Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Grill: Which Type of Grill is Best?

pellet grill vs charcoal grill

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Pellet grills and charcoal grills don’t share a lot in common, besides the word “grill” in their name.

They are both good at different things, so it will come down to a your budget, and what type of cooking you plan on doing.

We’ll compare the different pros and cons of each type of grill, and try and help you decide which one is right for you.

Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Grill Overview

We’ll get into all the nitty-gritty details but first, it’s useful to get a quick overview of what each type of grill does well.

Pellet grill prosPellet grill cons
Easy to operateUsually bulky, heavy and need electricity
Consistent temperature controlRequire more maintenance
Large fuel hopper for longer cooksRequire more cleaning
Mild smoky flavor from the wood pelletsCan struggles to hit high temperatures
Large cooking area
More features including WiFi on some models
Charcoal grill prosCharcoal grill cons
Easy to clean and maintainTemperature control can be difficult to master
Charcoal is sold just about anywhereDefinitely not set and forget
Great for searing at high tempsLacks some of the ease of use of a pellet grill
Add wood chunks or chips for extra smoke flavorGenerally less cooking area than pellet grills

What is a pellet grill?

A pellet grill is a type of grill that uses compressed wood pellets as fuel. The pellets are made from sawdust, recycled wood, or agricultural waste. 

Z Grills 450B Wood Pellet Grill
Z Grills 450B wood pellet grill

Pellet grills come in a variety of sizes and run on electricity. This powers the grills digital controller, and the auger that moves the pellets from the hopper to the firebox where pellets are ignited by a hot rod.

The grill’s computer regulates the number of pellets it burns, depending on how hot you set the temperature.

Diagram showing how a pellet grill works
How pellet grills work: Source Pit Boss

The main benefit to using a pellet grill is the ease of use. Learning how to use one doesn’t require an extensive amount of effort or time, like many other types of grills do.

Despite the word “grill” in the name, these make for better smokers or ovens. Most pellet grills cook indirect only and max out at between 450-500°F which isn’t quite hot enough for proper searing.

Some companies have come out with clever ways around this limitation though but we’ll get more into that later.

We have a full round-up of the best pellet grills if you want to learn more about the leading brands.

What is a charcoal grill?

Compared to a pellet grill, charcoal grills are fairly primitive.

As you would expect, these grills use charcoal briquettes (or lump charcoal) to generate heat.

Weber Kettle charcoal grill
Weber Kettle charcoal grill

One benefit of using charcoal briquettes is that they produce intense heat and generate smoke, which adds flavor to grilled foods – and they are generally inexpensive.

Getting proper temperature control can be difficult with charcoal briquettes, however, and there is a steeper learning curve to getting the best results from a charcoal grill.

You can check out our guide to the best charcoal grills if you want to learn more about the leading brands. We also have a pellet grill vs gas grill guide if you want to consider a third grill type.

Pellet grill vs charcoal grill: All the features compared

To help you make the best-informed decision on whether a pellet grill or charcoal grill is right for you, we’ve compared both types on some common grilling factors.

Let’s take a look at what sets them apart.

What type of cooking do you plan on doing?

As we mentioned previously, pellet grills are best used for low and slow-style barbecue. They excel at making succulent pork ribs and brisket.

The digital controls make it easy to maintain a consistent temperature over many hours. While you can do some grilling on a pellet grill, you won’t be able to hit the same high searing temps as a charcoal grill unless you go for a pellet grill that has a searing attachment like the Camp Chef Woodwind, or a slide and sear system like the Pit Boss Sportsman.

Some pellet grills allow you to open the firebox for high heat searing

Charcoal grills are great if you primarily want to grill food. They are versatile enough that you can set them up for indirect cooking, or even for smoking but you will have a limited amount of space to use.

Charcoal stacked into a snake in weber kettle grill
Charcoal grill setup for smoking with the Snake Method

How does the grill affect the flavor of the food?

Pellet grills, operate very efficiently and produce minimal amounts of smoke. Food cooked on a pellet grill tends to have a subtle, mild smokey flavor that many people prefer for smoked foods.

There are ways to get more smoke flavor from a pellet grill though.

Charcoal briquettes used on a charcoal grill produce a stronger smoky flavor, particularly when combined with wood chips or chunks, but it tends to be more intense and can be harsher on your palate.

How easy is each grill to use?

Pellet grills are generally easier to operate than charcoal grills – you simply turn them on and set the temperature using the digital controls, then let them do their thing.

The caveat is that they have far more functions. Pellet grills can come with a lot of features you can play with – such as WiFi control and different smoke modes,

They also require electricity to run which means you need an outdoor outlet or generator nearby.

With charcoal grills, you have to spend time lighting the coals and getting the right temperature before cooking can commence.

a charcoal starter full of lit charcoal briquettes on a charcoal grill
Chimney starter with lit charcoal briquettes

The flip side is that charcoal briquettes light quickly and easily using a chimney starter and once the coals are hot, they’re ready to cook on. There is no temperature controller or automatic feeding system for you to worry about.

What is the initial cost?

Pellet grills are far more complicated than charcoal grills and therefore they tend to be more expensive. The computer-controlled motor inside the pellet grill regulates pellet feed, powering the auger to control cooking temperatures.

Therefore, you can expect a decent entry-level model to set you back $450-$800 and $900-$1500 for more feature-packed or larger model from a good brand.

On the other hand, charcoal grills are much simpler devices that tend to be cheaper than their pellet grill counterparts by about half or even more. You can find a good quality charcoal grill for around $300, while fancier models with all the bells and whistles will set you back closer to $700.

How easy is the temperature control?

Temperature control on a pellet grill is electronic, which does take a lot of the fuss out of the process. That said, for some, it does take a little of the fun and skill out of cooking on a grill

Charcoal grills tend to be harder to control the temperature for because they only have the option of controlling airflow through vents in order to lower or raise temperatures.

This is a bit of an artform as you have to make small adjustments and then wait and see.

If you are cooking at low temperatures over a long period of time this can be an issue, but for a quick burger or steak, it is much less important.

What is the fuel capacity of charcoal vs pellet grills?

Pellet grills are capable of holding a lot more pellets, which can be used to produce a large amount of smoke for smoking meat and fish over extended periods of time, although this will depend on the size of the pellet hopper.

Manufacturers will always state the size of the hope in pounds, although don’t assume that a bigger hopper will allow you to cook for longer. Larger grills burn more pellets per hour so there is always a trade-off.

pellet hopper victory grills
The Victory wood pellet grill has a 29 lbs pellet hopper capacity

This makes pellet grills ideal for a low and slow style of cooking, where the consistent temperature and large pellet hopper capacity can be used to great effect.

Charcoal grills, on the other hand, usually have a much smaller cooking area and less space for fuel storage. This can limit what you can cook at any one time.

Charcoal grills use the fuel source directly inside the grill to create heat, so you can only use as much fuel as is inside the grill at any given time.

Lit charcoal briquettes inside the Weber Kettle charcoal grill
Lit charcoal briquettes inside the Weber Kettle charcoal grill

Most charcoal grills tend to be smaller than pellet grills, so cooking a large amount of food for a lot of people may not be an option.

This makes charcoal grills more suited for shorter cooks where higher temperatures are required.

What is the temperature range?

Pellet grills will typically have a temperature range around 180°F to 500°F, which makes them more versatile for longer cooks where higher temperatures aren’t necessary or can be easily adjusted down if needed.

Charcoal grills tend to top out at around 600°F – 700°F, making them better suited for shorter cooks that require higher cooking temperatures and searing your food.

How much maintenance do they need?

Pellet grills require slightly more effort to maintain. Every 2-3 cooks you’ll need to remove the grates, and deflector plate and vacuum out the built-up pellet dust and any unburned pellets.

ash built up inside the pellet grill
Pellet ash build-up needs to be vacuumed every 2-3 cooks

Failure to do this can lead to more serious issues.

Because of their more complex nature, pellet grills are more likely to fail and require replacement parts.

Charcoal grills, in contrast, can essentially just be dusted off between uses and will not require any other maintenance other than a good clean after use.

What are the fuel costs of each grill?

This will depend on where you live, but generally, wood pellets are more expensive than charcoal and they aren’t readily available in places like gas stations. You should also factor in the cost of the electricity used to power the grill.

Charcoal, on the other hand, is less expensive and more readily available in most places.

Are charcoal grills and pellet grills portable?

Charcoal grills are relatively easy to move due to their lower weight and you can find plenty of portable options at different price points. Pellet grills tend to be bulkier and harder to transport unless you have a trailer of some kind.

The PKTX comes with a foldable card for easy transport.

This can make it difficult for people who like to take their grills on picnics or camping trips.

Manufacturers have started to come out with some clever portable pellet grill designs if you go for one of these models they can actually be easier to transport than some charcoal grills.

traeger tailgater folded
The Traeger Tailgater takes up more space but is still relatively portable compared to a full sized grill.

Definitely consider a pellet grill for your next tailgate grill.

Who are pellet grill best suited to?

Pellet grills are best suited to people who are interested in longer, low, and slow cooks that require more precise temperature control.

They are also great for people who live busy lives and have children running around as they are easy to set up and then leave for long periods of time.

Some models like Traeger and Camp Chef include WiFi connectivity so you can monitor the temperature of your grill and the food via an app on your phone.

These factors make pellet grills ideal for pitmasters that want a pleasant smoky flavor in their food and are happy to forgo the option to sear at high temperatures to get that flavor. 

beet tri-tip cooking on a pellet grill
Tri-tip cooked low and slow on a pellet grill will have a fantastic smoky flavor

It should also be noted that nearly all pellet grills come with a hefty price tag, making them less ideal for people on a tight budget.

If you are on a limited budget you should look at Z Grills. They used to manufacture for Traeger before striking out on their own and they produce great value for money grills.

Who is a charcoal grill best suited to?

Charcoal grills are best suited to people who want the feeling of cooking over real flames and are willing to put in a bit of extra effort to master temperature control.

picanha steaks cooking on a charcoal grill
With a charcoal grill, you can cook your food directly over hot coals

They’re also great for people who want to be able to hit the road with their grill and don’t want to have to own a trailer and generator to do so.

You can do some smoking on them using the Snake Method, but your grill real estate will be seriously limited.

Wrapping it all up

Which suits you best, the pellet grill or the charcoal grill, is going to depend on your circumstances and what you want to get out of your grill.

If you’re looking for a set-it-and-forget option or something that’s well suited for low and slow cooking, the pellet grill is going to be your best bet.

But if you’re after good old-fashioned grilling with all the fun and challenge that comes with it, the charcoal grill is going to be your best bet.

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