Best Guide to How Pellet Grills Work

How Do Pellet Grills Work?

How Are Pellet Grills Changing People’s Grilling Habits?

Grilling is changing, and with the seriously awesome addition of pellet grilling, we have more options than ever before. But what is a pellet grill, and what exactly are you doing when you use one?

They operate by burning pellets, or bits of wood, in a huge bin that’s called a hopper. An auger will feed those pellets into the hopper, and continue to burn them.

Pellet grills offer a more consistent way to grill outside, and don’t include flare-ups like charcoal grills or gas grills do. It’s an entirely different way to grill outdoors.

First of All, What Exactly is a Pellet Grill?

Pellet Grills

Pellet grills look very similar to the gas grills you’ve been using for ages.

They have a metal chassis, a shelf on the bottom, maybe even an extending side shelf, and a big, metal lid that keeps it shut. They can be on stands with wheels, or be built into an outdoor kitchen space.

But they have different insides. Instead of just having gas run through lines to a burner, or charcoal sitting in a big soon-to-be ash bin in the bottom, you have an extra section to a pellet grill.

This consists of the wood pellet hopper, the auger, combustion fan, the auger motor, and the igniter. These are all required to keep things operational.

A pellet grill uses wood chips, or pellets, in place of another fuel source. All pellet grills require electricity to operate, and generally come with simple methods of cleaning, such as the auger churning the burnt chips out of the other end into a bucket or bin.

 

A pellet grill uses wood chips, or pellets, in place of another fuel source. All pellet grills require electricity to operate, and generally come with simple methods of cleaning, such as the auger churning the burnt chips out of the other end into a bucket or bin.

Ultimately, pellet grills cook slower, and offer more heat consistency than you would get with charcoal or gas.

This is How They Work

Pellet Grill Insides

Let’s start from the top down and explain all of those parts we mentioned.

You have your hopper in that little box on the side of your pellet grill. This is where you feed pellets into. Hoppers come in varying capacities, but it’s not uncommon to see extensive 10-20 pound capacities to hold onto tons of wood chips at a time.

At the base of the hopper, your pellets meet the auger, which is powered by an auger motor. The auger works like a big spiral cork, spinning slowly to move the pellets through the base of the main cooking chamber.

In this tube, your combustion fan comes into play. It gets things moving and keeps air intake coming into the chamber, so you aren’t left with a pressurized mess. If your combustion fan isn’t working, your unit isn’t working.

As these move down the line thanks to the combustion fan and auger, they meet the igniter, or a chamber where they’ve been ignited and set ablaze.

This ignitier is usually electric, and once the chips are ignited, the combustion fan will continue to provide oxygen to keep the fire burning.

As everything burns in the ignition chamber, it sends heat up through vents to fill the chamber. You might notice that almost all pellet grills have a cylindrical tube for the cooking chamber.

That’s because when the heat comes up, it circulates through the tube evenly, and ensures a thorough cooking process. Pellet grills aren’t meant to remain open during the entire cooking process.

At the end of the line, the pellets are pushed through the ignition chamber (through the auger) into the bucket on the side.

Different pellet grills might have different ash deposits, but buckets are the most common, and generally the most effective. You empty and return the bucket every so often.

Pellet grills are electrical. You need the auger motor to continue moving, and you need the combustion fan to keep sucking air in

Pellet grills are electrical. You need the auger motor to continue moving, and you need the combustion fan to keep sucking air in.

What Are the Benefits of Using a Pellet Grill?

Pellet Grilling Foods

Pellet grilling is a unique way to cook your food, and it comes with a few primary benefits over other grilling types. These benefits include:

  • More Consistent Cooking: Consistency is key. If I make out-of-this-world pork chops, I need to be able to replicate them next time people come over. They have expectations now, you know? Because of temp control ranges, which we’ll get into in a minute, as well as fuel that burns up quicker than charcoal, you’re able to control how your food cooks with more certainty.
  • Temperature Control Range: Once you start charcoal, it’s just up to the way it burns to provide consistency. It’s chunks of carbonized wood burning with no human interference; it’s imperfect, and you cannot control the temperature range. With pellet grills, even though the burning process is similar, it’s electronically controlled. If you cut power to the auger and combustion fan, it stops working. This gives you the power to manipulate the temperature range, and cook exactly the way that you want to every single time. It means no more charred outsides and raw insides—perfectly balanced food every single time.
  • Slow Cooking: It’s like the Crock-Pot of the outdoors. Depending on your settings, you can slow-cook food for over 18 hours without having to refill the pellet hopper. It gives you the chance to make some slow-roasted brisket that’s so good, it stuns people. For holiday bashes, you can start slow cooking some portions of your food early in the morning, and when the late afternoon hits and people start arriving, you can turn it up if you need to.
  • Cheaper Fuel: This is marginal, but it’s there. Most wood pellets are organic, meaning they’re just dried out wood chips, or at the very least, sawdust that’s been pressed into pellet shapes. It’s cheap when you buy in bulk, saving an average of 4% up to 18% in fuel costs compared to charcoal. It gets a little bit tricky, because charcoal and pellets don’t have the same burn times, but the savings pile up pretty quickly if you’re primarily using medium or high settings.

What is the Best Food to Cook on a Pellet Grill?

Tin Foil Pellet Smokers

I would actually argue that meat and veggie shish kebabs are some of the best foods you can cook on a pellet grill.

If you put it on the slowest settings (roughly 200° F  for hours at a time), and you wrap them in tin foil, it keeps a nice succulent flavor without drying anything out.

But you can change the speed of your auger, and the temperature of your cooking chamber to burn hotter, usually up to but not exceeding 500° F.

It’s like a slow roaster outside, so foods that you want to retain more moisture will cook excellently on a pellet grill.

One thing that I would say pellets are not good for is chicken. If you’re just making grilled chicken breasts, they might get dried out fairly easily, but roasting a whole chicken (more fat to keep it moist) is surprisingly fantastic off of a pellet grill.

Pellets and Charcoal are Similar, But Not

Pellet vs Charcoal

Charcoal is wood.

The process of making charcoal is cooking wood pieces in a low-oxygen environment over the course of days, at which point, all moisture and methane are stripped off the wood. Other compounds, such as tar and hydrogen, are also taken out of the wood.

You’re left with char, which we call charcoal because of what it looks and feels like. Coal is a mineral, while charcoal is a manmade wood product (meaning that it doesn’t naturally occur in nature, even if there’s a forest fire).

Charcoal is technically cleaner than burning coal, but it can still add over 25 HCAs and some PAHs (carcinogens)(1) to your food, both by burning fat drippings and adding soot to the exterior of said food. Charcoal is made out of wood, making it similar to wood pellets, but not identical.

They don’t release carcinogens at the same rate, but either way, you still have the fats from meat on the grill dripping into the heat source (ignition chamber, in this instance) and rapidly changing the chemical composition of those fats into PAHs and HCAs.

Pellet grilling is not technically healthier than charcoal or gas grilling at all. While you might not be getting the same soot exposure from pellets as you would with charcoal, your food is still staying in contact with the pellet smoke for a longer amount of time.

There’s no scientifically-backed data to suggest that pellet grilling is healthier, but nothing points to it being worse, either. It’s just more consistent when it comes to flavor.

There’s no scientifically-backed data to suggest that pellet grilling is healthier, but nothing points to it being worse, either. It’s just more consistent when it comes to flavor.

Pellet Power

So what do you think?

Are you going to hop on the pellet power train, and start cooking more consistently in the great outdoors?

If you’re still undecided on a pellet grill or smoker, we’ve done our research and tested the cream of the crop.

Check out our pellet grill buying guide to put all these benefits that you’ve read in this post into action, and start mastering your grill.