I was recently asked ‘are all pellets smokers also good grills?‘. My response was that not only are some pellet smokers not capable of grilling at all, some products which are promoted as grills are not ideally suited to the job. This made the person asking the question even more confused as it rightly would. Therefore, I thought I would answer this question with an article to try and provide guidance on how to understand what the capabilities of each pellet BBQ really are so you know what you’re actually buying.
Disclaimer: Hey! By the way… any links on this page that lead to products on Amazon or other sites are affiliate links, and I earn a commission if you make a purchase.
The Confusion Over Pellet Smokers and Pellet Grills
Ok, the place to start is to define what smoking foods actually means compared to grilling foods. I’ve previously discussed this topic in my article on indirect vs direct heat, but I can quickly summarise the differences here.
‘Smokers’ are indirect heat cookers where food is cooked over several hours at temperatures between 225 degrees and 375 degrees typically, but not above 450 degrees.
‘Grills’ are direct heat cookers where food is being cooked very quickly for just a few minutes at high temperatures at a minimum of 450 degrees, but typically around 650 degrees or more.
Hence, the first means to tell the capabilities of a pellet grill/smoker is to review its temperature setting capabilities. If its maximum temperature setting is below 450 degrees its only suitable for smoking/indirect cooking.
Several ‘pellet grills’ have a 450-degree temperature setting. Hence, they are potentially capable of grilling (just about). However, while the control panel/air temperature may be limited to 450 degrees on some pellet BBQs they can grill at higher temperatures due to an important feature (direct flame access).
Furthermore, there are also pellet/gas combo grills where the grilling side of things is covered by some propane burners. The pellet burner can then just focus on the smoking/indirect heat side of things.
Horizontal vs Vertical Pellet BBQs
I cannot discuss the topic of what makes a good pellet grill compared to a good pellet smoker etc without touching on the topic of horizontal vs vertical pellet BBQs. My linked article goes into the topic in more detail, but briefly, this is what you need to know.
A horizontal pellet BBQ has smoking and grilling capabilities. Whereas a vertical pellet BBQ is purely a smoker, its only capable of indirect heat cooking.
Now, if you already own a gas grill that you want to keep, a vertical pellet smoker, as opposed to a horizontal pellet grill/smoker, may actually be a better option for you.
With a vertical pellet smoker, you typically get a larger cooking chamber for the money compared to a horizontal pellet grill/smoker. But let’s say you actually need a pellet BBQ that’s capable of smoking and grilling.
Therefore, you would need a horizontal pellet grill/smoker. So let’s discuss what features you need to look for to determine how good at grilling different horizontal ‘pellet grills’ actually are.
What Makes Some Pellet Grills Better At Grilling Than Others?
As I’ve stated above, when it comes to grilling we are talking about high-temperature direct heat cooking and we need a surface temperature at the grate of at least 450 degrees.
Some pellet grills only have a maximum temperature setting of 450 degrees. Hence, in those cases, they are very limited when it comes to grilling/searing performance.
Furthermore, many budget pellet grills come with thin wire racks. Therefore there is little thermal mass to absorb the heat. Thicker wire racks or porcelain-coated cast-iron grates hold onto the heat much better to provide higher temperatures at the grate.
Alternatively, GrillGrates can be added on top of the existing grates to aid grilling performance. I discuss this more in my article on can a Traeger replace a gas grill.
If a pellet grill provides direct flame access from the pellet fire to the grates that can make a big difference in getting the cooking grate temperature above 450 degrees. However, direct flame grilling does come with a higher risk of grease fires and frequent cleaning is essential for pellet grill safety.
Finally, the choice of BBQ pellets can make a big difference in grilling performance. To get the highest heat you can use charcoal pellets, ideally 100% charcoal pellets and not an oak/charcoal blend.
My Final Thoughts On Clarifying Pellet Grills vs Smokers…
I wanted to keep this article fairly short and sweet as my linked articles above already explain what the benefits (and drawbacks) of features such as direct flame access are on pellet grills.
What I wanted to do with this article is to make you aware that not all horizontal pellet BBQs are good grills. Furthermore, in some cases focusing on pellet smoke alone (maybe a vertical pellet smoker) may actually be a better option for you.
Finally, I wanted to make you aware that even when some ‘pellet grills’ are inherently flawed as grills (450-degree max temp and no direct flame) there are means to improve their grilling capabilities (GrillGrates and charcoal pellets). Or you can go the pellet/gas combo route.
Really, first and foremost you need to carefully think about what you need your pellet BBQ to do, do you need it to be an indirect & direct heat cooker, or would an indirect heat smoker suit your needs just fine as you already own a gas grill for direct heat?
That’s it! I hope you found the above about pellet grills vs smokers etc useful. As always, please check out my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide to review more of my articles. 🙂
Back in 2007 when I first become aware of pellet grills and smokers the only brand I was really aware of was Traeger. Traeger is really where this whole concept of cooking with pellets started in the 1980s. It was a ‘slow burner’ (pardon the pun) but since the 2010s is really when pellet grills and smokers started to get mainstream awareness, discussed alongside gas and charcoal grills. There are now over 30 pellet grill/smoker brands that I’m aware of, and the link above goes to my A to Z list of brands article.
Now, you may already be aware of a few of the other brands such as Pit Boss, Camp Chef, Z Grills and I’m sure you are aware of Weber, though you may not have known they have entered the pellet grill game. However, they are now many, many more brands to look into. Some may be what are commonly referred to as ‘Traeger clones’, but many others are offering their own unique designs and features.
A pellet grill/smoker is only as good as the BBQ pellets you put into it. The type/quality of the BBQ wood pellets you use will impact temperature performance and smoke flavour. There are many pellet flavours including Apple, Hickory, Mapel, Oak and Walnut to name but a few. However, some brands are hardwood blended pellets whereas others are 100% single wood species.
In this article, I provide details on over 20 brands of BBQ wood pellets, their range of flavours, whether they are 100% single wood species or hardwood blended pellets, their typical price and where they are available. I also provide tips on how to get the best deal when buying BBQ wood pellets and how to test pellet quality. Finally, I discuss the new kid on the block, charcoal pellets and their special attributes compared to all other hardwood BBQ pellets.