The days are getting longer and soon it'll be time to get out the grill again. Grilling season is one of our favorite times of the year! But to be honest, we keep grilling year round, even when we have to shovel snow just to get out the door. We use both pellet grills and charcoal grills and depending on what we are cooking, one type can be better than the other.
If you are thinking about upgrading your grill this year you might be on the fence between spending money on a pellet grill or buying a high-quality charcoal grill. Today, we'll discuss the pros and cons of these two types of grills to help you narrow down what the best buy for you and your cooking style may be.
Which Type of Grill is Best?
This is one of those questions we hear a lot that is difficult to answer. It turns out that the word "best" is very subjective–everyone will have a preference for one thing or another. With that said, you should know that everything you can do with a pellet grill can be done with a charcoal grill and vice-versa. Picking the best grill for you will depend a lot on how you cook, what you cook, and the ease of use you find with one type over another. We know people who can't imagine grilling without loading up a charcoal starter chimney, and we also know people who consider anything other than a pellet grill to be more hassle than they are worth.
What is a Pellet Grill?
In the most basic of terms, a pellet grill uses manufactured wood pellets to grill. The pellets are often made from a combination of hardwoods that are compressed into the proper shape. Pellet grills will have an electric auger that pushes the pellets from a hopper into the burn pot to keep the temperature at a set value. An electric igniter causes the pellets to combust and a fan blows to add the necessary oxygen for the fire.
A major thing that's made pellet grills popular is the ease of use. Simply set the temperature value you are going to cook with and wait until the thermometer reaches the proper temperature. Another advantage of pellet grills is that you essentially get two grills in one–it's easy to go from smoking a pork butt to grilling and searing a steak on a pellet grill.
What is a Charcoal Grill?
Charcoal grills have been around so long no one even knows when they were first created. It probably happened in a cave somewhere when an ancestor of ours noticed that cooking meat over a fire built on charred wood gave excellent results, a delicious char, and tons of smoky flavor. Over the centuries, not much has changed with charcoal grills. In the most basic terms, every charcoal grill is essentially a fire box with a grate and some method of controlling air from both top and bottom.
Cooking properly with a charcoal grill takes a little more patience than a pellet grill, but properly set up, you can smoke, sear, grill, and char with relative ease. The greatest advantage to charcoal grills is the fact you can set up anywhere you want. There's no cord to plug in like a pellet grill and no need to lug around heavy tanks of propane as you would need for a gas grill.
Are Pellet Grills Better than Charcoal Grills?
Pellet grills offer some features that simply aren't possible with a charcoal grill. One of the most important features of pellet grills is the convenience of controlling temperatures. Charcoal grills require you to manually maintain the temperature of your grill, and you'll need to invest some time and a good amount of charcoal before you know how much fuel you need to maintain temperatures. For long cooking processes where you need to go low and slow, a pellet grill is obviously superior. With a pellet grill, you don't have to mess with adding fuel to the fire so long as you don't run out of pellets. With a charcoal grill, you will need to remove the grate and add charcoal for long processes like smoking or roasting at low temperature.
Why Would Anyone Want a Charcoal Grill?
After looking at the convenience of a pellet grill, it may be difficult to understand why anyone would choose charcoal over pellets. Here's the thing about charcoal: you get a unique flavor and texture from charcoal that is difficult to replicate on any other type of cooker. Charcoal grills give you flexibility to easily cook with different types of wood. If you want to add a small amount of an intensely flavorful wood like mesquite just at the end of your grilling, charcoal makes it simple. Doing the same thing with pellets is inconsistent and difficult since you'll need to add the wood to the hopper and wait for the auger to draw the fuel into the fire.
One of the main reasons people choose charcoal over gas or pellet grills is the mobility these grills offer. Since you don't need to plug anything in or lug around a heavy tank of propane, you can set your charcoal grill up in the driveway, by the pool, or wherever you and your friends are gathering. A pellet grill will require an electrical outlet which limits the locations you can grill and may mean that you'll spend a significant amount of time hanging out with your grill instead of your family.
Why are Pellet Grills so Popular?
We've already discussed a few factors that make pellet grills so popular including the ease of controlling temperatures and convenience of a hopper for adding fuel, but there are also a few features that make pellet grills so popular today. Some of the reasons people choose pellets over charcoal are valid while some are more myth than fact.
This one's a fact: pellets are less messy than charcoal. When you are loading pellets into your hopper, you don't get carbon on your hands like you do when handling charcoal, so there is less mess. Carbon from charcoal tends to get everywhere- on your hands, your clothes, on the dog, it's just messy stuff. With pellets, there is virtually no mess. In fact, when you buy high-quality pellets from reputable companies like Traeger, you'll have almost no dust in the bottom of the bag. Pellet dust doesn't stain, streak, or cause a mess.
This one is probably a myth. Scientists have largely concluded that there is very little difference in the "healthiness" of cooking with pellets or charcoal (or natural gas for that matter). Charcoal tends to produce a darker, thicker smoke but it doesn't appear to increase the likelihood of getting you sick. There are some carcinogenic elements that happen when using a barbecue at higher temperatures but these are from fats that drip off the meat and are burnt. It'll happen whether you are using a charcoal grill or a pellet grill to cook your food, and there is a very low risk according to modern science.
We are going to put this one in the subjective "maybe" category. Many people find the smoke flavor that wood pellet grills produce to be more palatable than the flavor of charcoal. A key to note here is that not all charcoal is equal, nor are all pellets. Grillers using good-quality lump charcoal from brands like Rockwood will swear by the more intense smoky flavor. You'll likely find a large number of people who turn their nose up at steaks cooked on instant-lighting charcoal briquettes.
Now, this one is a fact. It's much easier to get low and slow temperatures, so you don't need to do things like create a two-zone area or manually add fuel when it's time to increase temperatures. It's easier to get wood pellet grills to a lower cooking temperature quickly than it is to do the same with charcoal grills. Some processes, like smoking large pieces of meat, are more challenging to keep lower temperatures on charcoal than when you use a pellet grill.
Availability of Wood
Not many years ago, pellet smokers had fairly limited options when it came to trying different types of wood pellets. These days, it's become much easier to find unique and interesting hardwood and fruit wood pellets for smoking or grilling. You can even order online and have your pellets delivered. The process that creates charcoal means that most types of wood will give a similar flavor, while pellets provide a more nuanced taste to your food.
What are the Downsides of Pellet Grills?
There are a few things that you should consider when you make the decision to choose between a pellet grill and a charcoal grill. We've discussed already what makes pellet grill desirable, but there are some things you should also think about before getting on the pellet bandwagon.
The biggest drawback to outdoor cooking on a wood pellet grill is the need to have an electrical source. For some people, this is a non-factor. They've got numerous outdoor electrical outlets and a perfect spot for a grill. For many of us, upgrading to a wood pellet grill may require hiring an electrician too.
Despite the popularity of pellet smokers, and all the new options for wood pellets, it can still be difficult to find them in many stores. Even when you can find wood pellets easily, you don't often have a whole lot of options in terms of types of wood, blends, or brands. It's easier to find high-quality lump charcoal than it is to find unique and interesting wood pellet fuel.
Wood pellet fuel is often more expensive than charcoal, too. You'll end up buying a rather large bag of wood pellet fuel and if it isn't a flavor you enjoy, your basically stuck with it. Charcoal on the other hand is inexpensive and widely available. You can even make it yourself.
Making a Decision: Wood Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Grill
We know that the decision to choose between a charcoal or wood pellet smoker can be difficult. In a perfect world, we would all have both, but that's simply not practical. If you have to choose one over the other, try to find the best-quality options. Sure, a Traeger 885 Ironwood smoker is more expensive than a 22" Weber charcoal grill, but the advantages of the pellet grill may outweigh the inexpensive options out there. The real challenge picking between the two styles is when the cost isn't a factor. Trust us, some days we seriously struggle to decide whether we want to use the Big Green Egg or the Traeger. They are both fantastic products we love to use.
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