Pellet Grills 101: Your Guide to Cooking on a Smoker

Pellet grills can do the work of a smoker, grill and oven — all in your backyard. Here's why you need one, pronto.

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May 27, 2021

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Pellet grills are an exciting advancement in barbecuing. Most commonly known as "smokers," these grills are powered by hardwood pellets and act more like an outdoor oven than a standard gas or charcoal grill. These grills seem to be everywhere these days, but the real question is how do they work? And should you be investing in one? Here, we break down everything you need to know about pellet grills before you buy one.

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What Is a Pellet Grill?

Pellet grills utilize ignited wood pellets and a system of fans to heat food to a specific temperature, quite like an outdoor convection oven. Pellet grills can be used to smoke, grill, bake and even braise food. Nearly anything you make in a standard oven can be made on a pellet grill.

How Does a Pellet Grill Work?

The heat is generated from wood pellets that are placed in a chamber called a "pellet hopper." Those pellets move through an auger to a fire pot, which heats the entire cooking chamber of the grill. Through a fan system, heat and smoke are dispensed throughout the grill, providing a naturally rich and woody flavor from the pellets. Though pellet grills certainly share some characteristics of your traditional grills, there are a couple of major differences that set pellet grills apart: most notably, the combination of deep flavor, versatility and efficiency.

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Benefits of a Pellet Grill

We already know that pellet grills can be used to smoke, grill, bake and even braise food, and with all those capabilities it’s no surprise that they act more like an outdoor oven than a traditional grill. However, the team at Traeger (one of the leading providers of pellet grills) says that most first time users are shocked at the versatility of a pellet grill. Ginevra Iverson, test kitchen director at Food Network, says that with all those capabilities, the options for what to cook on a pellet grill are nearly endless because unlike other grills or smokers, a pellet grill allows you to cook something low and slow — or hotter and faster. You can also set a specific temperature which makes for consistent, efficient cooking every time. Ginevra mentions that with no direct heat cooking and no open flame, you don’t even have to worry about flare-ups!

Pellet Grill vs. Gas Grill

The biggest difference between a pellet grill and a gas grill: the flavor! Pellet grills are powered by hardwood pellets and thus impart a naturally sweet, spicy, smoky flavor to everything you cook; a flavor that is unmatched by cooking on gas or charcoal grills. The team at Traeger says: "The smoke acts as a wholly separate seasoning, adding a deeper and more robust flavor to whatever you decide to cook."

Ginevra agrees, and says that the flavor of cooking with wood pellets doesn’t even compare to the flavor of cooking on a gas grill. Sure, you can argue that cooking over an open flame like you would on a gas grill gives off flavor, but what if you could get that meaty, smoky flavor without the inevitable ashy, burnt and blackened taste? That’s where your pellet grill comes in. Heat is generated through combustion, by igniting wood pellets and circulating heat through a fan system. Much like a convection oven, this allows us to set and maintain a specific temperature without worrying about the unpredictability of open fire flare-ups.

Pellet Grill vs. Charcoal Grill

Although charcoal grills are certainly known for smoky flavor, there’s one major difference that sets pellet grills apart from their charcoal counterpart: temperature regulation. Whatever temperature you decide to set your pellet grill to, you can be certain that it will maintain it. One of the biggest downfalls of a charcoal grill is that although it can achieve high temperatures, it’s difficult to maintain high temperatures. We’ve all been there; you’ve heated your coals to the perfect temperature and before you know it, they’re cooling off again! Pellet grills allow you to set a specific cooking temperature (some even support the use of an internal thermometer that pairs with your Bluetooth), so you can check on the doneness of your meat from the comfort of your couch. This system makes for a much more predictable, manageable and convenient grilling experience. "The pellet grill has become my go-to for easy weeknight dinners," says Ginevra. "My kids are particularly excited for chicken wings on the grill, and I love it because I can set it and forget it.”

What to Cook on a Pellet Grill

Ginevra says that a pellet grill is best for cooking low and slow dishes like brisket, pork shoulder (pictured) or a side of salmon, because with specifically controlled temperature, it gives results that mimic those produced from sous vide cooking. However, she also recommends using the higher heat setting to cook something faster, like a stuffed-crust pizza. "It’s amazing how the grill can act exactly like an oven by maintaining a completely stable temperature with a well-sealed, sturdy lid that makes it great for baking things like a crispy pizza." You can even use the grill to roast a whole chicken! For extra crispy skin, Ginevra suggests cranking up the heat for the last 15 minutes.

Should You Buy a Pellet Grill?

Ginevra says that although a pellet grill is a fantastic option for any home cook that loves to grill, they’re not for everyone. They are pricier than your average grill, ranging from $499.99 to $1999.99. Lastly, the required maintenance can be a bit more of a burden than other grills, as pellet grills from companies like Traeger and Weber recommend cleaning the grates after every use. For best results, preheat the grill on high for 15 minutes with the lid closed, and then brush the grates clean with a grill brush.

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