If you’re looking for a versatile, simple to use cooker then you should seriously consider a pellet smoker.
While you won’t win any points with the old fashioned traditional pit masters, the ability to effortlessly produce excellent barbecue has made pellet smokers a popular option in the last few years.
It’s true that even an entry-level pellet smoker will set you back more than charcoal or gas. But for a little bit extra up front, you’ll enjoy the simplicity and versatility that is causing pellet smokers to take over patios around the country.
In this guide we’ll break down the best pellet smokers available in 2018. We’ll also run through some of the pros and cons of cooking with pellets to help you make up your own mind.
Oh and don’t be confused if you see the “pellet grill” and “pellet smoker” used interchangeably. They refer to the same thing.
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Click to jump straight to each topic
- The best all around pellet smoker – Camp Chef PG24 Deluxe Pellet Grill
- The best affordable pellet smoker – Traeger Junior Elite Pellet Grill
- The best portable pellet smoker – Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett WIFI Grill
- The best large pellet smoker – REC TEC Wood Pellet Grill
- The best entry-level pellet smoker – Bradley Smokers Original
- Who pellet smokers are best suited for
- How pellet smokers work
- Durability and Construction Material
- Size of the Hopper
- Plan how much cooking real estate you need
- Common features and capabilities
- Length of Warranty
- Pellet Consumption
- Beware of gimmicks
- Customer Service
- The pros and cons of buying a pellet smoker
The best all around pellet smoker – Camp Chef PG24 Deluxe Pellet Grill
The Camp Chef deluxe is an excellent mid sized smoker that strikes a perfect balance between quality and value for your dollar. The temperature control is super simple and gives you plenty of options to dial in depending on what you are cooking.
With 429 square inches of cooking area you can easily fit several racks of ribs at once. Unlike with a charcoal smoker, you’ll be up and running in 10 minutes.
The Camp Chef ticks all the boxes you would expect from a pellet grill at this mid price point. You’ll enjoy the set it and forget it style cooking, clean flavor and minimal ash to clean up. All of the main parts are built with heavy gauge stainless steel and feel sturdy.
Like other pellet smokers you dial in different pre-set temperature settings on the thermostatic controller. You can choose between 175 – 400, as well as several other pre-sets like “High”, “LO Smoke” and “Hi Smoke”. You can easily hold at an ideal smoking temp of 225-250° consistently for many hours.
We wanted to focus on a few of the areas that make this smoker stand out from the competition.
What we liked:
- The unit comes with a stainless steel meat probe that lets you display the internal meat temperature on the LED screen. While it won’t be as reliable some third party thermometers it’s much better than a dome thermometer.
- Camp Chef smartly positioned the smoke stack at the back of the unit, which gives you more space to work with on the right hand side.
- If you haven’t used a lot of smokers before you might not realize how much clean up effort is involved. This unit comes up with trap door for easy burn pot clean out.
- We are always surprised at how few pellets this unit eats up. Although your results may vary depending on how cold / windy the weather is.
What we didn’t like:
- While it doesn’t seem to effect everyone, some people experience an issue with the temperature sensor failing after only a few uses. Camp Chef have good support though so if any issues do crop up they should be easy to resolve.
While the Camp Chef can get almost up to 500°F (hot enough to produce crispy skin on a chicken), it’s never going to compete with a dedicated grill for searing. This is something that all pellet smokers struggle with though.
Luckily you can add on a Sear Box which attaches on to the side of your smoker and allows you to grill at temperatures up to 900°. If you find yourself grilling often, this makes an excellent addition, and turns this into a total do it all cooker.
Other than the stingy one year warranty period, we struggled to find anything else to fault this grill on. It’s a super versatile unit (especially with the add on sear box).
If you’re worried about buying a charcoal smoker and only firing it up 3 or 4 times a year then you can’t go wrong with this unit. You’ll be looking for any excuse to fire it up and experiment with smoking just about anything. It’s that easy.
Get the latest price on Amazon.
The best affordable pellet smoker – Traeger Junior Elite Pellet Grill
Read full review.
With 292 square inches of cooking area and LED digital thermostat control, the Junior Elite from the original pellet grill brand Traeger is an excellent choice for budget conscious smokers.
While the low price point puts this unit just outside our recommended price bracket, with the Traeger you are getting a well built unit.
Since this is the Junior model, you give up a bit of space compared to the other entry level Lil Tex Elite Smoker which packs an extra 126 square inches of surface area. So if you are going to be cooking for larger groups you might want to consider upgrading to the Lil Tex, or going for one of the more expensive options below.
What we liked:
- Thermostatically controlled pellet smokers are usually more accurate than your kitchen oven. So you can leave it running all night and wake up to delicious barbecue without worrying about any temperature flare ups
- You can be up and smoking super fast. Setup is easy to follow and the entire unit can be assembled in about 30 minutes.
What we don’t like:
- The controller only comes with 9 temperature settings, so you don’t have the ability to dial in the exact temperature you want. This doesn’t mean the unit doesn’t work, you can still cook amazing food. It’s just more geared to beginners who don’t want to fuss around with temperatures
- Because the auger runs on adjustable timer setting, it feeds pellets in for 15 seconds and then shuts off. This means that it doesn’t take into account temperature swings throughout the day, or wind which can effect your cooking. Keep this in mind if you will be cooking in a extreme conditions.
Dan calls this the “Lazy Mans Smoker”, and does an excellent break down of the unit over on his YouTube channel.
So if the small size isn’t an issue for you, and you don’t want to fuss over exact temperature settings, the Junior Elite is an excellent budget pellet smoker.
Get the latest price at Amazon.
The best portable pellet smoker – Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett WIFI Grill
Read full review.
When you think of pellet grills, being portable isn’t the first thing you think of. For one, you need to have a source of electricity to plug the grill in to. You can’t just grab a bag of charcoal and fire it up anywhere.
Having said that, the Green Mountain Davy Crockett also include adapters so you can get power from an outlet in your house, your car cigarette lighter or from your car battery. You could also use a generator.
Nothing else comes close in terms of features and portability at this price point. The WiFi control via tablet or smart phone is an awesome feature that lets you control the temperature of your grill remotely (handy if you’re lying by the pool).
While you might not have heard of Green Mountain before (they only started selling in 2008), the company is producing grills that match and often exceed what Traeger is making.
What we liked:
- This grill made our selection for best portable pellet smoker due to a couple of key features. The legs fold into a convenient carry handle, and it comes packaged with the accessories you’ll need to power the smoker from a range of sources.
- The Davy Crockett gives you far more temperature control than many other pellet smokers. Using the manual control panel you can make 5 degree adjustments. And if you want to really dial it in you can use the app to make one degree adjustments.
- Speaking of the app, not only does it give you the ability to adjust the temperature remotelly, you can also program in unique instructions. For example, you can set it to cook at 225° for 5 hours and then automatically change to 250° for another 4 hours.
- It’s also nice when the app tells you that the hopper isn’t feeding in wood pellets and the temperature is dropping. This sure beats running outside to check the grill.
What we don’t like:
- Due to the weight of the smoker and the awkward way the legs come off, we would still recommend having two people to maneuver the smoker.
- The WiFi connection can be unreliable at times. This is really dependent on your individual setup, but we’ve found the grill can loose connectivity at time.
Other than that the build quality is excellent. The materials are heavy and feel like they are made to last. Unlike most smokers that you setup once and then leave forever, this unit can easily fold up and be moved.
You’re not going to be able to cook as hot as some other pellet grills out there, but this unit should easily reach 420 degrees. For a relatively small package you can still cook a good amount of food. A 10lb brisket or a few slabs of ribs shouldn’t be a problem which should keep the campers happy!
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The best large pellet smoker – REC TEC Wood Pellet Grill
Once we you get over the $1,000 price point the competition for large grills starts to really get fierce. At this price point you get a wider range of features and a lot more cooking space to work with. But the decision becomes more important.
If looks are important, then this unit wins every time in our opinion. The red lid, curved horn handles and chimney are a unique touch that helps this unit stand out.
Luckily what’s on the inside doesn’t disappoint either.
What we liked:
- This is a large smoker! With 702 square inches of cooking surface the REC TEC offers more space for your dollar than most of the competitors.
- The digital PID controller gives you extremely accurate temperatures and control. While this unit doesn’t come with an integrated meat thermometer, we actually consider that a plus because if you’re spending this much on a smoker you are definitely going to want to invest in a good wireless thermometer
- The massive 40 pound hopper is conveniently placed at the back of the grill. The large hopper combined with a short auger allows you to cook for much longer without having to worry about refilling the hopper.
- You get excellent build quality to go with the striking appearance. The body metal is made from 10 gauge steel, which while not as thick a Yoder smoker, is more than enough for insulation.
There’s a lot else to like about this grill. From the very low fuel consumption (average of 1lb of pellets per hour at 225 degrees), to the 6 year warranty.
The guys over at StokedOnSmoke have a nice unboxing and setup video that gives you a good idea of how this grill is put together and some of the many other features.
What we don’t like:
- For a unit of this price it would be nice if it came with some of the other bells and whistles like WiFi
- The base could be a touch wider to provide greater stability when moving.
Other than that there isn’t a lot to complain about. You can throw any type of food in for short or long times and the REC TEC will handle it with ease. If you’re trying to decide between this and the REC TEC mini then we have a full review on the Mini that compares the two grills.
Even though this unit weights in at 250 pounds you can still get it shipped to your door. Get the latest price on Amazon.
The best entry-level pellet smoker – Bradley Smokers Original
If there’s one type of smoker (besides an offset) where we really recommend staying away from the cheapest option it’s pellet smokers. Even our best entry level recommendation, the Traeger Junior Elite just squeaks in to our recommended price range and it’s almost twice the price of the Bradley Original!
Having said that, not everyone has a lot of cash to splash out on a new smoker. So while you can get a better quality charcoal smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain for a similar price, if your hearts set on a pellet smoker, you can definitely do worse than the Bradley Original.
This four rack smoker is very easy to use. The unit holds a steady temperature well, although it can take quite a while to get up to temperature. Clean up is also super simple with the racks pulling out for easy cleaning.
With four racks and 572sq” of cooking surface you get a lot of real estate to work with as well. Although we did find the racks were a little bit flimsy.
What we liked:
- Setup is super simple. This is the smoker if you want a low learning curve and a cheap price point.
- There’s a decent community of Bradley Smoker owners online so it’s easy to get advice and find recipes.
What we don’t like:
- Some of the parts won’t hold up as well as you would like, so you may find yourself replacing a heating element after a couple of years.
- The temperature can take a while to get up to ideal cooking temperature. If you wait until you reach temperature before putting on any large pieces of meat this should help though
We won’t include the built in thermometer as a negative, as even far more expensive units come with unreliable thermometers that can be off by as much as 10-40 degrees. Always invest in a quality thermometer setup.
While the Bradley won’t blow away any veteran pit masters with the depth of flavor or ability to control the temperature to the nth degree, this is still a solid choice for a first smoker.
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Who pellet smokers are best suited for
It doesn’t seem that long ago that only two companies were making pellet grills. Back in 2008 if you wanted to buy a pellet smoker you could choose between Traeger and MAK.
It’s a testament to the popularity of this type of smoker that there are now so many new brands available to choose from.
Prices for decent pellet grills start at around $400 and can run well over $1000. When you can get an excellent charcoal smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain for under $300 you may be asking yourself why would you want to buy a pellet grill?
It only takes two words to sum up the benefits of cooking with a pellet smoker. “Convenience” and “versatility”.
If the price isn’t a deal breaker for you though, the convenience is really amazing. Get used to throwing a brisket on, setting the temperature and then just get about your day (or sleep through the night) without a worry.
Because pellet smokers run off electricity they can also be a great choice if you live in a condo or are unlucky enough to have restrictions on burning charcoal or wood.
How pellet smokers work
As the name implies, these smokers run by burning cylindrical wooden pellets. A typical set up will include a hopper on the side where you add the pellets. When you plug in grill in and set the heat on a digital controller, the pellets start getting pushed through and turned into heat and smoke.
Meathead explains in more detail how this process works over at amazingribs.com.
The controller is one of the most important parts of a pellet smoker. It’s the computer that regulates the temperature in your pellet cooker throughout the cook.
There are a few different types of grill controllers out there:
- 3 position controllers: These controllers are generally found on cheaper pellet cookers, and have 3 settings – low (225°F) medium (325°F) and high (425°F). They are also known as LMH controllers. They feed the pellets into the burner in fixed cycles so you don’t have a great amount of control over the temperature.
- Multi-position controllers: These controllers allow you to adjust the temperature in smaller increments. Pellets are fed in fixed cycles meaning these controllers still don’t offer amazing accuracy. A multi-position controller is typically accurate +/-20°F, in ideal conditions. A nice feature of these controllers is the addition of an LCD screen.
- One touch non-PID controller: This type of controller gives you the ability to adjust the temperature in 5-10°F increments. However, they still feed pellets in fixed cycles meaning that they can only offer accuracy of +/- 15-20°F. They also feature LCD screens, one touch buttons and many have inputs for meat probes.
- PID controllers: PID controllers are considered by many to be the gold standard of grill controllers. Using complex algorithms, temperatures are accurate to within a few degrees. The pellet feed is constantly adjusted to maintain the correct temperature, and this type of controller can even accommodate programmable meat probes that work in tandem with the controller to lower the temperature when the meat is done. They also feature LCD and one touch buttons.
Durability and Construction Material
Don’t be fooled by an attractive pellet grill exterior. Even if there is plenty of stainless steel on the outside, the manufacturer may have cut corners and used cheap materials that will rust on the inside.
The components of your pellet grill that matter the most are the fire pot, flame deflector, drip pan and grates. If these components are made of marine grade stainless steel, you have a cooker that will last you a lifetime.
If you’re looking at a grill made with powder coated steel, make sure that it is a very high quality coating. As soon as the paint blisters and chips, your cooker will start to rust and these components will deteriorate.
It is also worth noting that a pellet smoker made of high quality materials will perform better. High quality materials will retain heat, ensure more efficient pellet consumption, and maintain temperature better in the cold weather.
Size of the Hopper
The hopper of your pellet cooker is the container which stores the pellets ready for the auger to take them to the fire-pot. Therefore, the size of your hopper essentially dictates how long your cooks can be. So, settling for a hopper that is too small will prove to be annoying to say the least, as your cooks will fail to go the distance.
As a guide, a pellet grill with a 40 pound hopper will give you around 40 hours of cooking time at standard smoking temperatures. Considering some cooks take around 20 hours, an 18 pound hopper, for example, is going to be problematic.
And remember, if you live in a colder climate, your cooker will use even more fuel to bring the smoker up to, and maintain temperature.
You can purchase hopper extensions for your pellet grill. Make sure the hopper extender you buy is compatible with the pellet smoker you purchased, and that the manufacturer is reliable
Plan how much cooking real estate you need
Before deciding how big your cooker needs to be, you need to ask yourself a couple of questions. How many people will I be cooking for? Do I plan on cooking large cuts or even a whole pig?
Remember that bigger doesn’t always mean better. Purchasing a huge pellet cooker can really just mean wasted pellets.
A standout feature of pellet smokers is that the temperature is even across the cooking area. As a result, there should be no temperature difference between the top rack and the bottom rack while cooking.
Bearing this in mind, let’s discuss the difference between the primary cooking area and total cooking area. Primary cooking area refers to the area on the main cooking plate. Total cooking area takes into consideration secondary racks.
Therefore, a large cooker with a primary cooking area of 500 square inches, might actually be of less use to you than a smaller cooker with a total cooking area that includes a 450 square inch primary rack and a 125 square inch secondary rack. If you couldn’t be bothered doing the math, that’s 575 square inches of total cooking space.
The bottom line is this – take stock of what you need, and don’t be fooled into thinking that bigger is better.
Common features and capabilities
Unlike your traditional charcoal or offset smokers, pellet grills can come with a whole bunch of bells and whistles. Some features you should think about include:
- WiFi capability: Companies have started to take advantage of the fact that pellet smokers have a computer in them by design. By integrating WiFi connectivity, you can monitor and control the temperature of your grill from just about anywhere, as long as you have an Internet connection. Companies like Green Mountain Grills are now providing free apps that you can download and make use of for ultimate convenience.
- Meat probes: Some pellet cookers have outputs in their controller that allow for meat probes to be plugged in directly. Readings taken from your meat can then be displayed conveniently on the screen of your cooker.
- Grilling options: In the past, a drawback of pellet cookers was their lack of grilling capability. Some manufacturers have made grilling possible, either by removing part of the diffuser plate, or by providing a dedicated grilling area within the cooker.
- Add-ons: Manufacturers often offer a variety of add-ons. Check what features come standard, and what are add-ons at extra cost. Some add-ons are offered by companies independent of the manufacturer. If a feature is important to you, but is not a standard feature of your particular cooker, make sure it is available as an add-on before you buy the cooker.
Length of Warranty
There are some fairly high tech components in pellet smokers. There are also moving parts, such as the auger. This means that there are parts of your cooker that may break, and that you may not be able to fix yourself.
Make sure you are clear about exactly how long your warranty is, what it will cover, what would void it, and where you would need to take your smoker for any repairs under warranty.
Warranties vary between manufacturers, so don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions.
Nobody likes a pellet hog, that is, a pellet burner that chews through excessive pellets.
If your pellet cooker is too thin, heat will be lost through the body of the cooker. It will use a lot of pellets just to maintain the temperature.
If the metal is too thick, you will also use a lot of pellets. The walls of a thick-bodied smoker act as a “heat sink”. Heat is taken away from the cooking area and stored in the walls of the cooker. So, it will take a lot of pellets to get the cooking area up to the desired temperature. While thick walls are desirable for some types of cookers, they are not required in pellet smokers.
Do some research and find out how many pounds of pellets per hour the smoker burns. Anything up to a pound per hour, at smoking temperatures, is OK. For example, Bruce Bjorkman of MAK claims that his barbecues only use about ½ a pound per hour on the smoke setting.
Beware of gimmicks
In the world of pellet smokers, there is a fine line between useful technology and tacky gimmicks. With increasing competition among manufacturers, companies are keen to stand out above the rest.
That is not to say that all features are simply gimmicks and should be dismissed as such. Ultimately, you have to think about whether the features on the pellet smoker are of actual use to you.
If the feature is something you would consider helpful, is it included at the expense of other, more important things, such as pellet usage or durability?
For example, consider the inclusion of WiFi, or other remote control features.
The manufacturers of the Rec Tec Grill firmly stand behind their decision to not include a remote control in their smoker. They argue, “This is a grill. You gotta go outside and put the meat on the grill. Is it too much to ask to press a button? And to lift the lid and see if you got pellets?”
However, if you live in a cold climate and it is freezing outside, the ability to control your cook from inside your warm home may well be an appealing feature. If that’s the case then the Davy Crockett by Green Mountain Grills might be right up your ally.
As usual there’s some good advice over at Amazing Ribs about the importance of customer service, especially for pellet grills.
Buying from a larger, established company means there is likely to be a dedicated customer service team. It also means the company is likely to still be around a few years down the track when you may need their assistance.
On the flip side, a smaller company may be able to offer more personal and reliable service, and the people you contact are likely to be very well acquainted with your model of pellet grill.
You won’t find out how the manufacturer stacks up when it comes to customer service unless you ask questions, and get straight answers.
Pellet grills vary greatly in price. Some will set you back a few hundred dollars, others cost thousands. One word of caution – don’t confuse a cheap cooker with a cooker that is good value.
A cheap cooker may save you up front, but if it starts to rust, components break down within a few short years, you don’t have a good warranty and the customer service is not up to par, you will be spending more money in the long run.
On the other hand, if you purchase a cooker that has all the bells and whistles, but you never use them, you will have wasted your hard earned cash when a more basic cooker, that cost less, would likely have done the trick.
Before forking out cash, be sure to review all of the points above. Check out what’s available in your area, and ask lots of questions. Then, all that is left to do is enjoy your new cooker!
Given the huge variation in price, it is important to know what you are looking for when purchasing a pellet smoker. Running through a bit of a checklist is certainly a great way to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
The pros and cons of buying a pellet smoker
As we’ve mentioned above, most people end up choosing a pellet style smoker because of the convenience and versatility. Like an electric smoker, you get:
- Set it and forget it smoking – Just make sure the hopper is full of pellets and set your desired temperature and there isn’t much else you need to worry about.
- Simple temperature control – Most pellet smokers let you dial in the temperature to within five degrees, and the unit does a good job of maintaining a stable temperature.
There are also a few advantages unique to cooking with a pellet smoker:
- Super fuel efficient – Pellet smokers are similar to your home oven, with a super efficient convection fan, so you spend a lot less in pellets than charcoal.
- Less effort cleaning up – Charcoal smokers can make a bit of a mess every time you cook. With a pellet grill you might have to clear out the firepot every now and again but it’s rare (think once every 60 usages).
Steven Raichlen has an excellent breakdown of the various pros and cons of pellet grills that you may want to check out.
Pellet smokers aren’t without their issues though. Some potential problems include:
- Costs more to get a reliable unit compared to other types of smoker – You can pick up excellent charcoal, gas or electric smokers between $200-$500 while a good pellet will run you between $400-$1000+
- You can’t cook as hot or generate as much smoke – You won’t get quite as good a sear as you could with a charcoal grill. And you won’t get that dominate smokey flavor you would get with an offset stick burning smoker.
- You will need to plug the grill into electricity – This can limit where you set it up, and stop you from taking it away camping (unless you also have a generator).
- Need to keep an emergency pellet stockpile – If you’re grilling with propane or charcoal and run out half way through a 12 hour cook you can easily nip down to the store. But getting your favorite brand of pellets may require an Amazon order, or a trip to a more specialised store.
Pellet smokers aren’t for everyone, but if none of those sound like deal breakers then you may well be calling yourself a ‘pellethead’ any day now.
Wrapping it up
Pellet smokers are fast proving to be more than just a fad. While some old timers claim they’re little more than an ‘expensive oven’ for more amateur to enthusiast smokers the convenience of use and quality of the food they produce can’t be past up on.
Hopefully this guide has helped you understand a little bit more about the pros and cons of cooking with a pellet grill, and helped you pick out the right model for your budget and needs. Happy smoking!
Last update on 2018-12-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API