With their origins in the pellet stoves popularized during the 1973 oil crisis, pellet grills have come a long way towards their inclusion as a barbecuing staple. Also known as a pellet smoker, their continual design evolution has led to significant technological advancements that make professional-quality smoking and grilling available in the comfort of your own backyard.
In today’s guide, we’ll be exploring the pellet grill in depth — from the evolution of the types of pellet grills to their current forms, to considerations you should take into account before buying a pellet grill, and our suggestions for the best pellet grills for every budget.
If you’ve been considering buying a smoker and grill for the upcoming summer season, you’re in luck! Let’s dive right in.
What Is a Pellet Grill?
The term “pellet grill” is generally defined as a grill that includes an auger-fed pellet hopper, allowing the user to burn wood pellets for fuel. The key components are built around this central feature:
A tank of propane or natural gas , which burns the pellets and keeps the grill running. A hopper , which is a receptacle for storing and feeding pellets from the tank to the burner. An auge , which rotates to move the pellets from the storage area to the burner.
This design usually gives pellet grills a longer cooking time between refills, since it will be fed by a larger pellet hopper. An electric heat source , which ignites the pellets, and controls the temperature within the grill is a helpful feature found on some pellet grills.
A standard pellet grill will usually measure about 18 x 24 inches overall. Larger than your average gas or charcoal smoker (certainly the mini versions or portable ones), they’re also bulkier than most other grilling solutions.
Types of Pellet Grills
Despite its humble origins, the pellet grill has experienced drastic changes to its design and functionality in the past 50 years.
Beginning with a completely manual design, it soon developed into an automatically-fed machine before moving towards completely automated computer control. Let’s take a closer look at each step of the pellet grill’s development:
Traeger is the original innovator in the field, producing the first pellet grills in the early 1980s. Utilizing the recently invented process of wood pellet production, Joe Traeger created an electrically powered grill and smoker that would automatically feed wood pellets into the firebox.
Traeger’s pellet grills serve as the basis for all further developments in the product category, but were quickly eclipsed by competitors that could offer more convenience and hotter grilling temperatures.
Even so, after a period of redesigning their original offerings, Traeger has cemented itself as a major player in the pellet grill market — and one that can keep up with other companies’ relentless pace of innovation and development. Traeger grills are available on Amazon.
The next big advance in pellet grill technology came with the introduction of automatic, computer-controlled temperature systems.
While the original Traeger pellet grill could deliver a steady supply of pellets to the hopper, other variables inevitably led to fluctuations in temperature.
These would arrive on the scene in 2006, when Traeger’s original 20-year patent expired. Computer controlled pellet grills are now considered the gold standard for pellet grill cooking.
A natural extension of the pellet grill design, premium pellet grills have been pioneered by Memphis Grills. Using double-walled steel construction, they’re capable of reaching an intense 700 degrees Fahrenheit!
Additionally, Memphis pellet grills come with the option to be built directly into your patio setup, cementing them as the most durable and long-lasting pellet grills available today.
Though their price is noticeably higher than most Traeger grills, their increased performance is a big draw for serious barbecue enthusiasts. Memphis Grills are on Amazon here.
How Does a Pellet Grill Work?
The heart of a pellet grill is the heat source , which burns wood pellets to produce hot air within the cooking chamber. The auger keeps an accurate, steady supply of pellets flowing from the hopper to the heat source.
An electric resistor ignites the pellets on contact with hot air, while a fan circulates cool air throughout the cooking chamber to regulate the rate of combustion.
The heat source, auger and fan are controlled by a computer within each grill, which regulates their speed in order to maintain a constant cooking temperature.
Most pellet grills include a LCD display that allows you to track the internal temperature of your grill from outside your home. An advanced meat probe measures the internal temperature of your barbeque in real time, letting you know when it’s ready.
Considerations for Choosing A Pellet Grill
Deciding on the best pellet grill for your needs will come down to a combination of your budget, and the features you’re most excited about. These are the areas we pay special attention to while selecting a pellet grill:
What is the pellet grill made out of? The higher the grade of stainless steel used to make a grill, the higher the temperatures it can reach — and the better results you can expect for steaks and chops. For the best quality, look for grills that are made almost entirely of stainless steel, not just coated with it on the outside.
Depending on how many people you’re usually cooking for, you should be looking for different cooktop sizes in your pellet grills. Cooking for a family of 4 can easily be accomplished on a 700 to 900 square inch grill. But if you’re looking to smoke large quantities of meat or grill out for an entire backyard party, you’ll need 1000 square inches of grilling space or more.
The hopper, where you’ll load the pellets that fuel your grill, will determine how long you can cook at a consistent temperature. In every case, having more hopper space is better, as it allows you to cook longer between refills.
In an effort to differentiate their products, pellet grill manufacturers have begun to include a wide range of additional features. The most noticeable of these is computer-automated control, allowing you to maintain a consistent cooking temperature without having to manually adjust anything along the way. Combined with WiFi compatibility, this gives premium grills the ability to bake, braise, grill, and smoke with remarkable precision (though you’ll still need a good set of tools like grill tongs and spatulas).
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions about pellet grills.
What are the advantages of pellet grills?
Increased performance: A premium pellet grill can reach cooking temperatures of up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit (the standard is closer to 350), which means the food cooks faster.
Precision cooking: The computer-controlled auger feeds wood pellets into the heat source more regularly, regulating the rate at which they’re burned and providing a steady, more consistent temperature throughout. This provides users with direct control over things like cooking times and internal barbecue temperatures without any manual adjustments necessary.
Less waste: As wood pellets are fed into an electronic auger that conveys them into a controlled space for combustion, it’s impossible for partially burned pieces of wood to escape as smoke — so there’s no wasted fuel here. Additionally, considering how long it takes for a pellet grill to heat the wood pellets to the level of combustion, you’re burning far less fuel overall.
Versatility: Pellet grills can use both hardwood and softwood pellets to infuse food with flavor from every angle — as well as smoke it for an incredible depth of flavor. In addition, you can also hook up your pellet grill to a water smoker or an oven, giving you the ultimate flexibility in what kinds of food — and how much of it — you can prepare.
What are the disadvantages of pellet grills?
Price: Pellet grills tend to cost more than traditional smokers, even when accounting for fuel savings.
Cleanup: These grills come with a higher price tag, but you can also expect a much more involved cleanup process. If you have a less expensive grill, there’s no need to worry about it overheating or burning out. The pellets are just simply thrown away, and the machine will run at a lower temperature for longer periods of time.
Oven capability: Some pellet grills come with an attachment that will allow you to bake in them, but it is difficult to find a unit that allows you to roast your food in addition to the grilling you’re already doing — especially at high temperatures. Others have just flat surfaces where you can place or hang your food to cook it.
Speed: Though the wait for a pellet grill to heat up and cook your food might be slightly longer than that of a traditional gas grill or charcoal grill, it’s often still significantly faster. The tradeoff here is that as an integral part of the combustion process, you’re going to have to let the pellets burn for longer.
How much can you cook on a pellet grill?
Pellet grills cook a lot of food. On the lower settings, where wood pellets are being used, it’s not uncommon to get 2 hours of cooking time with a single load of pellets. That means it will be possible to grill 4 burgers at a time for a family dinner just using one hopper full of pellets!
How long does it take to cook on a pellet grill?
It will take around 45 minutes to cook a turkey on a pellet grill.
It’s commonly advertised at 16 hours, but this is without any preheating or cooking in it. Actual time with all this extra work will probably be closer to 7-8 hours at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
A beef brisket (especially a flat brisket cut) can take 12-15 hours, with 8 being more common due to many factors including the weight of the meat and whether you know how to cook it correctly. But when you consider that it takes about 20 minutes per hour for most traditional smokers, you might realize there’s really not much difference between one or the other when time is taken into consideration!
Another factor in determining estimated cooking times comes down to size of the food. Turkey is a much larger bird than say…a chicken, so it will take longer to cook through for example.
With all these variables, I recommend just picking up some wood pellets and trying the grill out! You can always add more or less of them depending on your experience level and what types of foods you’re cooking to get a better idea of what’s going on.
What kind of pellets should you use on a pellet grill?
All types! However, it does come down to personal preference as you’ll quickly start to learn as you work more and more with your own machine. It all comes down to the smoking experience you love most — some people prefer smokier flavors, while others are big fans of more traditional “grill” flavor. For example, if you are smoking a brisket, you might lean towards an oak or mesquite pellet.
As with everything else in life, the best results can be found when you combine different woods for their unique tastes. You might find that a 50/50 mix is your favorite blend — one for meat, and one for vegetables!
Another thing to consider is the level of smokiness you’re looking for. The last thing you want when cooking home-made burgers is a large amount of smoke flavor, so stick with traditional wood pellets that don’t have too strong a taste or aroma.
Where to Buy A Pellet Grill
The market for pellet grills isn’t a particularly wide one, since the main players have done such a good job of satisfying every pellet grilling need. Between Traeger, Memphis Grills, and Camp Chef, you’ll be totally covered for whatever price range of pellet grill you’re looking for. Just make sure you set it up and season it properly when it arrives!
Traeger’s online shop should be your first stop, since they’re the benchmark against which other pellet grills are compared. The Pro Series is their introductory model, and the Ironwood or Timberline Series offer impressive upgrades for a small bump in price. You can also buy Traeger grills on Amazon.
- Never use gas or charcoal again: cooking with wood just tastes better. Traeger created the original wood-pellet grill as the ultimate way to achieve wood-fired taste
- Versatile barbecue cooking: hot and fast, or low and slow, the Traeger Pro Series 34 pellet grill offers 6-in-1 versatility to grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise, and BBQ food to juicy perfection
- Precision temperature control: The Digital Pro Controller rocks Advanced Grilling Logic, which maintains a +/- 15 degree F temperature control to guarantee precision grilling. 450 °F Max Temp
- Sturdy and Durable: Powerful steel construction and durable powder coat finish, easy to clean porcelain grill grates and all-terrain wheels
- Large cooking capacity: 884 sq. in. cooking capacity that can accomodate 8 chickens, 7 racks of ribs or 40 burgers
Memphis Grills’ online store is the place to go for top-of-the-line pellet grills, so long as you’re willing to pay a premium price for them, too. They offer freestanding or built-in options made with high-end double walled stainless steel. They have some models available on Amazon.
- Wood fired grill
- Meat probe
- Digital temperature controls
- 304 stainless steel
Camp Chef is an excellent budget-priced alternative to Traeger and Memphis Grills, offering a wide range of smaller pellet grills that are ideal for a casual backyard barbecue. Browse Camp Chef on Amazon here.
- SLIDE AND GRILL- grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise, and barbecue with Premium wood-fired flavor on a single grill. Digital control, best of both Worlds, use the meat probe to check the internal temperature or toggle the grill temp with the push of a button
- NEW PID CONTROLLER- Gen 2 PID Controller 1-10 Smoke Setting (Not WIFI Compatible)
- EASY ASH CLEANOUT- cleaning between cooks is as easy as pulling a lever, thanks to the exclusive ash cleanout system You won’t find on any other grill. That means less time wrestling with the vacuum and more time enjoying heavenly food
- EASY ASSEMBLY and start up- check out the walk-through assembly video on camp chef site, so you can get cooking right away. In just a few minutes, you’ll be ready to load up the grill with whole chickens, Brisket, ribs, jerky, & more
- FOLDING FRONT SHELF- comes with full sized folding shelf PGFS24 $74 MSRP
Have fun pellet grilling!