Summer is almost here, and with warm weather come family cookouts and competitive barbecues.
If you’re anything like me and love a good smoked brisket—but hate high-maintenance cooking—then you might want to consider using a pellet smoker as an alternative to traditional smoking methods.
Pellet smokers, pellet cookers, and pellet grills are the same thing, and the terms will be used interchangeably during the course of this article.
Just to clear a couple of things up, grilling is NOT barbecuing.
Grilling involves quickly cooking meat, fish, or vegetables quickly over direct heat. The flavor comes from the char, not from the smoke. Barbecuing involves long, slow cooking in a smoky environment.
A brief history of barbecue
Without refrigeration, which is a VERY new technology in the scheme of things, meat had to be either cooked and eaten immediately, or preserved. The two main methods of preservation were salting and smoking.
Salting meat involves large amounts of salt, which until recent times was a precious commodity. Ancient Roman soldiers were paid partly in salt, and this is the root of the word “salary.” Smoking meat was a much cheaper alternative.
When Spanish explorers arrived in the new world, they found Caribbean natives drying meat in the sun. This is an ancient practice, found all over the world. The problem with this preservation method is that the meat spoils and attracts insects. To combat these problems, people would build small fires and place the meat over them. This became a very effective preservation method, and is what we now call “cold smoking.”
The word that the indigenous West Indians used for this process is “barbacoa,” which is most likely the root for our word “barbecue,” although this is hotly debated among scholars.
As the New World was settled, Europeans brought pigs and cattle with them. Pork became the meat of choice for southerners, as pigs thrived in the south with very little tending. The racks used to preserve meat were replaced with pits and smoke houses.
Barbecue as a social event
Beginning in the 17th century in the south, pigs were allowed to forage in forested areas. They became semi-feral. When food was needed, pigs were caught, slaughtered and cooked. On many of these occasions, plantation owners would share their largess and would invite all of their tenants for a big meal, and the barbecue as we know it was born!
The holy quadrinity
Different regions of the United States have different styles of barbecue, named after their place of origin. The four styles are:
- Memphis, TN: Pulled pork shoulder with a sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce, served on its own or on a sandwich bun
- North Carolina: A whole hog marinated in a vinegar based sauce
- Kansas City: Dry rubbed beef ribs
- Texas: Beef, particularly mesquite grilled “cowboy-style” brisket. Eastern Texas is so close to Tennessee that it falls into the pulled pork camp.
In these regions, barbecue is considered a sport. Often a contact sport, so if you’re talking barbecue (kind of like politics), know who you’re talking to before you start sharing your opinions!
Check out this post for my suggestions for the best basting brush for grilling.
Barbecue in the modern world
Let’s fast-forward a few centuries. As humans, we’re genetically programmed to love meat. And we still do. But with busy lives and families, few of us have the time to tend fires and pay attention to long cooking meats. What are we to do? The short answer is to buy a pellet smoker. They are easy to run, and once you start the pellet grill and load up the meat, you can walk away. For hours. Really!
Once we get past the initial investment of buying a pellet smoker, they are an economical way of preparing food. One of the huge benefits of barbecuing meat is that we can (and want to) use less expensive cuts. The smoke and low heat break down the collagen in the meat and make for a very tender meal. You would never want to smoke a filet mignon, or even a good sirloin. And to be frank, good steaks taste better cooked quickly at a high temperature, achieving a good char on a hot grill.
A smoker can also be packed with several kinds of meat all at once. This means that you can cook a lot of food with very little fuel. During World War II, housewives were encouraged to fill their ovens when they cooked to conserve energy. This is the same idea. Much of what we barbecue can then be refrigerated or frozen for later consumption. Imagine coming home after a long day, pulling some pulled pork out of the freezer, and having a dinner fit for a king in less than 20 minutes.
Another way to prepare beef? Jerky! Check out my favorite dehydrators for beef jerky.
What is a pellet smoker?
Pellet smokers look similar to traditional barrel smokers, but include a hopper on the side or in the back that you fill with small pellets. These pellets are made from compressed sawdust and can come from a variety of hardwoods and fruitwoods, such as hickory, hard maple, or cherry – more on pellet fuel in a bit.
The wonder of using a pellet grill is that it requires virtually no effort on your part! You plug it in, fill the hopper with pellets, flip the “on” switch, and set the temperature. Some models let you set a timer for them to cook at a specific temperature for a certain length of time, sort of like a crock pot. A few of the higher-end smokers have thermostats that keep the temperature constant to within 5℉—all without you having to do a thing!
How do pellet smokers work?
Pellet smokers work on the same principles as a pellet furnace. Pellets, which are compressed from sawdust and wood shavings fill a hopper that is fed into a burn pot using an electric auger. The auger is a very large screw, like the one used in a meat grinder. A thermostat regulates the rate at which the pellets are fed into the burn pot. As the burn pot ignites (via an electric heating coil), the pellets burn and produce smoke and heat.
In a pellet stove, there is a heat exchanger which delivers the heat to your home minus the smoke. In a pellet smoker, both the heat and the smoke are delivered into the cooking chamber. This indirect heat is what cooks the food on the grill.
A word about pellets
The first thing that you need to know about pellets is that they produce more smoke at lower temperatures, and they burn cleaner. This is a great benefit, as the lower the temperature and longer the cooking, the better the flavor of the meat. Everything works together in tasty synergy! The lower the temperature, the cleaner the fire. You’ll be amazed at how little ash a pellet fire produces.
There is almost as much to discuss when it comes to pellets as with the smokers themselves, but I’ll keep it as brief as possible. Although it may be tempting to consider pellets meant for your pellet stove (they are much cheaper than pellets meant for smoking food), make sure that you only use food grade pellets. Pellets meant for heating your home may have fillers and toxic chemicals that you do not want your food bathed in.
Pellet smokers do not produce a deep, deep smoky flavor, but the pellets that you use do make a huge difference. Different types of wood will produce different flavors. Hardwoods, such as hickory, will burn the longest and cleanest, but fruitwood pellets may impart better flavor to your meat. This will impact the flavor of your finished product. It will also affect the cost. In general, fruitwood pellets are more expensive than hardwood pellets.
The biggest impactor on smoky flavor is temperature. Lower heat (around 180° F) produces more smoke and better smoke flavor than higher heat. You want your pellets to smolder, rather than burn quickly. No worries, your pellet smoker takes care of that for you.
Availability of pellets may also be an issue, depending on what part of the country you live in, and you may need to order pellets in bulk. That said, the only real answer to the question “what pellets should I use” is that you have to experiment and find the pellets that best suit your taste.
For a more in-depth discussion of the varieties of pellets, see my article on how to choose the best smoker pellets.
Augmenting the smokiness of your barbecue
Although many tasters do think that the results from a pellet smoker are comparable to a traditional smoker, some don’t. There is, however, a nifty little device called a “pellet tube smoker” which can be used in any grill or barbecue to supplement the smoky flavor. It’s a perforated metal tube that you fill with pellets. The tube sits on the grate, close to the meat that you are smoking, and generally provides about 4 hours of smoke per fill.
There is also a product called “mojo bricks,” which are placed in the burn pot, off to one side. They come in a number of varieties (or flavors, if you will), burn clean and long, and augment the smoke flavor imparted into your meat, deepening the smoky flavor that is so desirable in barbecue.
Why should I consider using a pellet smoker?
Here’s the thing: smoking meat takes a lot of time, because you have to cook the meat at a low temperature to get the best texture and flavor. Done right, it can take from several hours to a full day or overnight. With a pellet smoker, not only can you walk away, but you can smoke enough meat to freeze several meals. The time savings is compounded by the number of meals that you can have from a single cooking session (kind of like cooking on Sunday for the week – except you don’t have to be in the kitchen all day).
Conventional smokers require constant attention in order to maintain the right temperature—let them burn too hot, and the meat dries out and gets ruined. With a conventional unit, you’d have to devote all of that time to keeping an eye on the smoking process. It takes a lot of skill to keep the temperature down, and barbecue is all about low and slow.
Pellet smoking is a very economical way of cooking. You can use less expensive cuts of meat and get wonderful, tender results. You can also pack your smoker full, so for the price of a single cooking session, you can have multiple meals. Because the pellets burn so efficiently, the fuel cost is relatively low. From a fiscal standpoint, this is a great way to cook.
I don’t know about you, but I could check a lot of items off my to-do list in the hours it would take to smoke a few cuts of meat. Plus, if I’m having friends over for dinner, then I need that time to tidy up and prep sides and desserts.
With a pellet smoker, you can enjoy all the benefits of a good brisket without the hassle of babying it all day. All it takes is a flip of the switch, and making sure you have enough pellets handy to keep the process going. If you’re particularly type “A,” you can peek a couple of times, although this isn’t really necessary.
Even though some say that wood pellets don’t provide a strong enough smoke flavor, most agree that the results are actually pretty comparable to traditional smoking methods—if you do it right! Since the pellets burn so efficiently, they actually produce less smoke at higher temperatures—meaning you’ll get the best flavor with a long, slow burn on a low setting. As long as you budget enough time for the smoking process, you’ll end up with mouth-watering results!
What should I consider when purchasing a pellet smoker?
If purchasing a pellet smoker is starting to sound like a great idea, that’s because, well, it is! But don’t just rush out and buy the first model you see. There are a few key things to keep in mind when choosing the best pellet smoker for your needs.
First, do some homework on the cost. These smokers come with a wide range of price points and a variety of accessories, and, like most things in life, you get what you pay for. That doesn’t mean you need the biggest, fanciest model, though—especially if you’re new to smoking. The most important things to look for are the consistency of the heat the model provides and the unit’s durability.
I’d advise finding a mid-range unit from a reliable manufacturer. Even a well-made smoker may need maintenance or repair, and it’s best to be sure you can find the parts to get it fixed if needed. This is why you want to find reviews of the manufacturer and make sure that they have a good reputation for customer service.
Second, keep in mind the space you have to work with and how many people you plan to feed, because that will help you determine how large you want your unit to be. Also consider your cooking style. Will you load up your smoker in order to freeze some of what you have cooked, or will you only smoke one or two meals worth?
You will also need to take into account where you will place your smoker, and where you will use your smoker. You need to follow the manufacturers advice on how much clearance you need between your smoker and other structures, like your house for example. Will you need an extension cord in order to reach a power outlet? If so, check to make sure you find one with the right power capacity—otherwise, it could become a fire risk.
If you plan on storing the smoker under the eaves of your house and pulling it out for use, you need to consider the mobility of the unit. How cumbersome will it be to move when you want to use it.
Look at the wheels and the handles. Many units have only 2 wheels which means that you will have to lift one end (like a wheelbarrow) in order to move it. Some pellet smokers are built like Panzer tanks, and can weigh upward of 200 pounds..
Cleaning a pellet smoker is also a consideration. It can be a difficult and messy task. Only a few models have a trap door that gives access to the burn pot to easily clean it out. With many models, you have to remove a lot of stuff to get at the burn pot. Take into consideration how often you will be using your smoker. If you only use it occasionally, clean-up may not be a problem. The burn pot does not need to be cleaned out after every use, as wood pellets produce very little ash.
I’m reviewing a number of pellet grills in this section. One of them is the least expensive that I cold find, others are mid-range, and a few have all the bells and whistles. Please note that some of the models come in more than one size.
Pit Boss Model 340
- 340 square inch cooking surface
- Dial-in digital control with LED readout
- Automatic start and cool down
- Heavy-duty 16 gauge steel construction
- 180° to 500° F temperature range
- Convection fan
- Meat probe included
- 18 pound hopper capacity
Some of the other features of this unit is that it has a top shelf rack and large wheels for moving. This is one of the less expensive models. Most users were happy with the smoker, but a few reported that the wheels weren’t great, and that at low temperatures, the smoker goes out.
Traeger Pellet Grills BBQ155.01
- 292 square inch cooking surface
- Bronze lid finish
- Fully automatic auger
- Electronic auto start
- State of the art digital control
- 10 pound hopper capacity
This entry is also at the low-cost end. The cooking area of this unit is pretty small, and some users have stated that it isn’t large enough to hold a turkey. Another observation by several users is that this smoker is expensive to operate. The smoke vents are very close to the food, cannot be closed, and are very efficient, meaning that they vent a LOT of smoke and heat. And there is no trap door to remove the ashes.
On the positive side, the grease bucket is efficient and doesn’t catch fire (always a good thing!). The grill does a good job of smoking meat, and it is easy to clean.
Camp Chef PG24 Pellet Grill
- 429 square inch cooking surface
- Removable raised cooking rack
- Comes with LED digital temperature control system
- Features both a low and high smoke temp for everything from fish to beef
- Temperature range 160° to 500° F
- Stainelss steel temperature probe included
- Patented Drop down cleaning system no more taking apart the grill to clean
- Easy to assemble: video on assembly is available on Camp Chef site
- 18 pound hopper capacity
This model has a patented clean out system. While still at the lower cost end for home pellet smokers, this model packs some pretty great features. This model is one of only a few that has a trap door to access and easily clean out the burn pot. The controller has a built-in cool down function and high and low smoke settings. It also has a built-in meat probe port, so you don’t need to run the probe wire under the lid.
The two design features that make this smoker exceptional are that the chimney is on the back of unit, meaning that there is a small workspace on the right hand side. The back of the grill cover is squared off, making the top shelf roomier and more usable.
Some users have complained that it is difficult to empty the hopper of pellets for storage and that ashes are blown all over the bottom of the grill and need to be vacuumed out periodically, but for a lower end model, this is a real winner!
Louisiana Grills 60900-LG900 LG 900 Pellet Grill
- 913 square inch cooking surface (633 main 280 upper)
- Porcelain cast iron main grids
- Porcelain steel removable upper cooking grid
- Digital control center
- Temperature range of 170° to 600° F, adjustable in 5° F increments
- Digital, programmable meat probe
- Design has both direct and indirect cooking
- 14 pound hopper capacity
This grill, at the bottom of the middle range in price, is more versatile than others because of the ability to sear and grill (as opposed to barbecue). The porcelain cast iron grates are also a nice touch, as they are sturdier (and conduct heat better) than stainless steel. They are also marginally easier to clean than cast iron or stainless steel grates..
Some users have reported that cooking poultry in this smoker is a huge mess to clean up, as the fat accumulates in the bottom of the unit and leaks out over the grill body and ventilation holes. Several users have also reported hopper fires, which smell like a house is on fire, and wastes fuel.
REC TEC Wood Pellet Grill
- 702 square inch cooking surface
- Smart grill technology – maintains precise temperature from 180ºF to 500ºF in 5º increments
- High temperature durable textured powder coat finish
- This model can grill, smoke, sear, and bake
- 40 pound hopper capacity
- Micro polished stainless steel bull horn handles
Weighing in at a hefty 250 lbs, this is the first of the higher end smokers that I will review. This baby holds 40 lbs of pellets. The hopper is divided in two, and mixes the pellets as it feeds the burn pot, so you can easily combine your choice of pellets. It has a centrally located burn pot, instead of off to the side, which provides more eve heat distribution. It also has an internal light (like an oven light), so that you can see how things are progressing. The cart has four good sturdy wheels, including two that swivel and lock.
Pellet Pro Deluxe 1190 Stainless Pellet Grill
- 1190 sq inch cooking surface
- Stainless steel grill and hopper lid
- Heavy duty 13-14 gauge steel construction
- Set temp in 5° increments and maintains temp within 5°
- Temperature range of 160° to 450°
- 35 pound hopper capacity
This is a seriously heavy pellet smoker. Assembly requires two people. It has a huge cooking area, and is well constructed from heavy duty steel. The only drawback is that some users report that the thermostat isn’t accurate at the lowest temperatures (under 200° F), but since most pitmasters smoke at about 200° F, this shouldn’t be an issue.
Fast Eddy’s Cookshack PG500
- 784 square inch cooking surface
- 100% stainless steel, featuring a riveted assembly on the body
- The direct zone features stainless steel grates for durability
- Fully automated controller
- Electronically controlled thermostat
- Front access ash drawer for easy cleanup
- 30 pound pellet capacity
This model straddles the line between professional and home appliance. Far from the most expensive smoker you can buy, it has some interesting features, some of which SCREAM “restaurant equipment.” While it does have wheels, weighing in at 330 pounds, nobody is going to move it very far. It is constructed of solid stainless steel. Like a tank. This Fast Eddy features 4-Zone cooking for direct, indirect, cold-smoking, or warming/holding, so it can perform just about any grilling task. It sears as well as it smokes.
The control panel is as simple to use as possible. It has an on/off switch and a temperature setting. You turn on the unit, set the temperature (up to a searing 600° F), and that’s it.
Memphis Grills Elite 39-inch Pellet Grill – Vg0002s
- 1,252 square inch cooking surface
- Intelligent Temperature Control with Wi-Fi (yes, there’s an app!)
- Dual convection fans
- Temperature range 180° to 700° F
- Double walled, sealed 304 stainless steel construction
- 24 pound pellet capacity
- Automated recipes know exactly at what temp and how long to cook
By far, the most expensive pellet smoker that we’ve looked at. There is a similar model that is meant to be built in to an outdoor kitchen. This model has a dual hopper, so you can mix and match pellets. There is also a room for an upper grate that effectively doubles the already enormous cooking area.
This model can grill, smoke, and be used as a wood (pellet) fired convection oven, so although the price tag is high, it isn’t a one-trick pony. Not only does it have double walled construction (two layers of stainless steel with an insulating layer of air in between) to keep the heat in, but the lid has an oven grade gasket to further help with heat retention and to maintain a constant temperature.
I won’t make any specific model recommendations here, but I will advise you to keep researching. This article is a jumping-off place. When you find a pellet grill that you like, look at as many reviews as you can find. Look at Amazon, search with Google the company and the model number. Smoking sites abound!
As you read the reviews, realize that no product is 100% perfect. There are bound to be some bad reviews, but you have to take into account ALL the reviews. If you see a model that you like and the majority of reviews are 5 star, but there are two or three awful reviews, you can be pretty sure that the bad reviews were either a fluke or from people who didn’t follow the instructions and improperly assembled / used their unit.
Do some research on the company that makes the model that you are investigating. Look at the company website and for reviews on the company itself. Find out if the company has a good reputation for customer service. If you have a problem with your pellet smoker, how helpful will the company be? Some companies have videos to show you how to assemble, cook with and fix your smoker. This is a good sign!
Pellet smokers, whether inexpensive or wildly expensive, all operate on the same principle. Pellets are fed into a burn pot in which they smoulder away, releasing heat and smoke into the cooking chamber of the cooker. An electric (or electronic) thermostat regulates the cooking temperature with the aid of baffles, fans, and an auger that feeds pellets into the burn pot. Many of the models have electronic meat probes which work with the thermostat to regulate temperature.
The two most important things in producing quality barbecue are long, slow, even cooking and the pellets that you use to develop that wonderful, ethereal, smoky flavor. Although invented as a food preservation method, barbecue has evolved into a way to make tough, cheaper cuts of meat meltingly tender and delicious.
The next thing to consider is the size of the cooker. Will you be cooking for large crowds of people, or just for your family? Will you want to do large batch cooking in order to freeze future meals? Will you ever want to cook a turkey (this is only important if you are considering one of the smaller pellet smokers). Also remember that when smoking, the heat is indirect, so if there are two racks, one upper and one lower, both are equally effective. On some models, this second rack can effectively double your cooking area.
Another wrinkle in the equation of what makes the perfect pellet smoker is how large is the hopper? Depending on the burn rate of the particular pellets that you use, you may need to remember to feed the hopper if you are smoking something all day (or overnight). Unless you live in a very humid climate, it’s a good idea to keep your hopper topped off, just in case you forget.
Many models offer “dual” hoppers. You can fill each of the two compartments with different pellets and the auger feeds them into the burn pot at the same time. Most pitmasters use one type of hardwood, and one type of fruitwood. If you purchase a unit with a single hopper, it’s easy enough to mix your own pellets in a bucket. You can also buy pellet blends to avoid having to mix your own.
Cleaning the unit can be a concern. If you plan on using your smoker constantly, which many people do, how easy is it to clean? Do you practically need to take the unit apart to clean out the ash from the burn pot? Or do you need an ash vac (like the one you use for your fireplace) to clean the unit? How efficient is the grease removal system? Mine has a bucket that hangs off to the side. I line it with tin foil before every use, and I toss the foil as soon as the fat solidifies.
Many of the models we have looked at have all the bells and whistles, but they still work in the same way as the less expensive models. All the models, even the entry level ones, have digital thermostats that control the temperature by feeding pellets into the burn pot and regulating the airflow over the burn pot.
So where does the difference in price come from? This question is both easy and difficult to answer. All the pellet grills operate in the same way. The difference is in the design, construction and capacity. The Memphis Elite is the most expensive pellet smoker that I reviewed. It is far from the most expensive pellet smoker that you can buy. Once you start looking at pellet smokers with astronomical price tags, you are most likely at the boundary between home smokers and professional (or restaurant) models.
The price differential is in the materials, capacity, and construction. And to be fair, the high end models just look awesome! And impressive. And in some cases, downright beautiful. Kind of the Ferrari of the barbecue set.
Some of the lower end smokers get very high marks from users and are still well made. Regardless of your budget, if you do your research, you will get a decent pellet smoker, and your backyard barbecues will never be the same again!
Want to know more?
With this overview and the resources above, you are well on your way to choosing the best pellet smoker for your summer barbecue adventures. Good luck, and happy smoking.