When Joe Traeger began experimenting with using wood pellets as cooking fuel in the early 1980s, he probably couldn't have imagined just how wildly popular his invention would become. The namesake of the first-ever wood pellet grill launched an entirely new method of cooking, which boomed even further when his company's patent expired in 2006. Since then, Traeger and other grill manufacturers that hopped on the trend have continued innovating pellet smokers in terms of cooking styles, temperature control technology, and so much more.
The use of pellets as grilling fuel was innovative in its own right, but it’s what they do that really makes wood pellet smokers so incredible. By pairing this fully combustible fuel type with precise temperature controllers, pellet cookers can smoke, grill, bake, BBQ, and even sear in some cases. Their consistency is just as unmatched as their versatility, with many models carrying pre-programmed cooking cycles for different types of meats. To top it all off, these grills are among the easiest backyard cooking appliances to use — just plug them in, set your temperature, and let them do all the hard work for you.
It’s plain to see why pellet cookers have become so popular in recent years. But how do you sort through the many options out there to find the right one for you? Just follow our helpful guide that walks you through everything you need to consider, and your backyard will be blessed with your dream smoker in no time!
Choose Your Pellet Grill's Configuration
Freestanding Pellet Grills
For the most part, pellet cookers come in freestanding configurations that offer mobility around the backyard. Some have bottom shelves and side shelves for storage, while a select few offer extra cooking appliances like the gas side burner on Camp Chef Woodwind Wi-Fi pellet smokers. Portable pellet cookers, such as the Traeger Tailgater, also fall into this category. Portable pellet grills typically run on a 12-volt battery or mobile battery pack and are great for tailgating or camping.
Built-In Pellet Grills
Gas grills are the most common type of outdoor cookers built into BBQ islands, but there are some pellet models out there that can be dropped into an island as well. The only built-in pellet cookers we carry are found in the Luxury classification, guaranteeing they’ll be all stainless steel for a sleek outdoor look. Take for instance the Twin Eagles Built-In Pellet Smoker and the Memphis Elite Series Pellet Smoker, which can easily serve as the striking centerpiece of a beautiful outdoor kitchen.
Hardwood Pellet Cooking: Grills vs. Vertical Smokers
Pellet cookers are often called pellet grills, pellet smokers, smoker-grills, and maybe a few other names shouted by frustrated grillers that we can’t print here. In fact, you’ve seen us use a few of those terms interchangeably in this very article. While it may seem confusing at first, the fact is pellet cookers go by so many names because they can do so many things.
That being said, there’s still some disagreement about whether pellet grills can truly be called “grills.” Our experts have tested enough pellet cookers over the past two decades to confidently say modern versions have earned the title of “grill,” but we still make an important distinction between pellet grills and vertical wood pellet smokers.
What are Pellet Grills?
Simply put, these machines are capable of both maintaining low-and-slow temperatures and reaching grilling temperatures. A select few (the Memphis Elite Series and Twin Eagles models come to mind) really push the upper limits with searing temperatures over 700 degrees. Then there are Camp Chef Woodwind pellet grills, which have actual gas side burners attached to their barrels. All the rest can grill to a lesser degree, but it’s important to remember that these grills are still engineered to be great at smoking and baking at lower temperatures. Pretty hard to pin down, huh?
What are Vertical Pellet Smokers?
While pellet grills can cook in just about any way, vertical pellet smokers are specifically designed for low-and-slow smoking. They top out around 450 degrees, but the trade-off is that they generate steady temperatures as low as 150 degrees for smoking delicate foods like salmon. Vertical smokers resemble electric smokers in their upright configuration, yet they still create combustion using a gravity feed of wood pellets. Perhaps the best examples of this space-saving aesthetic are Pit Boss Copperhead Series pellet smokers, which come with a built-in water pan and full-view window.
Controllers: Non-PID, PID, & PID-Plus
How are wood pellet grills capable of basically running themselves? The secret is in their temperature controllers, which manage pellet consumption and stoke the fire as necessary to achieve desired heat and smoke levels. PID controllers have experienced a surge in popularity as a result of recent innovation in the industry, though some models still operate using the less precise technology of the past. Others have equipped PID controllers with touch screens, Wi-Fi capabilities, smartphone apps, and integrated recipes that take the concept of convenience to another level. Pellet grills are all about what’s under the hood, so it’s important to know how each type of controller works when making your decision.
These old-school controllers offer up to 10 pre-set temperature positions, including “Low,” “Medium,” and “High” (it’s no coincidence that they’re commonly referred to as “LMH” controllers). They’re imprecise devices that cycle anywhere between 30–40 degrees of your intended temperature, choking off the fire when it gets too hot and feeding the flames when it’s too low. Non-PID controllers are the norm among Economy pellet smokers such as those from Pit Boss, the Camp Chef SmokePro Collection, and Traeger Pro Series Generation 1. If you choose a pellet cooker with this kind of controller, we recommend you use a remote grill thermometer so you can have a better idea of the temps inside your grill.
Pellet Grill PID Controllers
After years of relying on imprecise technology, pellet grill manufacturers experienced a major breakthrough with the introduction of proportional integral derivative (PID) controllers. There won’t be a test at the end, so it’s OK to immediately forget those big words and just remember what they mean: These controllers constantly run calculations based on factors like fan speed and pellet rate to maintain constant temperatures within 5 degrees of your setting. PID controllers are necessary for pellet cookers with variable-speed fans and augers, making them a standard feature for Practical Pellet Grills.
There’s not much room for improvement when it comes to temperature control, so wood pellet grill brands did the next best thing — equipped PID controllers with even more high-tech features. The most widespread “PID-plus” advancement is the combination of Wi-Fi capabilities and companion smartphone apps that monitor cooks and send alerts, which adds to the set-it-and-forget-it appeal of models like Camp Chef Woodwind Wi-Fi pellet smokers and Traeger Timberline and Ironwood pellet grills. To take the convenience a step further, Twin Eagles pellet grills come with an in-depth library of recipes and guided cooks on their touch-screen controllers.
Choose Your Pellet Smoker Class
When you see us discussing different classifications of grills, all we’re doing is categorizing models based on their quality, performance, and features. For hardwood pellet grills, those categories are Luxury, Premium, Practical, and Economy. Choosing the right pellet grill class involves finding the right type of model to fit your lifestyle and budget, so be sure to take your time here. To get you closer to your final decision, we put together this brief glance at what you can expect from all 4 classes.
Luxury Pellet Smokers
Manufactured entirely from high-quality stainless steel for long lasting durability outdoors
Come in freestanding and built-in configurations that match most outdoor kitchen appliances
Widest temperature range of any pellet grills for slow-smoking, searing, and everything between
Actual temperatures inside cooking chamber almost always reflect set temperatures
Premium Pellet Smokers
With just 2 pellet cookers in this category, Premium is truly a class all its own
Double-walled insulation and completely stainless interior make for remarkable construction
Pill-shaped barrel creates more vertical space to fit greater amounts of food
Downdraft exhaust ensures smoke remains in the barrel until it completely circles your food
Practical Pellet Smokers
Built with a mix of stainless steel and painted or powder-coated steel
Temperature range of 200–600 degrees Fahrenheit allows for smoking, baking, and grilling
A handful of models have special mechanisms for direct-flame grilling
Internal temperatures generally stay within 15 degrees of the grill’s setting
Economy Pellet Smokers
Made using painted, galvanized, and porcelain- or powder-coated steel
Struggle to top 500 degrees and are designed mostly for low-and-slow smoking
Versatility is limited by temperature range and relative lack of features
Non-PID controllers with pre-set temperatures lead to temperature and smoke cycling
Other Things to Think about When Buying a Pellet Grill
We know you’re itching to start narrowing down the search for your ideal pellet cooker, but there are just a few more important considerations to keep in mind when shopping. Because pellet smokers have a unique fuel source and are still relatively new, we answered some common questions about them so you can know everything you need to know up front.
Cooking Pellets vs. Heating Pellets
You may have heard people claiming they use heating pellets in pellet smokers, but we strongly advise that you NEVER do so. Sure, Joe Traeger’s early pellet cooker experiments used heating pellets, but they contain a mixture of woods and binding agents that are harmful when ingested or inhaled. Instead, fill your pellet hopper with food-grade cooking pellets. They’re produced from 100% hardwoods under strict guidelines and have no additives, preservatives, or binders, making them free of adverse health effects when burned. If you need more convincing, food exposed to smoke from heating pellets will taste bitter and gross.
Electricity is Required
Though pellet smokers rely on hardwood pellets for combustion, they actually run on electricity. That means they must be plugged into a standard outlet for the controller, fans, and auger to work properly, so you should plan to keep yours in a location close to a power source. If you intend to use your pellet cooker on a deck or another setting with no direct access to an outlet, some models can run on a high-amp extension cord. Keep in mind that this capability is highly model-specific and that every brand has different specifications. As such, our experts highly recommend you always plug your pellet smoker directly into an outlet.
Do Pellet Smokers Work in Cold Weather?
Yes, they do! Many newer pellet cookers have little trouble maintaining temperature in snowy conditions, though colder external temperatures will force them to burn more pellets to hold steady heat. To prevent inefficient consumption and save on fuel costs in temperatures below freezing, we recommend investing in an insulated grill blanket. A little extra insulation goes a long way in terms of sustaining desired temperatures, meaning your grill won’t have to feed as many pellets into the fire pot. You should check manufacturer recommendations when it comes to grill blankets, but it won’t hurt to have one on hand.
Do Pellet Cookers Work Only with Pellets from Their Brand?
This question is a bit trickier to answer. Generally speaking, food-grade pellets differ only slightly in terms of size, thickness, length, and wood blend depending on the manufacturer. This may result in minor differences in the way pellets fall into the auger and how they burn once inside the fire pot. The only sure thing is that pellets from your pellet cooker’s brand will be perfectly suited for your grill and almost certainly give you the best results. Again, the manufacturer’s recommendations should be the first thing you check when trying to figure out which pellets go best with your pellet smoker.
Still have questions? That’s what our BBQ experts are for! Give them a call at 1-877-743-2269 for more help finding the perfect pellet grill for your backyard.