Pellet Grills / Smokers vs Charcoal and Propane
Around 10 years ago I walked in to a Home Depot and bought a “big boy” grill. After having owned a couple sub-$100 Walmart charcoal grills, each of which having only lasted a season before rusting out, and dealing with the pain in the ass that comes along with disposing of something as large as a grill, I decided that I would spend the money on a nice stainless propane grill that would last me a long time. I spent around $500 on a large 4-burner Brinkmann grill with a 5th burner sear station, and a stove-top burner that I never used, and it was glorious. I could grill all the meats at once and never have to worry about running out of room. Everything was great until I realized that I needed new burners and heat spreaders, and Brinkmann had gone out of business. The parts are still available online, but replacing all of the burners and all of the heat spreaders would cost me around $250. Since, admittedly, the cover for the grill ripped a couple years ago now and I was too lazy to go and buy another one, the grill has been exposed to both winter and summer elements for 2 years now and it’s looking rather worse for wear. Time to find a new grill.
After discussions with some work friends, I decided that I’d start looking at Weber grills. Weber has been around forever, and unlike a big-box brand like Brinkmann (which were sold exclusively through Home Depot), I wouldn’t have to worry about Weber going out of business in the near future. The grill that I though was most like my Brinkmann was the Weber Genesis II E-410, which sells for $899. After having waited months for them to go on sale, which they haven’t in the past 6 months, I heard mention of another type of grill that’s been out for a while but is just starting to gain popularity – pellet grills. After some research, I found many pros and cons to pellet grills. Here’s a small sample of the result of my research:
- You can smoke with a pellet grill as well as cook – this makes “low and slow” cooking possible
- The temperature is computer-controlled, meaning that it’s easy to maintain a constant temperature
- You get the benefit of being able to cook with different kinds of wood to enhance flavor
- Many pellet grills come with digital meat thermometers and digital temp read-outs right on the display, making it easy to know when the internal temp of meat has reached a specific number
- Since pellet grills are popular now, it’s not hard to find many different flavors of wood pellets for grilling, and prices are coming down
- It takes pellet grills much longer to heat up than propane grills, anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes depending on the temperature you want
- Pellet grill maintenance and cleaning is much more of a chore than propane (but nearly equal to charcoal)
- Bags of pellets are not expensive, but they’re not nearly as cheap as propane
- Some brands of pellet grills only allow you to use their brands of pellets or they’ll void your warranty
- Most of the pellet grills sold in the US are now made in China, so quality can be hit or miss and warranties are shorter now than when they were made in the US
Selecting a Model
When shopping for a pellet grill, I went to our local Cabela’s. They do sell their own brand of pellet grill, but they also sell the brand I was looking the hardest at, which is Traeger. I’ve read that Traeger has been making pellet grills probably longer than anyone else, and they are typically credited for starting the whole pellet grilling “revolution.” Traeger used to make their grills in the US and offer a lifetime warranty, but now they’re made in China and the warranty has been reduced to 12 months or 3 years depending on the model you buy and what you read. Traeger is also one of the companies that will void your warranty if you burn pellets that aren’t Traeger branded pellets. Since their pellets cost almost twice as much as the large 40 lb bags that Cabela’s sells under their own name, I decided against the Traeger. The Traeger grills looked excellently built, and I’m sure they would have worked fine for my use case, but the warranty and the cost savings is what sold me.
The Cabela’s grill that I settled on had all the same features as the Traeger that I was looking at, was $250 cheaper, and comes with Cabela’s lifetime warranty. I ended up getting the new Pro Series 36″ Elliptical grill with the digital read-out, which is different than the older model with the knob – that one was made by Camp Chef. Cabela’s also make a 24″ model for $250 less than the 36″ version, and it’s basically the exact same grill but a little shorter. The Cabela’s grill has a window in the lid, which is fairly useless. It gets dirty very quickly with all of the smoke that’s created by burning wood pellets, so after cooking on it for a short time you can’t see through the window anyway. Aside from that it’s been a great grill so far, although I’ve used it almost exclusively as a “low and slow” cooker for a total of about 60 hours of cook time at between 180 and 220 degrees, as of the time of this writing.
I had many questions about pellet grill cooking though, especially focused around the pros and cons of actually starting up, using, and shutting down a pellet grill as compared to a charcoal or propane grill. After all, the convenience of propane is what made me switch from charcoal to propane years ago.
Pellet vs Charcoal
Anyone who is looking at one of these pellet grills may have to adjust their expectations when it comes to grilling. If you’re coming from a charcoal grill in to the pellet world, it won’t be so bad. Whenever I have to use a charcoal grill I always get frustrated. It’s probably just because I’m “doing it wrong,” but it always seems like hassle to keep the charcoal lit initially, they take quite a while to heat up and burn off before you can start cooking on them, and cleaning them out is messy and is a pain. Compared to a charcoal grill, using my pellet grill has been fairly simple. Plug it in to the wall, press the button to turn it on, and wait for it to heat up. The temperature defaults at 350 degrees and the manual recommends that you let it get up to that and “cook off” for around 20-30 minutes to kill of anything harmful that may be living inside the grill from the last time you used it, and then set your desired temperature, wait for the grill to stabilize at that temperature, and then you can start cooking. All in all it’s probably just as long if not a little longer a process than cooking on a charcoal grill, but the grill does everything for you and you don’t have to keep messing with it. While the grill is heating up, you can start doing food prep and just leave it alone.
In terms of fuel, you will have to keep bags of pellets around just like you keep a bag of charcoal around. On the down side, you’ll have to keep more than just one bag of pellets. Perhaps several, depending on how much you use the grill. Bags of pellets cost more than bags of charcoal, and you’ll go through them much faster. When smoking at 190-200 degrees for 15 hours, I might go through 3/4 a bag of pellets, and those bags are $15 each. If you’re cooking at high heat, you’ll go through them much faster. On the plus side, with the pellets you can keep a cook going by just adding pellets to the hopper. This is much easier than trying to add charcoal to a charcoal grill mid-cook without losing heat and without the risks involved of eating food cooked on charcoal that hasn’t been burned off before cooking. Clean-up is fairly easy with pellet grills too, as the pellets burn a lot more efficiently than charcoal, so there’s virtually no ash to clean up. The ash that does require cleaning is easily accessed via a clean-out port in the back of the grill. After the grill has been off for several hours (the manual says at least 6), ash can be vacuumed out of the rear clean-out port with a shop vac.
Shutting down the grill after cooking is a bit tedious with the pellet grill. With a charcoal grill you just take the food off and leave it to burn out. With a pellet grill, you’re supposed to set the temperature back to 350 degrees F, let the grill get to that temperature, and then let it burn off for 20 minutes. After the 20 minutes is up, you’re supposed to turn the grill off via the control panel (not unplug it) at which time the fan will stay on and it will go through a cool-down process. After that cool-down process is complete and the fan shuts off, you can then unplug the grill. Not the simplest of procedures.
Pellet vs Propane
If you’re coming from the propane world in to the pellet world though, you might be in for some hurt. I can light my propane grill, crank it up, and in less than 5 minutes it’s at over 500 degrees and ready to go. Not so with a pellet or charcoal grill. This is the reason that I switched from charcoal to propane 10 or so years ago. It’s much less hassle, much faster, and as much as I grill, a propane bottle might last me as much as two summers before I have to replace it. Much less often was I running around to see if I had charcoal before grilling, and the times when I realized I didn’t have charcoal seemed like the most inconvenient. Pellets are the same in that regard, not as convenient for longevity or for start-up time as propane.
The hardest thing about shutting down a propane grill is remembering to turn the propane bottle off. This is in stark contrast to the above shutdown procedure for a pellet grill, as referenced under “Pellet vs Charcoal” above.
Philosophy of Use
Although the inconvenient aspects of pellet grilling when compared to charcoal are somewhat few, when you compare pellet vs propane there’s no contest; propane is much more convenient. When looking at the totality of what you’re trying to accomplish though, is convenience a requirement? If you’re someone who doesn’t care about “low and slow,” doesn’t care about infusing smoke with wood flavor, experimenting with everything that goes along with that in terms of temperatures and durations and whatnot, and you just want to throw some burgers, dogs, corn, steak, etc. on the grill and get it done as quick as possible, propane is your best bet. Sometimes I’m lazy, and I’m more than content with quick and dirty, but what drove me toward the pellet grill was the event of cooking and how sometimes the journey is as important as the end product.
Like most things I really get in to when researching, I find blogs, articles, and videos from people who are passionate about the subject at hand. This typically interests me very much, especially when people freely share their knowledge about the subject. There are countless great channels on YouTube with videos dedicated to BBQ’ing and smoking on all types of grills… videos dedicated to rubs and marinades and sauces that have been perfected over years and freely shared for all to enjoy. Seeing people who are passionate about certain topics, and have deep knowledge of those topics, and are maybe even experts or professionals at said topics is an awesome thing to see. When I see their skill and passion, I realize that they didn’t become excellent by going through the motions as quickly as possible to arrive at an end result and go on to the next thing… rather, they became passionate by embracing the task as a whole, learning, experimenting, testing, and perfecting. The fact that the information is free for anyone to use, share, and enjoy is nothing short of amazing.
This is the type of research that drove me to want to be more knowledgeable about this different type of cooking. When it comes to real, slow-cooked approach to “you name it” (ribs, pork, brisket, etc.) it seems everyone is very excited about when they get to experience and taste the results of it, but in our fast-paced world of instant gratification, nobody seems to want to take the time to learn or do it themselves. I enjoy experimenting, learning, and gaining skills like this, so it only made sense for me.