Picking up a new grill used to be simple. You had your choice between gas and charcoal, and people knew what they preferred.
However, as time has gone on, new options have entered the market.
Gas grills have become more sophisticated with a wide range of entry-level to advanced models. While charcoal grills remain largely unchanged but still provide that unique charcoal flavor to food.
Given how often folks use pellet grills for smoking, I get asked what to choose between charcoal and pellet grills.
So which grill do we recommend between pellet and charcoal grills?
Pellet grills are easier to use and cook a variety of food from smoking brisket, grilling burgers, and even baking pizzas. However, charcoal grills create the best tasting food with that charcoal flavor but can be harder to use especially when smoking food.
Ultimately, pellet grills and charcoal grills both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Your budget, cooking methods, and desired flavor will determine whether a pellet grill or charcoal grill is better for you. Just make sure to never use charcoal briquettes in a pellet grill since that will damage the pellet grill.
So let’s dive into the pros and cons of pellet and charcoal grills.
An Overview of Pellet Grills
How Pellet Grills Work
As the name implies, pellet grills use wood pellets in order to create heat and smoke.
Wood pellets are loaded in the hopper where an auger feeds the wood pellets into the firepot. The firepot is where the fire is contained that creates both heat and smoke that gets circulated throughout the cooking area.
Effectively, pellet grills are similar to convection ovens where the food is cooked through indirect heat.
The benefit of pellet grills over convection ovens is that the wood smoke will create a smoky flavor and can create smoke rings on meat.
Since pellet grills can automatically feed in wood pellets into the firepot, pellet grills make it easy to cook and smoke food. Just set a cooking temperature, place the food on the grill, and wait until the food is ready.
The ease of use when smoking food is the huge selling point of pellet grills over smoking food using charcoal or wood.
Let’s quickly go over the other main benefits of pellet grills.
The Benefits of Pellet Grills
When it comes to pellet grills, there are a number of reasons to own one. Here are the main benefits of a pellet grill over a charcoal grill:
- Ease of Use: Pellet grills are easier to use than any other kind of grill. It’s as simple as loading the hopper, setting the temperature, and pressing a button. There’s nothing easier than that.
- Fuel Efficient: Pellet grills are efficient with how pellets are fed into the fire. When you use pellets, you don’t have to worry about running out of fuel in the middle of cooking your food. Just make sure the hopper is topped off and the pellet grill will keep running.
- Mess Free: Pellet grills require very little cleanup especially in comparison to charcoal grills.
- Easy Fire Maintenance: Pellet grills don’t require you to manage a fire. This means that you get more time back to relax and enjoy your time while the food cooks.
Here is a longer list of pellet grill advantages that should be known before purchasing a pellet grill.
The Drawbacks of Pellet Grills
While pellet grills are the best “jack-of-all-trades” on the market, there are still a few downsides to consider:
- Expensive: Pellet grills are more expensive than comparable gas and charcoal grills. The more affordable pellet grill models can range in the $200 to $500 range whereas charcoal grills can be purchased for less than $100.
- Access to Power: Using a pellet grill requires electricity, meaning you’ll need to be close to an outlet to do any cooking.
- Harder to Transport: Generally, pellet grills are larger and heavier than charcoal grills. So tailgating or camping with a pellet grill is more difficult to do than with a charcoal grill.
- Wood Pellets Cannot Get Wet: Wood pellets are made of compressed sawdust so the wood pellets cannot get wet otherwise they will become unusable. On the other hand, charcoal can get wet and still be used once the charcoal dries out.
Here is a list of pellet grill disadvantages that should be known before purchasing a pellet grill.
An Overview of Charcoal Grills
How Charcoal Grills Work
The fuel that a charcoal grill uses is typically charcoal briquettes. Charcoal briquettes are easy to find, and easy to use for the most part. Hardwood chunks can be added to the mix to provide a delicious, smoky flavor.
Creating a maintaining the right levels of smoke and heat on charcoal is difficult to do but creates an incredible flavor.
The design of the charcoal grill has not changed for decades, if not longer.
The charcoal grill is essentially a box that holds the charcoal on the bottom. Over the charcoal is a grill grate that allows the heat to pass up to the food. The charcoal grill has a lid and there is usually a control for airflow both at the top and bottom of the grill.
Heat maintenance is both an art and a science on charcoal grills.
The way that air is regulated controls the way that fuel burns. If too much airflow is present, the fuel can burn too quickly, or too hot. Too little airflow and the fuel suffocates and creates no heat.
So understanding and balancing the right amount of airflow for the right amount of heat takes practice on charcoal grills.
The Benefits of Charcoal Grills
The charcoal grill is a classic for a reason. These are all of the strengths that a charcoal grill brings to the table:
- Affordability: Charcoal grills are some of the cheapest options on the market. They’ll fit into anyone’s budget. The fuel is also affordable.
- Easy to Find Fuel: You can go just about anywhere and find a bag of charcoal briquettes. Hardwood chunks for smoking are often easy to find, as well.
- Versatility in Temperature: Charcoal grills can cook low and slow, or they can sear at high temperatures.
- Flavor: If you’re using charcoal or hardwood chunks, you get a great tasting food every time you grill.
The Drawbacks of Charcoal Grills
While charcoal grills are popular, they do have a few downsides that should be considered:
- Steep Learning Curve: Learning how to grill using a charcoal grill takes some time, and mistakes are sure to be made.
- Cleaning: Charcoal grills need to be cleaned after every use otherwise there will be a large buildup of ash at the bottom of the grill.
- Long Preheating Time: Generally, charcoal briquettes need to turn grey before being used so that the temperature is more consistent. This can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes which is a long preheating time than a pellet grill.
Personally, I recommend pellet grills over charcoal grills for 2 main reasons:
- Ease of use
Pellet grills are incredibly easy to use where you just plug the grill in, set the cooking temperature, and wait.
Not to mention the versatility of pellet grills where you can smoke a brisket for 12 hours, then crank up to the temperature to grill burgers before baking a pie. All on the same grill!
Although charcoal grills create the best tasting food, I would never smoke a brisket for 12 hours on a charcoal grill.
You would need to stand by the grill, make sure there’s enough charcoal in the grill to create enough heat. Not to mention, you’d have to also make sure there are enough wood chips to create smoke.
However, if budget is a limiting factor then charcoal grills are always going to be a crowd-pleaser.
If you’re looking for a pellet grill then here are 3 great lists to help you decide:
- Pellet Grills Made in America
- Best Pellet Grills Under $1,000
- Best Pellet Grills Under $700
Final Thoughts: An Option for Everyone
When it comes to the debate between pellet grills and charcoal grills, the answer really depends on what you’re looking for in a grill. If you’re looking for easy smoked meat, and a few other cooking applications, you’re best off with a pellet grill. The cost may be high, but it’s worth it for the ease of use alone.
Now, if you’re looking for the romantic act of cooking over a fire, then you’ll want a charcoal grill. Along with that, you also get the benefit of being able to take the charcoal grill anywhere to cook slow and low or sear over high heat.
Be prepared for a big learning curve if you plan on smoking meat on a charcoal grill.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is a pellet grill good for?
A: Pellet grills really should be called pellet smokers. These outdoor cookers are excellent options for easy smoking, and allow users to get their food cooked without any intervention. Pellet grills can also grill and even bake food.
Q: Are pellet grills better than charcoal grills?
A: It depends on what you’re looking to do. Overall, pellet grills are a bit more versatile than charcoal grills are, allowing you to smoke and bake your foods. If you’re looking for high-temperature cooking, though, you’ll want a charcoal grill. Charcoal grills allow you to quickly sear your food.
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