the cheaper briquettes with additives and fillers that people refer to when they say ‘do not add food until all the charcoal is lit and ashed / greyed over, so you know all the ‘bad stuff’ has burned away.’
So the answer is: It depends.
Lump charcoal all the way! Searing and flavor are second to non. Pellet grills lack flavor and skill level! Nothing beats fire !