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.
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
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!