Over the years I’ve been asked many questions about pellet grills/smokers. One such question has been can a pellet grill/smoker be loaded with charcoal? Well, you cannot load charcoal briquettes/lumps into the hopper on a pellet grill/smoker, they won’t flow through the auger and it would potentially cause damage. There is an exception to this rule though in the Camp Chef Woodwind Pro. However, for conventional pellet grills/smokers there are now charcoal pellets available, so you can now indeed use charcoal in a pellet grill. The question is though should you want to? Well yes for grilling, but maybe not for smoking.
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Introduction To Using Charcoal Pellets In A Pellet Grill/Smoker
Before we get into the topic of when you may or may not actually want to use charcoal pellets in a pellet grill/smoker we need to broach an important topic, ‘what actually is charcoal!?‘
Well, charcoal started off as wood. To form charcoal the wood is heated to over 750 degrees Farenheight in a low oxygen environment and it does actually partly burn. This process is known as carbonisation, hence the dark black appearance of charcoal.
During the carbonisation process volatiles (a range of chemicals) from the wood are burnt off, and so also is all of the moisture within the wood. The resultant charcoal is a much purer form of carbon fuel that’s also bone dry.
The are two forms of charcoal fuel available for BBQ’s, charcoal briquettes which are made from carbonised sawdust (and a range of chemicals/additives). The other is lump charcoal which is just natural split pieces of wood (typically oak) which has gone through the carbonisation process.
Charcoal pellets such as those by Royal Oak shown in the image above are made from oak lump charcoal. Hence, Royal Oak charcoal pellets contain no chemicals/additives, the only ingredient is natural lump charcoal.
100% Charcoal Pellets vs Hardwood/Charcoal Blended Pellets
I already have an article discussing the best charcoal pellets where I go through the topic of 100% charcoal pellets vs hardwood/charcoal blended pellets. So check that out if you’re not aware which brands of pellets are selling which type.
Charcoal Pellets For Smoking On A Pellet Grill Smoker? Maybe
Ok, first off let’s start with smoking, or essentially cooking via indirect heat on a pellet grill/smoker at temperatures below 400 degrees. Is this a scenario where you want to use charcoal pellets?
As I’ve stated above on how charcoal is produced and the carbonisation process charcoal doesn’t have the same volatiles (chemical compounds) as the wood raw material. Furthermore, charcoal contains no moisture at all.
Say you’re using a pellet grill on its Smoke setting (or Super Smoke on some Traeger’s) well on that setting the fuel and air mixture is restricted to create more smoke. Well, when 100% hardwood pellets smoke and smoulder the volatiles (chemical compounds) in the wood are released giving them a unique smoke flavour.
Charcoal Pellets vs Hardwood Pellets – Flavour Profile
Different wood species have different chemical compounds. That’s why hardwood cooking pellets are made from a wide range of wood species such as Applewood, Alder, Cherry etc and not just Oak. As different wood species produce different smoke profiles and can make your food taste differently.
Well, the carbonisation process to produce charcoal has burnt off much of those volatiles/chemical compounds. Hence, when charcoal pellets are used they won’t produce the same type of smoke flavour.
You do get BBQ flavour cooking with charcoal though. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between food cooked on a gas grill as opposed to a charcoal grill, and I’m sure most people can.
However, lump charcoal will actually produce more smoke than charcoal pellets, but why is that? Well, lump charcoal as it was previously a lump of wood is an irregular shape and size. Hence, different parts of the lump charcoal will burn differently.
Charcoal pellets on the other hand are uniform, they are exactly the same diameter and the length is generally the same. As a result, charcoal pellets burn consistently. And while consistency in fuel is good for controlling the temperature of a fire, its not ideal for producing more smoke.
The smokey BBQ flavour from smoking with charcoal pellets is different compared to smoking with hardwood pellets. Which you prefer will be a personal preference. My point is, don’t presume you will prefer smoking food with charcoal pellets as opposed to hardwood pellets.
Charcoal Pellets For Grilling/Searing? Its A Winner
Ok, so let’s consider the opposite side of the cooking coin as it were. We are not smoking/indirect cooking below 400 degrees in this scenario, we’re grilling/searing (direct heat). In other words, we want the cooking grate hot, ideally over 450 degrees and closer to 650 degrees plus.
When it comes to grilling/searing charcoal pellets are a better option than hardwood pellets, hands down, but why is that? If we go back to the discussion above on how charcoal is made its basically a more concentrated form of fuel compared to the hardwood raw material.
As such, per lb of fuel, a 100% charcoal pellet contains roughly 40% more energy than a standard hardwood BBQ pellet. More energy means more heat when the charcoal pellets burn compared to hardwood/charcoal pellets or 100% hardwood pellets.
You may be thinking based on my comments above that you will be losing out on flavour by grilling with charcoal pellets over hardwood pellets, but is that really the case? No, and the reason is combustion temperature.
Think about it, when a pellet grill is grilling/searing and set to its maximum temperature setting the fire is being controlled as efficiently as possible to get the highest temperature. Hence, the mixture of fuel (pellets) to air is the best it can be.
Well, efficient pellet combustion means little to no smoke. Hence, no matter whether you’re using charcoal pellets or hardwood pellets. When a pellet grill is set to its maximum temperature setting for grilling, you won’t be getting much smoke at all.
The Importance Of A Pellet Hopper Dump Chute
So what we have established above is for smoking/indirect cooking you may actually prefer a variety of hardwood pellets. However, for grilling/searing then charcoal pellets (ideally 100% charcoal pellets) will produce the best results, which means the pellets in the grill may need to be changed.
Now, almost every modern pellet grill/smoker I can think of they are now fitted with a pellet hopper dump chute. The benefit is its quick and easy to change pellet flavours but also to store the pellets safely away from moisture/humidity to avoid damage.
If you own or are looking to buy an earlier generation pellet grill say a Traeger Gen 1 Pro Series, for instance, be prepared to spend a decent amount of time changing pellets. Many earlier generation pellet grills/smokers don’t have a pellet hopper dump chute.
What that means is to remove pellets from the hopper you will have to scoop them out one cup at a time, very boring and time-consuming. Personally, I would look into modifying the hopper to add a pellet chute if it doesn’t have one.
My Thoughts On Using Charcoal In A Pellet Grill/Smoker…
So while yes, you can now use charcoal in a pellet grill/smoker, there are some cooking scenarios where you might not actually want to.
If you primarily smoke and cook ‘low and slow’ on your pellet grill/smoker you may actually prefer the flavour created from using hardwood pellets as opposed to charcoal pellets.
However, if you ever grill/searing on a pellet grill (which most people obviously do) then having a bag of charcoal pellets ready in your cooking arsenal is a good idea. On any pellet grill, you will get more heat from burning charcoal pellets as opposed to hardwood pellets.
That’s it! I hope this article about the pros and cons of using charcoal pellets in a pellet grill/smoker has been useful and given you food for thought. Please check out my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide for more associated articles to learn more. 🙂