Ultimate Guide-What is a pellet grill/pellet smoker? 40+ FAQs

What is a pellet grill

There’s no hotter product in BBQ than pellet grills aka pellet smokers. Thanks to better marketing, increased exposure, and widespread availability in big box stores, more and more people have been introduced to these do-everything set-it-and forget-it cookers.

Automated, versatile, and unlike any grill people have used, pellet smokers are the perfect one-grill solution, allowing you to smoke authentic BBQ, slow-roast a turkey, grill a steak, or bake pizza all on the same cooker. Yet, for a product billed as the answer to your every backyard cooking need, pellet grills raise plenty of questions.

To provide as many answers as possible in one place, we’ve put together this list of popular pellet grill questions. Hopefully, this FAQ will serve as a sort of Pellet Grill 101, offering all the information you need, along with links to even more resources.

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What is a pellet grill/pellet smoker?

Pellet grills, which are also called pellet smokers, are electric outdoor grills that are primarily fueled by wood pellets. These capsule-sized hardwood pellets serve as both fuels for cooking and a flavor enhancer that adds the taste of wood smoke to the food.

Incredibly versatile, pellet smokers can serve many barbecuing purposes; they can smoke, grill, roast, bake, and braise effectively when called to the task. Pellet smokers are a set and forget grill, thanks to the presence of a digital control board, and they are super easy-to-use.

They can automatically maintain the set desired cooking heat temperature for hours on end. Some pellet smokers are equipped with wifi receivers. These wifi pellet grills/smokers (Amazon Link) can have their temperature automatically set and controlled via any wifi enabled device like mobile phones or tablets. 

Why cook with a pellet grill?

The brilliant combination of versatility, flavor, and set-and-forget technology makes pellet grills the best grill for people who want the flavor of a charcoal grill with the ease and temperature accuracy of a conventional kitchen oven.

Pellet grills can smoke, grill, bake, roast, and braise food at the touch of a button and finally infusing food with real wood smoke aroma.

Additionally, pellet grills/smokers are easy-to-use and can automatically maintain their temperature, enabling you can just set the temperature, start the cooking, and walk away; it is the Tesla of modern grills.

What meals can you cook on a pellet smoker?

Since pellet smokers combine the cooking abilities of a grill, smoker, and kitchen oven, the only limitation to what you can cook is your imagination.

You can grill chicken, seafood, burgers, vegetables, and hot dogs; You can smoke authentic and flavor-rich BBQ meats like ribs and brisket; slow-roast a tenderloin, a turkey, or prime rib; braise ribs chunks; you can even bake a 12inch pizza, bread pudding and of course, my favorite a blueberry pie.

How do pellet grills/smokers work?

Pellet grills or pellet smokers rely on advanced digital technology working together with several mechanical parts.

The wood pellet grill is lit, and the cooking temperature is set using a digital control board present on the grill. It uses an algorithm to calculate how many pellet pieces are needed to reach the desired temperature.

Then it further calculates the intervals when those pellets need to be “fed” to the fire to maintain the set temperature. 

An electronic rotating auger then automatically pushes and “feeds” the pellets from the “hopper” to the fire, where a fan strokes the flames and distributes heat and smoke throughout the whole grill chamber.

To maintain a uniform temperature throughout the entire grilling process and prevent flare-ups, a diffuser plate is situated between the fire pot and grill grate above it. While the food continues to cook, the pellet grill continues to feed the perfect amount of precalculated pellets needed to maintain temperature.

How do you use a pellet smoker?

Pellet smokers are incredibly easy to use maintain. Just load your favorite pellets flavor into the hopper. Next, program the desired temperature on the controller depending on what you intend to cook, then put your food on. That’s it. The pellet smoker will automatically maintain its temperature for as long as there are pellets inside the hopper to burn.

Do pellet smokers need electricity to work?

Absolutely. Though pellet smokers or pellet smokers cook by burning pellets, they still have vital electric components(the digital control board, auger, and fan) that require a standard 110v outlet to power.

Are pellet smokers the same as pellet grills?

Yes, and you’ll be surprised to know that pellet grills go by many different names: such as pellet smokers, electric pellet smokers, wood pellet grills, wood-fired grills, and electric smoker grills just to name a few. They all refer to the same thing grill; a versatile electric outdoor cooker that’s fueled by hardwood pellets.

What is a Traeger®?

Traeger makes the most well-known brand of pellet grills. Joe Traeger invented it in 1985 and gave his name to it. Because of a patent, it was also the only pellet grill available for years. Since the patent expired, many different brands on the market with more becoming open every year.

Is a pellet grill the same as an electric smoker?

No. Although both use electricity, they are different. Electric smokers cook food using a heating element and use wood chips or wood chunks to add smoke. They also tend to have a limited temperature range compared to pellet grills, making them suitable for smoking and slow-roasting at low temperatures, but not grilling, searing, or anything that requires higher temperatures.

Currently, Masterbuilt and Char-broil are one of the best electric smokers in the market.

What are wood pellets made from?

Often called smoker pellets or bbq pellets, the food-grade wood pellets that fuel a pellet grill are produced from 100% hardwood. Made of compressed sawdust sourced from a lumber yard, sawmills, and trimmed treetops and limbs, the food grade pellets are all-natural and contain no fillers, although some pellets use vegetable oil as a lubricant.

Can I use heating pellets with my pellet smoker?

Never use heating pellets to fuel a pellet smoker/grill. Heating pellets may contain impurities such as bark and leaves or could be sourced from softwoods like pine, which may be unhealthy to ingest and can leave food with an off taste. Those impurities may also cause the pellets to burn less cleanly, potentially causing problems with your pellet grill’s performance.

Where should I store my smoker pellets?

Pellets should be kept in a cool and dry place that’s safe from moisture and humidity and termites. Excessive moisture can make the pellets difficult to light or cause the pellets granules to swell, which can cause jams in the grill. Many people use a covered 5-gallon bucket for storing their wood pellets.

Can I leave pellets in the hopper when I’m not cooking?

Yes, it’s okay to leave pellets in the hopper for a limited time after you’re done cooking. However, if you’re not sure if you’re going to be cooking on your grill for several days, you may want to empty the hopper so that they don’t absorb any moisture from the air.

Can I cook on a pellet smoker without using pellets?

No, the pellets are more than just a flavor enhancer, they also provide the heat for cooking food.

Does it matter what brand of pellets I use?

More important than the brand is the quality of the pellets. Many pellet grill makers state that you have to use their pellets on their grill (some even say you’ll void your warranty if you use another brand).

This is their way of ensuring only use quality pellets (and selling some pellets in the process). However, any high-quality food-grade pellet will work with any.

That being said, many cut-rate pellet brands don’t de-bark their wood, creating inconsistency in the pellets. That can prevent the pellets from burning cleanly, resulting in excessive ash that may interfere with airflow and cause temperature fluctuations.

Often when people are having trouble with their pellet grill, cheap pellets are the culprit.

How do you know which pellets are okay? Be wary of any pellets with a price that seems too good to be true. A 20-pound bag should cost in the neighborhood of $16 – $23. If you see a bag priced significantly less, be skeptical of the quality.

How long does a bag of pellets last?

On average, a pound of pellets lasts between an hour and an hour-and-a-half when smoking at 250°F in ideal conditions (75°F, no wind). When you increase the cooking temperature, the pellets burn more quickly. In cold weather, you’ll also burn pellets at a faster rate as the grill tries to maintain the desired temperature.

How many pounds of pellets does a pellet smoker hopper hold?

It depends on the grill. The average hopper holds about 18 pounds of pellets, allowing you to smoke for 18-24 hours continuously without having to add pellets.

Where can I buy smoker pellets?

You can find a variety of wood pellets in all kinds of flavors here. Now that pellet grills are becoming more popular; you should also be able to find them in many big box stores, although there won’t be as many brands or varieties to choose from.

What wood flavors do smoker pellets come in?

Wood pellets come in almost every imaginable hardwood variety. The most popular wood flavors are hickory, apple, cherry, pecan, oak, maple, mesquite, and peach. You can pair flavors with specific foods to create a complimentary taste profile or mix them to create layers of flavor.

I just bought a pellet grill. What pellet flavors should I get?

The two most popular flavors are hickory and apple. Between the two, you can cook anything. Hickory goes excellently with poultry and pork but also has a strong enough flavor to stand up to red meat. Likewise, apple can be used with poultry and pork but has a sweet and mild profile that pairs well with lighter fare like seafood and vegetables.

Are flavored pellets 100% of the flavor of the wood indicated on the bag?

Sometimes. However, often it’s a blend of woods. Many wood pellet makers start with a base of oak or alder that has a neutral flavor and provides a consistent burn then add the flavored wood for the desired taste. (Alternatively, some brands use essential oils from the flavored woods.)

Because every type of wood burns differently—at different rates and temperatures—using a blend based on oak or alder offers a consistent burn and provide predictable heat output and burn rates.

That way, whether you’re cooking with cherry or hickory, you can count on a pound of pellets to cook at roughly the same temperature and for the same length of time.

Do pellets produce the same smoke flavor as wood chips or wood chunks?

Because they burn so cleanly, pellet grills produce a cleaner, milder flavor than a traditional offset, which adds smoke flavor through both charcoal and wood chunks. Whether you think that’s a good or bad thing, solely depends on your preference.

Many people who don’t like a heavy smoke on their food prefer the lighter flavor produced by pellet grills. On the other hand, it might be a little light for those accustomed to the more aggressive smoke flavor produced by a traditional smoker.

What’s a P Setting?

Some pellet grills, such as Traeger Grills, have an adjustable knob called the P Setting. The P stands for Pause, and it represents the delay between when the grill feeds pellets to the fire.

The grill comes with a standard factory P Setting. By adjusting the P Setting, you can increase the Pause, which allows the pellets to smolder longer and produce more smoke. However, since you’re also adjusting the pellet feed, adjusting the P Setting can come at the expense of temperature control.

Do I have to use pellets on a pellet grill, or can I use wood chips or chunks instead?

Only use food-grade wood pellets on your pellet grill. Never place wood chips or chunks on or around the firepot. The fire could grow out of control, producing excessive heat that may damage vital electronics on the grill.

Can you cook food over an open flame on a pellet grill?

Pellet grills are primarily indirect cookers that use convection for cooking food rather than the heat of a direct flame.

A deflector plate sits between the fire pot and cooking grate to help keep temperatures consistent throughout the girl while also cutting down on hot spots and eliminating flare-ups.

Some do have a direct grilling option, which allows you to grill over an open flame through an opening in the deflector plate.

Can you sear on a pellet smoker/grill?

You can sear on some pellet smokers/grills, but they are the minority. It’s generally accepted you need to cook at a minimum of 500°F to sear. Because most pellet smokers are primarily indirect cookers that top out at 400-425°F, they are not particularly good for searing.

However, some can reach 500-700°F, as well as some that offer direct grilling options that allow you to sear the meat over an open flame.

Can you cold smoke on a pellet grill?

No. Cold smoking is done at very low temperatures, usually between 70-80°F, but most don’t go below 180°F. That limitation makes it reasonably tricky to cold smoke on a standard type.

However, some brands like Traeger and Louisiana Grills offer optional accessories that make it possible, and the Fast Eddy’s PG500 has a warming drawer that can be set up for cold smoking.

What is the controller?

The digital controller is the brains of the pellet grill. It’s the computer and uses a chip, sensors, circuits, and an algorithm to regulate the grill’s temperature and make sure it accurately maintains the temperature programmed into the control board.

The controller is probably the single most crucial part of your grill equipment, and how good the controller usually determines how well the equipment performs.

Are all pellet grill controllers the same?

While all controllers are digital and utilize algorithms, they aren’t all the same. Some are more sophisticated than others, allowing for better temperature control.

Some have knobs, while others have one-touch buttons. Some will enable you to set temperatures at 25°F increments, while others can be programmed in 5°F increments. Controllers also differ in how well they maintain that temperature.

A standard digital controller feeds a predetermined amount of pellets to the fire to achieve the desired temperature.

No matter what the grill’s internal temperature reads, it will keep feeding that same amount of pellets. They can maintain a temperature within +/- 25°F. Most of the pellet grills on the market, particularly entry-level models, feature this type of controller.

A variation on the standard controller utilizes limits to tighten the temperature as needed.

When the grill goes too far above or below the set temperature, reaching a predetermined threshold, the grill will modify its auger cycle slightly to increase or decrease the number of pellets fed to the fire. This is similar to how a typical kitchen oven works. These controllers can maintain about +/-15°F.

Finally, a PID (Proportional–Integral–Derivative) controller uses a more sophisticated algorithm and a feedback loop to precisely maintain its temperature. A PID controller continually checks the grill temperature, compares it to the set temperature, and adjusts the pellet feed as necessary, allowing it to maintain the desired temperature within a few degrees.

I have an older pellet grill, can I upgrade the controller?

Very often, you can upgrade the controller on an older pellet with an updated controller from the same brand. For instance, you can update an old Traeger 3 position (low-medium-high) controller with a newer Digital Elite or Pro Series controller.

However, with some brands, new controllers may only work with specific models or models made after a certain year, so be sure to look for any exceptions or exclusions.

Can you update an old Traeger?

Yes, there are several ways to update older Traeger models. Traeger’s new controllers can be retrofitted to earlier models. You can also upgrade to a stainless steel fire pot, heat diffuser, and drip pan, which last longer and resist corrosion. Traeger also offers the option to upgrade the cooking and hopper lids to stainless steel.

Can I use a controller from one pellet grill maker on a different brand?

It’s not recommended. Controllers aren’t universal. Even if the controller works on another grill, it may not perform as expected. Controllers are precisely tuned for a particular brand/model, taking into account grill size, shape, and airflow, as well as the design of the fan and firepot.

These factors are not consistent from brand to brand, making it unlikely that a digital controller designed for one grill will perform nearly as well another brand/model.

Can you use a pellet grill in cold weather?

Yes. However, some perform better in cold weather than others. Most pellet grills that use a standard non-PID controller have been tuned for ideal conditions.

That means when a manufacturer claims their grill can maintain that +/- 20°F, they are referring to a 75°F day with no wind or precipitation. If it’s windy or cold, these grills tend to lose their ability to maintain that temperature range.

Because a PID controller continuously measures its temperature and adjusts its pellet feed to meet the desired temperature, it maintains its temperature just as well in cold weather as under perfect conditions.

Do you need to use an insulation blanket on a pellet grill in cold weather?

Because they are designed for optimum performance in perfect conditions, Most brands recommend using an insulation blanket when temperatures drop below 35°F.

What is the best pellet grill?

While people always want a black and white answer, the truth is that the best pellet grill to buy is the one that best fits your needs. Depending on budget, location, family size, and usage, that answer can change from person to person. Read more on how to choose the best pellet grill for you.

Are stainless steel pellet grills better?

Stainless steel pellet grills are more durable and will resist rust and corrosion better than painted steel models.

Are heavier pellet grills made from thicker steel better?

While traditional offset smokers rely on beefy construction to hold and maintain their heat, pellet grills rely on their digital controller. An excellent controller can accurately maintain the temperature on just about any pellet grill, regardless of its construction. So, if you’re looking at a heavy-duty model, you may be paying for extra steel you don’t need.

That being said, a well-constructed pellet may be more durable and prove to be more fuel-efficient in cold weather.

Do pellet grills need to be seasoned?

No. Always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines, but a pellet grill shouldn’t need to be seasoned. Seasoning a grill or smoker is a way to coat and protect parts that are vulnerable to rust, such as cast iron grates. However, most are made from powder-coated steel or stainless steel, eliminating the need for seasoning. Some pellet smokers often include instructions to run the grill cook at around 350°F for an hour or so, but this is just to burn off any manufacturing oil, not to season it.

Can I install a pellet grill into a countertop or island as part of an outdoor kitchen?

There are some built-in pellet grills available, notably by Memphis Grills.

People will sometimes attempt to turn their stand-alone pellet grill into a built-in. However, it’s not recommended and may void your warranty. Installing a pellet grill into a countertop can alter airflow and the amount of heat it retains, affecting performance and potentially damaging the grill. Before undertaking any DIY project, always check with the manufacturer.

Do all pellet grills have inputs for connecting a meat probe?

Some, but not all controllers have inputs for meat probes, allowing you to monitor the internal temperature of your food on the LCD. Of those that do have inputs, some include the probes with purchase, while others offer them as an optional accessory.

What are programmable meat probes?

In addition to monitoring your food’s internal temperature, programmable meat probes allow you to program the finishing temperature into the controller.

When the meat is done, the controller automatically lowers the grill’s temperature to keep food warm without overcooking it. However, not all meat probes are programmable. Programmable meat probes are generally found on more advanced pellet grills.

Are there wifi pellet grills?

There are a few brands that make wifi pellet grills (e.g., Memphis Grills and the Traeger Timberline). Some pellet grills with wifi capability allow you to connect directly to your grill—in essence, the pellet grill becomes the network, giving you control within a limited range.

Better wifi pellet grills allow you to connect your grill to home your network, giving you the ability to control your grill via a cloud-based app or web page anywhere you have internet access.

Are there portable pellet grills for tailgating? What about extra-large ones?

Pellet grills come in every size, including portable ones that are compact enough to be taken camping, tailgating, or just about anywhere, as well as extra-large pellet grills that can be used for catering or small business.

Do portable pellet grills need to be plugged in?

All pellet grills need electricity and so require a power source. There are, however, adapters that allow you to connect to your car battery or a portable 12v battery, allowing you the freedom to make use of your pellet grill even when a standard outlet isn’t available. Best pellet grill/ pellet smoker adapters can be found here

How do you clean a pellet grill?

Like all grills, you should clean your pellet grill regularly, including removing any food and debris from the grates and diffuser plates. However, you should also clean any ash from your firepot regularly. Ash buildup can affect the pellet grill’s airflow, as well as its ability to ignite the pellets and maintain a consistent temperature.

Do I need a cover for my pellet smokers?

It’s also a good idea to invest in a good grill cover to protect your pellet smokers from the elements and keep it looking and cooking like new.

How much do pellet grills/smokers cost?

Pellet grills are available at a wide range of prices, from inexpensive bargain-priced models that cost as little as $399 to premium high-end models that cost $5,000 or more. In general, though, a medium-sized pellet grill of decent quality starts at around $699.

If you’re willing to go smaller, you can get a quality pellet grill for under $500. If you want more cooking space, expect to pay more money. As you add features PID temperature control, a direct grilling option, meat probes, wifi, and stainless steel construction, the price tag goes up.

Are pellet grill prices comparable to gas grill prices?

No. On average, pellet grills cost more than gas grills because of the digital control board and automation, which require more technology and engineering.

The difference in pricing often affects the perceptions and expectations of shoppers. While $400 might get you a high-quality gas grill with a generous cooking area, that same amount will likely only get you a small pellet grill or a cheap pellet grill that’s likely to break down in a year or two.

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