So you have decided to enter the world of pellet grill/smoking, you’ve picked up your new pellet BBQ, and you’re excited to get going. However, you look at the vast array of brands/flavors of pellets now on the market, and you get confused/anxious about which to choose. Fear not. Whether you’re going to be grilling or smoking, no matter what brand of pellet BBQ you own, I’ve got you covered with some solid advice on how to choose the best pellets.
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.
Table of Contents
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1. Heating Pellets vs BBQ Pellets (There’s A Difference)
So before we get into how to choose the right BBQ pellets to suit the food you wish to grill or smoke, we need to discuss the pellets your should be avoiding, heating pellets.
You may see in your local store or online bags of pellets that appear significantly cheaper than BBQ pellets from the likes of Traeger, Pit Boss, Camp Chef, Weber etc, and you think you’re getting a good deal.
Well, hold your horses. Heating pellets (for pellet stoves/boilers) are not the same as pellets for pellet grills/smokers for a couple of reasons.
First off, heating pellets are typically made from softwoods (Pine/Spruce) which do not produce a smoke that produces a pleasant flavor. Second, there is less control over the type of wood used.
For instance, within heating pellets, there could be reclaimed wood products. Those reclaimed woods may produce smoke which is not purely natural wood smoke.
BBQ pellets for grills and smokers are only made from hardwoods and do not contain reclaimed wood products. Various different hardwood species are used to produce BBQ pellets of different flavors.
Some pellet flavors work better with other meats/vegetables than others, as we’ll discuss below. There are two types of BBQ pellets, single wood species pellets and blended pellets.
Single wood species BBQ pellets can provide a stronger smoke flavor of that particular wood than blended pellets. However, blended pellets are generally cheaper as a trade-off.
Some BBQ pellets actually produce more heat than others (not a lot of people appear to know this). As a result, when grilling as opposed to smoking, there are certain BBQ pellets you may want to choose over others.
2. How To Choose Pellets For Grilling vs Smoking?
Before we get into the different pellet flavors and which flavors suit different meats/fish/vegetables, let’s first discuss grilling, the best pellets for grilling, and maximum heat output.
If you want to keep things really simple, you can just purchase custom pellet blends from many brands, which are general all-rounders for grilling and smoking pretty much any type of food.
Well, to get the most heat output from your pellet grill, you should be using either Oak pellets or Charcoal pellets as they produce more heat per lb of pellets than other options, Applewood pellets, for instance.
For instance, when it comes to grilling steaks on a Traeger or grilling burgers on a Z Grill, two brands of pellet grills which lack direct-flame access, Oak/Charcoal pellets will produce the best results.
However, if you are not just simply grilling and you want to smoke and then sear your burgers/steaks, then you may want to choose one of the other pellet flavors below.
When it comes to purely grilling though, don’t be under the impression that using Apple, Cherry, Mesquite pellets etc are going to provide you with their specific flavor, they won’t.
When purely grilling/searing, the pellet grill is running max out at peak efficiency. Hence, very little smoke is produced, on top of the fact food is cooking so fast it doesn’t have time to absorb smoke.
3. How To Choose Which Pellet Flavor For Which Food?
Ok, so let’s say you are going to be smoking your food, or at least smoking it before you grill it. Then your choice of pellet flavors opens up a vast array of options.
Now, generally, you will get lighter/sweeter smoke flavors from Apple, Cherry pellets, for instance, and stronger/bolder smoke flavors from Mesquite, Hickory, for instance.
Therefore, certain pellet flavors are generally regarded to work better for certain meats/vegetables. However, at the end of the day, flavor is a personal preference, so don’t feel obliged to stick to these pairings.
|Pellet Flavour||Smoke||Best Suited To…|
|Custom Blend||Mild||Beef, Poultry, Pork, Lamb, Seafood, Veggies|
|Alder||Mild||Beef, Poultry, Pork, Lamb, Seafood, Veggies|
|Apple||Light||Poultry, Pork, Veggies|
|Cherry||Light||Beef, Poultry, Pork, Lamb, Seafood, Veggies|
|Hickory||Strong||Beef, Poultry, Pork, Lamb, Veggies|
|Maple||Light||Beef, Pork, Veggies|
|Mesquite||Strong||Beef, Poultry, Seafood|
|Oak||Mild||Beef, Poultry, Seafood, Veggies|
|Pecan||Light||Beef, Poultry, Pork, Lamb, Veggies|
|Charcoal Pellets||Strong||Beef, Poultry, Pork, Lamb, Veggies|
|Liquor Pellets||Mild||Beef, Poultry, Pork, Lamb, Seafood, Veggies|
I’ve produced a separate article on how to choose the best wood pellets for smoking meat, where I discuss additional topics like increasing smoke flavor intensity.
Custom Blend/All-Purpose BBQ Pellets
Many brands, such as Traeger, Pit Boss, Camp Chef etc, offer general-purpose pellet blends that can be used for grilling or smoking, and they usually have a base of Oak pellets, but not always.
If you are struggling to choose a specific pellet flavour or you just want to purchase a single bag of pellets that you can use to cook a wide range of food, custom blend/all-purpose pellets are a good shout.
Alder BBQ Pellets
Alder pellets will produce a mild smoke flavor and can be suitable for a wide range of food, whether its beef, poultry, pork, lamb etc or vegetables and baked goods.
However, Alder pellets are currently some of the hardest to get hold of, and not that many brands offer Alder pellets. I’m not sure if its a lack of raw materials or a lack of demand for Alder pellets.
Apple BBQ Pellets
Apple pellets produce a sweeter smoke profile and are well suited to obviously pork, but they can also work well with poultry and vegetable for a light/sweet smoke flavor.
Apple pellets are not great for grilling though, as discussed above. Also, some brands are selling Apple pellet blends, whereas others as selling 100% pure Applewood pellets.
Cherry BBQ Pellets
Cherry pellets are another example of BBQ pellets that produce a sweet/light smoke profile that can work well with pretty much any meat, fish, vegetables, and baked goods.
As with Apple pellets, for grilling, Cherry pellets should not be your first choice. Also, note that some brands are selling Cherry blended pellets (typically with oak) while others are 100% Cherrywood.
Hickory BBQ Pellets
Probably one of the most popular BBQ pellet choices overall as Hickory pellets produce a strong/bold smoke flavor that works well with traditional BBQ (brisket, tri-tip, and pork shoulder).
Some brands do sell 100% hickory pellets. However, hickory/oak blended pellets are also a popular choice to take the edge of the full intensity of just smoking with hickory.
Maple BBQ Pellets
Maple wood pellets add a light/sweet smoke profile to foods better suited to beef, pork, and veggies than poultry or lamb. However, maple pellets also work well with baked goods.
As with many of the other pellet flavors, there are some brands that do indeed sell 100% maple wood pellets. However, there are also many other brands selling maple/oak blended pellets.
Maple pellets are also often used in a mixture blend with liquor pellets made from reclaimed oak barrels.
Mesquite BBQ Pellets
Like Hickory pellets, Mesquite pellets are one the most popular pellet choices if you are looking for a strong/bold flavor that can work particularly well with red meats.
Oak BBQ Pellets
Oak pellets are the bedrock of much of the BBQ pellets on sale today. Many brands sell blended pellet flavors with oak pellets at the foundation.
Partly because oak is one of the most abundant hardwoods available but also because oak pellets provide a better heat output than several of the other hardwoods.
Therefore, when it comes to grilling, oak pellets are a solid choice over apple/cherry/pecan pellets, for instance. And they are also well suited to cooking pizza.
Pecan BBQ Pellets
With pecan pellets, you get a reasonably light smoke flavor profile with a nutty aroma. Therefore, pecan pellets can work particularly nicely when cooking baked goods in your pellet grill/smoker.
As with many of the other pellet flavors above, you will find some brands selling pecan/oak blended pellets, while you can indeed get 100% pecan pellets from some other brands.
Charcoal BBQ Pellets
Charcoal is primarily produced from Oak when burned in a low-oxygen environment. There are now several brands offering charcoal/oak pellet blends, and its also possible to get 100% charcoal pellets.
If you want to get that charcoal taste into your food with a pellet smoker, they are the obvious choice. However, I would also encourage you to consider charcoal pellets for their superior grilling performance.
Liquor BBQ Pellets
Liquor pellets are made from reclaimed oak liquor barrels, often mixed with maple pellets. Liquor pellets can provide some very unique flavor profiles from different brands.
Generally, liquor pellets produce a mild smoke flavor suitable for a wide range of food. However, Jack Daniels, made from mellowing charcoal, are notably stronger in flavor.
Should You Choose A Specific Brand Of Pellets?
So a question I’ve been asked countless times over the years is, ‘I own a (insert brand) pellet grill. Should I only use their brand of pellets?’
Before pellet grills/smokers became as popular as they are today, several brands stated within their manuals that only their brand of pellets should be used in their pellet grill/smoker.
Many brands would state things like ‘using poor quality pellets could damage the appliance’. However, the reality is any bag of pellets can potentially be a bag of ‘poor quality pellets‘ if handled improperly.
For instance, if the bag gets torn, the pellets can go bad from moisture absorption. Also, if pellet bags are handled too roughly, the pellets will break apart into fines/dust, which is not great for your BBQ.
Therefore, no matter what brand of pellets you purchase or what pellet grill/smoker you own, I encourage everyone to sieve their pellets before loading them into the hopper.
A ‘quality pellet’ is a pellet that has been produced to a sufficient density, has a nice surface shine that indicates the process achieved the right temperature, and the pellets will snap nicely and cleanly.
Every BBQ pellet brand knows this and will have the ability to produce a ‘good quality pellet’. Whether they do or not will depend on the plant operator at the time of production.
Now, as I’ve stated above, some brands produce blended pellets, and some brands produce 100% single wood species pellets that some people argue are a ‘better quality’.
However, that’s not strictly true if the pellets are produced to the same density/durability. Though, you should generally expect to pay less for blended pellets over 100% single-species pellets.
If you click my ‘Tap/Click To Check Price’ buttons above, they load my articles where I calculated which brands are offering the best value pellets per lb.
So in terms of choosing a specific brand of pellets because you own a specific brand of pellet grill/smoker. I would personally just recommend finding the best-value pellets.
Conclusions On How To Choose The Best Pellets
So to quickly summarise my key points above, you first off, need to stick to only using hardwood BBQ pellets. Never use softwood heating fuel pellets in your pellet grill/smoker.
Second, choose a suitable pellet flavor for the food you’re smoking. Or if you’re going to be purely grilling, you may want to just stick to Oak/Charcoal pellets for their higher heat output.
Don’t worry about purchasing a specific brand of pellets just because you own that brand’s pellet grill/smoker. Focus on the best value pellets you can get a hold of.
However, you do still want to test/check the quality of the pellets with the snap test, as shown above, and ideally, you should always be sieving your pellets from fines/dust before loading the hopper.
That’s it! I hope have above has helped to make it clearer for you how to choose the best pellets for your pellet grill/smoker. I also hope my linked articles help you get a good deal as well.
Research/compare over 240 pellet grills/smokers on sale today