Should You Buy a Traeger Pellet Smoker?

Best Pellet Smokers for the Money | MeatGeek Approved
PELLET SMOKERS featured image

Basics

Whether you are an old hand at smoking meats on the move for an upgrade, or just picking up the scent on this ancient food preparation process, we’ve got the information you want. We have Joe Traeger to thank for bringing pellet grills to the market, and his company had the exclusive rights to them until 2006 when his patent expired and the market exploded with new entries.

We need to take a look at whether Traeger is still the gold standard and who the other players are giving them a run for their (your) money. The field is well populated. First, a quick look at pellet smoking versus traditional smoking.

Simple and convenient

Simple and convenient for the end user anyway, under the hood a pellet smoker has some sophisticated components, certainly more than just lighting up a piece of wood and putting food in the smoke. The wood itself is reduced to pellet size, and burned in small ongoing amounts to give you smoke and heat. The pellets flow with an auger to the burn box. A thermostat keeps a constant temperature in the smoker by controlling the auger. This creates a ‘set and forget’ for you as the end user; set temperature and it will keep going until it runs out of pellets.

Indirect Heat

Virtually all smoking keeps the meat out of the heat of the flame, and in the resulting smoke. Typically a pellet grill flame is in a burn box, which in turn is below a drip tray. The smoke flows around to fill the chamber, along with the heat generated with the burn. As a result they are better at low and slow versus providing the searing crisp of flame that you want on a steak or such. Newer models are getting the chamber temperature up in the 500 degree range, and that certainly takes you through a range to cook anything from chicken to turkey and still able do a great 20 hour brisket at a lower temp.

They will also allow you to expose the fire box flame for ‘direct broiling’. In our experience so far the flame is a bit too far away for really good broiling, the usable area is small and very prone to hot spots. In general, searing and broiling is still a work in progress, certainly when compared to the stellar performance pellet grills deliver in low and slow cooking.

Natural Flavor in a Pellet?

Wood is chipped, dried to specific moisture, milled to a smaller size, and then compressed into pellets. Generally the heat of the compression process pulls natural glue from the wood to keep their shape. Smoking pellets are pure wood, but the pellet smoker is efficient, so it does not put out quite as much smoke during the burn. This creates less intense flavors versus charcoal or split wood. The smoke is clean and easy to control, and it still imparts great flavors if somewhat milder than other techniques.

Traeger VS Other Pellet Smokers

Traeger has shown longevity in a market they created, and kudos to them for bringing us pellet smoking technology. Their products work and last well. They should because you do pay for the name. And the big advertising budget. Like most people, getting value is a large part of our purchase decision. Having used both Traeger and their competition, the value equation lies more with the other brands. That being said, we will give you our pick of the Traeger line with the ‘why’ behind our decision.

RECOMMENDED LINEUP


best treager value

TRAEGER PRO 34

  • Price: $$$
  • Cooking Size: 884 sq. in.
  • Temperature: 450F

  • SEE @ AMAZON

    SEE @ TREAGER



    CAMPCHEF SMOKEPRO PG24DLX

    • Price: $$
    • Cooking Size: 570 sq. in.
    • Temperature: 500F

    SEE @ AMAZON

    BIG HORN

    BIG HORN

    • Price: $
    • Cooking Size: 570 sq. in.
    • Temperature: 500F

    SEE @ AMAZON

    Z-GRILLS MASTER 700D

    • Price: $$
    • Cooking Size: 700 sq. in.
    • Temperature: 450F

    SEE @ AMAZON

    DAVY CROCKETT

    • Price: $
    • Cooking Size: 219 sq. in.
    • Temperature: 500F

    SEE @ AMAZON

    GRILLA GRILLS CHIMP ALPHA CONNECT portable pellet smoker

    Chimp Alpha

    • Price: $$$
    • Cooking Size: 460 sq. in.
    • Temperature: 500F

    SEE @ AMAZON

    Pellet grills in general are the value equation for smoking meats. The convenience of smoking a brisket or pork shoulder while you sleep or out running errands, the ‘set and forget’, is itself very valuable. Only the most hard core barbecue guru would be even able to tell the difference between a pork butt out of a Karubecue, with regular wood reloads, or one from your automated pellet grill. Try the challenge, set up your kettle grill for smoking alongside your pellet grill, and run a pork butt through each, have your guests be the judge.

    We will look at which Traeger products to consider. However, if you want a set and forget smoker that doesn’t need a plug, we are also big fans of 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 manufacturer’s directions when lighting it up and you’re good to go. At its relatively 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 Pro Series 34

    value treager smoker

    buy now

    Overview

    Notice we did not say the least expensive Traeger, this is not. But it delivers some characteristics that make it a great contender. For over a decade the manufacturing has been in China, and frankly that is the way it is in the pellet smoker world until you get to the ultra-premium high end units. It seems that Traeger, and many others, have gotten a better build quality from their manufacturing partners recently, although there are consumers who disagree. Combine that with a lagging reputation for customer service, and it explains why the market has allowed so much competition.

    Their build is certainly sturdy, coming in at 136 pounds, these contain a lot of metal. The rack space at 884 square inches over two levels is impressive. The other components get interesting results. Our experience, echoed by others, is that they are very fickle when it comes to holding temperature. This unit still uses a dial with 25 degree increments, and their own spec says it will hold to within +/-15 degrees. It also can take a significant amount of time to get to temperature, especially the listed top end of 450 degrees. It does offer two temperature probe inputs, so you could monitor the ambient temp of the chamber, although we have our recommendations for a Bluetooth set up to accomplish that and more (note; Bluetooth therm review link?).

    Specs to know

    • Cooking Area = 7 Racks of Ribs
    • Searing = 2 Stars
    • Quality = 2 ½ Stars
    • Design = 3 Stars
    • Controls = 3 Stars

    Pros

    • Room to work with two racks to use
    • 4 wheels for hard surface maneuvering
    • Solid build

    Cons

    • Inconsistent temperatures
    • Slow to reach temperature
    • Weak customer service
    • Expensive for the category

    Post script; we get a lot of inquiries about our ratings and how we reach conclusions. In this case for instance, we looked closely at the Traeger Tailgater 20 unit because it is a much less expensive entry to Trager ownership. But the small grill and pellet storage were both problematic. As a ‘portable’ unit it wasn’t effective, certainly in comparison to other units we found and you will read about here.

    Best Pellet Smokers for the Money

    Camp Chef SmokePro DLX Pellet Grill


    campchef smokepro

    buy now

    Overview

    These guys came to play. Good solid build weighing in at 140 pounds, the grill space is only average at 570 square inches, above average at this price point. But the features they offer have some value…maybe not the attached bottle opener, but it doesn’t hurt. Seriously though, the ash clean out canister system makes for easy maintenance to keep your device running right. One small negative is the pellet hopper, which is a good size at holding 18 pounds of pellets, but is on the end that you have to lift to move it on the two wheels. That throws more lifting weight in the mix for mobility.

    Their best feature is the control they offer in the temperature arena. PID is an industrial standard with a bunch of math to go with it. What it means to you is a much more responsive system allowing you to set and forget, and tweak as needed. The biggest knock on pellet smoking is that it may not impart as much flavor as chunk wood smoking. While we don’t necessarily accept that premise, Camp Chef has gotten close to overcoming that with the ability to increase the flow of smoke. Add to that including one probe thermometer (you can plug two into the control panel) and their value equation really grows.

    Specs to know

    • Cooking Area = 4 Racks of Ribs
    • Searing = 2 ½ Stars (better with accessory)
    • Quality = 4 Stars
    • Design = 3 Stars
    • Controls = 4 ½  Stars

    Pros

    • Great entry price
    • Well featured
    • Good Tech

    Cons

    • Cooking area
    • Mobility design

    Big Horn Outdoors Pellet Grill & Smoker


    big horn

    buy now

    Overview

    With almost a decade in the market, Big Horn Outdoors is doing pretty well at making a name for themselves. This model represents the least expensive option for a full size backyard pellet smoker in this group. Granted, they rely heavily on the upper rack to get their available space to 700 square inches. Some of us less coordinated individuals remove the upper rack much of the time to be able cook taller items and maneuver in general, so this comes off as somewhat cramped. The pellet hopper is a little small at 8 pounds and may need refilling for longer smokes.

    They do include some fun accessories; folding front shelf, pellet hopper latch, and tool hooks. They also have a nice easy to read chamber thermometer. The control settings are simpler in 25 degree increments, and it does have two probe inputs. They also have nice oversize metal wheels for better mobility with the pellet hopper opposite the handle so it works as a counterweight when moving around.

    Specs to know

    • Cooking Area = 6 Racks of Ribs
    • Searing = 2 ½ Stars
    • Quality = 3 ½ Stars
    • Design = 3 ½ Stars
    • Controls = 3 ½  Stars

    Pros

    • Great value
    • Smoking chamber thermometer
    • Good add-ons included

    Cons

    • Cooking area relies on upper shelf
    • Minimal pellet storage
    • Simple control dial

    Z Grills ZPG-700D Wood Pellet Grill Smoker


    z grill 700d

    buy now

    Overview

    Relatively speaking these guys are the newcomers in the market since 2017. They have come on strong, delivering full sized sturdy equipment at great pricing. At 140 pounds starting weight, and a hopper that holds 20 pounds of pellets, this is a burly piece of equipment. It is sporting a cooking space of 700 square inches, 500 square inches of which is the main surface. Fortunately they put lockable wheels on all four corners to move this tank like unit around.

    Like many manufacturers, Z makes it a bit difficult to compare models by using multiple packaging add-ons. This model includes a cover, two goose neck LED lights and a set of grilling mats to enhance the overall value. It also uses PID technology on the controller, although not quite as effectively as other manufacturers. Still, this smoker will get the job done and is from a company that has a good reputation for customer service. Like most pellet grill, it is weak at actual grilling/searing, but in all other categories it is a steady performer.

    Specs to know

    • Cooking Area = 6 Racks of Ribs
    • Searing = 2 ½ Stars
    • Quality = 3 ½ Stars
    • Design = 4 Stars
    • Controls = 3 Stars

    Pros

    • Primary surface very spacious
    • Solid build quality
    • Good customer support
    • 3 year warranty

    Cons

    • Simple controller
    • No history to know longevity

    Post Script; we’re big fans of the ZGrills and the value they represent. Like other people, we noticed that the Cuisinart CPG-600 is identical to the Z700 series. Grill size and dimensions, hopper size and most all other specs are the same, and at a lower price. Something to consider.

    same design as the zgrill

    Not tested, but looks to be the same design as the Z-Grill

    Best Portable Models


    This is a bonus section evaluating the tools to take your cooking show on the road. We mentioned the Traeger Tailgater 20 unit, and did not include it as a suggested buy. Blame these devices, which pack so much into their small packages that the Traeger doesn’t have a chance.

    First off, portability by design. Both of these are built for the road, each approaching portability in a different fashion. As newer releases, both units contain the latest in tech to improve your smoking experience when you travel. Let’s break it down between our two contenders.

    Green Mountain Davy Crockett


    green mountain

    buy now

    This unit gets first billing because it has a slight edge on overall portability. Lightweight at 68 pounds it has folding legs for easy transport. It includes 110V and 12V adapters for use away from the grid. Will it drain your car battery on 12V? Yes, eventually, but it is pretty efficient so you have quite a few hours. In car camping or RV situations it will work just fine.

    The technology in this small package is also impressive. PID technology and Wi-Fi controls set this way ahead of the pack. We also keep mentioning small, at 219 square inches of grill space, it is. To offset that slightly it has a high peaked cover to accommodate whole chickens, pork butts or other taller foods.

    You do trade off some cleaning aspects to have it so compact. The drip tray is perforated, which allows smoke to circulate, then the grease drops through to the bottom then runs out the drain. With other models you can line your drip tray with foil for easy cleaning which this does not allow. All that being said, the company gets excellent reviews for customer service and offers an outstanding value product. It’s affordable price point and versatility landed it on our gifts for grillers wish list.

    Specs to know

    • Cooking Area = 2 Racks of Ribs
    • Searing = 2 Stars
    • Quality = 3 ½ Stars
    • Design = 3 ½ Stars
    • Controls = 4 Stars

    Pros

    • Purpose built to travel
    • Great tech
    • Top quality customer support

    Cons

    • Small spaces
    • Cleaning and maintenance challenges

    Grilla Grills Chimp Alpha Connect


    grilla grills winner

    buy now

    First off, these guys are fans of stainless steel, and incorporate lots of it into their build quality. For a portable grill that creates a small conundrum, resulting in a 90 pound unit. Part of their weight is a double wall construction for temperature insulation and more efficient use of pellets, and a main cooking surface of 340 square inches, with another 120 on the upper rack.

    Grilla gears their product somewhat more to an RV style camping and boating experience. But they have some travel features we like, such as top and bottom pegs for your rack suspension and small legs on the heat shield to keep the components in place, and a clasp on the pellet hopper to contain them while on the road.

    Their tech is top of the line. With user programmable high and low alerts, monitoring including a meat temp probe, and timer systems, all integrating PID specifications. Add these features to a build that you would expect from an industrial designer and a metal smith buddy, it all comes together for this product.

    Specs to know

    • Cooking Area = 4 Racks of Ribs
    • Searing = 2 Stars (possibly better with accessory)
    • Quality = 4 Stars
    • Design = 3 Stars
    • Controls = 4 Stars

    Pros

    • Mobility
    • Built to last
    • Spacious

    Cons

    • Heavy
    • Requires 120v connection

    FINAL THOUGHTS: Traeger VS Green Mountain, Z-Grills, Campchef


    The best aspect of this kind of comparison is that each of these items, including the Trager have some reasons to consider buying them. Yes, we liked the grill size and pricing of the Z700 because it creates such a strong value statement. Camp Chef brings tech to you and your smoking, along with a tank like build quality.

    Both the portable choices do outshine the Traeger in this category. Green Mountain’s Davy Crockett is an exceptional purpose built offering, whereas Grilla’s Chimp is a unit that will serve you well at home or on the road.

    Pellet smokers are a great option for home smoking. Once you get used to the ease of set and forget, you will find it easy to master the art of flavorful homemade meats and so much more.


    Pellet Smokers: Good, Bad & Ugly

    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.

    PROS

    SIMPLICITY

    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.

    FUEL

    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.

    VERSATILITY

    Finally, Traeger pellet smokers are versatile. They can smoke, roast, barbecue, and bake. However, they are not great grills despite their advertising.

    CONS

    FUEL

    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.

    GRILLING

    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.

    PORTABILITY

    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.

    Happy smoking.

  • Ellie Davis says:

    I didn’t know that pellet grills gave the food more of a natural flavor. My husband loves grilling. I should look into buying his a pellet grill for his birthday this year.

  • Monica from Addonkitchen.com says:

    Great article with more info about pellet grill.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Kishoree Boegel says:

    I see that traeger now offers a searing plate designed to accomplish those grill marks and caramelized exterior that traditional grills offer.

    Does anyone have any experience with it? Does it even playing field between grill vs. smoker?

  • DAVID says:

    I have a TRAEGER JUINOR ELITE and wouldn’t have bought it if I had to do it over again. I love the pellet grill for the ease of use to get a great smoke flavor on your BBQ. The Customer Support is AWFUL as I was three weeks outside of their 3 year warranty and they refused to cover the Thermostat Temperature controller. There are better options than the Traeger and my next pellet grill won’t be a TRAEGER.

    • Larry says:

      Don’t buy one you spend more time trying to get it to work than smoking

      • Top Geek says:

        I feel like this kind of sums up my life in smoking: always seem to spend more time on smoker projects than smoking…

        • Galen Dow says:

          Bullshit. Before you buy a Traeger, google “traeger grill won’t hold temperature”. There’ll you’ll find groups of people trying to figure out why you can’t get a premium grill up to the temp that many of their own recipes call for. You’ll end up laying on the cold ground swapping part after part as they try and walk you week after week painfully through rebuilding a grill with the key components that should have worked in the first place. My whole house heats with basically the same sized fire pot and pellet auger. Overrated junk, look elsewhere.

  • James says:

    So if not Traeger, then what? Suggestion would be very appreciated and explanation of why.

  • >