Pros and Cons of Pellet Grills (2019)
This article will tell you what you need to know about pellet grills–so that you can make your decision with a calm mind. I’ll tell you what’s great about them, what’s not so great, why they are suddenly growing in popularity and even a little history on how they came about.
For later reading, check out my pellet grill comparison post and buyers guide.
- 1 The Bottom Line
- 2 What’s the average price for a pellet grill?
- 3 How the Pellet Grill Started
- 4 So what is a pellet grill?
- 5 How do pellet grills work?
- 6 Cooking pellets versus heating pellets
- 7 What’s the difference between traditional gas grills and pellet grills?
- 8 The Pros
- 9 The Cons
- 10 My Final Cons (explained)
- 11 User comments
- 12 Summing Up
If you’ve come this far and are willing to spend on the best grill you can find: you’ve managed to land on the right page. And I mean this in all seriousness.
In my experience, most casual grillers have never heard of a pellet grill. Until very recently, pellet grills were something of a specialist’s item and barely caught the attention of mainstream audiences. This is both good and bad.
Until this past decade, pellet grills haven’t been widely manufactured or marketed, and therefore haven’t been able to develop as rapidly as other products (more on why this is bad later in the cons section).
The sudden attention has sparked some serious competition amongst manufacturers, which means that for the time being there is still a lot of buyer power in the market (that means you, the buyer, are getting what you pay for).
What’s the average price for a pellet grill?
Unlike standard charcoal and gas-powered grills (which can run for as cheap as $150), you just won’t be able to find a good pellet grill under $450 at retail price.
Roughly speaking, and taking into account pellet grills from the whole spectrum, you can expect to find prices in this range:
Pellet Grill Price Ranges
Budget Price: $350
Average Price: $550-800
Top-End Price: $1200-3000+
Compare that with the data on outdoor gas grills.
Gas Grill Price Ranges
Budget price: <$100
Average price: $150-350
Top-end (built-in luxury models): $1000-12000+
When you compare these price ranges, you’ll notice that outdoor grills have a much bigger price range. I’ll explain this later in my Cons section.
That’s the Bottom Line for you. Now, let’s dive a little deeper–starting with a quick history on pellet grills.
How the Pellet Grill Started
From 1986, Joe Traeger enjoyed a twenty-year monopoly on the pellet grill market. How? After developing the first model in 1985, Traeger was quick to patent the design.
This meant that from 86-06, he was able to distribute his famous pellet grill design as a local family-run business; without the big manufacturers swooping in and taking his profits away.
Fast-forward to 2018 and we see the real popularity of his pellet grill design. After his patent expired in 2006, there was already a considerable waiting list for the technology–people wanted to get their hands on Traeger pellet grills, and the big grill manufacturers were ready to pounce on the opportunity.
Today we see many competing brands of pellet grills, each inspired and designed on the back of Traeger’s original model.
So what is a pellet grill?
There are three things, in my mind, that make pellet grills so popular:
- Flexibility in cooking techniques (from baking to smoking);
- Superior temperature control; and
- They are more energy efficient.
Back in 1986, these factors weren’t necessarily the first thing people were looking for in a grill. The traditional BBQ grill was fine, flame-grilled or seared on cast-iron cooking grates–if you wanted to smoke something, you could always buy a separate smoking box. If you wanted to bake or roast, you could always throw it in the oven.
In today’s world, people and things are becoming more and more connected. Our smartphones don’t just make calls or send texts. They are mini computers that can do our banking, check our social networks and even operate our business while on-the-go. The pellet grill appeals to this modern need:
The need to do everything at once, in one stop.
How do pellet grills work?
The name itself refers to the method of heating. Pellet grills use a different fuel to traditional grills (which rely upon sources like charcoal or gas)–they use up and burn wooden pellets. These wooden pellets look like little tablets or tiny rolled cigars; they’re actually just compressed sawdust.
These wooden pellets are rotated into the fire pot, where they are exposed to intense heat, combust and emit heat and smoke of their own. This process is stoked by an internal fan, which then sends and distributes the heat throughout the grill. As you can see, this is a different method of heating–almost a combination of traditional ovens and flame cooking.
The method of cooking is called convection heating, which is the same method used by traditional smoke boxes.
The advantage of this is that the food is separated from the fire by a metal plate–which means there are no flare-ups and no grease falls into the fire pit (which can, in turn, burn up and produce an unwelcome flavor, along with being a pain to clean).
Cooking pellets versus heating pellets
It’s worth noting that the wood pellets used for pellet grills are specific to grills. Wooden pellets are also used in other industries, like home heating. Those pellets are often made from other components than pure hardwood which would be harmful for consumption–things like biomass scrap, or bark, are often added to fill the pellets.
When it comes to cooking on your pellet grills, be sure to buy food-grade wooden pellets, which are 100% hardwood and will give you that great smoky taste.
It’s also worth noting that different manufacturers will produce and promote different cooking pellets. Some will advertise a ‘hickory roast’ variety, while others might include flavors like apple, oak, maple, pecan and cherry. Each of these different pellets will create a different smoke, some harsher than others, that can be experimented with to meet your personal preference.
What’s the difference between traditional gas grills and pellet grills?
As you might already have gathered from my discussion on how pellet grills work, there are a few key differences which separate this design from traditional gas grills.
Gas grills typically work on a burner model. The burners are fueled by a gas source, which in turn heats the cooking grate (of cast-iron or porcelain-coated steel). Your food is either exposed directly to this heat, which gives it that flame-cooked taste, or is seared by the heat of the cooking grate.
Pellet grills, on the other hand, cook by convection heating. This gives you a few important choices when cooking. It allows you to do three things that traditional gas grills cannot:
- Roast; and
Here are my three main differentiators between traditional grills and pellet grills:
Pellet grills enable you to cook at a constant internal temperature;
The convection cooking design opens the door to cooking methods like baking, smoking, and roasting, along with searing and the standard BBQ methods; and
Pellet grills use a wood pellet fuel source that makes clean-up incredibly easy, while also being more energy efficient and adding flavor to your meals.
On the other side of things, this is a summary of what you’ll be missing out on if you choose to go with a pellet grill over standard grills:
Pellet grills will rarely give you a temperature higher than 450 degrees Farenheit. For serious searing, you’re going to need something higher than that.
There really aren’t any available cheap options when it comes to pellet grills. And
There is less flexibility when it comes to size. Pellet grills are pretty much full-size grills all the way through.
The major downside to this convection cooking method is that pellet grills cannot reach intensely hot temperature like gas grills. For searing steaks, grilling lore recommends that for the perfect results you need to reach a plate temperature of up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit. Most pellet grills won’t reach 500 degrees on a good day.
On the other hand, not everyone believes in this 750-degree principle. First of all: most people will never actually sear their steak at that intensity. Secondly, many sources recommend cooking your steak between 450-500 degrees anyway: for an explanation on the caramelization process and debunking the 750 myth, read this post
Another solution to this problem is met by some manufacturers. They include a side-searer, which is attached to the pellet grill. The Camp Chef Woodwind, for example, has a searing plate that reaches intensely high temperatures, specifically for searing steaks.
My Final Cons (explained)
I’ve already mentioned that pellet grills are still in a relatively young development period. This is due to the Traeger patent and other historical reasons, but the implications are still felt today.
When a product has been in the market for a long time, new manufacturers (including big ones) come in and start research of their own. They start to experiment with new techniques, and eventually, as the audience grows, it becomes clear what the demand is. My guess is that the demand for cheaper pellet grill options will grow (as it did in the gas grill market) and we will eventually start to see pellet grills that are priced under $250, or even $200.
This also explains the massive disparity in gas grill price ranges compared to pellet grills. Gas grills have been in the game for so long that they have been able to develop to reach every audience: from high-end, Beverly Hills grill parties (at $12,000+ a pop) to your average Joe who just wants to grill for his family and friends every other weekend. Pellet grills are still holding true to their original design, so you know that you are getting value for your money, but you just don’t have the same variety in models as other grill choices.
Pellet grills have a few perks which users tend to love, and some that they dislike. Let’s start with some favorites:
Most modern pellet grills come with an internal meat probe. This is a simple device which lets you track the actual inside temperature of the meat (or any food) you’re cooking. Traeger, a natural leader of pellet grills, even offers many models with a dual meat probe option–letting you alternate between each probe on the electric display board.
Constant internal temperature
Pellet grills have a dial which is rather similar to an oven. Unlike gas grills which usually give you a flame or burner intensity on the dial knob, pellet grills actually give you a temperature reading. Furthermore, they give you an accurate reading on the display of what your actual temperature. Most users have found that there can be a 15-25 degree difference between your set temperature and your actual temperature (depending on the model and manufacturer). When you compare this to gas grills, the temperature control of pellet grills is far superior.
Cleaning and operating process
Since pellet grills use wooden pellets as a fuel source, there will always be ash after each use. If you’re used to charcoal grills, this is basically the same thing. The operating process, however, is much simpler than gas or even charcoal grills (in my opinion). You just fill up the wooden pellet box which has an automated system to deliver the pellets while cooking. I always found it a hassle to remove and operate propane gas tanks, and the pellet system is much more satisfying to me. Also, for models like the Camp Chef Woodwind, there is an included ash-removing system which means you can clean away the ash without disassembling the entire grill. See here.
The main complaints usually have to do with manufacturing errors, design flaws or delivery faults:
Minor design flaws
Some users have complained that, even for big brands like Traeger, there are a few frustrating design flaws. For example, the cooking grate may not be fully attached in place, so it moves around; or maybe they don’t like the two-wheel design since it is more difficult to move around.
These complaints are usually not to do with pellet grills in general, but with the specific manufacturer or model.
While pellet grills maintain a remarkably constant temperature compared to regular grills, some users expect it to be on the dot. As I mentioned above, you can expect a 15 degree Fahrenheit discrepancy between your dial temperature and your actual temperature reading.
I don’t personally find this a problem since the real temperature is always displayed. However, this is something to be aware of–don’t expect it to have the same control as an indoor oven.
Pellet Hopper Guards
This is one thing that is commonly noted but easily solved. Pellet grills use a large hopper on the side of the grill which stores wooden pellets for fuel. You need to fill this up every so often (depending on how large the box, it may only be once a month, or once a week).
Some pellet grill designs have a pellet hopper guard in place–this makes it more difficult to load the hopper and is a hassle in general. The quick fix to this is to unscrew the guard from its fittings and remove it entirely.
Now that pellet grills are being sold by over 26 different manufacturers, you’re going to be hearing a little more about them. If you find yourself in a position to afford a high-quality grill, pellet grills are the best choice on the market right now.
For the same money, you won’t really be able to upgrade the quality of your gas grill as substantially (and you’ll likely just be paying for a brand name or fancy features).
Most of the cons in this articles are simply a matter of development–the low-temperature issue has already been solved by Camp Chef, as we’ve seen. As pellet grills are able to grow and sustain a more solid position in the grilling market, we’re going to see a wider range of products on offer, but my final advice for the 2018 market: pellet grills are the best quality grills for your money right now.