What is a pellet grill and how does it work? Your questions answered
Asking what is a pellet grill? Discover how it’s different from other grills and get the lowdown on how it works
If you’re not yet a convert, you might be asking what is a pellet grill? And how does the fuel it uses affect the way it works?
Whether up to now you’ve been a fan of gas grilling, cooking over charcoal, or love the convenience of electric grills, a pellet grill could be an additional or replacement option for your backyard. But what’s crucial when deciding if this could be the best BBQ for your needs is to understand how one of these delivers its results.
To help you decide if you should start cooking for family and friends this way, we’ve put together an expert guide to answer the question what is a wood pellet grill, and explain exactly how it works.
What is a pellet grill?
The answer to what is a pellet grill is that it’s an outdoor cooker that is fueled by wood pellets rather than gas or charcoal. ‘These help to give an authentic wood-fired flavor that you would normally find barbecuing with charcoal,’ says Dan Cooper, head grill master at Weber.
‘As well as creating a renewable energy source for cooking food, the main benefit is the wood pellet flavor. It offers a unique taste, and different flavors can also be used to impart different characters whilst the food is being cooked. Put simply, it offers a smoky flavor that a griller cannot get in any other way, other than smoking.’
A wood pellet grill is versatile design and a valuable addition to any BBQ area: it can grill, smoke, bake, roast, barbecue and slow braise food. ‘These high-tech grills use indirect heat to cook food in a temperature-controlled smoky environment,’ explains Mike Tomkins, MasterChef 2021 runner-up and brand ambassador for Thermapen.
As for its history, the wood pellet grill was invented by Joe Traeger in 1987, and Traeger was the exclusive manufacturer of these grills until the patent ran out and other companies began manufacturing pellet grills, too. Today, you can choose from Traeger’s range of wood pellet grills along with those from other brands when you’re selecting a cooker for your outdoor grill station.
How does a pellet grill work?
A pellet grill works through the combustion of wood pellets. The pellets are placed into a storage container called a hopper and then fed into a chamber by a rotating auger, which is powered by electricity. In the chamber, the pellets are ignited to produce heat and smoke for cooking. In short, learning how to light a BBQ in this way is really straightforward.
Here’s the lowdown from Jo McDonald, country manager for Traeger for the UK. ‘Traeger Grills work by moving wood pellets from the “hopper” to the fire pot where they are ignited by the “HotRod” to feed the flames and add flavor to your cooking. A fan then circulates heat and smoke for even, consistent cooking, and a drip tray keeps flames off your food.’
Weber pellet grills use the same process. ‘Wood pellets are stored in a large bin called a hopper,’ says Dan Cooper. ‘A rotating auger inside the grill moves the pellets into a fire pot powered by electricity. A rod inside the fire pot heats the pellets to your desired temperature. A fan circulates smoke and hot air to your food as it cooks for mouth-watering flavor. If you’ve added enough pellets initially, the auger will load more pellets for you automatically if needed throughout the grilling process,’ he adds.
The temperature of a pellet grill can be controlled precisely – much like that of an oven or gas BBQ – allowing you to pick how you want to cook a particular food and be confident of consistent temperatures throughout the process. ‘Pellet barbecues offer a wide temperature range, allowing for both high heat searing as well as low and slow smoking,’ says Dan. ‘So, you can sear perfectly juicy steaks, smoke low-and-slow BBQ ribs, make pizza, burgers, dessert, or whatever you have a taste for.’
Some models can also be controlled via an app as well as directly, so whether you've decided to BBQ a chicken or are grilling fish, cooking your favorite food couldn't be easier.
Pellets for a wood pellet grill
The pellets that fuel a pellet grill are made from wood, and they’re compact and easy to add to the hopper. They produce low amounts of ash, making cleaning a BBQ a straightforward job.
They are available from wood pellet grill manufacturers as well as from other companies and come in a range of flavors to complement what’s being cooked and suit your preferences.
‘All of Weber’s pellets are Carbon Trust and FSC-certified,’ says Dan Cooper. ‘Our SmokeFire hardwood pellets are thoughtfully crafted for the best tasting barbecue food and have been designed to enhance the flavor of your food with no fillers, just authentic wood-fired taste. For example, you can purchase Weber's Apple All-Natural hardwood pellets and pair with a poultry or pork dish for a delicious combination.’
Traeger also makes its own 100 per cent pure hardwood pellets and ‘only 100 per cent natural, virgin hardwood makes up each of the six delicious wood-fired flavors’, explains Jo McDonald of the company’s products. ‘Hickory, Signature, and Cherry hardwood pellets combine to create a blend that can take on just about anything you cook. From classic BBQ meats, to fish and vegetables.
‘The pellets are widely available online at Traeger and other retailers, as well as from garden retailers and can easily be stored at home,’ she continues. ‘The hopper on Traeger Grills hold 18 to 24lb of pellets so you can store plenty in the grill itself. We also sell pellet bins to ensure spare pellets can be kept dry and ready for use.’
Having a covered area near your grill, such as a BBQ shelter, can be a good option to ensure your fuel always stay dry and is stored close at hand.
Which foods are particularly good on a pellet grill?
A pellet grill is especially suited to some food and BBQ recipes. ‘I’d say that pork ribs are the best if you have continuous heat and smoke,’ says Dan Cooper, when discussing his grilling tips for pellet grills. ‘And you can do that in a pellet barbecue much more simply than you can with gas. It can also cook other things like fish and vegetables just as well as in a gas barbecue thanks to its ability to change temperature quite quickly, as well as the different heat zones.’
‘Pellet grills and the precision of temperature for low and slow cooks is perfect if you’re looking to cook ribs, brisket, or pulled pork without burning or drying out the meat,’ agrees Ross Bearman, Great Taste judge and founder of Ross & Ross Gifts, which has a range for those who love to BBQ.
But a pellet grill is an all-rounder. ‘Pellet grills are great for most types of food; they cook indirectly so can be used to bake, roast, grill and smoke,’ says BBQ demo chef Jack Rowbottom from @jacksmeatshack. However, he agrees on their particular strength. ‘In my opinion, they work really well for low and slow cooks,’ he says.
Is a pellet grill better than a smoker?
Whether a pellet grill is better than a smoker depends on your needs – it’s definitely more versatile. ‘Not only can you smoke but you can grill, bake, roast and slow braise, too,’ says Jo McDonald. ‘You can cook low and slow and hot and fast giving you the ultimate in flexibility. And, as you don’t need to monitor the grill and temperatures stay where you want them, you can spend more time with friends and family than at the grill.’
As for the taste? ‘One of the big arguments in the traditional BBQ community is that you can’t replicate the taste of wood or charcoal with a pellet grill,’ says Mike Tomkins. ‘The smoke from a pellet grill is a lot cleaner and certainly more subtle, which can be to many people’s taste, so don’t let the traditionalists put you off,’ he adds.
Are pellet grills worth it?
For many people, pellet grills are worth it. ‘The biggest pro of owning a pellet grill is its simplicity: you fill the hopper with pellets, set your desired temperature and time and that’s it – you can sit back and relax,’ says Mike Tomkins. So more time relaxing with friends and family at your BBQ party rather than slaving over a hot grill.
‘I think a pellet grill is a fantastic addition to any BBQ enthusiast’s collection and a brilliant all-rounder for someone getting into BBQ – it just may not be for you if you’ll only use your BBQ for burgers and the odd steak.’
Jo McDonald also emphasizes how easy and convenient they are and adds, ‘they can be used all year round as you don’t need to stand and monitor them so they can be used more regularly than other BBQs’. So if you love the idea of winter grilling, a pellet grill could be an excellent addition to your setup.
Are pellet grills easy to use?
Pellet grills are easy to use – and this is among their advantages. ‘A pellet grill is one of the most laid-back ways of cooking and it’s easy to control your cook,’ says Mike Tomkins.
‘Simply fill your hopper with your pellets, set the temperature of your grill through an electric thermostat and shut the lid. The only thing you may need to do is top up your pellets, depending on how long your cook is.’
‘Traeger Grills are incredibly easy to use – even if you have never cooked on a barbecue before,’ agrees Jo McDonald. ‘The easy controls and compatibility with the app means the temperature you set is the temperature you’ll consistently keep, which means you can deliver perfectly cooked food every time.’
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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