Is Cooking on a Smoker Healthy?

Whether you're a meat lover, vegetarian or somewhere in-between, a wood pellet grill can be a solution to healthy cooking outdoors.

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July 23, 2021
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Photo by: Courtesy of Traeger

Courtesy of Traeger

I love cooking outside all year long — seriously, I built a pizza oven in my backyard. From wood-fired pizza to firepit s’mores, I have dabbled in it all. For my latest outdoor cooking adventure, I got up close and personal with a wood pellet grill. My knowledge (and patience) for smoking foods was extremely limited at first, but I quickly became inspired and eager to try my hand at some healthy favorites on my new grill. Here’s a taste of what I’ve learned from the pros.

First, What Is A Wood Pellet Grill?

At first glance, a wood pellet grill or smoker just looks like an outdoor grill with the exception of an extra chamber that holds and feeds wood pellets into the fire. A metal plate (aka a “baffle”) helps distribute heat evenly throughout the grill. The fuel source is tiny pellets made of compressed sawdust, available in all kinds of varieties including hickory, mesquite, maple, and cherry and more. The system runs on electricity and the unit I use has a digital control panel for setting and monitoring the temperature. It can also be connected to WiFi and controlled from an app which is tremendously convenient for some more ambitious cook times (like an 18 hour brisket!)

Pellets are fed to the fire as needed allowing for stellar temperature control. This firm handle on temperature allows for low and slow smoking as well as more traditional grilling at higher temperatures. Many models come with a thermometer probe so you can closely monitor the internal temperature of whatever you are cooking, which makes my food safety loving heart soar.

Claire King, Head of Culinary at Traeger Pellet Grills likens wood pellet grills to convention ovens and points out the greatness of the set-it-and-forget-it nature of this grill. It’s “perfect for people that don’t have as much confidence on the grill,” she says.

Nancy Loseke, author of the Healthy Wood Pellet Grill & Smoker Cookbook, also suggests getting to know every corner of your grill. “It’s a good idea to load your preheated grill grate with slices of cheap bread. Lay them shoulder to shoulder, then turn when the bread begins to toast. You may notice some pieces are browner than others, indicating hot spots on the grill grate.” A simple step that can help set you up for future success. “Take a photo for future reference,” she adds.

Is Wood Pellet Grilling Healthy?

Cooking meats at high heat, with or without a blackened char does create potentially carcinogenic substances known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These are formed from changes in the muscle fibers themselves and the incineration of the drippings produced from cooking the meat.

There are some theories that the architecture of the wood pellet grill lends itself to a reduction in these compounds, but we still need some scientific research to know for sure. That said, cooking at lower temperatures, which most wood pellet recipes call for, may be a helpful step. You can also help reduce the accumulation of these substances by simply marinating your meat.

It is also a common misconception that smoked meats are higher in fat and sodium. Sodium can be controlled by the seasoning and fat by the cut of meat used in the preparation. For example, smoking skinless chicken breasts or thighs with marinade of olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs and lemon would make a lovely low-sodium and high-protein meal. Cooking lean cuts of meat or fish low and slow is surely a healthy route to take.

Here's What Else to Know About Wood Pellet Grilling

What are the best starter recipes for a wood pellet grill newbie?

I started off with some good old cheeseburgers and they came out great, but it was a smart place to start! Loseke suggests starting with something easy and affordable. “Good options include pork tenderloin or chops seasoned with your favorite barbecue rub; chicken breasts, legs, or thighs; burgers, meatloaf, or meatballs; garlic bread; ears of husked sweet corn.” King suggests a sheet pan chicken, beer can chicken (a personal fave) and making simple sauce to serve with meats to punch up the flavor and keep things bright and vibrant. She shared this recipe for Smoked Chicken with Chimichurri as a perfect example.

What are some unexpected ingredients to prepare in a wood pellet grill?

From seafood to condiments to alcohol, it seems as though you can smoke just about every food and beverage category. A light smoke on avocados makes a scrumptious bowl of guacamole and a subtle smoke on asparagus or carrots is pretty darn delish. Loseke also suggests a little wood pellet heat on watermelon, ricotta cheese, and even caprese salad. “You can even use smoked water to make bread,” says Loseke. Mind. Blown.

Both these experts have sold me on wood pellet grilled desserts as well. King suggests keeping the grill fired up for everything from apps to desserts and I have recently adopted her suggestion to serve up lightly smoked fruit with a side of store-bought pound cake.

What food(s) should never be cooked in a wood pellet grill/smoker?

I expected a very long answer to this question but after chatting with several wood pellet gurus and perusing several Facebook fan pages dedicated to the subject, I am beginning to realize there are very few things that can’t be prepared in a wood pellet set up. That said, it does seem that meats that usually benefit from a good sear like skirt steak are likely best left to a traditional grill and I’ve been cautioned against expecting crispy skin on chicken wings without the addition of cornstarch.

Grilled Peaches with Raspberry Sauce and Mascarpone

“You don’t have to forgo dessert just because you’re a mindful eater” says Loseke. “This combination of fresh in-season peaches, jewel-like raspberries and raspberry sauce, and a dollop of mascarpone cheese will satisfy your craving for a post-prandial treat.”

Serves: 4

Prep Time: 10 mins

Smoking wood: Peach or another fruit wood

Smoker temp: 450 F or High

Smoke time: 10 mins

For the raspberry sauce:

  • 2 1/2 cups fresh raspberries
  • 3 tbsp water
  • 3 tbsp granulated sugar or low-carb equivalent
  • 1 fluid ounce (30ml) raspberry liqueur, such as Chambord
  • 2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

For the peaches:

  • 4 ripe freestone peaches
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar or low-carb equivalent
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch of coarse salt
  • 4 ounces mascarpone cheese, for serving
  • Fresh mint sprigs, for serving

Make the raspberry sauce: In a blender or food processor, combine the raspberries and water. Run the machine until the berries are pureed, using a spatula to scrape them down, if necessary. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and pour the puree into the strainer. Press on the solids with the back of a spoon until no more liquid can be extracted. Discard the solids. Stir in the sugar, raspberry liqueur, and the lemon juice. Cover and chill if not using immediately.

Rinse the peaches and blot them dry with paper towels. Run a small knife from the stem of the peach, following the crease, around the pit. Separate the peach into two halves. Remove the pits and discard. Repeat with the remaining peaches. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, vanilla, and salt. Let the mixture cook for 2 to 3 minutes; it should resemble a glaze.

Preheat the grill to 450 F.

When ready to cook, brush or scrape the grill grate thoroughly, then spritz with water. This should loosen any stubborn residue from your last grill session. Finish by oiling the grill grate well with vegetable oil. (Fold a paper towel into a small package, dip it in oil, and clasp the paper towel in tongs.) You want the grill grate scrupulously clean before you cook dessert on it.

Brush the cut sides of the peaches with the glaze. Arrange them cut sides down on the grill grate, and grill until they’ve developed nice marks, 6 to 8 minutes, depending on the heat of your grill. Use a thin-bladed metal spatula to take them off the grill.

Arrange two peach halves in each of four dessert bowls. Spoon a dollop of mascarpone cheese into the cavities left by the pits, then drizzle with the raspberry sauce. Garnish each serving with a sprig of fresh mint.

Nutritional Data

Serving size 2 peach halves

Calories 346, Total fat 16g, Carbs 45g, Dietary fiber 7g, Total sugars 39g, Protein 6g

Excerpted from the Healthy Wood Pellet Grill & Smoker Cookbook reprinted by permission of Alpha, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Nancy Loseke

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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