Before You Buy: Answers to Your Questions About Pellet Grills
Grill sales in the U.S. are expected to top $4 billion in the next five years according to QYR Research, and pellet grills are one of the fastest growing segments of that market. Lately, we’ve been inundated with questions about this popular method of live-fire cooking. Maybe you, too, have considered adding a pellet grill to your family of cookers. If you don’t see your question answered here, feel free to contact us through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Reddit.
Are they grills or smokers?
Pellet grill manufacturers (and there are now more than 20 in the business) will tell you they are both. But they have more in common with convection ovens than the offset wood-burning smokers they resemble when viewed in profile. A fan circulates heat and smoke through the cook chamber, which exit via vents or a chimney. The heat generated by the combustion of wood pellets is of the indirect variety, meaning the food is not directly exposed to the fire. Smoke is produced by the smoldering pellets in the burn pot and is most prolific at “low and slow” temperatures (225 and under).
If it’s really smoky flavors that you love, you might be disappointed by the subtlety of food barbecued on a pellet grill. There are ways around this, though. You can add foil pouches of wood chips or pellets to the cook chamber, invest in a smoking tube, or even put chunks of hardwood directly on the diffuser plate.
Can you sear on pellet grills?
Food is seared when it is exposed to direct intense heat—think of the sizzle a burger makes when it hits a hot frying pan or grill grate positioned over a charcoal or wood fire. There is no sudden, violent encounter with heat. Higher-end manufacturers have responded to customers’ suggestions by producing grills capable of higher temperatures (up to 650 degrees) that allow searing directly over the burn pot on a perforated plate.
Alternatively, you can preheat a cast iron skillet, griddle, or plancha directly on the grill grate and sear on them. GrillGrates or Steven’s cast-iron Tuscan grill grate can also deliver killer grill marks when laid on top of the pellet grill grate.
Are pellet grills portable?
Some manufacturers have added “portable” models to their lines, but these sometimes weigh 50 pounds or more. Definitely not for backpackers. More importantly, all pellet grills rely on electricity to power their digital controller, ignition system, and the augur that delivers pellets to the burn pot. They can be powered with car or boat batteries, battery packs, or gas-powered generators. They are great for car camping, tailgating, festivals, or lakeside living.
Are pellet grills expensive?
Generally speaking, the initial cost often rivals or exceeds that of gas grills. And they are almost always more expensive at time of purchase than charcoal grills. They range in price from $400 to $4000 or more. You will pay premium prices for better construction, longer and stronger warranties, and top-notch customer service.
As far as operation costs go, pellets often retail for about a dollar a pound. Pellet usage will depend on a number of factors, but as a rule-of-thumb, plan on using about 1.5 pounds of pellets per hour. (This includes low and slow cooks as well as grill sessions at higher temperatures.) You might see a modest increase in your utility bill if you cook often on your pellet grill.
What foods can you cook on a pellet grill?
One of the advantages of a pellet grill is its versatility. Anything that can be smoked or baked can also be cooked on a pellet grill. (Recipes that call for direct grilling sometimes need adjustment.) We’ve smoked eggs, grilled steaks and burgers, smoked salmon, barbecued countless pork shoulders and ribs, baked cornbread and pizza, smoked beef jerky, roasted wings and whole chickens, charred carrots, braised beef shanks…and much more.
Is cold-smoking on a pellet grill an option?
Target cold-smoking temperatures for foods like cheese are usually below 100 degrees while the lowest sustainable temperature on a pellet grill is about 180 degrees. But a few pellet grill brands offer after-market cold-smoking attachments. (Truthfully speaking, even they get too hot on a warm summer’s day.) Smoking tubes are also an option as are foil smoking pouches filled with pellets or wood chips. If using any of these methods, the grill itself needn’t be lit or the cook chamber will get too hot.
Can pellet grills be used in barbecue competitions?
Yes, they are sanctioned in contests sponsored by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) and have been winning big in recent years. They are also popular among competition cooks as ideal places to hold smoked meats until turn-in time. If entering a contest, be sure to review local rules and find out if electricity is provided or if you’ll need to supply your own power.
What are wood pellets, exactly, and can I use the same pellets that fuel pellet furnaces?
Wood pellets are simply sawdust that have been compressed under high pressure and extruded in a cylindrical shape. (Some people compare them in looks to No. 2 pencil erasers.) They come in many different flavors, from hickory to mesquite, and can be custom-blended in the pellet hopper. Buy food-grade pellets only as the pellets sold for furnaces can contain contaminants. Also, take care to keep your pellets (like your powder!) dry, as any moisture will render them useless. Lidded 5-gallon buckets make good storage containers.
What kind of maintenance do pellet grills require?
Some pellet grills, such as Traeger, recommend covering the heat diffuser plate with heavy-duty aluminum foil before cooking to minimize clean-up. Many come with a grease bucket, which we also line with foil.
Though pellets burn cleanly, ash will eventually accumulate in the bottom of the fire box and affect performance. Periodically vacuum the inside of the fire box with a shop-type vac, but make certain the grill is completely cool. Wait at least 24 hours after a cook.
Also, gently wipe down the temperature probe so communication between your controller and the firebox isn’t interrupted. Keep the grill grate clean using a good grill brush. Wipe the outside with a damp cloth. Or if your grill is constructed of stainless steel, use a special cleaner.
The newer pellet grills rely much more on technology than conventional wood-burning or gas grills. Many feature state-of-the-art digital PID (proportional integral derivative) controllers, Wi-fi connectivity, as well as moving parts. So more can go wrong. If out of warranty, repairs can be expensive. We’ve had very few problems. Most of them, with the exception of a failed hot rod (the part that initially ignites the pellets), were cosmetic. In our experience, the grills maintain their temperatures well, a helpful trait when we test recipes for Steven’s books, shows, or classes.
Here is a short list of pellet grill manufacturers to check out:
- Green Mountain Grills
- Memphis Wood Fire Grills
- Camp Chef
- Louisiana Grills
- MAK Grills
- Z Grills
- Pitts and Spitts