The Ultimate Guide to How Pellet Grills Work in 2021

Learn how a pellet grill works and the pros and cons of using one compared to a propane or charcoal grill.

a pellet grill from
A typical automatic pellet grill from Zgrills

New to Pellet Grills? You probably are not alone.

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


Parts of a Pellet Grill

Knowing how a pellet grill works first starts by knowing the parts of the pellet grill.



The pellet hopper is the box that stores the pellets before feeding them to the heat source. It can be either a large or small box, usually located on the left side of pellet grill above the temperature controls.

a hopper for a pellet grill
The wood pellets, loaded into the hopper, provide both the smoke AND the heat source.



At the bottom of the hopper, the pellets are pulled towards the heatsource, or firepot, by an auger.  With a Zgrills pellet grill for instance, this is an automatic process that happens inside the grill at a rate based upon the temperature you have set on the controller.



Once the pellets reach the firepot, the are ignited.  Some brands of pellet grills use a propane flame, while others, like zgrills, use a super hot electric heat rod to instantly ignite the pellets.

On a quality pellet grill, a circulation fan will then distribute the smoke and heat created evenly up to the cooking surface where the food is cooked.



A digital controller can be found on the side or the front of a good automatic pellet grill, which controls the internal temperature of the pellet hopper.

By controlling the rate of the pellets being fed to the firepot, usually along 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 will be a cast iron 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 at the bottom of the grill, underneath the grate.

The pellet grill will also come equipped with a grease bucket, firebox, start ignition, and a chimney to release the excess smoke.


How to Use a Pellet Grill

grilling a burger on a pellet grill

Loading the Hopper

The first step in pellet grilling is to fill the pellet hopper with your pellets.

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 previous experience.

Some pellet grills have specific pellet sizes that can only be used with their appliances so make sure to check the manufacturer’s recommendations before you buy.


Set the Pellet Grill Temperature

Quality digital pellet grills like those from Traeger and Zgrills allow you to set not only the temperature, but the cooking time for your meat as well.

Cooking at a lower temp for a longer period is ideal for smoking large cuts of meat you would normally have to put in a dedicated smoker.

The nice thing about a pellet grill is you can also turn up the heat and get the same wood fired flavors of a smoker on those smaller steaks and chops you want to sear too.


Automatic Control

These 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” temperature.

The digital controller will control the auger, which will then move the pellets, rotating the pellets slowly from the hoper over to the firebox.

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 is a high heat grill.


How does a Pellet Grill compare to Propane and Charcoal Grills?

Pellet Grill vs. Propane Gas Grill

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.

However, keep in mind even the best pellet grills will have a tough time reaching the sky high temperatures a high powered propane 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 Grill vs. Charcoal Grill

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 a Mad Backyard.

If you’ve got the time and the inclination, nothing beats 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, 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, like our favorites from, 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.
  • Like a gas grill, pellet grills do not take long to heat up, as the design of the pellet grill is similar to that of propane grills; pellet grills preheat fast (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 degrees at a time 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 makes it is rather difficult to over-smoke your meat.
  • 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 excel at direct high heat grilling on your meat because the cooking process relies on indirect heat moved around by an internal fan.
  • Quality pellet grills can run anywhere from $500-$2,000, making them more expensive than your average entry level gas grill.
  • 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 your pellet grill?

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

Trash Can Turkey – OK, technically not made on a grill 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!



how to use a pellet grill

How to Use a Pellet Grill

Learn everything you need to know about how to set up a pellet grill and how to use one to make some GREAT food!
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 1 hr
Total Time 1 hr 20 mins
Course Appetizer, Breakfast, Main Course, Side Dish, Snack
Cuisine American, French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mediterranean, Mexican
Servings 6 Servings


  • Pellet Grill


  • 5 lbs Wood Pellets compatible with your brand of pellet grill


  • Load the hopper with your choice of wood pellets. Make sure to always keep at least 5 lbs minimum in the hopper. 1 lb will cook for about 1 hour on average.
  • Plug your pellet grill into the electric outlet. Make sure the dripping bucket is in place to catch any grease.
  • Turn on the pellet grill and set the pellet grill temperature. This will usually be via a digital controller on the side of the pellet grill.
  • As the pellets begin to burn smoke will naturally be created as well.
  • Clean your grates off with a good bristle free grill brush.
  • Add your food to the pellet grill and cook until finished.
  • Turn off your pellet grill. Once cooled, empty your grease bucket and clean your grates again.
  • Replace cover on the grill.
Keyword bbq, Grilling, How to, pellet grill, smoked, Smoker, Wood pellets


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