Popular pastimes in America has always included firing up the backyard grill, but recently supplementing this trend is an interest in smoked slow BBQ, the Texan or Southern traditional way of slowly grilling meats at a low Fahrenheit with enough smoke for flavor and indirect heat.

As a result, sales in smokers have surged.  For the minority of folks, this means a first unit, and not usually a small unit either, since the population of smokers generally are those that are offset with a requirement for plenty of space.

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Out with the old, in with the new? Not so fast there!

The problem with having access to a variety of grills can be a bit ambiguous.  Those times you hear the word “barbecue” in conversation usually means somebody is going to grill (or has already grilled), or cooking with a flame underneath.  All other forms of outdoor cooking are less common.

Smokers vs Grills

Smokers are mostly used for select instances when you’re craving a particular slowly cooked barbecue specialty, like pork shoulder and brisket, or ribs, but there isn’t anything a grill can do, be it your standard steak to catering a crowd with burgers, seafood, vegetables, pork chops, chicken, hot dogs, and the list goes on.

Not all smokers, but the vertical types in particular, can also act as charcoal or wood burning grills in the style of a kettle, but this wouldn’t be a typical solution for those who grill frequently, and in June through August, or all months in warmer parts like Nevada when guys commonly have more than one BBQ night in a seven day span.

According to a Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association’s report, those who own wood pellet grills is increasing.  Their market share in 2015 accounted for 2%, but 7% of those looking to buy planned to take home a pellet grill the following (2016) year.

Since smokers get typically used less often than grills, factoring in how convenient it is becomes significant: while it’s good use of time to light a charcoal hardwood fire if you’re expecting a quarter of a day’s time cooking ribs, this is too much a hassle for many people to serve two people a couple burgers or hot dogs.

This naturally narrows down the selection of grills to deciding between more wood fired, flavorful cooking or more convenience with propane- two grill types with little similarity, while some guys prefer one of each (in addition to a smoker).

In an imperfect world, there’s a limit to space, but if it weren’t, there would never be a need for an outdoor chef to make compromises.  Somebody living out on the country/rural side would have plentiful and cheap space to allow a wood fired standalone smoker.

But more Americans than not are living in a suburban or urban world where there’s a limit to backyard square footage, a balcony even, or a patio, and if there was one grill you had to go with that can truly do anything (except perhaps fly away- unless BBQ drones is a thing): there’s almost no reason to side in an argument against pellet rigs.

Tri tip cooked in a pellet grill
Tri tip cooked in a pellet grill- thanks Ray B.

Pellet Smoker Advantages

With one of these, you can grill or slow smoke.  Both can be done easily and are super at it, with real fire and wood but minus the hassle or constraints on time, quickly lighting without chimney starters or the mess, and then accurately cooking with little watching over.

The “Ammunition”

Compared to a pencil eraser, hardwood pellets are about 2x the size, which you’d burn in a pellet grill.

You get these in bags, and they come in more than one flavor (same thing with wood chunks), like mesquite, oak, and hickory.  They’re nonspecific brand-wise and are available readily by mail order or in stores.

pellets for grill

Not all brands of grill work the same, but when you move away from the lower end, pellet grills get better, generally having an electronic auger (which a firebox gets fed pellets by) and a hopper to store the pellets.

An electronic igniter is typically featured with the firebox, a utility that rises in temp after the grill is started, and when you drop pellets on it, they produce flame.  As it gains momentum, the old pellets ignite the new.

There’s not much else to it- no matter if you sear steaks at 500 degrees (each side for two minutes) or slow smoke 11 or so hours at 215 degrees.  Get it turned on, the temp set, and heated up to where you want it.  Propane will be slightly faster, but a grill or wood fired smoker will be much slower.

Why the Pellet Grill hate?

  • They’re naturally fool-proof.  Those aficionado outdoors-man frown at pellet grills because for the most part they take away all the different variables that can commonly setback a backyard cook, and in their eyes it isn’t as rewarding (in a way) and not as much of a challenge.
  • Their portability is limited.  Pellet grills depend on electrical current, so bring an inverter or generator if you’re going somewhere with it.
  • Use your trusty Weber grill if you want sear marks.  Not with these.  That’s because these smokers use indirect heat (driven by fan) to run.  How I look at it, the market labels them as “grills”, but they better fit the definition of a smoker.
  • More expensive than budget-friendly.  Pellet grills go from 2-$300 up to $4,000+.

The hardware is controlled via computer, and a digital thermostat dials in the temp, no different than a wall oven, followed by the auger and computer feeding pellets when necessary to keep the temperature maintained precisely.

Before stove burners and ovens, kitchens had fireplaces, but come the instance of boiling water in a pot for noodles, baking a cake, or heating up a sauté pan for stir fry, you’ll hear no complaints about how burners and ovens have made cooking way less difficult.

The Best Pellet Smokers?

Just 8 or so years ago (in 2008), pellet grills were only manufactured by two brands (MAK and its rival, Traeger).  But after the first patents on Traeger expired, the floodgates opened to a rise in competition.  The mainstream is quite familiar with pellet grills now.  In North America alone, pellet grills are produced by 20+ different companies.  Even BBQ competitors are tallying up wins after first embracing these ground-breaking smokers.

#1. Memphis Grills: Really good thermodynamics, electronically sophisticated, and designed stylish.  Not many other pellet grills allow the burn chamber to be removed on top.  In this way you can direct cook with a pellet wood fire underneath.  Find more info on these here.

#2. Yoder Smokers: Known well in BBQ competition circuits, Yoder lists three different pellet smoker models, from the cheaper YS480 ($1,100) to the $3,600 YS1500 (trailer-mounted).

#3. Rec Tec: Been in the game for about 6 years, Rec Tec has manufactured a pellet grill with plenty of cooking space- shy of 700 square inches.  You can calibrate the temperatures in increments of 5 degrees, with the pellet hopper holding as much as 40lbs of pellets.

-The smoker is currently priced this much.

#4. Traeger Pellet grills: They broke ground by revolutionizing the BBQ scene by launching the pellet grill and their following is large thanks to a line of budget-friendly grills (selection goes from $300 and up)

#5. MAK Grills: Offers four ‘Made in USA’ pellet BBQ models from the $8,000 4-Star General down to the $1,600 1-Star General.  The “FlameZone” (their trademark) climbs to a 500 degree temperature and can do direct-style grilling.

#6. FireCraft: Also USA made, the FireCraft Pellet-Q450 is one heck of a pellet grill, priced for about $900, and can do indirect and direct grilling.  Also included is a feature they trademarked called “Pellet Exchange“, which gives you the option to switch out the flavors of pellets quickly.

 

Img– CC BY-ND 2.0, img #2– CC BY 2.0

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