Pretty much all gas/charcoal grills will produce hot spots to some degree, and pellet grills/smokers are no exception. A hot spot is exactly as it sounds, it’s where there are inconsistent temperatures across the cooking grate, with some areas being hotter than others. Now, I’ve previously written about the best searing pellet grills and direct-flame access, which is obviously going to be ‘hot spot’. However, what we are really discussing in this article is the impact of hot spots on indirect heat cooking. We’ll discuss how you can identify hot spots on a pellet grill before/after purchase and what can be done about them.
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The video above from the Red Meat Lover YouTube channels gives a great/quick summary on the topic of hot spots with the example of a previous generation Pit Boss pellet grill. However, please don’t be under the impression that hot spots only apply to Pit Boss grills as that’s not the case at all. Traeger, Camp Chef, Weber, Z Grills etc they all produce hot spots to some degree. Though you should also not assume that all pellet grills have the same pattern of hot spots or the same temperature differences across their cooking grates.
Why You Need To Take Hot Spots Seriously
When cooking small amounts of food on a pellet grill/smoker the issue of hot spots may not be that significant. You’ll just monitor the food either visually or with a thermometer, maybe even via the meat probe port on the grill via WiFi. Over that smaller area, the temperature will be relatively consistent. But what about if you are cooking for a large group of friends/family? What if you have filled the cooking grate on the pellet grill smoker? Well, that’s when you need to know your pellet grill/smokers hot spots beforehand so it doesn’t lead to disappointing food or worse.
You could be monitoring the internal temperature of a piece of meat, for example, let’s say poultry/chicken on one part of the grill. It’s giving an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees to be safe to eat so you think great! We’re done! Well if that particular piece of chicken was on the hot spot it likely means the rest of the chicken on the grate is undercooked and you’re at risk of giving your guests salmonella poisoning.
However, it also works the other way around. Let’s say you were monitoring a piece of chicken that wasn’t on a hot spot. Well by the time that piece of chicken is reading 165 degrees the rest of the chicken on the cooking grate could be overdone and dried out. Hence, when you are using your pellet grill/smoker at full capacity it needs more attention to monitor and move the food around the cooking grate for even cooking, to avoid under/overcooking and also drying out. And the key to being able to do that is knowing where the hot spots are on the pellet grill/smoker.
Why Do Pellet Grills/Smokers Have Hot Spots?
I don’t want to get too far into a discussion on how a pellet grill/smoker works, I’ve previously discussed that in quite a bit of detail, so please check out that linked article above for more details. Specifically in relation to hot spots though on a pellet grill/smoker you typically have a single burn pot of above 3 inches in diameter which is producing all of the heat. On luxury pellet grills you may find multiple burn pots (Memphis for example) which will help with heat distribution to avoid hot spots, but in most cases, you will find a single burn pot on a pellet grill.
Many pellet grills have a centrally located burn pot however some do have the burn pot to one side, if that’s the case it will be the side closest to the pellet hopper to reduce the length of the pellet feed auger. Above the burn pot in some cases, there is a heat deflector plate directly over the burn pot to help distribute heat. You then have above that a grease tray, with some grease trays having gaps to allow for direct-flame access. Either way, a solid grease tray/closed grease tray helps to spread/diffuse heat across the cooking grate.
However, there are gaps around the edge of the cooking grate where the grease tray doesn’t reach, as discussed in the Red Meat Lover video above. Therefore, around the edges of the cooking grate where the grease tray doesn’t reach is typically where on a pellet grill you will find hot spots/zones. However, there are two other factors at play, the fan and the location/type of the chimney.
The fan in a pellet grill is crucial to the pellet combustion process, however, it also makes a pellet grill/smoker a convection oven. The fan can help to distribute heat/smoke over and around the cooking grate. However, it can also create hot spots along the path of the heat/smoke. The path the hottest air/smoke travels is also influenced by the type/location of the chimney/vent on the pellet grill.
For instance, a single chimney vent located at one end of the pellet grill is typically not going to provide the most consistent temperatures within the cooking zone. Therefore, brands such as Traeger with their Ironwood and Timberline models have introduced downdraft exhausts to help with more even heat/smoke distribution within the cooking zone. With so many different pellet grill/smoker designs resulting in different hot spot scenarios, what should you do about this hot spot situation?
How To Find Hot Spots On Pellet Grills/Smokers
Ok, so we have two scenarios, you are either looking for a pellet grill/smoker to buy or your already own a pellet grill/smoker and you want to find its hot spots/zones before wasting food by overcooking/drying it out. Well, if you are in the market for a new pellet grill/smoker or you are even considering buying used off eBay etc the best resource is YouTube. There are lots of videos available of owners doing reviews on their latest pellet grill purchase and in some cases, you may be able to find a toast/biscuit test that will demonstrate the hot spots. Obviously, if you cannot find such a video you will just have to conduct the test yourself once you have purchased it.
Canned Biscuits Produce Better Hot Spot Test Results Than Toast
So when you are browsing YouTube for a hot spot test for a particular pellet grill/smoker, you may come across toast tests and canned biscuit tests. Ideally, you will want to find a biscuit hot spot test or conduct a biscuit test on your own pellet grill/smoker over a toast test. Why? Well, the toast test will tell you the hot spots on the heat coming up directly from the cooking grate. However, as discussed above, pellet grills/smokers provide convection oven cooking from circulating hot air/smoke.
Therefore, with a canned biscuit as it rises as it cooks just as in Jess Pryles video above you will see which side of the biscuit is getting the most heat, not just what’s happening on the bottom. This will give you the best picture overall of how that particular pellet grill/smoker is performing and where the hot spot/zones really are. If you are conducting your own hot spot tests, document the process. Take videos/photos of how the biscuits cooked so you have a reference for later on to look at if you forget the results or to compare it to your next pellet grill/smoker purchase.
What Can Be Done About Pellet Grill Hot Spots?
Ok, let’s say you have a pellet grill/smoker that has hot spots that you want to try and resolve, can anything be done? Well, to reduce hot spots there needs to be further heat dissipation, but how can this be done? On some pellet grills, I’ve seen DIY videos of people making additional heat deflector plates to be placed over the burn pot or thicker/double grease trays being used to tackle hot spots. Both of these methods can potentially help to reduce hot spot issues. However, the simplest method is to purchase a set of GrillGrates for a pellet grill.
GrillGrates are interlocking hard-anodized aluminium panels that are placed on top of the existing cooking grate. While they are primarily marketed as a means to provide better searing performance on a pellet grill, they also have the added benefit of more evenly distributing heat across the cooking area as a means to tackle hot spots.
Conclusions On Hot Spots/Zones & Pellet Grills/Smokers
In summary then, you want to know where the hot spots are on a pellet grill/smoker to avoid overcooking/drying out food. You also need to know where the hot spots are so that when you are using a pellet grill/smoker at full capacity you know where to move the food around on the grate from the higher to lower heat areas and vice versa to get even cooking performance to avoid undercooking especially in the case of poultry (salmonella risk). Remember, hot spots are applicable to both horizontal and vertical pellet smokers. If you are not sure about the pros and cons I have an article on horizontal vs vertical pellet smokers.
You may be able to find on YouTube an owners video of a hot spot test before purchase, if not you will need to conduct the test yourself after purchase. To be honest, you should be conducting the test yourself in either scenario to get the best results. When conducting the test, try and do a biscuit test over a toast test to get the best results, and take video/photos that you can review in the future if you forget where the hot spots are.
That’s it! I hope this article on pellet grill/smoker hot spots has been informative/useful! Please check out my Pellet Grill/Smoker FAQ for more information along with my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide. 🙂