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When it comes to at-home grilling, you’ll typically come across three main options: pellet grills, charcoal grills and gas grills. All grills and smokers work with the same basic principles of thermodynamics, or heat and energy transfer, explained David Marks, head of business development for Operation BBQ Relief and the reigning national and world best wings on the planet champion. “They all need fuel and oxygen to create a heat source,” he said. “A pellet grill uses wood pellets made of sawdust that are compressed into the form of a pellet as their fuel.” Pellets are small and efficient. “The pellets are made of various woods that allow you to add the smoke flavor of the specific wood that you like,” he added.
How to shop for the best pellet grills
Basic pellet grill designs tend to be pretty similar, Lampe explained. “You’ll find a little fire pot down in the bottom of your cooker and a delivery system that sends the pellets in as required,” he said. “This is all controlled by a thermostat and a little fan to blow on the fire.”
Although this may sound simple — and it can be — he noted that there are different features that can make it even easier.
Connected pellet grills
He noted that many cooks like to use Wi-Fi pellet smokers to monitor both their cooker and meat temperatures, allowing you to “make adjustments from wherever you are.”
“I like to do a lot of long overnight cooking so for me the built-in WiFi is amazing,” Marks added. “It allows me to take a peek at the temperatures of my meats and the smoker from bed.”
Pellet grills range from portable models to commercial size units, so it’s important to know how many people you’ll typically be cooking for before investing in something too big or small. “In general, a 9-pound pork butt or a 15-pound brisket will serve 25 people a succulently smoked meat sandwich,” Marks said. “Don’t have buyer’s remorse and instead know what you are going to do and buy the one that solves the most of your needs.”
Keep an eye out for the length of time and coverage of warranties offered — the typical length is two years, Marks noted. “I always think it's best to look for a seller that will help you out if you should have a problem when buying a mechanical device like a pellet cooker,” Lampe said. “Most of the brands are very dependable and helpful if you do have a problem.”
Marks highly recommends touching the new pellet grill before making your final decision. “If it looks and feels cheap, it is. Cheap will not last and ultimately it will fail you when you need it most,” said. “You also should never be or feel pressured into buying a smoker — you want the pellet grill to be the center of good times and great food with your friends and family.”
Best pellet grills
Marks recommended shoppers remember what it’s all about: “The utopia of barbeque: succulent slow smoked meats, consistent temperatures and the confidence to know that everything is perfect without getting up.” To help you find the best model that will bring this barbecue paradise to your backyard, we consulted expert pitmasters for recommendations on the best pellet grills across different needs.
Best pellet grill overall: Pit Boss
This wood pellet grill and smoker is both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled — and according to Marks, it’s the most versatile pellet grill available. He appreciates the 2,137 square inches of cooking space with 719 square inches for grilling and smoking, plus an additional cabinet with 1,418 square inches of smoking space. It also comes with six sausage hooks and two meat probes with the ability to control up to four at one time.
“I really love the pot access that allows you to brush out the pot and remove the ash — that is a huge timesaver as well as a significant safety feature,” he said. “This pellet grill with all of the combined features, technology, sheer size, best in class [5-year limited] warranty and a price tag of $750 make it my choice for best pellet grill overall.”
Best affordable pellet grill: Pit Boss
With 820 square inches of grilling area, this pellet grill doesn’t just have enough room for entertaining a small crowd — it’s also a well-built basic smoker at a pleasing price point. Although it isn’t Wi-Fi enabled, Marks noted that it does have a meat probe that will notify you when the food is done as well as a post handle that allows you to change the indirect heat source to direct. “It is simple and easy to do yet allows for hot and fast in a flash — just turn up the heat on your dial control,” he said. “With basic care, this pellet grill will take good care of your meats.” He also pointed out the five-year warranty, noting that it’s “two more years than the competition.”
Best all-in-one pellet grill: Weber
Whether you’re looking to sear or smoke, this pellet grill with a porcelain-enamel finish is all you need. It has a temperature range of 200 degrees to 600 degrees Fahrenheit and offers 1,008 square inches of dual grilling space, an internal grease collection drawer and a 20-pound capacity hopper with a 5-year limited warranty. “This is Weber’s entry into the pellet grill field and is, as expected, a well designed and quality grill,” said Lampe. “Their Wi-Fi-related capabilities are good and we can only expect them to get better.”
Best smart pellet grill: Traeger
This stainless steel Wi-Fi pellet grill offers 1,300 square inches of cooking space, a pellet hopper capacity of 24 pounds and a 3-year warranty. Pellet sensors allow you to remotely track your levels through the Traeger app and with room to cook 12 chickens, 15 rib racks or 12 pork butts, you’ll appreciate the added convenience of working on a crowd-pleasing feast. “Like most Wi-Fi-enabled pellet grills, you can control The Traeger Timberline with a Wi-Fi connection from anywhere in the world with a computer or phone. However, with the Traeger ‘Wifire’ app, you can be the coolest kid on your block as you manage your cook with your Apple Watch,” Marks added. “That’s some real BBQ James Bond stuff there.”
Best basic pellet grill: Recteq
“This is a simple, low-budget pellet grill in a kettle shape that should make even the newest pellet griller comfortable,” said Lampe, and it’s a great place to start for those looking for a simple yet reliable option. Temperatures range from 225 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit for slow and steady cooking but it can also achieve 749 degrees Fahrenheit for searing and direct-flame grilling. There’s also a simple temperature controller and digital display as well as a two-year warranty.
Best portable pellet grill: Louisiana Grills
If you’re looking for versatility and convenience when on the move, consider this portable pellet grill with a 10-pound hopper. “This sleek and good-looking tabletop grill delivers 333 square inches of cooking space and plenty of cooking ability,” said Lampe. “It also features the company’s branded SearTECH control for direct and indirect heat cooking.” That means you can easily switch from smoking to grilling with a pull of the lever, plus it comes with a five-year warranty.
Best high-end pellet grill: Cookshack
According to Lampe, this stainless steel grill is a “cooking machine” with double walled construction and insulation for heat retention as well as a quality searing burner and smoking performance. It also has the ability to cook over direct or indirect heat at up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit and a two-year limited warranty. “There’s even a warming drawer to hold a pan of food while you keep cooking,” he said. “Fast Eddy is a long-time championship barbecue cook and pit builder so it’s no surprise that his grills are at the top of their class.”
How pellet grills work
Pellet grills have a hopper, or basket, that holds the wood pellets. These pellets are then driven into a pot through a shaft with an auger. “The pot has a heating rod and a fan below that is thermostatically controlled just like the heat in your home,” Marks explained. “The fan controls the oxygen flow, creating efficient use of the wood pellets as well as a very narrow window of temperature fluctuation and rapid recovery time when you open and close the door.”
The heating rod then fires up the pellets drawn into the pot by the auger while the fan blows. When it comes to temperature, it’s typically “set it and forget it” with pellet grills. They typically are able to heat up to 175 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit without you needing to tend a fire. “It's pretty simple for the cook — you turn it on and set it to your desired temp and, as long as you keep the hopper full of pellets, it’ll keep cooking,” said Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, author of Dr. BBQ's Big-Time Barbecue Cookbook and member of the American Royal BBQ Hall of Fame. “A big positive is that the pellets are 100 percent wood so it's a clean burning wood fire with even heat. These are things that all barbecue cooks strive for and the pellet grill makes it easy.”
On pellet grills, you’ll also see the smoke and air flow run out of a stack while grease collects in a drip system that generally ends in a collection bucket. “There are grates where the meat sits to get its generous low and slow time in the smoke bath or create that charred caramelization meat gets when cooking hot and fast,” added Marks. “The pellet grill can do both with ease.”
The pros and cons of pellet grills
The biggest pro to investing in a pellet grill versus other types of grills is its simplicity, according to Lampe. “The cooker does all the work and makes it pretty easy to cook barbecue,” he explained.
Marks agreed that when it comes to ease of use and consistency, a pellet grill wins. “Temperature control produced by a pellet grill makes a huge difference for the average Joe,” he added. “If you want to have a great barbeque with a reasonable amount of work while still being able to enjoy your friends and family when they are over, a pellet grill is the best way to go with the most amount of success and the least amount of stress.”
However, the biggest potential downside is that it's a mechanical device, so if there’s a loss of power or a malfunction, that can disrupt your day of cooking. “Good maintenance helps with this,” Lampe added. “A long-time BBQ pro might like to play with the fire while they’re cooking, but a pellet cooker means there is really no need to tend your fire constantly – making it perfect for an at-home cook.”
They can also be expensive and require regular maintenance. Marks noted that there are very few pellet grills on the market for under $400 and that they all have “a lot of moving parts” and electronics that can go bad. “Many of the parts are prone to rusting out and the equipment needs regular interval maintenance with some parts over time needing to be replaced,” he said. “Pellet grills also need to be cleaned out every four-to-five uses for best no issue use.”
To help prevent this, he emphasized the importance of keeping your pellet grill dry and protected from the elements with a secure cover. “If the electronics get wet they can short out and the replacement parts for those panels generally are not under warranty, as you the owner are responsible for proper care,” he said. “Also, when pellets get wet they expand and then dry causing the auger to lock up.”
He also advised looking for a grill with a “quick pellet empty” for ease of maintenance. “Also look for a quick access ash pot for an easy way of cleaning and maintenance,” he said. But if problems arise, he noted not to be afraid of reaching out to the manufacturers for help or insight. “From my experience, all of these companies stand behind their products with great support and warranty,” he added.