Best Pellet Smokers for the Money | MeatGeek Approved
Is a Traeger Pellet Smoker Right For You?
Evaluating Pellet Smokers
Pellet smokers, originally only manufactured by Traeger, have taken off in America. There are now over 20 companies producing them and thousands of meat lovers are using them.
Simplicity and Convenience
Compared with charcoal and other wood-fired grills, pellet smokers are simpler and cleaner and easier, giving more control than traditional smokers. Wood pellets are dense, burn hot and smooth, and can be easily fed into the flame with an automatic auger, allowing for consistent temperature with minimal effort. Many modern smokers let you practically set it and forget it, thanks to their digital controllers. Pellet grills are also efficiently cheap, often using as little as 1lb of pellets an hour.
Despite often being called “pellet grills,” they still cook via indirect heat, as opposed to flame, and are better seen as a smoker. They’re excellent for smoking briskets, chicken and turkey, salmon and other fish, but maybe not for steaks, as you won’t be able to get the same crispy, browned sear they call for, and that you can get with an open-flame grill.
But even with their indirect heat, wood pellets do something gas can’t; they give your meat that natural, smoky flavor you expect from wood. They don’t create as much smoke as wood or charcoal, so the flavor is not as intense, you swap that intensity for convenient cooking. The smoke they do create is clean and easy to control. And the hotter you burn pellets, the cleaner they burn, letting you crank up the heat when you don’t need smoke.
Which Traeger Should You Buy?
While I’ve owned several pellet smokers, including a Traeger, I prefer others over my Traeger. And here’s why. Most people searching out an automatic smoker are after value — I’m trying to find the words to use here — it’s about convenience. Set it, forget it come back 8 – 10 hours later and you have a great cut of smoked meat. Most people I hear from love their pellet smoker; and for good reason. There’s something to be said for yielding a smoked brisket or pork shoulder while you were sleeping or at work. The art of smoking meat is a time consuming project. Who’s to say the pork shoulder coming out of a pellet smoker is lesser than that of one from a Karubecue that you’re loading logs into all day? The long and short answer is, not many people outside of BBQ “aficionados” will know. Don’t believe me? Next time you have some time, fire up that kettle grill and set it up for smoking along side your pellet smoker and give it a test run. Throw a pork butt in each of them and have your dinner guests be the judge.
With all this being said, if you’re gonna purchase a Traeger, here’s our pick. However, you’re mostly paying for the name and the ad budget. Traeger spends millions of dollars on advertising, far beyond any other manufacture in the industry.
Before moving onto our list of recommended affordable pellet smokers, allow me to make a recommendation: if you’re after a pellet smoker because you’re after a set-it-and-forget-it approach, consider the Pit Barrel Cooker. This is a drum smoker manufactured by a family owned company out of Louisville. We deemed it our winner as the Best Smoker Under $500 (you can catch the testing/review here). The Pit Barrel is designed in such a way that seems to defy basic science; allowing for a smoke upwards of 10 hours without touching it. Just follow the manufacture directions when lighting it up and you’re good to go. At it’s low price point of $350 — arriving at your door step assembled — you can’t go wrong. Additionally, nobody’s gonna make fun of the guy (or gal) who has one of these bad boys sitting on their back porch.
Best Traeger Smoker for the Money
TRAEGER JR. ELITE REVIEW
The Traeger Junior Elite is Traeger’s own budget offering, half the price of the Pro 22, and small and portable. It weighs only 60 lbs at 36” tall, intended to be taken to the beach or campsite. It thus offers only 300 square inches of cooking space – more than the Davy Crockett, but not nearly as much as the Traeger Pro or the Z-Grills 700.
The Digital Elite Controller goes up to 450F in 20-degree increments and features a “Smoke” setting, for smoking at low temps, and “High” for cranking out the cleanest heat. There’s an electric auto-ignition and 8-lb hopper for feeding pellets.
Here’s the things we don’t like:
First, though it’s smaller and lighter than other grills – only 3 pounds heavier than the Davy Crocket — it’s still large and lacks the former’s folding legs, meaning it’s still difficult to pack up and move. And the small hopper size (8 lbs) means it runs out of pellets quickly on longer smokes, such as when smoking large briskets.
Second, we’d like to see a more accurate temperature control; it’s inconsistent and hard to maintain a precise temperature with, often swinging 20 degrees each direction. It also has many of the quality control complaints the CampChef does.
Traeger doesn’t have a good reputation when it comes to customer service. In addition, Traeger recently moved its manufacturing to China, and the result is a cheaper product. Many customer reviews claim the metal is too thin and the legs are flimsy. Although, to be fair, many other customers are very happy with their products.
Overall, at almost half the price of their Pro 22, it’s a good offering from Traeger; but if you want a truly portable grill, we’d recommend the Davy Crocket for even less.
Cooking Area = 3 Racks of Ribs
Searing = 2 Stars
Quality = 2 ½ Stars
Design = 3 Stars
Controls = 3 ½ Stars
- Solid Build
- Not very portable for its weight; lacks folding legs
- Small hopper capacity
- Inconsistent temperature control
- Quality control issues
Affordable Pellet Smokers that Compete with the Traeger Pro
A portable offering from Green Mountain Grills, the Davy Crocket is the most affordable pellet grill on our list, and the only one with WiFi capability. It’s compact, weighs only 57 pounds, and has folding legs so you can pack it up and bring it camping, tailgating, or to the beach. That’s a nice upgrade when compared to the Traeger Pro.
The digital controller controls temperatures from 150F to 500F in 5-degree increments; that’s the most precise we’ve found on a pellet grill, and gives you a good, precise burn. There’s also Sense-Mate, a thermal sensor that monitors the smoker’s internal temperature, so you can keep an eye on it remotely on your phone via Wifi, letting you adjust the temperature from the app.
The only real downside to the Davy Crockett is lack of grill space – only 219 square inches. Larger grills have 2-3x that much. But that’s to be expected, considering its compact portability. There’s enough room for maybe 6 steaks and two babyback ribs, and the peaked lid helps accommodate stand-up chicken or ribs.
If you’re planning on using the Davy Crockett for its intended use – portable smoking – there’s no better choice – which is also why it made our Top Gifts list. It goes anywhere, cooks superbly and efficiently, and uses close to half the pellets that other grills do. Small but powerful. And the WiFi capability plus Sense-Mate, adds a level of convenience other smokers just don’t have.
- Portable and lightweight; 57 pounds, good for camping, tailgating, cookouts.
- Digital temperature controller is precise, going from 150 to 500F in 5-degree increments
- Sense-Mate monitors and controls internal temperature
- WiFi monitoring and control is easy and convenient
- Cooks superbly; burns efficiently; good, clean smoke flavor
- Very small cooking area
The Z Grills is a fantastic, full-sized pellet smoker that competes directly with the Traeger Pro 22, but at a more affordable price.
Z-Grill VS. Traeger Pro
It boasts 513 square inches of cooking space, and a large 187 square inch warming rack, for a total of 700 sq. in – that’s enough for a considerable amount of meat, including multiple large ribs and briskets.
The “Smart Smoke” controller goes from 160-450F, with an internal sensor and electric auger maintaining that heat. The hopper holds a good 20lbs of pellet – enough for 10-20 hours of smoking. And it’s built from a sturdy stainless steel that feels solid and looks fantastic, with locking caster wheels keeping it secure while in use. It’s also backed up by a 3-year warranty.
Compared to the Traeger Pro and the other smokers we’ve reviewed, there’s not much not to like about this bad boy. It’s significantly cheaper, packs ample cooking space, and a good, consistent temperature controller. At 173 lbs, it is quite heavy, and not at all portable like the Davy Crocket, and we’d love to see it come with more precise temperature control, and maybe even WiFi in the future. But for the price, it’s a beast of smoker that is almost as good as the Traeger.
The CampChef SmokePro PG24XT is another good alternative to a Traeger Pro; versatile and built like a tank. But it lacks some of the quality and features other grills have, with the same price tag.
Campchef SmokePro VS Traeger Pro
Built from substantial stainless steel, the SmokePro looks bombproof and weighs a hefty 140 lbs – so it’s not portable like the Z Grills or Traeger Junior Elite. It has a stainless-steel probe to directly monitor meat, and a sensor for the grill’s internal temperature. Both read out on the LED display next to the digital controller, which goes from 160F to 500F in 25-50 degree increments.
One cool feature really like is the ash cleanout system, which collects the ash in removable tray and works with the pull of a lever, making cleanup simple and easy; no vacuums or brushes.
But as said, there are a few things we don’t like; it’s relatively small, doesn’t have a lot cooking space, and the design feels cramped. At the same time, it’s still relatively heavy at 133 lbs. For the same price, you could choose the Z-Grills Master 700D, which packs almost 25% more surface area on the rack. That doesn’t seem like much but is a significant amount of room. Or you could just spring for the Traeger Pro 22. There have also been reports of poor quality control, and that the temperature control is very inconsistent, often swinging up and down nearly 30 or 40 degrees.
It’s a nicely built smoker, but for these reasons, we’d probably suggest going with something else.
- Cooking Area = 5 Racks of Ribs
- Searing = 4 ½ Stars
- Quality = 3 Stars
- Design = 4 Stars
- Controls = 4 ½ Stars
- Built like a tank
- Internal sensors and probes for both meat and grill temperature
- Convenient ashtray is easy to clean
- Feels cramped
- Inconsistent Temperature control
- Quality controls issues
FINAL THOUGHTS on Traeger VS Green Mountain, Z-Grills, Campchef
Each of the alternatives to the Traeger Pro we’ve reviewed above is an excellent choice for an affordable pellet smoker.
We think the Z Grills Master 700D is worth every penny and competes with the Traeger for even less money. We highly recommend you check it out. It has an even larger grill area, a larger hopper, burns just as consistently, and produces some perfectly smoked and grilled meats.
For portable cooking, we also love the Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett; it’s half the size of the Traeger, costs half as much, but cooks just as well and can be controlled from your phone.
Good, Bad & Ugly of Owning a Pellet Style Smoker
Let’s start with the good news.
First, those who have used a pellet wood smoker rave about the taste, flavor, and texture of their meats.
What makes a pellet smoker so popular isn’t just the taste it creates but its ease of use. You can easily set it up and leave it until it’s done. There is no babysitting, hoovering or double checking required. The reason for this, internal temperature control.
Traeger’s, unlike other models, have a temperature probe, these sensors tell it if the temperature is too low and automatically feeds more pellets to the fire. You can set up the temperature in 5-degree increments. Other brands and cheaper versions only offer three settings low, medium and high. There is no sensor to monitor the temperature. If you are purchasing a pellet grill it is because you can set it and forget it. If you plan to hoover then it makes more sense to use a standard smoker or to transform your grill into a smoker.
Traeger Smokers have automatic starts and large drip pans making prep and clean up just as easy as cooking. Also, you can load up the chamber and not worry about uneven cooking.
Pellets are all natural and are available in a variety of wood flavors. There are no chemicals and they burn almost completely leaving very little ash. Only use grilling pellets; don’t use home heating pellets. They have sap woods and can contain other chemicals that are hazardous.
Finally, Traeger pellet smokers are versatile. They can smoke, roast, barbecue, and bake. However, they are not great grills despite their advertising.
It’s difficult to substitute the use of real wood when you’re after a true smoky flavor. While pellets are manufactured in an assortment of flavors, they lack when it comes to a strong and bold smoky taste. Keep in mind, sometimes a light smoky flavor is just what the doctor ordered; specifically, when it comes to poultry.
As we mentioned, they are not grills. Smokers are set up to cook meat using low indirect heat, to grill you need a hot direct flame. Should you care to see more on how well Traeger preforms when it comes to grilling see this comparison of a Traeger vs Green Egg
Access to electricity has its downfalls. First, if the cord isn’t long enough you will need to make sure you have a proper extension cord. Using the wrong cord is a fire hazard. Do the math (watts / volts = amps) and make sure you have the right extension cord. The smoker is also less mobile, and if it’s stored outside it absolutely must have a cover. Electrical components and weather don’t mix.
ALL IN ALL
While there’s not a lot to dislike about pellet smokers, it really comes down to your cooking/grilling style. Some Smoking Geeks prefer pellet smokers to traditional smokers (or even the Green Egg style smokers) testifying that flavor is superior to that of other styles of smokers within the price range – and it’s hard to argue with them. While Traeger is the pioneer, there are other brands that give it a run for its money.