If you are looking for the best pellet grills, there are a number of factors to consider. This summary highlights the considerations to think about when selecting the right pellet smoker for you.
While this post is LONG it is important, because we’ve scoured every forum, question, and consideration that people were asking when it comes to buying a pellet grill. We dropped our opinions (and opinions of others) here. The investment you are about to make is a big one and you want to get this right.
When deciding on what cooker to use for grilling and smoking, there are a huge variety of manufactures out there. From Kamado Grills, like the Big Green Egg, to Drum Smokers, Offsets like Yoder Smokers, kettle grills, and electric smokers, it can be overwhelming to figure out which one is right for you. This post highlights the pros and cons of what a pellet smoker is (and isn’t) and to highlight the range of grills out there.
No matter what you read online, pellet grills are a great option for grilling and smoking. They are real smokers, and are good enough for competitive smoking. Yes, people are winning competitions on them. (Haters are going to hate, just ignore them)
Our first smoker was a pellet grill, and look at us now with our very own cookbook! They are convenient, great for people wanting both a smoke and a grill experience, but may not have the time to spend managing a fire, and have a variety of features depending on the manufacturer.
If you are like us, there may come a time when after using your pellet smoker you want and are interested in a charcoal and wood based smoker. Well, we have options for you too :). I mean, you can’t have too many smokers….can you?
What is a Pellet Grill?
A pellet grill is a grill and smoker that uses an electronic system to deliver food grade wood pellets from a storage bin (hopper) to a fire box. The wood pellets combust for heat and smoke to cook the desired food.
They are modeled after indirect offset smokers and many early models look like them. Meathead has a great write up of the nuances of how they work.
How does a Pellet Grill Work?
Wood pellets are fed from the hopper to the fire box with some type of rotating auger. The auger pulls the wood pellets along a tube and will speed up and slow down based upon the desired temperature of the intended cook.
The fire box has a heat rod that will ignite upon start up and light the pellets. Once the pellets are lit, the hot rod will turn off and the ongoing fire and combustion is fed with the auger, and a fan that will blow to keep embers and smoke going until you shut if off or a flame out occurs. (More on flame outs later).
The cooking method is indirect (unless your model has a direct cooking feature – which you want!) whereby the heat source is diverted around a heat plate to slowly cook your food in the indirect style of cooking.
One critical decision point to make when considering a pellet smoker is whether you have access to electricity outside because the whole system is run by an electronic system that requires power to run throughout the cooking experience.
Are they grills or smokers?
They are both. You can run pellet grills as smokers, or at a lower heat, or you can run at higher temperatures to grill hot and fast.
- They are easy to learn how to use. Turn them on, monitor the temperature, and focus on the cooking technique.
- Pellet combinations allow you to easily mix different wood types, like a blend of oak and cherry.
- Great transition for learning how to smoke without having to learn managing the fire as well.
- Searing at high heat can be difficult with most pellet grills.
- No charcoal-infused flavor like you would see with charcoal and wood based smokers. Therefore, the smoke flavor tends to be a bit more mild than you would find with other cookers.
- Needs electricity, so not ideal if you loose power or do not have access to an outside power source.
Selecting a Pellet Smoker or Grill
Understand what you get with your budget. You may only have $600 to spend on the grill (and that is OK), know that not all pellet grills are made the same. Focus on the most quality features for the price. Also consider saving a little more up to get the next tier if possible. But the two aspects to look for is a high quality temperature management system and the grilling space. Without good temperature controls, the smoker just won’t work and you will be frustrated.
What do you plan to cook? If you plan on only smoking, the sear factor is not important. Maybe you have a gas grill or other options for searing meat at a high temperature? That’s great. Focus on what your current and future cooking goals are and consider that in any purchase.
How much surface Area? Buying a pellet grill only to realize your beer can chicken doesn’t stand up in that model, or a packer brisket doesn’t fit, is incredibly frustrating. So be sure you consider how many people you intend to cook for, and what surface area you will need, to be sure the vertical and horizontal cooking space will meet your needs.
Pellet Grills Under $1,000
- Within this price range you should get a quality electronic board, temperature ranges from 160 degrees F to 450 degrees F, and decent grill space with at least one rack.
- Cons for price ranges under $1,000 is often a lack of a high heat grilling feature and temperatures that don’t get into the searing range (above 500 degrees). It also is the price range where cheaper construction can show in the smoker with electronic failures, warping to the steel or paint, and other issues you should not have to deal with.
- We love the Camp Chef Woodwind series for this price. Not only do they have awesome propane and flat top options, they make solid quality pellet grills under $1,000. The Woodwind series from Camp Chef offer great features, from WiFi to quality grates and electronics right off the shelf.
Pellet Grills up to $2,000
- As you get closer to $2,000 you start to see many more options like improved electronics, and most important, the quality of the actual metal being used for the grill. The metal quality, and the welding is important because thin metal leaks heat and is prone to temperature fluctuations from wind and weather.
- Yoder YS 640 ($1,799 retail) is an option in this price category. Yoder started as an offset USA based manufacturer, and we have been cooking on our Yoder offset trailer for years. These are durable, has great cooking surface area with a shelf (when smoking), they also have a high quality electronics system for monitoring temperature. The off the shelf version is great without any modifications needed. Downside is that over time you will need to touch up the paint, because of the way it’s designed. So it is more prone to weathering over time. Another downside is the positioning of the searing function. You have a smaller searing area near the fire pot versus a wider surface area for higher temperature cooking.
Pellet Grills Under $4,000
As you get into the upper price tiers of pellet grills, this is where the long term investment is so important to consider. First, these pellet smokers are loaded with options off the shelf that you would otherwise have to add on.
- Durable material. I can’t stress that having high quality steel and the right powder coating will avoid the rust and touch up work other grills at this price range have to have.
- Igniter with a life time warranty – be sure you are comparing if looking at other products. Besides a high quality controller, the igniter is a close second.
- WiFi ready temperature control you can manage from your phone as well as high quality probes that can handle heat and repeated use.
- Searing and Grilling Options with recorded temperature ranges up to 600 degrees F (We have had ours up to 625) with well thought out design that allows high heat/searing while minimizing flare ups and potential grease fires.
- Cold smoker features.
- Extra shelf space.
The MAK Two-Star General ($2,999 retail) is our go to grill in this category. It is also American made and hand welded. The “General” line of grills all come with high quality off the shelf parts. They include all the primary features of their lesser priced cousins, and all the high quality features you would expect. It’s a beautiful grill and the one we cook on.
Common Questions and Troubleshooting
Our go to pellet grill is the MAK Two-Star General, we have been cooking on one for years. But as we suggested, there is no one answer to this question. Look at the build quality, your budget, and the features to be sure it matches what you expect out of your cooking style and price range. But if you are looking for an amazing product that will last a lifetime, the MAK line of grills will not let you down.
A flame out is when the fire in the fire box goes out while the cook is still happening. This happens on ALL pellet grills. The most common reason is the fire being smothered because the ash has built up around the fire and smothers the embers.
Most of the time it is user error and a result of not cleaning out the smoker box between cooks.
To prevent flame outs, be sure the fire box and surrounding area is always clean. With a MAK Grill, you simply pop out the box to dispose of the ash before any cook. Otherwise you need a small shop vac to clean it up. Don’t allow ash to build up. It’s best to get in the habit of cleaning up after the ash and embers have cooled down.
Back burns are when the pellets inside the auger tube and potentially in the smoker box are combusting. This is evident when smoke starts to come out of the actual pellet box.
To avoid this common occurrence, buy a smoker with well built temperature control and fan systems. If the day is windy, angle the smoker so the wind is not blowing into the direction of the auger and pellet box. And keep the fire box clean. Most commonly this occurs when ash is building up in the fire box from prior cooking and the pellets are bunching up near the auger.
All grills and smokers have temperature swings (pellet and charcoal). If you review any pellet grill community you will see complaints of temperature swings. Do not be alarmed of swings, that is normal. Even ovens have them.
What is important is to understand that lesser models, or models hastily built, that don’t take care in the electronic temperature control and probes will have very LARGE swings. Large swings are to be avoided by buying a quality pellet grill that has manufactured and invested in the temperature management controls right off the bat as well as the design of the grill. To have to upgrade your temperature system makes no sense.
Potentially, yes. Like any grill or smoker, grease fires can happen if you do not clean the grill. This is why when reviewing pellet smokers, a key component is to be sure it has a grease trap system and deflector plates.
For example, cooking pork belly for six hours will render a lot of fat. Too much fat near a heat source can cause grease fires. Some manufacturers of pellet grills do not have great grease draining and grease fires can and will happen.
So keep the direct grilling area and deflector plates clean. Be sure the grease drain and buckets are free of obstruction and cleaned. AND prevent this by reviewing the grease draining system for your grill.
If a grease fire occurs, the best way to manage it is to turn off the smoker (to stop the pellets from loading), CLOSE THE LID AND VENTS to eliminate getting oxygen to the fire. Water is not an effective way to stop a grease fire. So the best way is to prevent one anyway. Call the appropriate authorities if a fire occurs.
No. Do not use a pellet smoker inside any building or shed. Like any other grill, it should be outside, at least 18 inches away from the home and in an area with a good draft.
Even if you vent the smoker, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or a grease fire causing damage to the structure is still there. Venting a smoker also starts to change the dynamics of how the airflow works, so it’s not recommended to add any venting to extend the smoke stack. Get a good cover to avoid it getting weathered.
Mary (a certified sommelier and recipe developer) and Sean (backyard pitmaster) are co-authors of the critically acclaimed cookbook, Fire + Wine, and have been creating content for the IACP nominated website Vindulge since 2009. They live in Oregon on a farm just outside Portland.
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