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Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Grill – What’s the Difference? Pros and Cons of Each?

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 😉 )

Wood pellets and lumpwood charcoal side by side, with some smoking wood chunks on the coal

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.

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.

Initial Cost

The best pellet grills are typically going to be a more expensive investment than most charcoal grills with many models costing over $1000.

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 used kettle grill for under $50.

Operating Costs

When it comes to pellet grills, you, of course, burn wood pellets for heat instead of charcoal.

Like charcoal, some brands of wood pellet 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 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.

Versatility

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.

Temperature Range

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.

Temperature Control

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.

Run Time

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.

Available Extras

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:

Pellet Grills

You May Prefer a Pellet Grill if…

  1. You like the added flavor of smoke from real wood
  2. You want to be able to cook with fire, but not have to manage a real fire
  3. You want to smoke meat at lower temps mostly

What we Like About Pellet Grills

  1. Their quick and easy ability to fire up – push a button and your grill is lit
  2. Their ability to maintain constant and steady temp by simple programming
  3. Different flavors of wood pellets mean different tasting meats

What We Don’t Like About Pellet grills

  1. They run on electricity, so you will need to be near an outlet to throw down
  2. They require a regular cleanup every couple of cooks
  3. 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

  1. Want to be able to smoke meat low and slow, without having to manage a fire
  2. Love the idea of adding smoke flavor to meat, and the ability to use different types of wood pellets to change the flavor
  3. Want to be able to occasionally turn up the temperature and sear some meat with direct heat

You May Prefer a Charcoal Grill if…

  1. You love to play with fire and love the idea of building and maintaining your fire
  2. You want the added benefit of smoke flavor, no matter what you are cooking
  3. You want to be able to reach incredibly high temps for searing

What We Like About Charcoal Grills

  1. The low cost to purchase and operate
  2. The versatility of being able to slow smoke meat, as well as sear at high temps
  3. The added flavor of smoke, anytime you cook

What We Don’t Like About Charcoal grills

  1. There is a significant learning curve when it comes to learning how to cook with charcoal
  2. Charcoal is by nature a messy type of fuel; you will have to clean your ashes after every cook
  3. 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…

  1. Are in love with the idea of cooking over real fire
  2. Those who think it isn’t real barbecue without wood and charcoal
  3. Love being able to take their grill with them to places like the beach

Conclusion

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!

Happy grilling!

Mark Jenner

Hi. I'm Mark Jenner, owner and creator of FoodFireFriends.com. I grill and smoke food outdoors at least three days a week on a wide range of equipment, have done so for years, and love nothing more than cooking good food, over live fire, enjoying it with friends. The aim of this site is to educate and help others to do the same.

6 thoughts on “Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Grill – What’s the Difference? Pros and Cons of Each?”

  1. 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 refuelling. 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 compitition. 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 pellet.
    Also some pellet grill makers have a shoot to let you drain the pellet for the next cook.Some have 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.

    • Hi Michael,

      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’m 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, BBQGuru, 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 depper 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.

  2. Mark,
    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.

    • Hi Philip,

      I haven’t bought one yet actually. My last two purchases were a kadai firebowl 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!

  3. 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 Trager 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 Trager 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 over powering?

    • Hi Mike,

      Sadly, there’s not a lot you can do in a pellet grill to minimise the smoke flavor profile, apart from choosing more subtle flavored pellets (which you’ve doen 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 carbonised, 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 minimise smoke flavor, I just don’t think it’s ‘your thing’. All you can do wrap is early to shield from adding extra flavor.

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