What’s the difference between pellet grill vs charcoal grill when it comes to your backyard barbecuing? Both can provide you, family, and friends with delicious food with the unmissable flavor only outdoor cooking provides.
But there are, of course, differences between these two different types of grill that mean you might prefer one over the other because of how or what you like to cook, and how easy you like your grilling to be.
To enable you to decide which is the best BBQ for your needs – or whether you might even like to have both types available for different occasions – we’ve put together a complete guide so you can make barbecuing convenient as well as tasty.
The benefits and disadvantages of pellet grill vs charcoal grill
Both pellet grills and charcoal versions can deliver excellent and consistent results when you take the cooking out into the yard. But there are upsides as well as downsides to both types that mean one or other can suit you better. We’ve put together the facts so you can assess a pellet grill vs charcoal.
Plus points and negatives of pellet grills
If you're wondering what is a pellet grill, the main thing to know is that they provide a really easy way to cook outdoors. ‘The entire process is automated, it will run as long as you have pellets in the hopper,’ says BBQ demo chef Jack Rowbottom from @jacksmeatshack (opens in new tab). ‘They are perfect for someone who is not confident at managing a live fire or allowed an open flame within their accommodation. I love using my pellet grill for long cooks as I can leave it and go about my day. I can monitor the cook from my phone and change the temperature if needed.’
Using a pellet grill is simple. ‘They have digital thermometers that control the cooking temperatures,’ says Jack. ‘You set the temperature as you would your indoor oven and away you go. The majority have built-in probes that monitor the internal cooking temperatures of your selected meat.’
You won’t have to wait long for a pellet grill to be ready to use. ‘Traeger Grills heat up in around 15 minutes,’ says Jo McDonald, country manager for wood pellet grill company Traeger (opens in new tab) for the UK. ‘As most of Traeger’s grills have Wi-FIRE connectivity you can leave the grill to heat up and the app on your phone will let you know when it is ready to use.’
Pellet grills are celebrated for the flavor of the food that’s cooked on them, whether you're grilling fish or a cooking a BBQ chicken. ‘A pellet grill imparts a lovely smoky flavor; it really benefits from lower temperatures,’ says Jack. ‘The pellet choice dictates the strength of smoke. Fruit woods are nice and light whereas woods such a hickory or oak will have a stronger flavor.’
When it comes to buying a grill, a pellet grill will typically cost more – and you can find charcoal grills at a fraction of the price. Buying the wood pellets for this type of grill is also going to prove more expensive than purchasing charcoal and though pellets aren’t difficult to source, charcoal is even easier.
Another factor to be aware of is that a pellet grill needs electricity even though its cooking fuel is wood pellets, so this might have an impact on where you can site your BBQ area. ‘Pellet grills aren’t particularly portable, as they need an outlet to function,’ explains Ross Bearman, Great Taste judge and founder of Ross & Ross Gifts, which has a range for those who love to BBQ.
There’s another possible downside when you’re comparing a pellet grill vs charcoal. ‘Pellet grills can be a little noisy too as longer pellets can be broken down from the hopper to the fire pot, creating a grinding and squeaking sound,’ says Ross. The fan that circulates heat and smoke also makes a noise – in the same way the fan in a kitchen oven does. We aren’t talking much noise here, but these aspects of pellet grill operation do mean it’s noisier than a charcoal grill.
Plus points and negatives of charcoal
Charcoal grills are available in a host of different shapes and styles. ‘You can get a classic kettle-style charcoal BBQ, a kamado grill or an offset smoker which are all fuelled by charcoal,’ says Mike Tomkins, MasterChef 2021 runner-up and brand ambassador for Thermapen (opens in new tab).
Great for searing, roasting and baking, and smoking, a charcoal grill is versatile. ‘Charcoal grills produce both direct infrared heat and indirect heat, perfect for different meats and their cooking times,’ says Ross Bearman.
Charcoal is also number one in the flavor stakes for many people. ‘As the food sizzles on your barbecue, the juices drip down and mingle with the burning embers,’ says Dan Cooper, head grill master at Weber (opens in new tab). ‘This creates a wonderfully rich and smoky aroma that infuses your meal with flavors you just can’t find anywhere else.’
Mike agrees that learning how to cook on a charcoal grill is worth your time as the taste of foods cooked on one is superb. ‘This is the charcoal BBQ’s trump card,’ he says. ‘Flavor, flavor and more flavor – a charcoal BBQ delivers by the bucket load. Depending on what charcoal you use, this can really impact the smokiness of your finished product; it’s not for everyone, but if you’re after that classic BBQ-style flavor, then look no further than the charcoal grill.’
As we’ve already mentioned, charcoal grills make for an affordable addition to any backyard. ‘Most charcoal grills are fairly cheap compared to a pellet grill,’ says Jack Rowbottom. They can also be a sound choice if you want to be able to cook in different locations. ‘The majority are small and portable,’ he says.
Using this fuel does require a little more skill than others demand, though. ‘Charcoal is the style and fuel that requires the most management and care when cooking, except for wood,’ says Mike.
‘You need to have the confidence to be able to establish a fire/get the coals lit,’ explains Jack.
What's more, once you've mastered how to light a BBQ, you'll find that charcoal also has slower heat-up times than a pellet grill. ‘You can accelerate this process with things like starter chimneys but it’s still a longer process than a pellet grill,’ says Mike. ‘For this reason, people shy away from a charcoal grill because it isn’t always convenient to spend time building a sustainable fire that’s going to burn at the right temperature for what you’re cooking.’
Unlike with a pellet grill, you will need to tend your outdoor cooker and follow advice on how to keep a charcoal grill hot. ‘Charcoal only has a cooking time of about 45 minutes or so, meaning that as soon as it reaches its peak temperature, it can cool off fairly quickly, so you might have to speed up the BBQing process or continue to add fuel as you go,’ explains Ross. Learning simple methods for how to control the temperature on a charcoal grill can certainly help you maximize the cooking potential of your BBQ.
There’s no getting away from the fact that grilling with charcoal entails more clean up too, so do bear this in mind if you're not a fan of cleaning a BBQ. ‘The cleaning of a charcoal BBQ can be a bit of a pain, as charcoal leaves a lot of ash at the end of each cook which needs cleaning out quite regularly to ensure the right airflow to the grill,’ says Mike.
You’ll also need to stash the fuel carefully. ‘Charcoal does need to be stored in a dry location or it can perish,’ says Jack.
Pellet grill vs charcoal: which is better?
When you’re considering a pellet grill vs charcoal for your outdoor grill station you can produce delicious results from both. What can be a decisive factor, though, is how much time you want to spend building the fire and tending the grill, which is necessary with charcoal. For some, that’s the whole point of outdoor cookery, while others will prefer the fact that a pellet grill doesn’t need to be monitored.
Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor writing for websites, national newspapers, and magazines. She’s spent most of her journalistic career specialising in homes and gardens and loves investigating the benefits, costs and practicalities of home improvement. It's no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house revamper.
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