What is a Pellet Grill (And how do they work?)

what is a pellet grill

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In the last decade, pellet grills have gone from an oddity that was widely mocked by the barbecue world to the fastest-selling type of grill.

The exploding popularity of pellet grills can be attributed to the clever decision to market them as “set it and forget it” cookers.

Because they require very little maintenance or skill to operate pellet grills are great for people who want to cook delicious food without the effort of using a charcoal or traditional stick burning smoker.

What is a pellet grill?

A wood pellet grill is a type of grill that uses wood pellets as fuel. The pellets are burned to heat the cooking chamber and create flavor from the smoke.

Wood pellets are small cylinders made from compressed sawdust, bark, and other hardwood byproducts left over after the lumber industry cuts down trees for paper or fiberboard production.

pellet hopper with wood pellets

The original pellet grill was invented back in the 1980s by Joe Traeger. An early patent allowed Traeger to dominate the pellet grill market, a position they maintain to this day.

After the original patent expired in 2006 companies have flocked into the pellet grill market. As sales continue to grow even traditional gas and charcoal companies like Weber have got into the game with their SmokeFire grill.

How do pellet grills work?

Compared to a basic charcoal grill, pellet grills are rather high-tech machines. The grill is essentially split into three sections, the pellet hopper, the auger and firebox, and the main cooking chamber.

Diagram showing how a pellet grill works
Source: Pit Boss

When you turn your pellet grill on, a fan starts to suck air into the firebox. An auger system then starts to draw wood pellets through from the hopper into the firebox. The pellets in the firebox are ignited using an electric igniter.

The smoke and heat from the burning pellets then travel up into the main cooking chamber where the food is cooked.

Your food gets cooked at a consistent temperature and gets the added flavor of woodsmoke.

The great thing about pellet grills is that you can set them too low or high temperatures and they will hold that temperature steady for as long as you need it. Most models are now equipped with a PID temperature controller for precise temperature control

This makes them perfect for slow-cooking meats like brisket or pork shoulder, or even for baking desserts.

Most pellet grills are quite large, heavy beasts, although there is a growing number of portable options hitting the market.

We have a 9 step guide on how to use a pellet grill.

Wood pellets for smoking

As we’ve already mentioned, most wood pellets are a byproduct of the timber industry.

This means that not only are you getting a great product to cook with, but you’re also doing your bit to help the environment too.

There are a few different types of wood pellets on the market, all of which will burn slightly differently and can affect the flavor of your food.

You can expect to burn between one to three pounds of pellets per hour of cooking.

Some popular types of wood pellet include hickory, cherry, and apple. You also have pecan, mesquite, and oak varieties.

You can always mix and match, and some companies sell their own ‘blends” for different flavor profiles.

We’ve reviewed the best wood pellets for smoking if you’d like a more in-depth breakdown of the different flavors of wood.

What wood pellet grills are best at

As with all grills, wood pellet grills have their pros and cons.

Let’s look at some of the key advantages and disadvantages wood pellet grills have over propane, charcoal, or electric varieties.

Provides consistent, mild smoke flavor that many people enjoyPellet grills can be expensive
Great for long cooks when you need to get things done around the houseOften struggle to hit high enough temperatures for searing
Feature-packed grills that often include meat probes and WiFi connectivityThe grill needs to be cleaned more often than other types of grills
Can use a variety of different woods for different flavorsMore complex working parts increase the chance your grill will break and need replacement parts
Pellets are an environmentally-friendly byproduct of the timber industry

The flavor from a pellet grill can be a pro or a con depending on your preference. There are some tricks for boosting the smoke output on a pellet grill you can try as well.

Pellets are also an environmentally friendly option – they’re made from a waste product of the lumber industry.

On the downside, pellet grills can be more expensive than some other types of grills.

Z Grills 450B Wood Pellet Grill
Z Grills 450B Wood Pellet Grill plugged in using an extension cord

They also require a little more setup than charcoal or propane-fueled grills. This is because pellet smokers run on electricity. They need to be plugged in order to work, which means you can’t use them outdoors without having an extension cord, an outdoor socket, or a generator laying around.

Pellet smokers also have more complex maintenance needs than other types of grills like gas or even traditional charcoal ones.

Overall pellet smokers are best suited to people who want the ease and convenience of an electric grill, with all of the smoky flavors that come with using real wood, even in pellet form, as fuel.

If you want to learn more about using a pellet grill, we have a list of the 21 best tips for cooking on a pellet grill.

The pellet grills we recommend

We’ve done a pretty exhaustive breakdown of the best pellet grills on the market, but to sum it up, we’re a huge fan of the Camp Chef Woodwind WiFi 24 Pellet Grill.

Camp Chef Woodwind

Camp Chef Woodwind pellet grill

Camp Chef Woodwind has a ton of features, like Bluetooth integration so you can control it remotely, and an automatic auger that feeds pellets into the firebox for consistent heat.

It also comes with a handy app that makes recipe suggestions and gives you tips on how to use your grill.

Traeger Pro 575

traeger pro 575 pellet grill

The Traeger Pro 575 Wood Pellet Grill came in a close second for us.

It has an excellent digital thermostat and PID controller that lets you control the temperature with a high degree of accuracy, and it has an automatic start so you can set it and forget it, controlling the cook from Traeger’s app.

Plus, the hopper holds up to 22 pounds of pellets, so you won’t have to refill it often.

Z Grills 700D4E

Z Grills 700D4E wood pellet grill

If you’re looking for something smaller or cheaper, then the Z GRILLS 700D4E Wood Pellet Grill & Smoker is a great option. It’s small and relatively portable for a pellet grill, but it can still cook up to 20 pounds of food at once.

Plus, the included digital thermostat means you can set your grill to whatever temperature you want and it will maintain that heat for hours.

Wrapping it up

Pellet grills are a great option for anyone wanting the convenience of an automatic grill that still imparts the taste and texture of food cooked over wood.

They’re easy to use, offer great temperature control, and automate a lot of the more boring or laborious parts of a ‘slow and low’ cook.

So if you’re in the market for a new grill and want something hugely convenient consider picking up a pellet smoker like the Camp Chef Woodwind WiFi 24 Pellet Grill.

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