Pellet grills seem to be everywhere these days—but how exactly do they differ from gas and charcoal grills? And are they worth trying? Here’s what you need to know before going out to buy one.
What is a pellet grill?
As the story goes, it started at a July 4th barbecue back in the ’80s, when a man named Joe Traeger had a flare-up on his propane grill that ruined all the chicken wings. The next day, he started designing a grill with more temperature control that would run on wood pellets instead. He patented the design in 1985—and Traeger Grills was born. When that patent ran out in 2006, other brands started producing wood pellet grills, greatly expanding the market. Today, there are more than a dozen brands making pellet grills.
How a pellet grill works
Wood pellets are poured into a fuel storage container called a hopper. Then, they’re fed into a cooking chamber by an auger, or a steel spiral that’s powered by electricity (you have to plug a pellet grill into an outlet). Through combustion, the wood pellets ignite, heating the cooking chamber. The grill brings in air to the chamber through intake fans, dispersing heat and spoke evenly throughout the cooking area. (Note: When the heating element ignites the pellets, it generates a lot of smoke early on—so if you’re using a pellet grill for the first time, don’t be alarmed, as this is totally normal.)
Much like an oven, pellet grills give you precise temperature control, says Mike Sessler, who works with Pit Boss Grills. Most are controlled digitally through an app that connects to the grill via Wi-Fi (though some basic models have dial controls), with a heat range of 180° F to 500° F or so. This allows you to cook “low and slow” or with high heat, says Sessler. Most pellet grills also have a meat probe that connects with the control board to monitor the internal temperature of your food (no more burning your chicken to a crisp wondering if it’s actually reached 165° F).
Benefits of pellet grills
The main reason pellet grills are taking off is because they’re much easier to use than charcoal or gas grills. “[Pellet grills are] a ‘set it and forget it’ kind of thing,” says Kevin Kolman, head grill master for Weber. If you’re already decent at gas grilling, you’re going to have more success on a pellet grill because it’s so simple to keep the temperature consistent, he adds. When you connect the grill to its respective app, you can access hundreds of recipes (depending on the brand) that tell you exactly what to do and when to do it (i.e., when to flip, when to adjust the temperature, when to take it off).
While grilling might have traditionally been considered a manly activity, Kolman says they’re seeing more and more women using pellet grills, again due to their simplicity. You can simply hit a button to turn it on, which is less intimidating than firing up a gas grill. And because they heat up quickly, they’re great for weeknight cooking, too.
Ten years ago, when Chad Ward, competition pit master and director of barbecue marketing for Traeger Grills, showed up to competitions with his pellet grill, he had a lot of haters. “They’d say, ‘Here comes Chad with his Easy Bake Oven,’” he recalls. But the rep of pellet grills has risen, even among hardcore grillers, as people have discovered how well they cook and how easy they are to use. “From a consistency and ease of use standpoint, pellet grills are hard to beat,” says Ward—who cooked his entire Thanksgiving meal on his pellet grill last year.
Another benefit to pellet grills is that you can buy flavors of pellets that enhance the flavor of your food. For example, Ward recommends using oak or mesquite pellets with sturdy cuts of beef; and milder flavors like apple, cherry or pecan pellets with pork or fish. (Keep in mind: Smoke should be an ingredient in your cooking, not overpowering, says Ward.) Pellets tend to have a milder flavor than wood chips or chunks, yet still give a nice aroma and color to whatever you’re cooking.
Downsides of pellet grills
Some pellet grill units can’t reach a temperature that’s hot enough to sear or caramelize, says Kolman, so if that’s something you’re looking to do, be sure to do your research. To get a nice sear, look for a unit that can get up to 550° F.
Another downside is that pellet grills can be costly. They require a hefty initial investment: Solid models start between $500-$800 and go up from there, with larger units running at least $1,000 or more, says Kolman. Then there’s the pellets to consider: You generally burn through 1 to 3 pounds of pellets per hour, depending on what temperature you’re using, and 20-lb. bags cost at least $15-$20 at big-box stores. Depending on how often you’re using your pellet grill, and if you’re doing a lot of “low and slow” cooking, you may need to replenish your wood pellets more often than you’d need to replace a propane tank for a gas grill.
What to cook on a pellet grill
Of course, any kind of meat is a given. If you’re cooking low and slow, you can use cheaper cuts—such as shanks and briskets—that typically don’t turn out as well on a gas grill, says Chef Anthony Bucco, who runs Felina restaurant in Ridgewood, N.J. But to only cook meat on a pellet grill would be to miss out on the potential of this versatile machine.
Kolman says he loves doing deep-dish Chicago pizza on his pellet grill—he orders one “half baked” and then finishes the cooking at home. Traeger Grills has recipes for everything from sourdough bread (which actually bakes on the grill) to cheesecake and bread pudding.
Bucco says any hearty vegetable holds up well on a pellet grill—think kombucha squash, root vegetables and potatoes. Another surprising thing he does on his pellet grill? Smoked nuts. “You roast them the same way you’d do in an oven, but on a perforated pan with a nice low smoke for about 20 minutes,” he says. He’s tried this with everything from raw cashews to walnuts and pecans, then spun them into smoked butters. “Try adding some smoked nut butter into your yogurt for breakfast,” he says. “It’s magical.”
Perhaps the best part of trying out new recipes on a pellet grill is that your margin of error is pretty small, says Ward. You simply follow the instructions provided on the app, and it’s nearly guaranteed to turn out right. Once you get the hang of pellet grilling, many models allow you to program your own custom cook cycles and recipes for easy repetition.
Most popular pellet grill brands
If you get a pellet grill that’s hot enough to sear and caramelize foods, there’s no reason why it couldn’t replace a gas or charcoal as your primary backyard grill, says Kolman. Here are some brands to look into, as recommended by the experts. Be sure to research the features that are most important to you, such as temperature control, to find a pellet grill that best fits your needs.