So, you’re in the market for a new barbecue? Maybe it’s time to replace an old unit, or perhaps you’re adding on to your collection of cookers, and you’re looking for something new?
Either way, a pellet grill is on your radar, and you want to know more. Should you consider buying a new pellet grill? What are the pros and cons of pellet grills?
Let’s talk about that.
Pellet grilling doesn’t have the same familiarity in the barbecue world as charcoal grills or even gas grills.
To get you up to speed, we’ll discuss what a pellet smoker is and how they work, as well as cover some of the pros and cons versus other kinds of grills.
In the end, you’ll have an answer to the burning question, “should I buy a pellet grill?”
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 What is a Pellet Smoker?
- 2 Why are They Called Both Pellet Grills or Pellet Smokers? Which is it?
- 3 Pros and Cons of Pellet Grills
- 4 Final View: Are Pellet Grills Worth it? Should You Buy One?
What is a Pellet Smoker?
A pellet smoker is a type of outdoor cooker, powered by electricity, that uses wood pellets for fuel and smoke.
Pellet smokers use radiant, indirect heat for cooking food in a controlled, smoky environment.
Want to know more about the component parts of a pellet smoker and how they work? Check out our article discussing what a pellet grill is, and how a pellet grill works.
Why are They Called Both Pellet Grills or Pellet Smokers? Which is it?
You’ll see the two names used interchangeably across the Internet. But, are they two different things, or is this a true all-in-one solution for all your backyard cooking needs?
Well, they look like offset smokers. And they look like standard grills, too. The truth is, while they perform many of the functions of both types, they aren’t really either. Confused?
Steven Raichlen of Barbecue Bible hit the nail most squarely on the head when he wrote:
“…they have more in common with convection ovens than the offset wood-burning smokers they resemble.”
While many units are capable of temperatures over 500F, it’s ambient heat. They cook evenly, but it won’t sear like a grill. Searing requires intense, direct heat applied to the meat.
You can, of course, smoke in a pellet smoker. And, you can roast large cuts, just as you would on a standard grill set up for indirect cooking.
For that matter, you can cook a steak – you just won’t get quite as good a gorgeous sear and the resulting flavor boost.
Pros and Cons of Pellet Grills
To help you decide if a pellet grill is for you, here’s a rundown of some of the key facts and features.
What Flavor Profile do They Produce?
You’ve got a ton of options because wood pellets come in a variety of flavors. What you’ll notice, though, is that no matter which wood you choose, you won’t get the level of intensity of flavor that charcoal and offset smokers create.
The smoke produced by pellets is clean and mild. As a result, your food is infused with a subtle touch of smoke.
For some folks, that’s just right. But, if you love deep smoky flavors, this might not be the cooker for you. Still, it’s a step up from the zero smoke you get out of an electric or gas grill.
Now, smokers are some of the most creative DIY’ers on the planet, and a few have found ways to bolster their standard grill’s smoke output. For a simple solution, you might try adding a smoking tube or a basic foil pouch of wood chips for some extra body. But this isn’t possible on a pellet grill.
Can You Sear on a Pellet Grill?
Quite simply, no, you cannot sear on a pellet grill. Most models do not have a spot on the grill for access to direct heat. And, no matter how hot the ambient temperature gets, you need that direct heat to sear.
A few models now offer a searing zone over the fire pot or even a propane side burner.
If you plan to do it all in one place, you might want to investigate these options. Alternatively, you can try heating a cast-iron griddle or skillet on the grill grate and then sear on that.
How Portable are They?
Full sized pellet grills? Not very!
Your typical pellet grill weighs over 100 pounds. The small to medium Traegers such as the pro series 22 comes in at 103 pounds. Even Traeger’s “Tailgater” model tips the scales at 62 pounds. Then there are the pellets you’ll need to lug about. And don’t forget, you need a source of electricity.
There are a few small models on the market labeled as ‘portable pellet grills,’ but these still weigh more than 50 pounds.
If you don’t mind slinging one of these over your shoulder along with a portable generator as you backpack into the wilderness, I will not try to change your mind.
Generally speaking, don’t expect to pellet grill far from home unless you’re driving a large RV or a truck.
What Foods Can You Cook on a Pellet Smoker?
If you can smoke it, roast it, bake it (yes, you can bake!), or grill it, you can cook it on a pellet grill. Versatility is probably the number one advantage of a pellet grill over most other cookers.
The secret is the convection-style of cooking. That all-over ambient heat is perfect for cooking large cuts of beef, lamb, or pork, or whole poultry. They’re great for smaller items, too, like steaks and burgers, sausages and wings, and more.
No, you won’t get the sear, but you will get beautifully cooked food.
Don’t forget to add some veg, too. You can make a whole meal in a pellet grill, and that’s no exaggeration.
And wait until you try pizza, cornbread, or even cookies and brownies for dessert! Now, I can hear you saying, “Smoky brownies? No, thanks!”
Don’t worry – pellets burn cleanly, and the higher the temperature, the less smoke they produce. By the time you’ve got them cranked up to baking temperatures, there’s barely a wisp produced.
How Easy to Operate Compared to Other Grill Types?
A pellet grill looks imposing, but it’s deceptively easy to use. As expressed so perfectly at Seriously Smoked,
“As long as you can empty the bag of pellets into the hopper and touch a few buttons, you can use one of these grills.”
Honestly, that’s about right!
Unlike with most smokers, a pellet grill knows when to add more wood and how much. How?
A thermometer inside the cook chamber monitors the ambient temperature. When it drops below the target you preset on the digital controller, more pellets are delivered from the hopper to the firepot. There, they are automatically ignited and fanned to produce more heat and smoke.
Compared to a charcoal grill, you do not need to tend your fire by hand, adding more wood as needed. With charcoal grills, you’ll also spend time fiddling with dampers and vents to control the airflow and adjust the temperature up and down.
Even comparing a pellet grill to a gas grill, the pellet grill is easier. On a gas grill, the temperature control is manually set by adjusting the gas flow with a dial. And ambient air temperature and how much wind will affect where to set things day to day.
It’s all part of the hobby, but it’s daunting for beginners, and even experienced pitmasters find it tedious sometimes. With a pellet smoker, it’s essentially “set it and forget it.”
Something else you’ll never worry about with a pellet grill is a flare-up.
The firepot is shielded from the cooking area by a deflector plate. The plate allows heat to move around the chamber without creating a hot spot immediately above the fire pot. It has the secondary effect of preventing grease from dripping into the heat source and causing a flare-up.
No more burnt edges and no more singed arm hair.
How Much Cleaning and Maintenance is Required?
No good deed goes unpunished, and no good grill is maintenance-free. Pellets burn down to almost nothing, but they do leave a small amount of ash. You’ll want to empty the firepot periodically, and perhaps clean it out with a shop vacuum.
As discussed in the last section, flare-ups are a thing of the past in a pellet grill. But, all that grease has to go somewhere. Somewhere, in this case, is into a grease bucket and all over the deflector shield.
You’ll want to empty the bucket regularly and wipe the deflector clean to keep the build-up from burning off and ruining your food with acrid smoke. Try lining both with foil to cut down on clean-up time.
One of the essential parts of a pellet grill is the temperature probe. If it’s not reading correctly, everything else is thrown off. Gently wipe the probe after each session to ensure accurate measurement and clean connection with your grill’s digital brain.
Finally, you should keep the cooking grate clean, just as you would on a regular barbecue or smoker. Wipe them down, or scrape when necessary, to keep them in good condition.
Overall, a pellet smoker requires little more in terms of maintenance than a gas grill and considerably less than a charcoal grill or an offset smoker.
Cost: Are They Expensive?
That depends on what you’re comparing them to.
A basic charcoal grill can be had for very little money. Ceramic Kamado grills can easily run into five figures. Pellet grills live somewhere in the middle, and are priced more like better gas grills.
Of course, you get what you pay for, as you usually do with barbecues and smokers. You could pay anywhere from about $350 to pushing $5000.
Do you need to fork over thousands for a decent pellet grill? Not necessarily. But, don’t expect great results from a bargain unit, either.
Mid-priced is where the wise money is spent, units such as the Rec Tec RT-700, or the Cookshack PG500 Fast Eddy are amazing cookers for under $2000. But some models come in at way under $1,000, such as the Camp Chef SmokePro DLX, which gets rave reviews from owners.
There are ongoing costs after your initial purchase to be aware of too. You’ll have the cost of buying pellets for a start, but they are reasonably economical compared to other fuel types, probably because they’re made of by-products from the lumber industry. (Don’t worry – pellets for cooking are made of 100% hardwood and are completely safe.)
Pellets are usually under $1/pound, making them cheaper than chips, chunks, or even propane.
What do you get from your bag of pellets? Grilla Grills breaks it down this way: 20 pounds of pellets average about 20 hours of cooking. Even at the high end of $1/pound, that’s an operating cost of $1/hour, less than most gas grills.
You also might want to consider service costs. The digital controller is a complicated piece of electronics. The auger is a moving part, and anything that moves can break down or wear out. Repairing or replacing damaged or defective parts can become expensive and may be beyond the skills of even the handiest grillers.
You may never need a repair on your pellet grill. But, they are more technically sophisticated than the average grill or smoker, and therefore more likely to develop issues. Buy from a reputable manufacturer, and pay close attention to the length and coverage of the warranty before you buy.
Final View: Are Pellet Grills Worth it? Should You Buy One?
Not to sound like a philosophy professor or some kind of self-help guru, but the answers to these questions lie in you. There are no definitive answers – there are only the answers that are right for you.
After reading this article detailing the pros and cons of pellet grills, you should have the answers you were looking for.
To sum up, though, pellet grills – or pellet smokers – offer an enticing combination of user-friendly features and cooking versatility. You barely have to touch them after loading the pellet hopper, setting the temperature, and placing your food.
They can cook almost anything, and they’ll infuse meat cooked low’ n’ slow with real smoke flavor. For some, it’s the one-stop-grill for all backyard cooking.
For others, though, it isn’t good enough at either smoking or grilling to make it worth the investment. If you’re one of those people, your money may be better spent on separate, dedicated units to each task.
So, what did you decide?
If you think a pellet grill is for you, don’t leave without reading some of our other articles on pellet grills, including reviews of the best units on the market. And, if you voted ‘no’, we’ve got reams of reading on smokers and grills of every kind.
If you have any questions, please fill out the form below, and answers will come your way ASAP. In the meantime, go get your grill on!