An Expert Guide to Pellet Grills
Check out this guide for everything you'd need to know about pellet grills including the history, parts, and what type of griller they are best suited for!
Table of Contents
Welcome to the future! Nowadays, it is possible to achieve great smoky charcoal flavor without cooking on a charcoal grill—you can achieve this flavor on an electric grill by adding more (direct) flame to your fire. Is your mind blown? Trust me, not only is it possible, but it is actually becoming mainstream!
This amazing piece of innovative technology is called a pellet grill. Pellet grills, or wood pellet grills or pellet smokers, first came on the scene largely in the 1980s, and while they were slow to rise, sales went through the roof once the foundation was finally perfected. Pellet grills were designed for convenience and versatility while working off an alternate source of heat besides gas or charcoal: compressed wood pellets.
The ease and simplicity are what really bring this innovation to the next level. Just like your indoor oven, the pellet grill is a one-touch start-and-let-cook type of grill. After you preheat and get your pellet grill up to temperature—here's the best part, are you ready—you don’t have to babysit it. You can go inside, set your alarm to the completion time, and know that it will hold the temperature!
Pellet grills are made up of a few essential components that work electronically, hence being electric. The electric components work together to feed compressed wood sawdust, pellets, through an auger to a fire bowl, where they are ignited by a hot fire rod. From here, a fan helps create constant combustion and helps distribute the heat. This pellet feed system lets you control the actual temperature range of your grill.
I am going to break down every component and how it all works in tandem, but the things to take away from this are:
- Temperature can be easily controlled.
- Almost anything can be cooked on a pellet grill.
- Depending on the pellets used, time spent on the grill, and tending to the meat throughout the cooking process, a charcoal flavor can be achieved more efficiently than an actual charcoal grill.
- Backyards will never be the same!
A Brief Pellet Grill History
Wood pellets were first capitalized back in the 1970s as alternate heat sources during oil shortages.
At that time, Joe Traeger just so happened to own a small family-run heating company and was looking along with others to produce wood pellet heating stoves. With a few more tweaks, the pellet grill was born in the 1980s.
The pellet grill has now become a popular cooking system that cooks with the same principles as a convection oven. The one caveat is that not only does it circulate heat as a convection oven, but it creates smoke as well—a smoke oven, if you will. This smoke oven can accommodate various different cooking methods.
Parts of Your Pellet Grill
The Control Panel Box
Aesthetically, this is one of the main distinguishing features of a pellet grill. Rightly so as it houses all the digital controls to operate the grill, including the sensors and probes that read back the temperatures (internal and ambient temperatures). These are collected and relayed back to the control panels screen, and if you snagged a pellet grill that had WiFi and/or Bluetooth connectivity, they are relayed back to your in-brand application monitoring, which can be done from any smart device.
This control panel box, or pellet hopper, most times, is where the pellets are housed, which is one reason why they are oversized. It's basically doing three to four different jobs at once—talk about efficiency!
The reason for this is that the auger motor and fan are in the control panel as well. The fan drives the draft to the fire bowl. Having all of these packed and sealed into one box is essential for the proper feeding of the pellets by the corkscrew-shaped auger feeder to the fire bowl.
The pellet hopper, mentioned above, is most of the time attached to the control panel and is what houses the pellets. There are pellet grills of many different sizes, and you have to ask yourself, as with every grill, what do you plan to cook.
This is important because if you want to, for example, smoke a brisket, you are going to need a pellet grill with a bigger hopper.
It's not a deal breaker if you, for instance, already have a pellet grill with a smaller hopper and want to cook a brisket or pork butts, you will just have to monitor the hopper more and make sure you don’t run out.
Hardwood pellets are compressed sawdust that fuels your pellet grill and goes into the hopper. As mentioned, they were brought into production in the 1970s as an alternative fuel source because of the oil shortage.
Pellets are a great fuel source because they burn as true wood. That being said, there are a lot of pellet options out there and you have to be careful in selecting the right pellets for your grill.
Every brand of pellet grill will more than likely have its own brand of pellets. You will see a lot of promotions pushing you to use brand-specific pellets. You don’t have to use brand-specific pellets, but make sure you use high-quality pellets. Stay away from local supermarket pellets, and really, any fuel source from your local supermarket is not going to be the best.
From pecan, hickory, and mesquite to oak, cherry, and even charcoal wood mixed pellets, the options are abundant. Please feel free to reach out to me directly if you have questions about which pellets will be right for your new pellet grill.
Expert Tip: Store your pellet in an air-tight container. Pellets are made of wood and wood loves to absorb moisture. If moist pellets are run through your auger, that moisture could cause the auger to jam.
The auger is a corkscrew-shaped rod hooked up to a motor in the control panel box designed to feed the compressed hardwood pellets to the fire bowl. Connected to the hopper and fire bowl (pot), the auger essentially pulls the pellets from the hopper to the fire bowl as needed.
The auger is electronically controlled by either the analog or PID (Proportional Integral Derivative) from the control panel. If you have, or are looking for, an analog-controlled auger, it works on the revolutions per turn to account for the right pellets to feed for that targeted temperature.
If you are looking for, or have, a PID-controlled auger, the temperature is controlled by a sensor and thermocouple feedback is sent from the cook chamber to the control panel and then to the auger.
This operates just like the cruise control in your car—once the speed reaches 1-2 MPH above or below the target, the PID controller senses this feedback and corrects it to get back to speed. It works the same for temperature in your pellet grill.
You want to look for pellet grills with WiFi connectivity when searching for a pellet grill with a PID controller.
Expert Tip: When temperature consistency is a big priority in your cooking, ensure your new pellet grill is equipped with some PID controller.
The Fire Bowl
The fire bowl (or fire chamber or fire pot) is where the pellets get pushed, or should I say pulled into. The fire bowl is a round cup where the pellets are burned and the ash is collected. This is where the pellets collect to a point where they meet the fire rod.
When ignited by the control panel, the fire rod pulls electricity to work, almost like an extremely hot electric heating element. This is the catalyst for smoldering the compressed sawdust pellets.
Expert Tip: Keep the ash cleanout system in mind when looking for your new pellet grill. A few brands and models out there, like the Camp Chef Woodwind and Woodwind Pro, offer easy, twist ash dump and cleanout. Trust me, this is going to make your life so much easier!
The Deflection Plate
This workhorse is one of the main features that give pellet grills versatility and flexibility. The deflection plate is housed just over the top of the fire bowl and comes in direct contact with the flames.
This fantastic tool allows you to cook with indirect (for low and slow brisket and roasts) or direct (for burgers and steaks) heat. This plate is often connected to a pull knob or button that grants you easy maneuverability to access either cooking method.
The deflection plate does take a lot of heat exchange and, if not taken care of, can warp or bend. This is why you want good quality when buying a pellet grill. Aside from all of the neat features sought after in pellet grills, most of the time, quality needs to be noticed. Trust me, buying a quality pellet grill will extend its longevity and decrease your headaches.
The Grease Tray and Bucket
The grease tray is an innovative feature that catches all the, you guessed it, grease. It collects the grease and drippings, and filters it all down into a grease and catch-all little bucket that is oftentimes swinging on the side of your pellet smoker. This is possible because of the slight slant most pellet grills have constructed for the placement of the grease tray.
Expert Tip: Heavy-duty aluminum foil is a good alternative if you run out of grease tray liners.
Like any other grill, grill grates are the last component of your new pellet grill assembly. Once the grill grates are fitted in, that is usually the moment when you are so riddled with anticipation that you already have the steaks in hand as you finish assembly!
That being said, you are looking for quality, so if possible, try to stay away from cast iron or porcelain-coated gates. Stainless steel is going to be your best bet on pretty much everything when it comes to any type of grilling or smoking.
Like the propane grill you are used to, many quality pellet grills have the option for direct flame grilling. As I mentioned earlier, there are pellet grills out there that give you the option for direct grilling with the assistance of a push or pull knob, usually located on the side of your pellet grill.
With many, if not most, pellet grills being able to get up to temperatures well beyond the temperature needed to sear (365 degrees), you don't have to sacrifice anything when cooking on a pellet grill.
There are also pellet grills that come with some nice gas grill features like side burners, cooktops, and even pizza ovens. Traeger and Camp Chef do a great job offering these amenities (for an extra cost) to diversify your cook and take it to the next level.
A Quick Note on Quality Construction
I can't stress this enough, when buying a pellet grill, go for the quality. With so many more components, you are going to thank yourself later. Regarding budget, you are looking at mid- to high-level to get the durability and quality that will last.
Some of the best pellet smokers use quality stainless steel in their fireboxes, deflector plates, and grill grates. They do this because of the constant heat exchange. There are certain metals and alloys that move better under these intense conditions and will last longer.
This even applies to portable pellet grills, though not as well as portable gas, charcoal or electric grills. In my opinion, portable pellet grills are a lot more versatile and give you more options in your cooking while out on the trails or tailgating. The Green Mountain Trek and Traeger Ranger are great options for these endeavors!
Quality is the action word here. There are always going to be parts that fall short and have to be fixed, but starting with good quality will give you more years before that happens, and when it does, having that quality warranty will pay off big.
For more help finding a pellet smoker with outstanding quality or a more in-depth understanding of the ins and outs, feel free to reach out to me on Curated.
Additional Information to Know
We have covered everything you will encounter with your new pellet grill but wanted to ensure everything was touched on.
Make sure to get the pellet grill that fits your needs and your family's needs. Ask yourself, how much do I cook now? How much do I want to cook? When am I going to be the one hosting the next holiday dinner? What is my budget?
For instance, as with most grills, you want to ensure you get the size needed for these ongoing situations. Making sure you have the right square inches of cooking space is a big thing, along with the creature comforts like Bluetooth and WiFi for easy smart device monitoring. These are two of the main things that play into the budget but are the most sought-after for pellet grills.
If you are from a colder climate, get a pellet grill that is better lined to handle the cooler temperatures.
Remember, pellet grills can be looked at like outdoor ovens that can smoke. So you can bake, roast, sear, and braise in these beautiful marvels. Keep this in mind when looking for your next pellet grill.
As with any other grill lifestyle, pellet grills come with their own selection of toys. From pizza oven attachments to rotisseries, pellet grills are becoming the only grill you are going to need. However, the list of accessories is shorter, given that the pellet grill can accommodate so many cooking methods and techniques right out of the gate.
Make sure the pellet grill you choose has a set of meat probes, most already come with single or dual meat probes, but if not, you can purchase a set down the line.
Having a grill cover will be another essential purchase to keep dirt and other unwantedness off and out of your grill.
Here are some of my other accessories that are a must:
- Extension cord to reach your outdoor electrical power outlet.
- Air-tight container to keep your pellets dry.
- Grease tray liner to keep everything easy cleaning.
- Cleaning brush for your grill grates.
Your Key to Outdoor Cooking Future
Whether adding an addition to your outdoor kitchen or compressing your whole cooking lifestyle into one amazing grill to free up space on that back patio, a good quality pellet grill will change your world.
If you want to look at some of the best-handpicked pellet grills on the market today, feel free to reach out to me or any of our Grills and Outdoor Kitchen Experts on Curated.