PelHeat is a website focused on discussing wood pellet grills/smokers. However, I know many people who still know very little about pellet grills and how they work. I also know that many people when looking to purchase a premium wood grill, they are considering a Kamado ceramic/insulated charcoal grill. Two of the most popular brands of such grills/smokers include Kamado Joe and The Big Green Egg. So how does a pellet grill from say Traeger compare against one of the popular brands of Kamado grills from Kamado Joe? Well, each has its strengths and weakness, which I’ll discuss below.
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While within this article I’m going to discuss the general pros and cons of pellet grills and kamado charcoal grills I also want to compare the features of two specific variants. Currently, on BBQGuys.com the Traeger Ironwood 650 and the Kamado Joe Classic 18″ are retailing for the same price of just under $1,200. Therefore, I’ve chosen these two grills for a comparison. As I believe Kamado Joe currently produce some of the best kamado grills on the market. Also, Traeger is currently the most popular/well-known brand of pellet grills/smokers (here’s proof).
Update: The comparisons below only relate to the lump charcoal Kamado cookers. The Kamado Joe Pellet Joe is a different beast.
Introduction To Pellet vs Kamado Grills/Smokers
Both pellet grills and Kamado grills use real/natural wood as their source of fuel. BBQ wood pellets are simply a compressed form of real wood. I have a separate article on how Traeger wood pellets are made if you’re interested. Kamado grills also use real wood as their source of fuel. The difference is its in the form of charcoal. Charcoal is created by burning the wood in a low oxygen environment to produce a concentrated form of wood fuel with virtually all of the moisture removed. Please note, Kamado grills are designed to use natural lump charcoal and not briquette charcoal. Briquette charcoal is not a natural wood fuel, it can even contain additives such as borax. Below I just briefly describe a bit of background into what a pellet grill/kamado grill actually is and how they work before I compare them.
What Is A Wood Pellet Grill And How Does It Work?
Wood pellets are used for many different applications, not just pellet grills/smokers. Softwood pellets are used for pellet stoves and animal bedding. However, only hardwood is used to produce BBQ wood pellets and a range of wood species are used to create different flavours for the cook. Oak is the foundation of BBQ wood pellets. However, grill pellets are also made from apple, hickory, mesquite and cherry to name but a few. First, the wood is dried, turned into sawdust and then compressed into pellets via a pellet mill. The result is a uniform wood pellet that flows though hoppers similar to a liquid. Hence, in a grill with a hopper and an auger (screw) controlled by an electronic control panel, add in a fan and hot rod igniter and you have a pellet grill/smoker that can automate the combustion process to maintain and regulate a consistent temperature.
The above is a very quick description, I have a much a more detailed article on how wood pellet/grills smokers work. A very important point I do need to make is not all pellet grills work in the same way, some have features which others do not. That’s what I spend most of my time writing about on PelHeat.com. For instance, some grills have direct-flame broiling where others do not. Some have advanced features such as PID temperature controllers and WiFi, where others do not. There is a huge range of different specification pellet grills on the market. However, they do all follow the general principles above of a hopper holding the pellets and the auger/fan/hot rod igniter automated via a control panel managing the fire.
What Is A Kamado Grill And How Does It Work?
So a Kamado is a design of charcoal grill/smoker which originates from Asia. Clay cooking vessels have been found in China that are over 3,000 years old. However, the term Kamado is actually a Japanese word for stove/cooking range. The style of Kamado ceramic charcoal grills that we recognise today were brought over to the US from Japan after the Second World War. The Big Green Egg has been a popular brand of Kamado style ceramic grills for many years. However, the Kamado Joe brand in recent years has started to become one of the market leaders. I’ve included a video below discussing the differences between Big Green Egg and Kamado Joe charcoal grills.
So how does a kamado grill work such as the Kamado Joe? Well, you load the grill up with natural lump charcoal and use a firelighter/flame-torch to get the fire started. There is then an air inlet at the bottom and an adjustable chimney on the top. Hence, you can control the flow of air through the kamado to adjust the combustion process and hence the temperature inside. Isn’t that how every charcoal grill works? Well yes, but the main difference with a kamado grill is the ceramic body. The thick ceramic body does an excellent job of keeping the heat inside. That has a couple of benefits. It means you get a hotter more intense fire that’s also more efficient. The heat/smoke is also held around the food much better than a standard steel charcoal grill. Therefore, you will typically get better cooked/more tasty food from a kamado grill over a standard steel charcoal grill.
Traeger Ironwood 650 vs Kamado Joe Classic 18″
So as I stated above, I’ll be discussing the general pros and cons of pellet vs kamado grills, but in the context of comparing two specific models, the Traeger Ironwood 650 and the Kamado Joe Classic 18″. I have a separate article on the Traeger Ironwood range for a detailed look. Not all of the features of the Ironwood 650 are applicable to all pellet grills, so please bear that in mind.
Pellet vs Kamado – Temperature Control
On the Traeger Ironwood 650 pellet grill/smoker the temperature is controlled via the D2 control panel. Hence, a computer is monitoring the internal temperature inside the grill against the temperature the user has set on the dial. The control panel will feed sufficient fuel (pellets) and air to achieve the set temperature and it will regulate the feed of fuel and air to hold the temperature as close to the set temperature as possible. Now, its important to know the Ironwood 650 has what’s called a PID temperature controller. Basically this is a ‘smart’ control panel which can keep the actual temperature inside the pellet grill within 5 degrees of the set temperature. Older/cheaper pellet grills have time-based control panels which are not as accurate, and their temperature will fluctuate around 25 degrees from the set temperature. Hence, they are not as smart.
On the Kamado Joe Classic 18″ the temperature controller is the user. To regulate the temperature the user has to adjust the lower air inlet and the upper chimney to try and acheive and regulate the desired temperature. Hence, it does take a bit of skill to get the temperature of a Kamado charcoal grill exactly where you want it. Hence, cooking with a Kamado does involve more skill, which can be very appealing. As cooking with a Kamado does involve skill to achieve and regulate a set temperature, you are more involved in the cook. Now, whether that’s actually a good thing or not depends on your own personal perspective. But it also depends on how much time you have available to monitor the cook.
Changes In Ambient Temperature/Wind Speed
On a Kamado grill over time the user will become familiar with where to set the lower air vent and upper chimney vent to acheive certain internal cooking temperatures. However, it is dependant on the outside temperature/wind conditions being the same. A potential problem with a Kamado grill is when the ambient temperature/wind conditions change. To achieve the same internal temperature it will likely require adjustments to the air/chimney vents. How much adjustment will be required will vary depending on the specific conditions. The point being, with a Kamado charcoal grill, you always need to be watching the internal temperature inside the grill and be ready to make adjustments.
With a pellet grill such as the Ironwood 650 featuring a PID temperature controller, it will automatically adjust the pellet feed and air feed to maintain the set temperature even when the ambient temperature/wind conditions change. There is no input required from the user at all. Now, that’s not true of all pellet grills. Take a Traeger Gen Pro Series pellet grill for example with an older Traeger Pro Controller. As that is not a PID controller (its a time-based controller) it will not make the adjustments to suit changes in ambient weather/wind. The user has to adjust the P-Setting (Pause setting).
As the Ironwood 650 does have a PID controller it will adapt to ambient temperature changes/wind conditions automatically. So basically, with this particular pellet grill you will get accurate internal temperatures in a wide range of weather conditions, but not all weather conditions (more on this below). With the Kamado Joe, the user has to be aware and ready to adjust the air inlet/chimney vent.
Monitoring and Adjusting The Temperature Remotely
As you may be already aware, many Traeger grills are now WiFi pellet grills. Traeger has branded its WiFi/App integration WiFire. The user can monitor the internal temperature of the grill, adjust the temperature and set timers. If the meat probe is used the user can also check the internal temperature of the meat remotely, while at the shops/work etc. With the optional Traeger pellet sensor, the remaining percentage of pellets in the hopper can also also be checked from the WiFire app. Furthermore, the WiFire app contains lots of recipes and even video instructions on how to cook various cuts of meat. There are also downloadable cook settings for the grill. Essentially, a Traeger WiFi-enabled pellet grill with the WiFire app is one of the most convenient/easiest means to cook food remotely.
As standard/out of the box the Kamado Joe does not come with any means to adjust/monitor the cook remotely. However, every Kamado Joe can be upgraded with the iKamand. The iKamand is an electric fan with WiFi integration that fits over the lower air/draught inlet. Several meat probes can also be connected to the iKamand and monitored from the app. This does add an additional level of convenience to the standard Kamado Joe, however, it is also a $249 additional expense. Furthermore, it will not be able to control the combustion process as precisely as a PID controlled pellet grill such as the Traeger Ironwood 650.
Cooking In Cold Climates
Above I discussed how a PID controlled pellet grill such as the Traeger Ironwood 650 will adjust the fuel/air mixture automatically in colder climates whereas Kamado Joe will not (without an iKamand fitted). Well, grilling/smoking in colder climates is not just about controlling the combustion process. How well can the grill actually hold on to that heat? In other words, how well insulated is the grill? Well, the Ironwood 650 features some twin-wall insulated construction. However, its not as well insulated as the higher-priced Traeger Timberline. I discuss this more in my article on can you use a pellet grill in winter?
The Kamado Joe on the other hand with its thick ceramic shell surrounding the whole combustion/cooking chamber is well suited to grilling in colder climates. I don’t have any figures to back this up, but I don’t believe any pellet grill currently on the market will hold onto its heat as well as a Kamado Joe. The ability of a Kamado charcoal grill to hold on to heat is really its key standout feature. As its also what gives a kamado good high-temperature grilling performance as well. More on that below.
Pellet vs Kamado – Grilling/Searing Performance
There are those that say that pellet grills can not actually ‘grill’ at all as they don’t get to high enough temperatures. As I discuss in my post on which pellet grills get the hottest, there is some truth to that. To acheive any sort of reasonable grilling/searing performance a grill needs to be exceeding 450 degrees. In this specific comparison discussing the Traeger Ironwood 650 it can reach 500 degrees. However, it doesnt feature direct-flame access which you will find on pellet grills from say Pit Boss or Camp Chef which can get to around 700 degrees at the grate. Hence, the Traeger’s strong point is definitely not its grilling/searing performance.
The Kamado Joe on the other hand (and Kamado grills in general) easily get up to around 700 degrees and potentially higher. The high energy density of the lump charcoal is one factor, along with good airflow through the grill. Though the highly insulated ceramic body on a kamado is key to its grilling success. As the combustion zone is insulated as the combustion process gets hotter that lump charcoal is able to convert more of its energy into heat more efficiently.
Now, you can get combo gas/pellet grills where the gas grill is going to get up to around 900 degrees at the cooking surface. But in this specific comparison of the Traeger Ironwood 650 and the Kamado Joe Classic 18″ out of the box, the Kamado Joe has superior grilling performance. Though I should also note, both grills can significantly improve their grilling performance with a set of GrillGrates.
Pellet vs Kamado – Smoke Production/Flavours
As a general rule, you will find that a Kamado charcoal grill such as the Kamado Joe is going to provide stronger/more intense smoke flavours into the food than a typical pellet grill. Now whether that’s a good thing or not obviously comes down to personal preference. However, the chimney design on the Traeger Ironwood and more expensive Timberline models is not found on your typical pellet grill. They are fitted with a downdraught chimney design. Traeger market the feature as part of their ‘Tru Convection’ cooking system with talk of vortex’s and such like.
What you really need to know about this downdraught chimney design is two things. It will help to cook the food more evenly, but it will also put the food in contact with the smoke for longer. Now, does that mean that a Traeger Ironwood will produce food with the same intense smokey flavour of a Kamado Joe? Well, the video below from Embers Fireplaces & Outdoor Living is worth a watch.
A couple of other things worth noting on the smoking/low-and-slow side of things. As lump charcoal contains less than 1-2% moisture and pellets contain between 5-10% moisture, you do have to be more careful on a Kamado to not dry out your food. This can mean using water pans etc. Also, with charcoal, you do not get the same variety of smoke flavours to choose from. For instance, you can purchase lump charcoal in oak, mesquite and hickory. With BBQ wood pellets there is a much wider range to choose from:
- Alder – Great for cooking birds and salmon
- Apple – Works well with pork, seafood and lamb
- Cherry – A good allrounder
- Hickory – Works well with pork and BBQ ribs
- Maple – Nice for cooking vegetables and cheese
- Mesquite – Particularly suited to red meats
- Oak – The ‘foundation’ of BBQ wood pellets
- Pecan – Best suited for cooking poultry
- Walnut – Especially nice for game and red meats
Part of the reason there is less selection of flavours when it comes to lump charcoal is the process of actually making charcoal removes much of what gives different wood species their individual smokey flavours. Wood pellets, on the other hand, are made from the wood in its natural form. Yes, the wood has been milled and compressed into pellets, but its effectively the same wood that entered the process. Hence, there is a point to making BBQ wood pellets from so many different species of hardwood, as they do produce different smoke flavour profiles.
Pellet vs Kamado – Durability/Weatherproof?
As the Traeger Ironwood 650 is not a stainless steel pellet grill I would generally not recommend leaving it outside. Rust/corrosion and the paint finish on any pellet grill is not covered under warranty. Therefore, with any pellet grill that’s not made from stainless steel its better to store it in a shed/garage when not in use to keep it in the best condition possible. When it comes to using a pellet grill in the rain, you want to avoid that for several reasons. First, a pellet grill features electrical components, so you don’t want them getting wet. Second, you don’t want water getting into the hopper, the pellets will absorb that water and go bad.
When it comes to a Kamado grill as there are no electrical components (provided an iKamand is not fitted) you don’t have to worry about weather/rain to the same extent. Furthermore, the ceramic body with the glazed exterior finish is very weather resistant. However, you have to make sure water doesn’t sit inside a kamado as freezing water inside the kamado could potentially expand and crack the ceramic body which would be irreparable. There are steel components on the Kamado Joe, the stand/hinges etc, so they will rust over time. The top chimney vent is cast aluminium, so corrosion is not so much of a concern there.
Conclusions On Pellet vs Kamado Grills/Smokers
So hopefully after reading the above its pretty clear that there is no outright ‘best’ option when it comes to pellet vs kamado grills/smokers. It really depends on what you’re looking for. If you are looking to be heavily involved in the cooking process where you are controlling the fire to produce individual results so you can show you are ‘master of the grill’, a Kamado grill probably suits you better. However, if you are looking for a more convenient solution that will pretty much do all the work for you, that’s where a pellet grill, especially one with WiFi such as the Traeger Ironwood 650 is the better option. If you looking for a very intense smokey flavour that’s where a charcoal kamado grill will excel. Where a pellet grill will provide more subtle smoke flavours with a wider range of smoke flavours.
That’s it! Thanks for reading, I hope you found the above interesting/useful on whether a pellet or kamado grill/smoker is going to suit your needs better. If you would like to learn more about the wide range of pellet grills on the market today (and there’s a lot to learn) please check out my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide. 🙂