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Wood Pellet Grills: Tips for Simple Smoky Slow Cooking

Wood Pellet Grills: Simple Smokey Slow Cooking

What is a Pellet Grill?

Everyone loves barbecues. They combine the joy of cooking with the great outdoors, taking us back to our hunter-gather roots. But with so many kinds of grills to choose from, figuring out which style is best for your needs can be confusing. If you love the smoky taste of wood-fired meals, pellet grills are the easiest way to get consistently delicious results.
Wood Pellet Grill
Originally patented by Traeger in 1986, a pellet grill is basically an automatic convection oven fueled by wood pellets. For twenty years after filing their patent, Traeger Grills was the only name in pellet grills. After the patent expired 2006, household names like Weber recognized the benefits of pellet grilling and release their own versions. And they're not alone. Broil King, which has been making grills for more than 100 years, developed their own line of wood pellet grills after tasting what they can do.
Commonly referred to as pellet grills, "pellet smokers" is a more accurate term. "Grill" generally refers to cooking with high temperatures over an open fire. Smokers, on the other hand, use an adjacent heat source to create smoke that surrounds your food, holding low temperatures for extended periods of time. Although some pellet smokers can provide the direct heat of a grill, they excel at using indirect heat at low temperatures to slowly cook meals over several hours.
Pellet smokers differentiate themselves from traditional smokers with automatic temperature control. They constantly measure the heat inside the grill, adding fuel to the fire as needed.

Are Wood Pellet Grills Worth It?

Are Wood Pellet Grills Worth It?
Yes. Slow cooking meats is the best way to achieve the juicy, tender texture we all love. Wood pellet grills add the smoky taste of a proper BBQ to that fall-off-the-bone goodness for a combination that'll have the whole block salivating.
While you can achieve similar results on a traditional smoker, doing so can be a hassle. Those smokers require constant attention. As soon as their temperature drops, you have to manually tend to the fuel, adding just enough (but not too much!) wood or charcoal to bring temps back to the ideal level.
Pellet cookers feature a digital controller that handles all of that for you. Simply set the temperature and walk away. Whether you're smoking a brisket or a whole pig, you can trust the grill to maintain the heat you need hour after hour. Some pellet grills even include meat probes that monitor your food's internal temperature. When your meat reaches a preset temp, the grill shuts off or drops to a lower temperature meant to keep your food warm. Once you've tasted a chicken leg or rack of ribs cooked on a pellet grill, you'll wonder why you didn't bring one home sooner.

How Does a Wood Pellet Grill Work?

How a Wood Pellet Grill Works

Inside a Wood Pellet Grill

  • Hopper: Flavor begins here. Simply add the wood pellet flavor of your choice to fuel your grill.
  • Controller: Turn on the grill and set your desired temperature.
  • Auger: Delivers wood pellets to the fire pot.
  • Fire Pot: Ignites the wood pellets and creates the fire.
  • Fan: Airflow from the fan stokes the fire while simultaneously circulating smoke and heat around your food.
The grilling process always starts with fuel. Pellet grills store their fuel in an attached hopper. From the hopper, the grill pushes wood pellets into the fire pot with a corkscrew-shaped tool called an augur. A hot rod ignites the pellets within the tennis-ball-sized fire pot that rests below the grilling surface. As the pellets begin to burn, a fan blows the smoke and heat into the grill. Because of the fan, hot air moves around inside the grill as it does in a convection oven, evenly cooking your food from all sides.
This whole process is managed by a digital controller that maintains your preferred temperature by feeding pellets into the fire pot as needed. Because the digital controller, auger, and fan all run on electricity, wood pellet grills must be plugged into an electrical outlet.
Pellet grills rely on indirect heat to provide the delicious, consistent results that they're famous for. In addition to using a fan to circulate the hot air, most feature a metal plate between the firepot and the grill to diffuse the heat. While indirect heat is one of the keys to the success of pellet smokers, sometimes you need a blast of direct heat. Realizing this, some pellet cookers allow you to remove the heat diffuser to sear a steak or grill some veggies.

What Are Wood Pellets and Why Are They A Great Fuel Source?

Various Flavors of Wood Pellets
The wood pellets used to fuel pellet grills are made from the sawdust of hardwoods. A combination of heat and pressure allows the sawdust to take shape as a pellet. Once formed, the wood's natural lignin maintains the pellet's shape without adhesives or binding agents. Just be sure to only use food-grade pellets in your grill. Non-food grade pellets (used for heating) often contain chemicals that should not be consumed.
As the pellets burn, their smoke permeates your food, complementing your favorite recipes' flavors. Choose between mesquite and hickory, apple and pecan, cherry, oak, and alder. Each will infuse your food with seasonings that only these woods can provide. And while you can add wood chips or chunks to gas or charcoal grills, using the wood for both fuel and flavor is far simpler.

Wood Pellet Flavor Guide

Wood Type Chicken Beef Pork Turkey Wild Game Fish Veggies Baking
Cherry Yes Yes Yes No Yes No No Yes
Apple Yes No Yes No No No Yes Yes
Maple No Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Pecan Yes Yes Yes No Yes No Yes Yes
Alder Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Hickory Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Oak No Yes No Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Mesquite Yes Yes No No Yes Yes No No
Pellet grills burn through about 1/2 - 2 1/2 pounds of pellets every hour, depending on the temperature of the grill. Wind and ambient temperature can also affect the rate at which they burn. With cook times that can reach 10 hours or more, it's possible to burn through a twenty-pound bag of pellets in a single grilling session. Be sure to keep a few bags of your favorite flavors around. Or sign up for a pellet subscription so you're always ready to fire up the grill at a moment's notice.
While you might expect a mess from all the wood, a full forty-pound bag of pellets only creates a half cup of ash. Plus, the pellets are a renewable biomass fuel, composed of recycled hardwood sawdust that might otherwise go to waste. Because of this, pellet smokers are one of the greenest way to BBQ. And knowing that is sure to make your apple smoked pork belly recipe taste that much sweeter.

Q&A Summary

How Do Wood Pellet Grills Work?

Pellet grills are technically smokers that heat using convection. It's the fiery combustion of compressed wood pellets that powers this low-heat smoking. Backyard chefs feed the pellets into the machines, which often use augers to funnel them toward the combusting heat. Barbecue masters choose between different pellet "flavors" of wood like maple, apple, mesquite and more. These can add elements of sweetness and smokiness to whatever food is on the grill.

Are Pellet Grills Worth It?

In every way, pellet grills are worth the cost. They're comparable in price to many gas models, and when it comes to flavor, these savory smokers are hard to match. There is a bit of a learning curve to using the fuel, whether users stumble on keeping the right amount in stock or pairing the right type of wood with the correct protein or veggies (apple wood and pork chops go together perfectly, for starters).

What Are Easy Pellet Grill Recipes?

We recommend simple, similar dishes for beginners: start small with dishes like burgers and chicken wings, then work up to classic smokehouse favorites like brisket and ribs. Whatever you make, always pair your proteins with your fuels for the best flavor combinations.

Can You Use Pellets in a Non-Pellet Smoker?

Yes, you can use pellets in a charcoal smoker. You can toss them directly onto the flame in charcoal grills, while some gas grills instead have attachments for wood chips instead. These burn for less long, but can still infuse your foods with powerful flavor.