Gas and charcoal grills have dominated the U.S. market for more than half a century. Gas delivers convenience, because it starts instantly, and lets your control heat by turning dials. Charcoal gives you more control, because you can build and shape any size fire to direct the heat, and the fuel imparts a smokier flavor.
What if there were a grill that proved even easier to use than gas—and also imparted a distinctly smoky flavor, reminiscent of food cooked over charcoal? That’s the promise of pellet grills.
Pellet grills have been around for more than 30 years, but they are really starting to gain in popularity. They’ve made the shift from niche to mainstream, in part because grilling has surged in popularity in recent years.
How a Pellet Grill Works
A pellet grill looks like a regular gas grill, with a metal hopper mounted on the side which holds the wood pellets used for fuel. The fire imparts a smoky taste, because the wood pellets are made from flavorful hardwoods like hickory, oak, pecan, and cherry. Today’s pellet grills feature an electronic thermostat with a digital display so that you can dial in a precise cooking temperature; the hopper automatically draws the appropriate amount of pellets into the firebox, where they're ignited. The grill holds the temperature steady, like an oven, adjusting the rate at which it burns pellets to maintain that set temperature.
Perhaps the biggest appeal of a pellet grill is its ability to maintain a low, steady temperature for hours on end without the need to make any adjustments. That’s the precision you'd want when it comes to slow-smoking ribs, brisket, or pulled pork without burning or drying out the food.
You want the heat to be uniformly deflected across the entire cooking surface. That doesn’t matter so much for smoking, but it’s critical when you’re cooking a bigger batch of foods that are similar in size and shape, like burgers and hot dogs. An even-heating grill ensures that everything comes off the grill at once. Pellet grills tend to heat very evenly, and as a group, they're far more even heating than gas grills.
This is the biggest limitation of pellet grills. Most max out at around 500° F, while many gas and charcoal grills can get as high as 800° F. Kamado grills, like the Big Green Egg, can reach temperatures in excess of 1,000° F for searing. Pellet grills make up for this in part by excelling at the low end, getting down to temperatures as low as 150° F. Most pellet grills aren't the grill you'd want if searing steaks is your top priority.
Convenience and Cleaning
As a group, pellet grills are all over the map when it comes to cleaning and convenience. As with any type of grill, some designs are better than others. One of the easiest-to-clean models actually drains all the fat drippings right into a metal bucket mounted to the side of the grill, where you'll actually see it and remember to empty it. This is a feature of Green Mountain Pellet Grills. (Most grills hide the fat drip tray in a spot that makes it too easy to forget.) The best also have large casters, which make them easier to move, and ample shelf space—in addition to side-mounted shelves. The most premium models have built-in temperature probes, WiFi, and compatible apps, so you can check the temperature of a brisket from across the yard and even adjust the temperature from your phone.
Should You Buy a Pellet Grill?
Pellet grills are the perfect fit if you like the taste of smoke and don't care too much about searing. They're versatile enough to tackle chops, fish, and of course, classics, like ribs, brisket, and pulled pork.
Pellet grills are exceptionally easy to start and offer a level of temperature control without equal. They also excel at cooking things like veggies, chicken breasts, pork chops, or just about anything that can border on boring without a touch of smoke. And though they may not operate at a hugely broad temperature range, it's easy to see how for an aspiring pitmaster, or even a casual backyard chef, a pellet grill is tough to beat.
For more information on pellet grills, contact The Fireplace Showcase.