“In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable. Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible.” Michael McFaul, National Security Council, Obama Administration
Bottom line: It’s all about control. And convenience. Oh yeah, taste, too. Set it and forget it. Great flavor. No brainer. Pellet burners are a revolution.
This is a exciting time to for pellet smokers. There are a number of new designs and they come packed with convenient features. Newcomers like Fast Eddy, MAK, Memphis, and Yoder are truly easy and versatile.
These smokers use hardwood sawdust compressed into pellets as fuel. The beauty of pellets is that they have none of the additives and fillers in charcoal briquets, so they combust almost completely. The pellets provide the heat as well as flavor. Pellet smokers produce superb tasting food at low to medium temps with push-button ease and set-it-forget-it simplicity. They make fabulous ribs and other smoke roasted foods like pulled pork or brisket. Surprisingly, they do not produce overly smoky food. If anything, surprisingly, the food is undersmoked to many people.
On the other hand, the manufacturers advertise that these are both smokers and grills, but it is best to think of these devices as superb outdoor indirect heat convection smokers, not grills. They just don’t do a good job of searing a steak. Although they make unmatched pork chops, juicy ribs, delicately smoked turkey, I can sear steaks better on a $20 hibachi grill than on a $2,000 pellet smoker.
Their behavior is sometimes counterintuitive. The hotter they get, the less smoke they produce, and at their top settings, they don’t produce much smoke at all. This is good for when you are baking cakes or pies or doing dishes that don’t need smoke. But down under 250°F, they produce plenty of mild, elegant smoke. And even though the fuel is wood, it is hard to oversmoke with a pellet smoker. Burning wood on a charcoal grill produces much more intense smoke flavor. Odd.
Pellets look like rabbit chow. They are about the width of a pencil and as long as a couple of erasers. They are made by compressing hardwood sawdust. They have no additives or binders, and if they get wet they turn into a pile of sawdust.
How they work
Central to all pellet cookers is a digital controller similar to the controllers on indoor ovens. You select a temp you want, and there is an LED display that tells you the actual temp. Some of the controllers also are programmable so you can cook at a certain temp for a determined time. Some have leave-in meat probes that can dial back the oven temp when the meat hits its mark.
Pellet cookers usually have an auger or another feed mechanism that pushes the pellets into a burn pot typically about the size of a beer can ripped in half. An igniter rod sits in the bottom of the pot and when you turn on the grill it glows like the element on an electric stove. As the pellets ignite, a fan blows to feed them oxygen, and the igniter shuts off. The Traeger L’il Tex, an inexpensive model, it draws 300 watts an hour while the ignitor rod is on in the first four minutes, then it drops down to 50 watts an hour for the duration of the cook session, less than a standard light bulb.
The small burn pot is covered with a large deflector plate that absorbs the heat and spreads it out below the cooking surface making them essentially wood-fired convection ovens. Above the deflector plate is a wide solid drip pan that makes flare-ups a thing of the past. You need to keep this clean because it is right below the food and if you leave sauce and grease on there, it will smolder and leave soot on your food.
Because the burn pot is small, there is usually a hot spot directly over it. But there is no way to set up a 2-zone cooking system and a safe or cool zone on the models I have tested. This is an important tool for the cook on a charcoal or gas grill, a low temp area where one can place pieces that don’t need more cooking. The overhead racks just aren’t cool enough.
On the better models, a temperature probe in the oven area tells the controller what the temp is and if it is below the target it tells the controller to feed more pellets and air. The best manufacturers have designed versatile custom controllers that are easy to use and can hold a temp within 5°F, tighter than many indoor ovens. Many have a wide range of temps in 5°F increments and some have meat temp probes and can be programmed to change temps during the cook.
Some cheaper models, such as the Brinkmann, have a controller with only 3 settings, Low, Medium, High, and there is no temperature probe in the oven to create a feedback loop. We cannot recommend these units. You have less control over temp than you do on a gas grill or charcoal grill. The whole reason to buy a pellet grill is because it is set it and forget it and it hits a temp and holds it regardless of the ambient air temp outside, winter or summer. On these LMH controllers, the temp fluctuates widely and it cannot correct itself for the weather. They just aren’t as smart as a digital device. Whether you’re smoking a few slabs of ribs on a scorching summer day, or six pork butts during a blizzard, the 3 position controller only knows auger on and off times for Low, Medium and High. It has no information on the temperature inside the cook chamber.
The good news is that if you are stuck with one of these dogs, Ortech makes a Pellet Grill Digital Controller, described below, that can be used to upgrade Brinkmann and Traeger manual controllers. If you own another brand and are interested in upgrading to a digital controller, contact the manufacturer of your smoker.
Many of the rest of the manufacturers have come to the grill industry having first built home heating devices that burn pellets. This is a technology particularly popular in the Northeast and Northwest, but selling furnaces is seasonal, so they all seem to be making grills on the side now.
Rather than design their own digital controllers, they buy them from a company named Ortech. Ortech’s RealTemp TR-100 Digital Controller is shown here and its operation is not intuitive so let’s take a little time to explain it.
The Ortech has two knobs. The large one, the “Cook Control” has settings for: Off, Smoke, 180, 225, 250, 275, 300, 325, 350, 375, and High. One smoker manufacturer says that the “Smoke” setting is about 160F and “high” is about 525F, but both can vary due to ambient temperature, humidity, fuel type and quality of the smoker. Another knob, a teensy weensy knob to the right of the LED screen looks more like a push button. Labeled “SMOKE” and called the “Smoke Control Knob”, it is meant to turn, not push, and it controls the pellet feed rate with auger on/off sequences indicated by “P settings”. The P settings range from P0 to P15.
Turn it on to “Smoke” mode and use the P settings, or cook mode by selecting a temperature. When you select smoke or a temp setting you start the ignition sequence. The fan, igniter and auger motor turn on. The fan stays on until the smoker is turned off. The auger motor continuously delivers pellets to the red hot igniter rod in the firebox for two minutes under normal conditions. Then the igniter rod shuts off and the pellet fire burns with only the assistance of the auger and the fan.
In cook mode the thermometer in the cooking chamber sends info to the microprocessor which controls the auger. When temperature is correct the auger motor is idle. When the temp drops below a set threshold, the auger motor kicks in and delivers pellets until the desired temperature has returned.
In smoke mode the controller is no longer controlled by the thermometer, it merely switches the pellet feeding auger on and off. On time is 15 seconds, off time ranges from 45 seconds at P0, to 165 seconds at P15. Temp and smoke are controlled by the duration of off time: the auger always runs at the same speed. More smoke is produced at higher P settings and lower temp settings because longer off times allow the pellets to smolder. At P0 in smoke mode or “High” in cook mode the auger replenishes the pellets at a faster rate, creating more flame, less smoke.
Use of the P settings in smoke mode is easy to understand. But one can also use them as a dual function feature in cook mode. Remember, in cook mode the auger idles when the temperature is correct, but the P settings continue to function in idle mode. Ortech recommends the P2 setting as the default idle rate in cook mode. However, as one gains experience, the P settings can be used to improve the grills performance. For example, when using high temperature settings, select P1 or P0 to reduce auger off time and maintain strong, steady heat. If you have trouble hitting low temperatures on a sweltering day, increase the P setting to increase auger off time. It does not have a significant effect on smoke production. The basic rule remains: Low heat = more smoke, high heat = less smoke.
There are no food probes with this controller as there are on the MAK Pellet Boss, and the controller is mounted to the surface with two screws and no gasket so I fear rain could get into the electronics, but after more than a year of sitting out without the cover in rain and snow, the controller on the IPT I tested is still working fine. Ortech recommends covering your smoker.
Wood pellets are an all natural product. No petroleum products in them, no fillers, chemicals, or binders. They are an excellent source of smoke flavor and compact energy, 8,500 BTU per pound. No hot coals, no flareups. There is also very little ash: 10 pounds of pellets will produce about 1/2 cup of ash. All the rest is converted to energy and combustion gases. I clean out the bottom of the ones I tested after about 10 low temp cooks, and once every 3 high temp cooks. At high temps there is very little smoke, at low temps the pellets smolder and produce superb but understated smoke flavors. Click here for more about pellets.
According to Bruce Bjorkman of MAK Grills, his cookers use about 1/2 pound of pellets per hour when set on “Smoke” (about 175°F). At 450°F, the high temp, they burn about 2.3 pounds per hour. This is about the same average as I have experienced on a variety of pellet eaters. The burn rate will vary somewhat depending on the outside air temp, and how much cold meat is loaded in the grill, but cooking load should not have a major impact. Cooking pellets run about $1 per pound depending on the wood flavor, brand, if you get them on sale, and if you have to pay shipping. As a point of comparison, Kingsford briquets list for about $0.75 per pound, but they don’t pack the same BTUs because there are fillers. I usually buy 40 pound bags of BBQr’s Delight pellets from BigPoppaSmokers.com for $45 and shipping is free to IL. That’s $1.13 per pound. That means that if I cook a slab of spareribs for six hours at 225°F I will probably burn about 4 pounds at about $4.50. If I put 8 slabs in there in rib holders, and allocate 1/2 slab per person, my cost for 16 people is about $0.28 each. If I grill a mess of chicken parts at about 325°F for about 1 hour, I will use about 1.5 pounds of pellets for a cost of $1.70.
Pellets are available from a number of sources because they are popular for use in home heaters, so if you are worried that you will be buying a gizmo that might be worthless someday if the pellet supply runs out, it is unlikely. As more and more pellet grills appear, and word of their excellence spreads, sources for pellets will become numerous. I’ve even heard of a few Home Depot’s carrying them. The bad news is that I have tried several brands and I always return to BBQr’s Delight. They seem to have the least sawdust, so they are less likely to clog the auger, and they have a higher percentage of the flavor wood on the label.
But you cannot burn home heater pellets in a cooking grill. Cooking pellets are hardwoods. Heater pellets often contain softwoods such as pine, they can have treated lumber and other chemical contaminants in them. The smoke they put out is potentially hazardous in food.
Pellets are made from different woods, each of which imparts a distinctive flavor to the meat. Hickory, oak, maple, alder, apple, cherry, hazelnut, peach, and mesquite are among the flavors available. For more about pellets, read my article, The Zen of Wood. There’s also a pretty good forum for people who have pellet cookers at PelletSmoking.com and PelletHeads.com.
On most models, cleanup means a 30 minute process of taking out the greasy grates and the gooey drip plate, scraping them and washing them. Stainless parts can go in the diswasher, but I wouldn’t do it. That grease is like tar and it could get all ove the insides of the dishwasher and hang on for dear life. The wood creates ash that can build up in the combustion cup and it needs to be removed every 5 to 10 cooks with a shop vac. There’s not much because combustion is so thorough, but it is enough to block the feed tube on some units and cause improper combustion on others. It won’t mess up your shop vac because there is no grease down there. At the moment, only Blaz’n Grills has a slide out combustion cup that makes cleanup much easier, but you still have to get in there occasionally and suck out fly ash that has scattered around the lower part of the grill body.
A few words of caution
There are moving parts on these grills. Moving parts eventually break. There is an auger with a motor, and a fan with a motor. Motors burn out. There are proprietary electronics systems on these babies. Electronics often have bugs or fail. Especially when exposed to rain, snow, hot, and cold. When they fail, will the manufacturer have a replacement part?
In 2008 there were only two consumer pellet grill manufacturers. Today there are at least a dozen. The market for these relatively expensive devices is small but growing fast. Not all of them will survive. Forget the warranty and ask “When it breaks will the manufacturer still be in business?” Most manufacturers are small. They do not have repair shops near you. When it breaks will they be able to diagnose the problem over the phone? They may be able to figure it out, but then you have to buy the replacement parts and do the repair work yourself. Are you up to the task?
On the flip side, the parts are not complex, and you may be able to get them from another source. If you are handy, repairs should not be too hard. Some brands have tech support online. MAK leads the pack in this with numerous helpful videos.
Not enough smoke from your pellets?
Most owners are crazy about their pellet cookers, but some say the flavor is different than they are used to from charcoal and gas grills, and more than one has told me they do not like the flavor because it is too mild. They are a minority. Fact is that pellet smokers are winning tons of trophies and there is a movement to have them banned from the competition circuit (it won’t happen as long as the president of KCBS is a pellet manufacturer).
I have found that using the upper shelf gets more airflow around the meat than the lower shelf.
Dr. Greg Blonder, is a physicist, entrepreneur, former Chief Technical Advisor at AT&T’s legendary Bell Labs, food lover, and the AmazingRibs.com science advisor and mythbuster. I asked him about the problem (he has a MAK 1 Star). He explained that smoke sticks to cool surfaces and wet surfaces, and the surface of warms and dries out after a few hours. When he wants more smoke flavor he uses a strong smoke wood like hickory or mesquite, he uses coldmeat, and then he keeps the meat moist by painting or misting it with apple juice or a mop like Lexington Dip or East Carolina Mop. Read his detailed research on the subject in my article on the Zen of Wood and my article on Basting.
The bottom line
Because they burn wood, pellet smokers are popular in BBQ competitions and they have been winning top prizes at many of them. Fast Eddy Cookshack Smokers have won the top prize at numerous competitions, enough to make some traditionalists cry foul and try to get them disqualified. They’re too easy, opponents claim.
Before buying, please note that most pellet smokers need access to electricity to run the auger that transports the pellets to the firebox and the convection fan that circulates the air in the cooking chamber. These cookers can use a lot of pellets at high temps. At high temps there is little or no smoke, and at low temps smoke is unavoidable. So if you want to cook, say, a chicken breast low and slow to retain juices, but you don’t want any smoke flavor, you’re outta luck. If you want to torch a thin burger to get a crunchy crust and add a little smokiness, yiou’ll get great smoke flavor, but it is hard to get the crust.