Whether you call them pellet grills or pellet smokers (the terms are interchangeable), there’s no denying the impact these do-everything cookers are having on BBQ. In the past year alone, interest in pellet grills has grown at an astounding rate, with the number of online searches nearly doubling. Although they’ve been around for over thirty years, it’s only recently that they’ve earned the title of the Hottest Product in BBQ.
As people learn about pellet grills, they quickly realize that there are a number of brands offering a variety of models. So how are they different? And how do you know which pellet grill is right for you? With more options than ever, shopping for a pellet grill can be confusing. In a market filled with grills that claim similar capabilities, it can be difficult to discern what separates one from another. However, if you know which factors to consider and what features to look for, choosing the best pellet grill for you is a whole lot easier.
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What’s the Best Pellet Grill?
It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about pellet grills, pop songs, or pizza, everyone always wants to know which is the best. While that might seem like a fairly straight forward question, there is no simple one-word answer. Is the best pellet grill the most popular one made by the best-known brand? Is it the most expensive one with the most advanced features and high-end bells and whistles? Is it the one that offers the best combination of price and performance? Really, the answer depends on you, your means, and your needs. Or, put another way, maybe the question shouldn’t be what’s the best pellet grill? but what’s the best pellet grill for you?
Other guides might offer a list of the best pellet grills, complete with links (links that are often paid). However, your best resource isn’t a list, but the knowledge that will help you know what you’re looking at and ensure you get a pellet grill you’ll be happy with.
7 Things to Consider When Buying a Pellet Grill
- Temperature range
- Type of controller
- Size/cooking area
Price: The Difference Between Affordable and Cheap Pellet Grills
Everyone has their price range, but don’t confuse cheap for affordable. As with other types of grills, there are plenty of inexpensive pellet grills that seem attractive at first glance, especially if you’re looking to save a little money. However, while a cheap pellet grill might save you a little money up front, it’s going to cost you more in the long run. Parts will rust, components will break down, and you will likely find yourself replacing some or all of that affordable grill within five years. Ultimately, you’re better off investing a little more money up front and get a quality grill that will keep years to come.
A quality pellet grill is built to last and will provide years of reliable performance. Bargain pellet grills not only lack the capabilities of better grills, they’re more likely to break down. No matter your price range, look for a pellet grill that’s built well and offers consistent performance. Fortunately, if price is a major consideration, there are quality pellet grills for under $500, as well as high-end pellet grills for under $1,000.
The best way to ensure your pellet grill lasts for years to come is to purchase one that’s built well and features quality construction. If you’re in the store, lift the lid and feel its weight—is it flimsy or made from a heavier gauge steel? Pellet grills aren’t like offset smokers, they don’t need to be hefty, but they shouldn’t feel delicate either. When you close the lid, see how it lays on the grill—are there gaps or is it flush, providing a good seal? Check out the joints, the hardware, and any welding—does the grill feel solid? It should be sturdy and all the joints and seams should fit together snugly, no gaps or spaces for heat to escape.
Although it’s hard to lift the lid when shopping online, do your research. Read reviews and compare specs. And don’t be afraid to call and ask questions. Anyone selling pellet grills should be able to tell you all you need to know about a particular grill and how it compares to other models.
When looking at a pellet grill also consider the material its made from. A majority of pellet grills on the market are made from painted steel. However, the quality of that steel and the paint can vary. A good high-temp powder coat paint can stand up to high heat without blistering or flaking. This is essential, because once the steel is exposed, it will rust. Even if the grill body is painted well, you have to look inside. The fire pot and diffuser plate have the potential to corrode and are two of the most common parts that need replacing. With some painted steel grills, such as Traegers®, you can can upgrade the grill and hopper lids to stainless steel, as well as the firepot, diffuser, and drip pan.
An attractive option for many people are stainless steel pellet grills, which are rust-resistant, more durable, and easier to maintain. While pellet grills made from commercial-grade 304 stainless steel are the most desirable, they come at a higher. However, there are also some pellet grills made from 430 stainless steel, which is more affordable and still incredibly durable.
Aside from durability, a well-built pellet grill has another significant advantage: It will perform better. High-quality materials and good construction allow the grill to retain heat better, making it more efficient and providing better pellet consumption, even in cold weather. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that a brand offering a cheaply made grill invested much time designing it to maximize airflow or engineering a control board that can hold a tight temperature.
Depending on the type of cooking you want to do, temperature range can be important. Every pellet grill is good at indirect cooking and most have no problem hitting any temperature from 180°F to 425°F, which is adequate for smoking, roasting, baking, and grilling. However, it’s not enough for searing, which requires a temperature of 500-550°F.
The better a pellet grill’s temperature range, the more it can do. Performance pellet grills have upper ranges of 500°F- 700°F, which is hot enough to get a great sear and fire-bake pizza. Many of those pellet grills also offer a direct grilling option that allows you to cook over an open flame in addition to cooking over indirect heat.
Type of Pellet Grill Controller
Just like your kitchen oven, a pellet grill must keep a consistent temperature in order to produce great food. To get tender brisket, the temperature needs to stay as close as possible to 250°F for the entire 12-plus hours its cooking. A pellet grill’s ability to do that is largely determined by its control board, which is essentially the brains of the pellet grill. There are different types of controllers, and their precision and consistency varies. Most can hold a consistent temperature in ideal conditions, but not all controllers can maintain a tight temperature in the cold, wind, and rain.
3-Position Controller – 3 position controllers, also called LMH controllers, have just 3 temperature settings—low, medium, and high—which correlate to roughly 225°F, 325°F, and 425°F. They feed pellets in fixed cycles that are determined by which setting you choose. With just three settings to choose from, though, you have less control over cooking temperatures than more advanced controllers. These controllers are often found on lower priced pellet grills.
Multi-position Controller – A step up from 3-position controllers, multi-position controllers feature a knob with temperature settings that go from 180°F to 420°F in 25° increments and may have an LCD display. In addition to more settings, these controllers offer more temperature control. However, they also run on fixed cycles and can only maintain about +/-20°F in ideal conditions—in cold windy weather they are less accurate and reliable. Some versions of these controllers have inputs for meat probes that can monitor food temperatures.
One-Touch Non-PID Controller – Featuring a LCD display and one-touch buttons for setting the cooking temperature in 5° or 10° increments, these controllers allow you to more accurately set a desired cooking temperature. However, like multi-position controllers, they use fixed cycles for delivering pellets and so are limited in accuracy to +/-15–20°F. These controllers may have inputs for meat probes that monitor the internal temperature of food.
PID Controllers – The most sophisticated type of pellet grill controller, PID controllers use complex algorithms to achieve and maintain the desired temperature within a few degrees. They, too, feature LCD display and one-touch buttons for setting the temperature in 5° increments. However, unlike controllers that use fixed cycles, a PID controller continuously measures the grill’s temperature then adjusts its cycle, adding pellets when necessary to hold the correct cooking temperature throughout the cook. Because they’re more sophisticated, PID controllers can accommodate programmable meat probes that have the ability to automatically lower the grill’s temperature when food is done.
Size and Cooking Area
Pellet grills are available in a range of sizes for a variety of needs—everything from portable models for tailgating to extra large commercial units and built-in pellet grills for outdoor kitchens. When considering grill size, look at the cooking area as well as physical dimensions to choose one that fits your space and lifestyle.
Like other grills, pellet grills list cooking area two ways: primary cooking area, which refers to the main cooking grate, and total cooking area, which is the main cooking grate plus any secondary racks. However, since pellet grills are primarily indirect cookers, there really is no difference between cooking on the main rack or the upper rack&em;the temperature should be the same. Therefore, a smaller pellet grill with a primary grid of 450 square inches and an upper rack of 125 square inches may be a better option than a larger grill with only a 500 square inch primary grid.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better, especially if you’re just paying for space you never use. The best pellet grill is the one that suits your needs. For an average size family, a pellet grill with a primary cooking area of 450-500 square inches should be sufficient. Singles and couples can go smaller, while larger families and those who like to entertain should consider larger pellet grills.
Capabilities and Features
As more pellet grills enter the market, they are forced to differentiate themselves from the competition. One way of doing that is through innovative technology and advanced abilities. When comparing pellet grills, look at the whole package, including its capabilities, as well as which features are available and whether they come standard or are optional. Some of the more popular features to look for include:
Popular Pellet Grill Features
- Control boards with inputs for meat probes– Some pellet grill controllers have outputs for meat probes. You just plug one end into the control board and insert the other into the meat. At a glance, you can track the internal temperature of your food on the digital display without opening the lid.
- Included meat probes and whether they’re programmable– Not every grill that can accommodate a meat probe comes with the probe. Some require you to buy it separately Also, not all meat probes and the control boards they connect to are created equal. Some are just for monitoring temperatures. Others are programmable—you can actually program the pellet grill to lower the heat when your food reaches its finishing temperature.
- Direct grilling option– As more people look for one grill to handle all their grilling and smoking, more pellet grill manufacturers are offering a direct grilling option. On some, you have to remove a part of the diffuser plate to let the flames through. Others, like the Fast Eddy’s PG500 have a permanent dedicated area for direct grilling.
- Included secondary cooking racks– If you’re looking to maximize cooking space, you’ll want to know if a pellet grill can accommodate a secondary rack. You’ll also want to know whether that rack is included or an optional add-on.
- WiFi capability– It shouldn’t be surprising that as our lives become ever more connected, so are our grills. Because they already have an electronic control board, pellet grills are a natural fit for WiFi. With a connected pellet grill, you can remotely monitor and control your cooking and meat temperatures from a phone, tablet, or computer…no matter where you are. It’s the ultimate set-it and forget-it feature. Currently, there are a few pellet grills with WiFi capability, but many more are on the way. Every Memphis Grills model, as well as the Traeger Timberline, have cloud-based WiFi that’s easy to connect, reliable, and offer a host of features on free downloadable app.
It’s a Personal Choice
It can be said often enough: the best pellet grill is the one that’s best for you. Ultimately, you’re the one paying for it and you’re the one who will be cooking on it, so make sure whatever pellet grill you choose is the one you’ll be happy with. Just because you’re friend has no qualms paying top dollar for the most advanced grill on the market doesn’t mean you should feel bad about spending half as much on a grill that does the things you want it to do. The best advice: do your research, be informed, and know what you’re purchasing. If you can do that, you’re unlikely to experience buyer’s remorse.