Pellet Grills 101

    Pellet grills have taken the outdoor-cooking world by storm. Here’s why they’re here to stay.

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    — By Andrew Johnson

    The first time I had food cooked with a pellet grill was on a 2017 spring turkey hunt near Garnett, Kan. I was the guest of Primos, Federal Ammunition and the National Wild Turkey Federation, hunting the property of Mike Burns, owner of Auburn Pharmacy.

    It was about a seven-hour drive from my home in South Dakota, so when I arrived mid-afternoon I was surprised they already had meat on the grill. I looked at one of the other hunters in camp and wondered out loud if we’d be eating early.

    “You’ve never had smoked meat off a pellet grill before?” he asked, almost in disbelief. “Boy, you’re in for a treat.”

    I shrugged off his comment, and a few hours later, after sighting in our shotguns and getting settled in at the guest cabin, we ambled up the road to Burns’ home for a meal — and what a meal it was! Burns had invited a number of friends and family over, and a full spread of beer-battered crappie, fresh salads and more was laid out in front of us. At the end of the buffet line was a pile of ribs and chicken thighs from the pellet grill.

    I won’t go into too much detail, but I’m pretty sure I made a fool out of myself. I ate more chicken and ribs than I had ever eaten before in my life. I just couldn’t stop because it all tasted so good.

    Fast-forward a few years, and pellet grills have taken the outdoor-cooking world by storm. They’re everywhere — online deals abound, and they’re in all kinds of hardware, home-improvement, sporting-good and department stores — and with the recent coronavirus outbreak forcing millions to stay home and slow down, pellet grills have never been more popular.

    If you’ve been looking at stepping up your grilling and smoking game but haven’t taken the plunge into the pellet-grill realm, here’s a look at how they work, what features they offer, and why now’s the perfect time to add one to your deck or backyard.

    The Pellet-Grill Phenomenon

    So, what exactly is a pellet grill? I mean, it isn’t like using wood, fire and smoke to cook and flavor food are new ideas, so what gives?

    Simply stated, pellet grills combine the elements of gas grills, ovens, charcoal and smokers all into one wood-fired unit. They can grill, smoke and otherwise cook foods at consistent temperatures using cylindrical, food-grade pellets that are fed from the hopper, which stores pellets, into the burn box by an auger. The whole system is controlled electronically by a digital controller that governs heat and smoke settings.

    It’s a controlled burn, in other words, and once they’re lit, the pellets flame and smolder, sending heat and smoke into the drum. Most newer models have fans to circulate air, making them true convection cookers that can maintain even temps throughout the cooking area and effectively eliminate hot spots commonly found on other grill types.

    Temperature ranges vary, but most operate anywhere between 160-600 degrees, give or take, which means you can smoke and grill all in one unit, rather than having to use two separate appliances like in the past. In fact, nearly every manufacturer out there claims basically the same thing — that with a pellet grill you can smoke, grill, bake, sear, BBQ, char, broil and roast anything you like. Their versatility has become their selling point, which is why they’re quickly becoming the first choice of people looking to upgrade their old grill or traditional smoker.

    Smoke Show

    Growing up my dad used a gas grill, so that’s all I ever used since being out on my own. I simply didn’t know any better, as charcoal grills and smokers were foreign to me.

    Plus, I always thought smoking meat took way too much time — time I didn’t have — and I had heard crazy stories of guys waking up at 3 a.m. to check briskets or pork butts or other big hunks of meat. I didn’t understand it, and I was happy to keep burning food on my trusty old gas grill.

    That all changed recently when I finally gave in and decided it was time to squeeze a pellet grill into my garage. After researching makes, models and all the various options, I settled on Camp Chef’s SG 24 model featuring their new Gen 2 controller with WiFi capabilities. It seemed perfect for someone like me who was usually busy chasing four middle-school-aged kids, as the added functionality of pairing it with my iPhone via the Camp Chef Connect app seemed too good to pass up.

    Camp Chef’s new Gen 2 controllers have added smoke-control technology, which allows for adjustable smoke settings from 1-10. They also have two meat probes and an easy-to-use menu dial. Photo by Andrew Johnson

    Because I had no prior experience, the new Gen 2 digital controller was what really sold me, as its PID algorithm holds tighter temps more consistently every time you use your grill. It also allows you to control how much smoke you incorporate into your cook by adjusting the smoke setting from 1-10 and simply letting the grill do the rest.

    When it comes to smoke settings, Camp Chef’s website says a smoke setting of 1 produces much less smoke and maintains a more even temperature. As you dial up the smoke setting, however, more smoke will be produced and minor temperature fluctuations will increase.

    Gen 2 controllers have replaced older controllers on many of Camp Chef’s pellet grills, including SG models and even DLX models, like the one shown here with a first-generation controller. Photo by Andrew Johnson

    You see, to create smoke, the wood pellets have to burn and smolder. At a lower smoke setting with a consistent amount of pellets you get even temps but little smoke. The higher the automatic smoke setting, though, the more the controller adds and subtracts fuel to create those smoldering pellets and, in turn, more smoke and flavor.

    After running several batches of chicken, ribs and even some pheasant through the grill, I’ve found I prefer a smoke level of 7 while cooking at 225 degrees. For what it’s worth, I haven’t noticed too much variation in temperature, either, even with the somewhat higher smoke setting. It seems the grill has stayed within 5 degrees or so of the target temp, which is just fine by me.

    Another nice feature of the SG is its namesake slide-and-grill option, where you can pull a knob to the side and expose the meat directly to the heat source. It’s that quick and easy to go from smoking with indirect heat to grilling over open flame.

    Before I got the hang of how long it took to smoke certain meats at certain temps, it was nice to use the grill to finish off meat quickly. Doing so also adds a nice crispy finish to chicken skin or even red-meat fare such as steak or burgers.

    Some Gen 2 controllers even have WiFi capability and can easily connect to your mobile device via the Camp Chef Connect app. The app allows you to set and monitor temperatures, adjust smoke levels, and actively monitor the temperature of your grill and meat probes all from your phone. This is a screenshot from the author’s iPhone, and it clearly displays all the info you need. Photo by Andrew Johnson

    Like many folks, I’ve been forced to work from home during the coronavirus outbreak, and while I’d like to sit outside, stare at my new grill and smell the food cook instead of work, that’s not really an option if I want to stay employed. That said, the WiFi capabilities of the Gen 2 controller have really affirmed my decision to go with this pellet-grill model, as I can literally control, monitor and set timers through the Camp Chef Connect app while sitting at my desk in the basement. What’s more, with the two included meat probes I can see the exact internal temp of the food I’m cooking and adjust my grill’s settings accordingly.

    Other brands have similar wireless features and apps, and they really are ideal for busy families who always seem to be on the go. I used to think I didn’t have time to smoke brisket or ribs, but with the power to control and monitor grill temp, smoke level and food temp from my phone, it’s been a breeze.

    Need to shuttle a kid to practice or run errands across town? Have other stuff around the house or yard that needs to get done? Heck, want to throw on a pork butt for supper and then go see if the fish are biting while it cooks? No problem, as the app allows you the freedom to step away and not devote all your attention to the grill.

    I’ll admit I wasn’t a believer at first, deferring to the digital readout on the grill’s actual controller and double-checking meat temps with an old-school meat thermometer. But after several times around the block, I now know I can literally do anything and everything via the app, with the exception of starting the grill. Before firing it up I simply ensure the hopper has enough pellets — and, by the way, the Camp Chef hopper holds up to 22 pounds, which is awesome because there’s plenty of room for a 20-pound bag — and off we go.

    Accessorizing Your Pellet Grill

    Part of the fun of owning a pellet grill is accessorizing it with options that are seemingly endless. From changing pellet flavors to adding storage racks to attaching propane-fueled cooking apparatuses, the robust versatility and cooking options that pellet grills afford outdoor-cooking enthusiasts are yet another reason they’re popularity is soaring.

    For example, our family loves TexMex-style cooking, and wild-game fajitas with pheasant or venison have long been a staple. As a result, it was a no-brainer to outfit the SG model with Camp Chef’s Sidekick, a propane-powered, single-burner accessory that easily attaches to the side of the grill. The Sidekick has a flat-top griddle that’s not only ideal for cooking the onions and green peppers for wild-game fajitas, but I can also crank it up and perfectly sear meat on the seasoned surface.

    Some pellet grills can be accessorized with a number of add-ons, like the propane-fueled Sidekick from Camp Chef shown here. This accessory can be topped off with a griddle, grill, artisan oven, stock pot and more. Photo by Andrew Johnson

    While the griddle comes standard with the Sidekick, it’s only one option of what Camp Chef calls its 14-inch cooking system. Other options include a BBQ sear box, an outdoor oven and a separate reversible griddle, all of which drop into place over the Sidekick’s burner.

    Quick Tips

    I haven’t been at this very long, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve got a long way to go. However, I have learned a few valuable tips right off the bat.

    The best advice I’ve heard that rings true is cooking to temp, not to time. While using a gas grill, I knew exactly how long it would take to grill a burger or a chicken breast, and I planned meal times accordingly. With a pellet grill, however, timing is more of an art rather than a standard metric.

    The Camp Chef app has timer functions that are handy, especially if you want to season, turn or otherwise mess with your food while it cooks, but the accurate temperature readings the meat probes provide are a better indicator of when food will be ready to eat.

    Cook times vary based on the size and type of meat, and you also have to take into consideration things like weather conditions, brine recipes and more. All these variables add up to make each cooking situation unique. As a result, the easiest, most fool-proof way to know when your meat is ready is to watch the internal meat probe, and once it hits the target range you’re after, it’s time to slap on the bib and chow down.

    Also, most pellet grills have a rounded shape, which can create an air foil if they’re facing directly into the wind. Living in South Dakota means it’s windy nearly all the time, so I quickly learned that if a foil is created as wind slides over the top, it’ll create a low-pressure area that will drain heat and smoke from your grill. When this happens, your grill will burn through more pellets as it tries to keep up and maintain the heat and smoke settings you desire.

    To combat this, turn your grill so it’s quartering into the wind, reducing the foil effect. It may seem simple, but it really helps the grill maintain even temps and leads to a better cook.

    Final Thoughts

    If you’ve been on the fence and wondering if a pellet grill is right for you, I’ll leave you with a quick story. As I mentioned, there are four kids running around this house, and meal times can be painful because they all are rather finicky when it comes to food. (I have no idea how that happened, because I’ll literally eat anything. Darn kids.)

    Anyway, for my very first attempt on the pellet grill I smoked beef short ribs and chicken hindquarters. At the supper table that night, these four picky eaters were literally fighting over who got the last rib and the last piece of chicken. What’s more, my gorgeous wife suggested I make chicken like that again … and soon.

    That sealed the deal for me, and it also sealed the fate of my gas grill, which has sat untouched since the pellet grill showed up on our doorstep.

    About the Author: Andrew Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum. Follow @OutdoorForumMag on Twitter and @outdoorforum on Instagram.

    RECIPES

    Recipes and photos courtesy of campchef.com.

    Wild-Game Fajitas

    Ingredients

    • 3 pounds venison, silver skin removed, sliced thin in bite-sized pieces, against the grain

    • 3-4 red, green, orange or yellow peppers, sliced thin

    • 2 pounds mushrooms, sliced

    • 1 large red onion, sliced

    • 2 packets of fajita seasoning or your own seasoning

    • Salt and pepper

    • Cooking oil

    • Tortilla shells

    Instructions

    1. Preheat cast iron skillet to medium heat. Drizzle oil in skillet.

    2. Place sliced meat into skillet, and when it’s close to desired doneness, add fajita seasoning. Stir to combine. Shut off stove burner when meat is done so it won’t overcook.

    3. Preheat griddle to medium heat. Drizzle oil on griddle.

    4. Add onions, peppers and mushrooms to the griddle and stir, covering with the oil. Salt and pepper to taste.

    5. When vegetables are done, place a heaping spoonful on a tortilla along with the meat. Enjoy!

    Ground Waterfowl Jerky

    Ingredients

    • 25 pounds of waterfowl, or meat of your choice

    • Meat grinder

    • High Mountain Seasoning of your choice (two packages were used for 25 pounds of meat)

    • Ziploc bags or large bowl

    • Jerky gun

    • Nonstick cooking spray

    Instructions

    1. Rinse and pat dry the waterfowl breasts and other meat you have removed from your birds.

    2. Grind them once through your grinder on a coarse setting.

    3. Add the High Mountain Seasoning of your choice as directed on the packaging.

    4. Send the ground meat back through the grinder on a finer setting with the seasoning added. This will mix the seasoning in well with the meat.

    5. Put the ground meat into a plastic bowl or bag and set overnight in the refrigerator.

    6. Remove the meat from the fridge and roll it into tubes that will easily fit into your jerky gun.

    7. Spray your jerky racks with a nonstick spray.

    8. Shoot the jerky onto your jerky racks for your pellet grill.

    9. Preheat your smoker to around 180-220 degrees.

    10. Smoke for 2-3 hours or until it is done to your liking. Turn your smoker off and allow jerky to rest inside for about 10-15 minutes.

    11. Place the warm jerky into sealable baggies and place them in the fridge overnight to allow all the moisture to absorb into them.

    12. Vacuum seal the portion sizes you want to be able to use at a time and then enjoy as you want.

    13. Keep frozen until a few days before use, and then just keep refrigerated.

    Roasted Butter Herb Chicken

    Ingredients

    • 1 (5 to 6 pound) roasting chicken

    • Kosher salt to taste

    • Freshly ground pepper

    • 8 Tablespoons butter, melted

    • 1 large bunch fresh thyme sprigs

    • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half crosswise

    • 1 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed

    • 1/2 lemon, juiced

    • 1 large yellow onion, cut into 2-inch chunks

    • 4 carrots, cut into 2-inch chunks

    • 2 celery stalks, cut into 2-inch chunks

    • 2 cups chicken broth

    Instructions

    1. Preheat pellet grill to 350 degrees.

    2. Remove the chicken giblets and put aside in a roasting pan. Rinse the chicken inside and out. Spatchcock the chicken by cutting out the backbone and pressing flat. Put the backbone piece in the roasting pan with giblets. Liberally salt and pepper the outside and inside of the chicken. Let the chicken sit and brine while you make the butter baste.

    3. Melt the butter in a small skillet with thyme, garlic cloves, fennel and juice from 1/2 lemon. Let simmer for about 3-4 minutes. Brush the outside and inside of the chicken with butter and sprinkle again with salt and pepper. Make sure to get under the skin on the breasts.

    4. Place the onions, carrots, celery and remaining 4 cloves of garlic in the roasting pan with the giblets and backbone, cover with 2 cups chicken broth. Place the roasting pan with the vegetables on the bottom rack of the pellet grill, and place the chicken on the top rack above the roasting pan so all the juices can drip down into it.

    5. Roast the chicken for 40 minutes and baste heavily with the remaining butter. Continue to roast the chicken until the probe or a thermometer reads 160 degrees. Remove chicken and allow to sit for a few minutes to come up to 165 degrees.

    6. Carve and serve with gravy.