Pellet grills are taking the grilling world by storm, because they are a fantastic way to grill, smoke, and sear, with excellent consistency and control. Pellet grills were invented by Joe Traeger in the 1980s, but to understand how they work, it’s best to take a step back and understand the underlying technologies. Let’s explore how pellet grills work.
In the early 20th century, most American homes used wood fire stoves for heating and cooking. During the Great Depression, when fuel became more expensive, many of these homes started burning scrap wood and sawdust.
In 1930, the first Presto-log was introduced, where scrap wood and sawdust were compressed into a log shape and packaged for fuel in the home.
These “logs” burned more efficiently than hard wood logs, because they have less moisture content, and produce less ash. In the home, these logs were safer because they do not generate dangerous creosote in the chimney.
Over time, these compressed wood products became reduced in size, down to the pellet shape we know today. Instead of being burned one at a time like a fire log, pellets could be fed into a fire from a hopper, maintaining a fire more consistently for longer.
Pellets are bound together by the natural lignin in the wood, and shaped by intense pressure, rather than by being bound using an adhesive or additive, making them an environmentally-friendly product.
The Rise of Pellet Stoves
During the energy crisis of 1970s, domestic pellet stoves became a popular way to heat American homes. The industrial hopper technology was made more compact, suitable for domestic use.
Pellet stoves work by storing a large quantity of wood pellets in a hopper near the stove. A motorized auger connects the hopper to the fire, delivering a steady stream of pellets to the fire.
The auger feeds a set amount of fuel to the fire, while also preventing smoke and fire from traveling backwards into the fuel hopper.
Pellet stoves typically have two fans: a combustion fan that keeps the fire supplied with oxygen, and a convection fan that circulates heat within the stove. This air circulation eliminates the need for a downdraft from a chimney, instead relying on exhaust systems for ventilation.
These stoves are, therefore, extremely well-insulated, retaining heat for longer, and can be used in small homes without a chimney, or where traditional wood stoves might be dangerous.
How Do Pellet Grills Work?
Once you understand how pellet stoves work, it’s easy to understand how pellet grills work.
- A hopper is filled with wood pellets. When the temperature is set and the stove is ignited, the auger begins to turn, delivering wood pellets to the fuel area of the grill
- The pellets are ignited
- A fan circulates the air inside the grill, providing a consistent temperature
- The insulation of the grill maintains temperature regardless of outside weather conditions
The amount of fuel delivered over time is controlled by the thermostat, which will deliver a measured amount of pellets to maintain that temperature. Food is cooked with radiant heat, like an oven, rather than by direct heat, like a grill.
Pellet grills require electricity to operate the auger motor and the fans, feeding fuel and oxygen respectively to the grill as needed to maintain the set temperature.
Difference Between Pellet Stoves and Pellet Grills
The primary difference between pellet stoves and pellet grills is the nature of the pellets. Wood pellets used for home heating may contain hardwood, softwood, and scrap biomass that burns well and affordably for heating, but the smoke can lend an unpleasant taste to foods.
Wood pellets used for grilling are food-grade, burning more cleanly and without other biomass additives.
In addition, food-grade wood pellets can be chosen specifically for their smoke flavor, available in hard woods like mesquite, maple, apple, hickory, pecan, cherry, and other popular grilling flavors. It’s important that a pellet grill use high-quality, food-grade pellets, and not pellets designed for other purposes.
Common Features of Pellet Grills
While every pellet grill has slightly different features, here are some of the most common:
Low Hopper Alarm
The grill will give an alarm or notification when fuel is running low, so you can add pellets or adjust the temperature accordingly.
Standard Fuel Consumption
For most pellet grills, the rule of thumb is that you will need 2 pounds of wood pellets per hour of low and slow cooking, and 4 pounds of wood pellet per hour of cooking hot, at temps above 400°F.
Pellet grills offer the convenience, consistency, and control of a gas grill, with the flavor and smoke of a charcoal grill. They are more versatile than a smoker, and easier to clean up than a wood fire. They have a temperature range that is perfect for low-and-slow briskets, or hot enough to sear a steak, typically ranging from 140°F to 500°F.
Advantages of a Pellet Grill
As you may have noticed by now, pellet grills offer several distinct advantages over other kinds of outdoor grills. The reasons everyone loves pellet grills include:
Precise and Consistent Temperature Controls
Pellet grills use fuel and air to create a perfectly consistent temperature inside the grill, and maintain it for hours, just like the oven in your kitchen. This allows you to “set it and forget it” for foods that require long smoke times at low temperatures or boost the temperature for a precise and perfect sear.
Low Ash for Easy Cleanup
Wood pellets cook down to less than 1% ash, so cleanup is fast and easy, and there are fewer problems from ash buildup over long cooking times.
Real Hard Wood Smoke and Flavor
The convection fan inside a pellet grill creates an even circulation of hot, smoky air, so you don’t need to position vents for optimal smoke flavor. The ability to choose a wide range of wood pellets made from real hard wood without additives imparts a ton of smoke and flavor to food, naturally and without additives or chemicals.
With many traditional hard wood smokers, it’s necessary to manually monitor and adjust the air to fuel ratio, adding wood chunks and shaping the fire the way you need it. A pellet grill automates the optimal fuel to air ratio, so you don’t need to maintain the fire.
Provided the pellet grill provides a drip pan to catch grease, these grills have virtually no risk of flareups.
Drawbacks of a Pellet Grill
Despite all these great features, pellet grills aren’t perfect. Here are a few drawbacks.
Need Extra Care in Wet Conditions and Wet Climates
Because the pellets are, after all, made of wood, they will not burn well when wet. Wood pellets in storage and in the hopper need to be kept dry.
Depending on your use, this can be a pretty severe drawback. The need for a constant electrical connection makes these grills less friendly for portable uses like camping or tailgating. Most standard-sized pellet grills need to be powered by a generator, or a car or boat battery, so they can’t simply be powered by a car adapter.
May Require More Significant Repairs or Maintenance
If you are comparing a pellet grill to a standard charcoal grill, that can be another big downside: If something breaks or needs repairs in a pellet grill, like an electric wire, a motor, or the drive train, then the entire grill is non-functional.
Likewise, with a digital grill, if there is a technical glitch or error, the grill won’t work. With charcoal and even many gas grills, if a particular part breaks down or needs repair, you may still be able to use the grill, even in a more limited fashion.
Less of the Pit Master Experience
This aspect won’t matter to many people, but to some, it is important. Cooking on a pellet grill is more like cooking on an oven, where you set the temperature and the timer and then walk away. You do not need to open the grill to flip or move food. There are virtually no flare-ups.
There are virtually no grill marks. There’s practically no reason to put on an apron, break out the tongs and spatula, and stand around the grill with a beer. For some people, what is summer even about if you aren’t standing around a grill with a beer?
What to Look for in a Pellet Grill
If you are considering buying a pellet grill, here are some of the key features to look for to make sure you are getting good value for your money.
Most hoppers are gravity-fed, where pellets naturally slide down as fuel is fed into the fire.
Some hoppers are prone to “pellet bridging,” where pellets get clustered against each other and don’t fall down the hopper, making the grill think it’s low on fuel when the hopper is full. This is a design flaw in the hopper, and manually minding the hopper will always make using such a grill more cumbersome than it needs to be.
If you plan to get a lot of use out of your pellet grill, choose a high capacity hopper for fewer refills.
In a pellet grill, the drivetrain moves the auger. While such motors don’t need to be particularly powerful, since they are only pushing pellets, it’s important that they be accurate and reliable, ideally for years.
The drivetrain ensures that the right amount of fuel is delivered at the right time to maintain the desired temperature and needs to be the most reliable system in your pellet grill.
Smart Grilling Features
Because pellet grills are ideal for set-it-and-forget-it grilling, they are the best candidates for integration with mobile devices. Smart pellet grills will allow you to remotely monitor and adjust the temperature of the grill, receive notifications about fuel levels, set timers, and more. These apps are perfect for low-and-slow grilling and smoking, allowing you to monitor the grill for hours from anywhere you happen to be.
The most common pellet grill problems are feeding jams, where pellets get clogged in the auger, or fans and sensors not working properly. In most cases, those problems are not issues with the grill; they are just a question of maintenance. High-quality pellets, when kept dry, are much less prone to clogging and jamming.
Cleaning ash and grease from inside the grill keeps the fans, fan motors, sensors, and exhaust systems working correctly. As with any type of grill, peak performance requires regular cleaning and maintenance.
Pellet grills are incredibly versatile, able to cook and smoke all kinds of foods to perfection, with more simplicity and accuracy than other types of grills. They are easy to use, easy to clean, and give natural, smoky hardwood flavor to everything you grill. There’s a reason that these grills have become so popular in recent years, and why so many people swear by them.
Now you know how pellet grills work, what their common features and drawbacks are, and what to look for in a pellet grill, you’ll be able to choose the pellet grill that is perfect for your needs, and enjoy a pellet grill for years to come.