If you want convenience, safety, fantastic BBQ taste, a wood pellet BBQ might just be the thing for you. Cooking over wood has become easier and safer over the last 10 years. Cooking over wood has has also come to your backyard and patios in the form of a wood pellet BBQ. Wood pellet BBQ, are classified as a type of indirect smoker and BBQ. They are easy to use and cheap to run. It’s really interesting watching these wood pellet BBQ’s evolve, seeing all the new products being produced by new players every year. As a huge BBQ enthusiast, I am thrilled with all the new toys. There are now many different makes and models to choose from. The newer pellet grills on the market all try to offer a new feature to differentiate their products from the other competitors. This is a win win for the consumer. I use the term grill, cooker and BBQ interchangeably in this article, but at a technical level, most of these pellet grills don’t and can’t grill as the heat from the fuel burn is indirect.
In a pellet grill you aren’t able to grill “over a flame” like you would over charcoal or your common gas grill. There is only one pellet cooker model as of today that offers true grilling, the rest only pretend. I will also use the term pellet cooker, pellet smoker or just pellet BBQ. These pellet “units” all smoke and cook and they do BBQ foods very well. At best, these pellet grills can be considered to be a type of wood fired convection smoker or cooker. In this article I will discuss wood pellet as a fuel, the mechanics of a pellet grill and how a pellet BBQ works. I will explain how a wood pellet grill controls it’s temperature. I will also talk briefly about all the current wood pellet grill manufacturers. It’s hard to keep the list current as there are new players every year. The big issue about wood pellet cookers is grilling and searing and lack thereof, I will discuss this as well. This for me, and if you can pardon the pun, has always been “my beef” with the grill manufacturers. Calling these units “Grills”, to me is false advertising on the part of the manufacturers, and their marketing teams. More on that later on.
The Wood Pellet as a Fuel
The wood pellets we use in our BBQ’s are composed of compressed sawdust which is usually a byproduct of the lumber industry. The pellets I use come from a hardwood flooring mill. The waste sawdust that comes from the mill is first passed through a hammer mill to provide a uniform dough-like mass. It is then fed through a press where it is squeezed through a 6mm die. The high pressure of the press causes the temperature of the wood to rise dramatically, and the lignin plasticizes slightly forming a natural “glue”. It’s this “natural glue” that holds the pellet together when it cools. Wood pellets are extremely dense and are commonly produced with a low moisture content (below 10%). This allows the wood pellets to be burned with a very high combustion efficiency. Some pellets used for home heating
can be a softwood hardwood mixture or blend and should be avoided. Wood pellets must not get wet, or they will disintegrate and turn into a pile of swollen sawdust. Since there are no additives, wood pellets burn almost completely. When pellets burn almost all of it is converted into energy and the resulting heat and combustion gases are desirable. You can see this from the amount of ash that’s left over from big long burns, clearly showing it’s efficiency. Meaning there is never a lot of ash buildup. By comparison, charcoal briquet’s which have some additives or fillers will leave much more ash as they don’t burn as efficiently. When a good hardwood pellet is used, as much as 8,500 BTU’s of energy per pound is created. Just like charcoal, the pellets provide great flavors as well as heat. Unlike a gas grill, you no longer have to mess about with wood chips to flavor your food. The flavor is already built into the fuel and great smoky flavored food can be produced. Since pellets can be made of any type of wood, wood pellet BBQ enthusiasts can choose from and cook with many different types of pellets, enhancing their food with different flavors for different occasions. Commonly used pellets are oak, maple, ash, mesquite, apple and cherry. Many more pellet types are available. Often the producer can’t guarantee the source or type of wood used in their pellets and so they are marketed as hardwood blends. If I can’t be sure of the source and wood types, I don’t buy. There are also softwood hardwood blends that are sold for wood pellet furnaces for home heating. These pellets should not be used for cooking. You will get less heat and a rather poor tasting chicken dish. No one likes spruce flavored chicken. When I am putting on a pig roast, I use maple and oak for the first half, then finish with cherry and mesquite wood pellets. The pigs go low and slow, with lots of smoke. It’s really nice to be able to change your fuel and flavor on the fly.
How Do Wood Pellet Grills Work
If you live somewhere cold, you will have a furnace in your house. The furnace burns a fuel and the heat is passed through a heat exchanger and then out through the ventilation ductwork to your living areas. The heat exchanger separates the nasty gases from the heat and sends it out the furnace chimney, so to speak. And the heat is transfered efficiently through the exchanger up the plenum to the ventilation ducts. Some home owners use wood pellet stoves to heat their homes as opposed to the standard hydrocarbons produced by the oil and gas industry. The wood pellet grill is essentially a smaller wood pellet furnace with the heat exchanger removed. In the case of the wood pellet grill the byproduct of the burn, “smoke” is your friend. Wood pellet furnaces have a hopper which stores the pellets which are fed to a burn or fire pot. It’s the fire pot which is the engine of the pellet grill. The fuel is fed at a specific rate to the fire pot, which in turn is burned at a specific rate and produces the desired amount of heat and smoke. Oxygen is blown into the fire pot, providing extra fuel to help burn the wood more efficiently producing more heat. The burn process creates a large flame which is deflected by some fashion of a flame diffuser and spread evenly throughout the cooking enclosure. This is how the heat is supposed to be distributed evenly. Therefore a wood pellet grill needs electricity and needs to be near an outlet. Wood pellet grills have moving parts, usually just an auger to move the wood pellets to the fire pot and a fan to move oxygen to the fire pot as well. The slower the auger feeds the wood pellets to the burn pot, the lower the heat. The lower the heat, the more smoke is produced. The faster the pellets are fed into the fire pot, more heat is produced. The higher the heat, the less smoke is produced. It’s as simple as that. The assorted manufacturers just engineer minor twists to this basic design. Because the heat is indirect in most cases, these cookers usually have a drip plate under the grill, which takes all the fat and drippings and drains it off to some location. It is usually a pail of some kind. Because of this design, you can cook an arm full of chicken and not burn the neighborhood down.
Also I might add that it’s much more difficult to burn food in a pellet cooker as there is no visible or direct flame. So you can put 3 whole chickens in your pellet cooker, and walk away and not worry. To me, this is a huge and meaningful feature. From a safety point of view, a wood pellet BBQ is a safe way of cooking compared to gas or charcoal. You can turn it on, and knock it over, drag it down the road and there will be no explosions or unfortunate fires. You aren’t cooking with a mound of red hot charcoal or propane tanks with old gas regulators. You do have electronics to deal with, but I have very little issues with this aspect of the pellet cooker. This type of BBQ or smoker is truly a set and walk away type of unit. I love being able to fill it up full of chicken and not have to stand beside the BBQ with a hose, ready to put out the impending flames. That is utter silliness. These are great machines for this type of cooking. On a pellet grill, there is no concept of a “2 zone” cooking system. Meaning you can’t have one hot and one warm section of the grill. Like having a second level rack in the back of the gas grill, or one burner on, one off. Some folks find this technique indispensable, a very important tool for the charcoal Pitmaster. Wood pellet grills just don’t work that way. Rotisseries are never an option in a wood pellet grill. The reason being that a wood pellet grill is essentially a wood fired convection oven. So the heat is moved or blown around sufficiently to cook the heat from all angles giving you the same effect as having a rotisserie.
Starting a wood pellet grill is usually as simple as flicking an on/off switch. Inside the pellet cooker, electrical current is flying down the circuit to an igniter rod witch is located at the bottom of the fire pot. The electrical current causes the igniter to heat up and eventually glow red hot. Just like what an electric charcoal starter does. The igniter rod “ignites” the pellets while a fan blows oxygen into the burn pot enriching the fuel mixture. After a pre-determined amount of time, the igniter shuts off, but the fan keeps going. I’m not %100 sure of the draw, but the igniter rods draw a lot of current. Likely +- 5 amps. Then after the igniter is off, the only hydro being used is from a small A/C fan motor, which is likely less than what your common light bulb uses depending on your model, but less than 100 Watts. I’ve used a small Traeger to feed smoke to my smoke house and left it on for over a week for cold smoked salmon. My hydro bill was unremarkable, or at least no different than a regular month. But the salmon tasted great. One of the benefits of a wood pellet grill is that there are multiple types of wood pellets. This is simply because there are many different types of hardwood that produces a great smoke. As I mentioned above you can buy almost every kind of wood pellet, from maple, apple, hickory, ash, cherry, oak and onward. This is really really great. You can’t buy cherry natural gas, hickory hardwood lump charcoal. The charcoal crowd has to use wood chips to compliment their coals. Smoke from charcoal does produce a more profound smoke flavour but that’s another discussion. All this to say, owning a pellet cooker gives you a lot of flexibility with respect to your fuel and what type of fuel to use. When I roast a whole pig, I use maple and oak for the first 4-5 hours, and I finish with cherry and hickory. Tell me my hogs don’t taste good!
Pellet Grill Temperature Control
How do pellet grills control the temperature? Unlike a charcoal BBQ or Kamado shell, vents and airflow isn’t used. Unlike a gas grill burner control knobs aren’t used. Wood pellet grills have a controller which is an electronic device which controls the speed at which the auger feeds the wood to the fire pot. In simple terms, this is all it is. But there are many ways to skin a cat. There are some basic 3-way analog switches where you are given the option of high medium and low settings. For a backyard BBQ guy, you can do some very nice food with this setup. The 3-switch analog controllers are associated with the lower end models, like the low end Traegers and Brinkmanns. You have no thermostat to tell the controller what to do. If you are okay with a pellet grill that has little or no temperature control, then this is for you. I think you will actually have less temperature control than a charcoal BBQ. Maybe even a gas grill. Having said that, I’ve cooked many a prime rib on a 3 way controller. Real enthusiasts want to be able to control their temperature with a tad more granularity. This is where temperature probes and digital thermostats come into play. Some of the better high end models use temperature probes to tell the controller what the internal temperature is. If the temperature falls below a certain threshold, the controller then feeds more pellets and air into the burn pot.
The high end pellet grills with the digital thermostats are really equivalent to your indoor thermostatically controlled oven. Only, the food tastes better on your outdoor one Boeing builds a lot of jets to fly people around the world. They don’t design and manufacture their jet engines though. They sub this out to Pratt & Witney, Rolls Royce or GE etc…This is one hell of an analogy, but it works. These pellet manufacturers rarely design and manufacture there own temperature controllers. Some of the really high end pellet grill manufacturers have made their own controllers which can control the temperature up to +- 5°F. This is really important when you are doing high end cooking where temperature is key. The BBQ tournament folks who travel around with Fast Eddy’s or a Memphis Pro’s buy these high end pellet grills for this type of temperature control. The bulk of the controllers used by the more standard pellet cookers come from a company called Ortech Controls. Pardon the pun, but the “Ortech RealTemp TR-100 Digital Controller” can be referred to as the “meat and potatoes” of the temperature controller world. (Actually a pretty good pun). The accompanied photo’s here show what they look like.
Wood Pellet Cookers and Grilling and Searing
Lets clear up some definitions before we get too deep into the grilling and searing aspects of the wood pellet grill. There I ago again calling it a grill…. Grilling by definition means cooking over direct radiant heat with temperatures in excess of 500 °F. Because of the high heat, the food is cooked quickly. There has been a bit of confusion with respect to the source of the heat being from above or below. If the heat source is from above, it can be referred to as grilling but is generally referred to as broiling. DON’T turn your BBQ upside down so you can broil! You don’t need to broil your steaks So direct radiant heat from underneath is grilling. By contrast, searing can actually be a by-product of grilling. Searing is when you cook food at a very high temperature to seal the outside of your food. Be it beef, poultry etc… Blackening or browning meat is a type of searing. Searing can be done over a grill (direct ratiant heat), or even in a pan over a burner. Herein lies the confusion; even the heavy weights confuse us by their company names let alone their product names.
I’ll use Traeger Grills, as an example. A Traeger uses indirect heat, and they don’t even get that hot. So by definition, that is not a grill. But one hell of a smoker/BBQ. So why would Traeger call themselves a “Grill” company? I guess you would have to ask a company rep, but maybe because it’s a more marketable name. Don’t know. You can’t grill on any pellet cooker that is based on indirect heat. There is only one wood pellet cooker that I know of, that you can, and it’s even more unique, in that it is based on a Kamado style ceramic shell. You get a bit of a 2 for 1 bagger out of that unit. Using indirect heat from a wood pellet grill, at best you have yourself a great smoker or BBQ. You just can’t do a noble job of grilling or searing a steak on a pellet cooker. No comparison to what you can do on a charcoal grill. Indirect heat is not “radiant” heat, so even if your pellet cooker is twice as hot as the hottest pellet cooker on the market, it’s still not technically grilling. You might be able to sear the steak. Some pellet cooker manufacturers have tried various techniques to have “grill” like effects in their models. No go. It’s still not grilling. You are better off buying a small charcoal BBQ to do just that. Everyone one needs at least two BBQ’s, it should be a law.
Buying a Wood Pellet Grill
When it comes to putting the credit card down on the counter, there are many things to consider first. First and foremost is what models are available in your area. The retailer you are buying from, are they an authorized dealer, can they help you when there are problems? If you order a pellet grill online, are you willing to deal with a 1-800 number for parts and the “wholly crap what is that noise” phone call? A wood pellet grill has moving parts, and things do and can break. A kamado cooker only has vents that move. Rarely do things go bad, like a massive ceramic failure or cracking. Do you have access to wood pellets? Sounds crazy, most area’s have access to wood pellets. But you could be stuck in an wood pelletless island. Where you will be stuck making small orders costing a lot of money, just for your basic fuel. Again, making sure you are getting good hardwood pellets and not mixed softwood hardwood blends. When you buy your wood pellet grill, check out your manufacturers warranty. This is an important factor, more so than on a Weber Kettle as an example. Again, moving parts, and moving parts can and will break. Also make sure you have an outside hydro outlet. Sounds crazy, but believe it or not my house as an example never had one. It’s an older house and I guess the builder and owner never thought of putting one in. Think about your climate. If you intend to use your wood pellet BBQ all year long but it goes to 30 below zero in the winter, most wood pellet BBQ’s will have a hard time as they are rarely insulated enough to handle this type of climate. Some of the newer models can handle the cold. For a comprehensive guide on the best pellet grill/smoker, read my article here.
The Final Word on the Pellet Smoker
Sometime back in the mid 2000′s I had a pig roast, I cooked a 45 lb. suckling pig in my Traeger Texas Style pellet grill. I had 45 good friends over. I am not exaggerating, lying or bending the truth. A week later, 11 people went out and bought a pellet BBQ. At the time, all that was available around here were Traegers. So our neighborhood formed a Traeger brotherhood, so to speak. This type of cooker speaks for itself. Someone said…was it a Mr. Traeger..? You can taste the difference. That is not a marketing term meant to sell a product. It is the truth, you can taste the difference.
Most of the pellet grill owners I know are fanatics about their cookers. Many of them have charcoal to augment their cooking toys. Learning to cook well on a wood pellet grill isn’t too tough a task to deal with. Learn the principles behind smoking, low and slow, hot finishes etc…Learn to use a mop or liquid on your meat when you smoke to get a stronger richer smoke flavour. Learn to use different wood pellets for different flavours. Perfecting the low and slow cook offs for briquette or pulled porks. Learn to cook tough meats with liquids etc.. A lot of fun combining smoke with many flavours. Learning to bake cornbreads, breads rolls. Wood pellet cookers are still evolving. In my opinion, I see the wood pellet cookers as modern and easy to use versions of the old Brinkmann Pitmasters. The real workhorse of the wood fired BBQ’s.