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How a Pellet Grill Works: The Ultimate Guide

Learn everything you could possibly need to know about how a pellet grill works and why they are one of the BEST options available today for grilling and smoking great food at home!

Whether you’ve got a Traeger, a Camp Chef, a Pit Boss, or any other brand or pellet grill, we’ve got you covered with this ULTIMATE GUIDE.

Let’s Go!

a pellet grill working

 

Did you recently purchase or are thinking about buying a pellet grill but aren’t exactly sure how they work?

Well don’t worry, you are not alone!

With the meteoric rise of brands like Traeger, Camp Chef, and Pit Boss, among others, pellet grills are becoming more and more popular among both novice and expert backyard chefs all over the world.

This increasingly popular style of grill uses wood pellets made from a variety of wood types to create both the heat and smoke needed to combine your love of grilling and smoking in one easy to use appliance.

You simply set your desired temperature like you would an oven or electric smoker, and the pellet grill does everything else, saving you lots of time and the hassle that used to accompany smoking food at home.

We are going to cover how all this works in detail below.

 

Parts of a Pellet Grill

In order to really understand how a pellet grill works, you need to have a basic understanding of each of the different parts that you’ll find on most pellet grills, like a Traeger.

 

Hopper

The pellet hopper is the box that stores the pellets before feeding them to the firepot.

hopper filed with pellets on a traeger pellet grill

It can be either a large or small box, usually located on the left side of pellet grill above the temperature controls.

You don’t feed your typical wood chips into the hopper like you might use in an electric or propane smoker, or a smoker box on a gas grill.

Nope, you need to use specially made wood pellets that are designed specifically to be used in pellet grills.

These pellets are made from compressed sawdust and very, very dense, meaning they generally burn for a long time compared to a wood chip.

So while the bag of wood pellets might look a little more expensive than a similar sized bag of wood chips, just know that the pellets will LAST a much longer time when comparing them side by side.

 

Auger

At the bottom of the hopper, the pellets are pulled towards the heatsource, or firepot, by an auger.

wood pellets in a traeger pellet grill auger

This is an automatic process that happens inside the grill at a rate based upon the temperature you have set on the controller.

First, you will plug the pellet grill in, turn it on, and run it through its start up process.

More on that below.

But just know that the auger is what automatically delivers the pellets to the firepot where they are eventually ignited, creating both heat and smoke.

 

Firepot

The pellets make their way down the auger towards the firepot.

This is where all the magic happens.

the firepot of a pellet grill burning pellets

Inside the firepot is a heating rod that gets SUPER hot once your pellet grill has gone through the startup process.

When the pellets fall into the firepot and come into contact with the heating rod, they smolder and smoke and create heat.

The higher the temperature you set, the hotter the rod will get and also the faster the pellets will burn and be delivered to the firepot.

Also, the higher the temperature, the LESS smoke is generally created, and the lower the temperature, the longer the pellets burn and the MORE smoke is created.

It all works in tandem to create a great grilling OR smoking environment, regardless of whether you are cooking hot and fast, or low and slow.

On a quality pellet grill, a circulation fan will also be located near the firepot to help provide oxygen and regulate the temperature and burn rate of the pellets as well.

the induction fan on a pellet grill

So look for this feature on any pellet grills you are thinking about purchasing.

 

Think you need to spend a lot of money to purchase a quality pellet grill?

Think again!

Check out this Curated List of our FAVORITE Pellet Grills available for UNDER $500.

 

Controller

The digital controller can be found on the side or the front of a good automatic pellet grill, usually right under the hopper.

controller on a camp chef pellet grill
The controller on a Camp Chef pellet grill

 

The controller, well, controls the cooking temperature of the pellet hopper.

By controlling the rate of the pellets being fed to the firepot via the auger, the temperature of the heating rod, and sometimes the airflow with an automatic internal fan, pellet grills are incredibly stable at maintaining a constant temperature.

 

Other Parts of a Pellet Grill

Inside the pellet grill may be a cast iron or stainless steel grate – perhaps more than one, to help with heat diffusion.

Cast iron is the preferred material compared to steel in pellet grills because steel is lighter and less durable; it does not last as long as cast iron.

The heat shield and grease tray can be found further towards the bottom of the grill, underneath the grate.

Some pellet grills have the option to tilt or vent the heat shield if you want to get more DIRECT heat to your food directly from the firepot.

starting a camp chef pellet grill
The Camp Chef has a knob you pull to move the heat the shield away and apply direct heat to your food.

So look for this option on any pellet grills you are looking to purchase if you want direct heat options like a conventional gas grill.

Pellet grills usually come equipped with a grease bucket to catch any grease running down the drip tray while you are cooking.

the grease bucket on a pellet grill

 

 

How to Use a Pellet Grill

Loading the Hopper

The first step in pellet grilling is to fill the pellet hopper with your chosen brand and type of pellets.

pouring pellets into a traeger pellet grill hopper

One word of advice: Don’t STORE your pellets in the hopper.

You can read in detail about why your pellets won’t last as long if you store them in the hopper, but just know that exposure to humidity and temperature fluctuations is bad for the longevity of your pellets.

And it can get pretty expensive pretty fast if you ruin 10 lbs of pellets sitting in your hopper by leaving them in there on a hot and humid day.

Typically, any type of wood pellets will do; however, part of the fun of bbq is choosing your favorite wood type, so put some thought into it based on the type of food you are cooking.

Every recipe on our site comes with our personal recommendation of the best type of wood to use when cooking that food.

But in general, we are big fans of Bear Mountain BBQ Hardwood Pellets.

They burn VERY clean, work in any brand pellet grill, and are typically much less expensive than the brand name pellets you’ll find put out by the grill manufacturers.

They also have LOTS of flavors to choose from. For everyday cooking we like their Gourmet Blend.

 

Start the Pellet Grill and Set the Temperature

Once the pellet grill hopper os filled, you are going plug in the pellet grill, turn it on, and run it through its start up process.  This is also sometimes known as “priming the pellet grill”.

This generally takes about 10-15 minutes while the firepot heats up and the auger fills with pellets.

pellets falling into the firepot of a pellet grill
The firepot will slowly fill with pellets and they will begin to smoke once the fire rod heats up

Every grill starts up a little different which is why we put together these handy startup guides for some of the most popular brands we have used.

How to Start a Traeger Pellet Grill: Step-by-Step

How to Start a Camp Chef Pellet Grill: Step-by-Step

How to Start a Pit Boss Pellet Grill: Step-by-Step

While each pellet grill has its own nuances, just understand that basically, you are filling the auger with pellets, letting the fire pot heat up, and also waiting for the “good” smoke before you put your food on.

You see when a pellet grill is still starting up and the heating rod isn’t quite hot enough yet, the pellets burn at a lower temperature, creating thick white “start-up” smoke.

traeger pellet grill making thick white start up smoke

This isn’t the smoke you generally want to cook your food with because it can leave an unpleasant “ashy” taste.

Once the pellets are burning hotter, and therefore cleaner, the smoke will turn a thinner bluer color.

Many people mistake this to mean their pellet grill isn’t working or isnt making enough smoke because it isn’t producing as much as they saw coming out before.

Just know that this is a natural process and the thin blue smoke is the ideal smoke you actually want to cook with.

You will still get plenty of smokey flavor, trust us.

Now, because of the laws of thermodynamics, which we will NOT attempt to get into here, know also that the lower the temperature you set, the MORE smoke you will be able to see.

And the higher the temperature you set, the faster the pellets will burn and the LESS smoke you will see due to the nature of how hot the pellets are burning.

This is why on a Traeger pellet, the lowest temperature setting is actually titled SMOKE.

You’ll still get smoky flavor at higher temperatures, you just won’t SEE as much smoke

The nice thing about a pellet grill is you can turn up the heat and get the same wood fired flavors of a smoker on those smaller steaks and chops just like you would on a brisket or a whole chicken.

 

Automatic Control

Once your pellet grill has come up to your desired temperature, there isn’t much left you need to do other than put the food on!

The digital controls will automatically regulate the rate of pellet burn and the use of the induction fan to give you a nice “set it and forget it” cooking temperature.

The digital controller will control the auger, which will then move the pellets, rotating the pellets slowly from the hopper down to the firepot.

The pellets will then burn to create both the heat and smoke needed for the cooking process.

The internal fan will keep the wood smoke moving around in the pellet grill, giving you complete smoke coverage of your meat.

You get the automatic temperature control benefits of an electric smoker, with the natural combustion of real wood and the versatility to also use it for high heat, whether you want to cook at high heat, or just reverse sear something like a rack of lamb or a prime rib roast at the end of the cook.

 

Ready to take the plunge into Pellet Grilling?

Check out our list of the BEST Pellet Grills available for less than $500 on the market in 2021.

 

How do I Cook with High Direct Heat on a Pellet Grill?

Pellet Grills work great for smoking large cuts of meat like brisket, pork butt, and ribs, and maintaining a near perfect consistent air temperature, much like the best competition smokers promise to do.

The downside is their ability to sear at high heat like you would over direct coals or a propane gas burner.

In order to get the best of both worlds, we recommend coupling some Grill Grates with your pellet grill.

Grill Grates are specialty…well…grates that sit right over the existing grates on your pellet grill that help capture and direct all that ambient heat and give you a nice searing station in the corner of your pellet grill.

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They claim to get temperatures up to 200°F HIGHER than the temperature you set your pellet grill, meaning even if your nice Trager only goes up to 400°F on the control panel, you can still sear some steaks, pork chops, or chicken at 600°F at the beginning or end of the cook to give them a nice sear.

flipping steaks on a pellet grill

Make sure to measure the size of your current grilling area.

While you absolutely CAN cover your entire pellet grill with Grill Grates, like if you were doing a batch of burgers for a big party, in our case we only want to cover PART of the pellet grill, maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the cooking area for our pellet grill steaks.

That way you can move food back and forth as your are smoking or searing the steaks or burgers, etc.

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How to Shut Down and Clean a Pellet Grill

After you have finished cooking your food, you don’t just turn off and unplug pellet grill .

On a Traeger pellet grill, for example you wil turn the grill to the “Shut Down Cycle” setting.

Most brands have a shut down setting similar to this although they may label it differently.

dial set to shut down cycle on a traeger pellet grill

This setting will stop the auger from turning, and quickly turn up the temperature of your fire rod and the speed of your fan.

The reason for this is to rapidly burn off any pellets remaining in the firepot so that they don’t just sit and smolder for hours like hot coals.

Unfortunately, you can’t smother and re-light pellets that have already ignited once like you can with charcoal.

So any pellets that have already made it into the fire pot need to be burned up.

pellets burning off during the shut down cycle of a traeger grill

The “Shut Down Cycle” feature makes quick work of this and leaves you with a nice clean firepot for your next cook.

Do not power down or unplug the pellet grill during this time or this process cannot happen.

Don’t worry, if your pellet grill has a fan, it will turn off automatically after about 5-10 minutes when it is done, and then you can turn off and unplug the grill.

Once the remaining pellets have burned off, the fan has stopped, and the grill is cool again, empty the remaining pellets left in the auger and the hopper and put them in a nice dry resealable 5 gallon bucket you keep inside.

Like we said above, you DON’T want to leave your pellets in the hopper or auger outside, unless you live in a VERY dry climate and use your pellet grill at least every few days.

Yes, we know how tempting it is to just throw the cover back on and leave the unused pellets in the grill.

However, you will quickly find out how those pellets can absorb moisture and expand, rot, and even mold if left in there too long.

And pellets can get expensive pretty fast when you are throwing large batches away that have been ruined when left in the hopper.

a bucket full of pellets from a pellet grill

So take the extra few minutes to transfer them out of the grill once the grill has cooled down.  You’ll thank yourself later!

Lastly, empty your grease bucket if any grease accumulated in it during the cook, and then put the grill cover back once everything is cool.

 

How Does a Pellet Grill Compare to Propane and Charcoal Grills?

Pellet Grills vs. Propane Gas Grills

a small propane gas grill
Nothing wrong with a propane gas grill, but they can be difficult to smoke on.

Most people are familiar with how a propane gas grill works.  Open the tank, light the burner, and set your burner intensity.

This is great for direct grilling, however if you are hoping to do lots of low and slow cooking of large cuts of meat like brisket and pork shoulder, you may want to consider a pellet grill.

While there ARE plenty of ways to smoke on a gas grill whether it’s with a smoker box or with a pellet tube smoker, you’ll still never get the automatic smoke production and consistent and even cooking temperatures of a pellet grill/

However, one small downside to keep in mind is that even the best pellet grills, like Traegers, that come with direct heat options will have a tough time reaching the sky high temperatures a high powered propane grill or infrared grill is capable of.

But if versatility and space saving is important to you, consider a pellet grill to cover all your smoking and basic grilling needs.

 

Pellet Grills vs. Charcoal Grills

a charcoal grill vs. a pellet grill
Great for direct grilling and smoking, but take a lot of babysitting and time to set up.

Charcoal is the OG of the smoking and grilling world, and you’ll never hear us knock it around here at Mad Backyard.

If you’ve got the time and the inclination, nothing quite beats the ritual of lighting up a charcoal chimney and getting ready for a great cookout.

However…if you are looking for a great automatic solution you don’t need to babysit, or something quick and easy to fire up on a weeknight, then a pellet grill may be the answer.

All of a sudden smoking pork, poultry, brats, seafood, and even steaks, just got a whole lot simpler when you’re short on time and energy, or worse yet, out of charcoal!

 

Pros of Using a Pellet Grill

Pellet grills provide incredible versatility in their function – with the ability to smoke, roast, BBQ, braise, and even bake – all with one appliance, the pellet grill really can do it all.

Unlike a vertical charcoal or offset smoker, pellet grills do not take relatively long to heat up. (10 to 15 minutes).

Internal thermostats and digital controls allow you to control and adjust the desired temperature of your pellet grill in increments of 5-25 degrees at a time, depending on the brand, much like an electric smoker.

An electric smoker vs. a pellet grill
An electric smoker offers convenience, but they are not as fun to use, and you can’t grill on them.

Working like a convection oven, pellet grills offer even cooking every time.

Using a pellet grill actually makes rather difficult to over-smoke your meat unless you over cook it too.

You can choose from an endless variety of pellets to put in your pellet cooker; apple, hickory, maple, bourbon – and those are just a few of the many delicious flavors available.

A 20-pound bag of pellets typically lasts for several smoke sessions but will depend on the frequency of use, weather conditions, and temperature settings, determining how quickly or slowly the pellets will burn.

 

Cons of Using a Pellet Grill

Because pellet grills rely on electricity, their portability factor is low, short of having a generator or outdoor power supply on hand.

Despite being called grills, pellet grills do not accel at direct high heat grilling because the cooking process typically relies on indirect heat moved around by an internal fan.

Don’t forget coupling a pair of Grill Grates will quickly solve this problem and give you the best of all worlds though.

Quality pellet grills can run anywhere from $300-$2,000, making some of them more expensive than your average entry level smoker.

As pellet grills have many parts and components to it, they are at risk of breaking down, mainly because there are just more pieces that can break.

Make sure to ask about their warranty policies.

The pellets themselves will disintegrate if they are exposed to moisture.

If you live in a humid climate or use an outdoor grilling station, make sure to store your pellets in a dry place.

Keeping your pellets inside and/or in an airtight container will aid in the longevity of your stored pellets.

 

Pellet Grill Recipes

Looking for some inspiration for what to cook on your pellet grill?

smoked pork chops from a pellet grill on a cutting board
Perfect Pellet Grilled Pork Chops

Check out some of our favorite recipes below that can easily be modified to be done on a pellet grill.

More Smoked Pork, Turkey, and Chicken

 

Smoked Seafood

 

Smoked Beef

 

Smoked Lamb

 

Other Odds and Ends

Trash Can Turkey – OK, technically not made on a pellet grill or smoker but one of the most fun ways there is to cook a Turkey…at over 700 degrees in only 2 hours! 

You’ve got to check it out!

3 Comments

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  1. Really enjoying all of your pellet grill info. Im new to pellet grilling, got a new Twin Eagles pellet grill. Been using it every day for the past week, experimenting , journaling my ideas and results. Next time i do baby backs I’ll try your method. Thank you!

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