Pellet grills have emerged as an extremely approachable and viable means of barbecuing and smoking in the back yard. With readily available fuel, multiple choices in the market and overall ease of use, they will continue to get a bigger share of the market. We want to explore their evolution, how pellet grills work, why people like them, and share our research and opinion on the best pellet smoker grills.
Evolution of the Pellet Grill/Smoker
In the seventies there was a pretty major fuel crisis of supply for fossil fuels. As a result, alternatives were researched and brought to market quickly. One great find was pellet fuel. We think of it now as almost entirely wood based, and for cooking it needs to be. But for fueling a boiler or furnace to heat your home, everything from rice husks to dried grasses and coconut shells are all used as a source to make pellets.
It was the Traeger family in Oregon that came up with a viable way to use pellets as a grilling and smoking fuel. The approach is virtually the same as a pellet stove used to heat a home. An auger pushed pellets through a pellet hopper to a combustion chamber which has a fan blowing air to facilitate burning and a heating rod. In the case of a pellet grill this all takes place below a flat metal shield that helps distribute the heat more evenly in the cooking chamber. For twenty years the Traeger’s patent made them the only game in town.
We have liftoff
In 2006 the Traeger’s patent exclusivity expired, and the market took off. It was an ugly time filled with lawsuits and family feuds multiple manufacturers are now active, offering products in a wide variety of styles, sizes and effectiveness. The increase in products and corresponding increase in users also brought about a huge influx of pellet choices.
Naturally the technology has gotten better as well. Initially wood pellet grills worked in a formulaic fashion. Set the temp at 200°F and the pellet hopper auger will push pellets for 10 seconds for instance, then be idle for 60 seconds. At 300°F it may go up to 20 seconds and be idle for 50 seconds, for example. The next generation temperature controls now use logic boards to respond to the actual temperature inside the cooker, adjusting the speed of the auger and fans, based one the readings sent to the unit. As a result, you have thermostatic control just like your indoor oven. This makes the current error of pellet smokers a better alternative to gas or charcoal grills for extended smoking sessions you can rely on.
Easy to use, and very much set and forget, pellet grills are becoming very popular, accounting for over ten percent of sales of a market category that is 2.44 billion dollars in revenue. That number grew even more as result of the pandemic and more people cooking at home, plus the fact that it is no longer a summer hobby. People are cooking outdoors year-round, even in colder climates.
The best consequence of that is wood pellets are available everywhere. You no longer have to work through a specialty retailer, they’re in the hardware department of almost every store. With that comes a better selection as well. From apple to walnut, any blend you can imagine, and whiskey or other flavorings included. The marketplace is quite full of choices.
Do Pellet Grills Work?!
Yes, yes they do.
Do they work as well as more traditional methods? In general, yes, although there are valid points to understand that go against that opinion.
First off, the set and forget aspect of pellet grills also takes away some choices. For instance, you cannot easily add more wood if you want a good hard smoke.
Too light a smoke flavor is the most common negative point made. Having had heavily over smoked food in the past as we all probably have encountered; this is an arguable opinion. You will unquestionably know that brisket or pork butt has been smoked after 12-18 hours on a pellet grill at 225°F. As a smoking geek, we think that is a win. It becomes so subjective, like any cooking actually, that the only thing that matters is your opinion of the food you cooked. However, in the end, if you don’t mind babysitting a little, traditional smokers still have a special place for the end smokey flavor that can’t be beat.
The biggest mistake, in our opinion, is referring to it as a wood pellet “grill”. They work great to smoke low and slow, therefore it would seem reasonable to refer to them as pellet smokers instead of pellet grills. They are also a very effective outdoor oven for roasting or baking. They are not very effective, generally, at grilling. To truly grill a steak or chop, you want a high temperature, 600-750 or more, for a solid sear and crust in 2-3 minutes.
The general process in commercial restaurants is that a steak 2 inches thick, at room temperature, will hit medium rare in 2 minutes per side at your highest heat. That gives you the pinkest juiciest center, a small gray strip, and a nicely charred exterior. Pellet grills generally don’t give you a hot enough space that is large enough to effectively grill a batch of steaks. There is hope however, as some manufacturers are starting to push the envelope with higher temperature ranges.
Who should buy one?
This is an interesting question. Someone with a lot of experience may be ready for a simpler way to make really good barbecue. Certainly, pellet grills have a sweet spot for novice or even intermediate skill levels, based on the ease of operation. In my opinion, the flavor I get from a charcoal grill is more on-point than what I end up with my Traeger, but maintaining temperature on a kettle grill isn’t for everyone. On the other side of the coin, you have gas grills – which I used to use in combination with a smoke box for short smokes like a tri-tip, but it was less than ideal but it worked well because the hot zone would be perfect for getting a nice sear on the meat when the smoking session was complete – not something pellet grills used to be able to offer.
In the end, how you plan to use it can also be a factor. Most pellet grills emulate a traditional barbecue/grill with the majority of the cooking surface as a flat area, and smaller racks that warm and accommodate lighter foods to be smoked. Vertical pellet smokers allowing a higher volume that can be cooked in one process are also becoming more available in the market.
Last thought; there is a product out there for virtually anyone who wants one.
Pros and Cons of Pellet Smokers/Grills
Probably the biggest negative to actively using a wood pellet smoker is the ash clean up. Traditional models, most of what is available, use an igniter rod in a round chamber with air blown in to create a small vortex of combustion, smoke, and convection. This chamber fills with ash and must be regularly emptied. It is not horribly difficult to do. It also coincides well with changing the aluminum foil we always recommend for covering the heat shield. However, it is hard to empty completely. Manufacturers are showing up with easy ash dump systems to overcome this.
Other considerations include, you must have electricity. This can make pellet grills impractical for some venues. Obviously, you need pellets. With very little planning, you can avoid running out, and they are not significantly higher in price than fuel sources for other smoking methods. Pellet grills are not the quickest to warm up, and they all have an automatic ramping down system. Again, minor planning ahead will make this a non-issue. As an alternative, if you’re looking for a cheep set-it-and-forget-it smoker, electric smokers are extremely affordable but in my personal opinion they are the bottom of the barrel when it comes to smokers (unless we’re talking about those old school off-set smokers)
What Are the Best Pellet Grills to Buy?
Like all purchases, your budget is a huge factor. We’ll help you explore some options to make a better decision in selecting an affordable but effective pellet smoker. Keep in mind, none of these pellet grills feature a side plate flame broiler.
For overall smoking, we recommend the Traeger Pro.
These guys legitimately have the most experience in the market, and they charge accordingly. Very much a premium positioned brand, they are known for delivering a solid product that will last decades with proper care. But there are many alternatives to a Traeger for the money.
From Grilla Grills, we recommend their Silverbac Wood Pellet Grill w/ Wi-Fi.
grills have positioned themselves as a premium brand in two ways. Their simple designs and excellent build quality have done well to justify a higher price point. The grill gates are exceptional For we geeks, they have also embraced technology by incorporating Wi-Fi connectivity with their own app to control the device from literally anywhere with the internet.
For Z-Grills, a great alternative to a Traeger pellet grill, is Z-Grills Wood Pellet Smoker 700D.
This company has been in the game for long enough that they have migrated from their initial strong value position to a slightly higher level of product. They meet that higher expectation, and the price point that comes with it. So, not as much a value product now, Zgrills delivers a very good product at – still – a very competitive price.
The Davy Crockett portable grill from this company is a really good way to see if a pellet smoker is right for you. This package is very well featured (it even has Wi-Fi capability!) truly portable, and backed up with customer service that gets great reviews. The size is right for a brisket, small turkey or a few racks of ribs. All in all, we like this as a way to dip your toe in the water of the pellet smoking pool.
Wood pellet grills have shown to have the staying power, in a very crowded marketplace of devices for the home barbecue aficionado. With their minimal learning curve for operation, they are ideal for the beginner. Their versatility lends themselves to more cooking styles than smoked barbecue, which makes them a good choice for experienced cooks that also make barbecue. We are confident that a pellet smoker will find a way to be a great addition to your outdoor cooking journey but our top pick for smokers still go to traditional style smokers.