When I’m discussing wood pellet grills/smokers with people who have not used one before I get asked quite a lot of questions. One of them is ‘do pellet grills/smokers dry out meat?‘. Well, the answer is ‘it depends’, depending on the specific cut of meat (how fatty it is) and how the pellet grill/smoker is prepared. With any grill/smoker, you have the potential to dry out the meat. If that is a concern then using a water pan is advisable, and I’ll discuss that more below. However, I also want to discuss how pellet combustion compares to other smokers using electricity, charcoal and propane. As the type of fuel used in the grill/smoker can directly impact the amount of moisture produced.
Grill/Smoker Fuel Type and Moisture Content
When I’ve been asked about pellet grills/smokers drying out food its commonly from someone who currently uses a propane grill. Why? Well, you may not know this, but during the combustion of propane quite a lot of moisture is produced. Now that may sound really odd, but its true. But don’t just take my word for it:
As propane grills produce quite a lot of moisture, its easier to keep the food moist during the cook. Now that doesn’t mean you never have to use a water pan on a propane grill, or to stop basting the meat during the cook. As I stated above, it all really depends on the specific type of meat your cooking. The general point is, of all the fuel choices on a grill/smoker, propane naturally will create a more moist cooking environment. So how do the other types of fuel choices compare? Specifically, electric (hot element), charcoal and of course pellets.
Well, when using an electric smoker as I discussed in my electric vs pellet smokers post, in almost all cases you will want to use a water pan with an electric smoker. An electric smoker produces the dryest heat of them all, for the reason being there is not chemical combustion taking place, hence no additional moisture is produced. So what about charcoal vs pellets? Well, both charcoal and pellets share the same raw material, wood. However, the process which produces them is very different. Hence, the amount of moisture within each fuel is different as a result.
While both charcoal and pellets are made from wood, they are actually very different types of wood fuel: Image – Amazon.com
Charcoal is actually produced from burning wood in a low oxygen environment. The result is essentially a concentrated form of wood energy with most of the volatiles burnt off and very little moisture remaining (less than 1%). Therefore, on a charcoal smoker you have the same risk of drying out the meat (pretty much) as you do when using an electric smoker. Hence, when doing long/slow smoking sessions on a charcoal smoker you really need to use a water pan most of the time to not dry out the meat. So what about pellets, do they carry the same risk of drying out the meat? Not quite.
Wood pellets contain more moisture than charcoal: Image – Amazon.com
Wood pellets are a compressed form of wood, however, no combustion takes place during their formation. I have an article on how Traeger wood pellets are made if you are interested. However, the wood does need to be dried before it can be processed in a pellet mill to make pellets (typically around 15%). Within the pellet mill, the wood is put under compression and as a result heat is created, so some additional moisture is lost. The resulting wood pellets typically end up with a moisture content of between 5-10%. Hence, wood pellets are not completely dry and contain quite a bit more moisture than charcoal.
But how do wood pellets compare to propane when it comes to moisture produced during combustion? Unfortunately, I don’t have any direct figures to quote, however, propane does produce more moisture than wood pellets during combustion. Therefore, you are more likely going to want to use a water pan with a pellet grill/smoker than with a propane grill/smoker.
How and When To Use A Water Pan
So I know a lot about wood pellets and I know a lot about pellet grills/smokers. But I’m not a BBQ expert, therefore for better advice on how and when to actually use a water pan I’ve included the video below. Just to further emphasize my points above, the fuel used does influence how much moisture is created during the cook. However, primarily it comes down to the type of meat your cooking (how fatty it is) and whether you are cooking it fast or slow.
The other point to mention with water pans as is discussed in the video above, you don’t just have to use water in them. Many people will try beer and various fruit juices as examples to add additional flavour to the meat. Depending on the position of the water pan, if its placed directly under the meat as it cooks it will also catch the fat and heat that up and direct it back towards the food. This brings me on to an alternative/compliment you can use on a pellet grill/smoker to stop food drying out, GrillGrates.
Using GrillGrates On Wood Pellet Grills/Smokers To Stop Meat Drying Out
Now, usually when I’m discussing the benefits of using GrillGrates on pellet grills/smokers as I discuss in my linked article its about improving grilling/searing performance. However, what GrillGrates can also do is help to stop food drying out. How do they do this? Well, the design of the valleys in the GrillGrates capture the grease/fat as it drips off the food. They then vapourize that fat back up and into the food, helping it to retain its moisture. The added benefit being they can also help to reduce the chances of grease flare-ups. They are a really clever design, with multiple benefits over using the standard wire/cast-iron racks.
Conclusions On If Pellet Grills/Smokers Dry Out Meat
So to summarize my comments above, while pellet grills/smokers carry a higher risk of drying out meat compared to a propane grill/smoker, pellets carry a lower risk of drying out meat compared to charcoal and electric smokers. The point is though, with any smoker, the water pan is your friend. The advantage of pellet smokers/grills compared to propane units is you can get much more flavour into the food from the combustion of pellets using one of the many varieties of BBQ wood pellets. Also, with a WiFi pellet grill you really have much more convenience, you can monitor/control a pellet grill from pretty much anywhere and just let it get on with the cook.
That’s it! Thanks for reading, I hope this article has rested any concerns you have had about pellet grills/smokers drying out your food. I’ve been answering several other questions recently as well such as how does a pellet grill work. Furthermore, if you want to read about all the different pellet grills/smokers on the market today, please check out my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide. 🙂