At one time, way back when, I was a charcoal-grill guy. But for the last 15 years or so, I’ve gone with a gas grill, upgrading to a midrange Weber Genesis around 2009. But last year when Traeger asked if I wanted to try its “smart” Ironwood 650 wood-pellet grill, I took the plunge. As a longtime charcoal and gas grilling aficionado, I was completely new to the pellet-grilling experience. Now, many months in, I still wouldn’t call myself a seasoned pitmaster like my colleague Brian Bennett, who tests grills for CNET at his Kentucky home, but I’ve become more proficient – or at least more adventurous.
There will always be a debate over the best grill type, and some people are hardcore in their preferences – my stepfather-in-law was a charcoal guy through and through and would scoff at any suggestion of moving onto something else. But in recent years there’s been a trend toward pellet grills, with Traeger, which developed the original wood pellet grill back in 1987, and Camp Chef among the leading brands – and even Weber has embraced pellet grilling with its SmokeFire line. (Bennett recently compared the $1,800 Traeger Timberline 850 to the $1,200 Weber SmokeFire EX6 for those looking at premium pellet grills.)
So should you make the switch if you haven’t already? As a pellet-grilling newbie, here are some things I learned from the experience – you could call them pros and cons – that may help you make a decision when you’re considering your next grill.
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Setting up the Traeger was a straightforward affair. It took me about an hour or so to get the grill up and running – unpacking everything and attaching the legs takes the most time. The grill came in a big box and I assembled it on my own and only needed help at the very end to stand the grill up once I got the legs on. You can find YouTube videos for setting up most grills these days, and Traeger has an official setup video for the Ironwood 650 and the included printed instructions are pretty clear (I made a small error putting on a couple of the legs but quickly realized my mistake).
From what I can recollect, it was easier to assemble and build than the Weber I bought all those years ago. Bear in mind it never hurts to have a second person to help you out when assembling a grill, particularly the bigger models.
Power source required
All pellet grills have an electrical element and require a source of power. Most people have some sort of power outlet on their patio or wherever they have their grill, but it’s not a given, and you should know that a smart grill like the Traeger not only needs to be plugged in but needs a Wi-Fi connection to get updates and interface with the companion app for iOS and Android. The Traeger includes a power cord that’s around 6.5 feet long and may or may not be long enough to reach an outlet. I ended up using an extension cord.
My gas grill is a dumb grill and doesn’t require a power source other than its battery-powered igniter. You open your propane tank, hit the igniter button and you’re good to go. You can quickly get a gas grill up to your desired cooking temperature.
Firing up a pellet grill is a little more of a process. You fire the grill up with a press of a button but it takes around 10 to 15 minutes to get up to your selected temperature. Early on in the process a pellet grill emits its signature thin blue smoke, which is a sign of clean combustion.
I didn’t mind the wait, but if you’re dealing with people who are hungry and not so patient (like my kids), you do need to start grilling a little sooner than you would with a gas grill.
Wood pellet grills burn hardwood pellets that basically look like the wood pellet bedding you’d get for a pet rabbit. The pellets come in a variety of flavors including hickory, apple, mesquite and other blends. Some are better for cooking different meats, fish, vegetables or even fruit. Traeger encourages you to use only its pellets with its grills, which is what I’ve done because the price is similar to what you’d pay for other pellets. (With my laser printer I use off-brand cartridges – they work fine – because Canon cartridges cost twice as much.)
“We’ve spent over 30 years perfecting the ideal, premium hardwood pellet,” says Traeger’s CEO Jeremy Andrus, who told me the company’s pellets are consistent in their makeup and how they burn. “Our all-natural pellets are made in the USA with 100% virgin hardwoods and contain no binding agents. When you use non-Traeger pellets in your grill, we can’t guarantee that same consistency. We also can’t guarantee the composition of non-Traeger pellets.”
The pellets come in 20-pound bags and can be purchased on Amazon with free shipping for Prime members for a little less than $20. The pellet bin basically holds one 20-pound bag of pellets.
In my experience, the price for operating a pellet grill is more than operating a gas grill. It’s not a huge difference, but I do get what feels like at least 30 to 40% more grilling out of a 20-pound propane tank versus a 20-pound bag of pellets. Traeger says its grills burn around 1 to 3 pounds of fuel per hour (from low to high heat). That means you’ll get around six to 20 hours for each bag.
Where I live, it costs about $24 to swap out a propane tank (I don’t have a refilling station near me). If you can refill for less – around $20 at Home Depot – you may find propane even more economical. But I did like having the pellet bags delivered to my door. I didn’t have to swap it out for a new tank or worry about disconnecting the propane tank and loading it up in the car to get it refilled.
There’s some debate over what the most environmentally friendly way to grill is. While gas grills have much lower emissions than charcoal, a lot of people argue pellet grilling is the most eco-friendly when you factor in its relatively low emissions, its efficiency – little ash is left over – and the fact that wood pellets tend to be made out of waste wood.
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More advanced cooker
Back in the day, people used to talk about how certain types of people bought Apple Macintosh computers and certain types bought Windows machines. Yeah, the Mac was simple to use and user friendly, but if you were a more sophisticated techie, Windows machines allowed you more freedom to tinker with your PC, even assembling various parts and building your own machine from scratch.
I feel a little bit the same way about gas grills versus pellet grills. Yes, you can get more sophisticated high-end gas grills, but pellet grills have more modes and more to tinker with. Along with being your basic grill, they’re also a convection oven and smoker for slow-and-low cooking. You can also mess around with various pellet flavors.
With my old Weber gas grill it’s hard to set a precise temperature. I turn the knobs to regulate the gas output and watch the temperature gauge, then make adjustments. With the Traeger you set the temperature on the digital display and that’s what it heats to – like an oven. Also, the heat is more even. Over time I’ve replaced some parts on the Weber (the flavorizer bars, for example), but you can get some damaged or blocked burners that impact heat distribution.
The Traeger includes a probe that you can plug into the meat you’re cooking and the grill alerts you on your iOS or Android device, via the Traeger WiFire app, when the temperature of the meat hits your desired number.
Other smart pellet grills have these types of features and it’s worth noting that some models, like the $1,000 Camp Chef WiFi 24, have a version with a sear box attachment that combines pellet and gas grilling to give you even more cooking options.
What makes a smart grill smart is its ability to connect to the internet and a companion app. The Traeger WiFire app not only shows you what’s going on with your grill but includes a lot of content, including everything from recipes and various tips along with mini cooking shows that have pitmasters grilling on camera, showing you how to make an assortment of grilled masterpieces. Traeger appears to have invested a lot in its WiFire app – it is quite slick. You can also send your recipe from your device to the grill, letting it know what you’re cooking and it will cook it accordingly. An Apple Watch app is also available.
I was never a real recipe guy – and I’m still not – but I have expanded my grilling repertoire thanks to the app, which does have plenty of recipes that are easy to prepare.
It’s also worth mentioning that all these apps – whether it’s Traeger’s, Camp Chef’s or Weber’s (which also has plenty of recipes) – allow the company to collect data on how their grills are being used. In theory, they use that data to help make their products better, but some people may not be keen on having grilling companies monitoring their grilling habits.
Truth be told, I don’t care for my gas grill as well as I should. But it’s still working after many years of use and I try to give it a deeper clean about every six months. The first thing you’ll notice about a smart grill is that it’s always reminding you to clean it – like after every time you grill. My dumb gas grill doesn’t bother me with that.
Naturally, Traeger makes items to help keep your grill clean and will sell you those items along with its wood pellets. In that sense, there’s a bit of the razor-and-blades marketing approach going on here, although the only thing Traeger explicitly tells you to use are its wood pellets. You can use any spray or brush to clean the grill grate, but Traeger does sell those cleaning accessories, including a degreaser and all-natural cleaner. (Traeger has a How to Clean Your Pellet Grill video that gives you a good sense of the maintenance regime.)
As I said, one of the nice things about wood pellets is that after they burn they leave little ash, with only a light layer gathering at the bottom of the grill that can be vacuumed out. I used a cordless vac but an industrial shop vac is preferable. My colleague Brian Bennett has used the step-up Timberline 850 and says the grill won’t light properly when its firepot is dirty, so he cleans it between cooks. I wasn’t as vigilant with my cleaning with the Ironwood 650 and didn’t encounter those issues.
One of the big keys to keeping the grill clean is keeping the drip tray clean. The easiest way to that is that instead of cleaning the drip tray each time you use the grill, you get a pack of Traeger drip tray liners. Each Traeger model has a liner that fits its specific drip tray. Alas, the liner isn’t a simple square. It has a bulge on either side, and a custom shape that aligns with the drip tray.
A set of five liners costs $16. The reality is you can only grill a couple of times before having to replace the liner, so you’ll end up going through a pack of liners quickly. If you’re cheap, like me, you can buy some heavy-duty aluminum foil and wrap it around a liner and then pull the foil off, wrap it up again and reuse the tray.
The long and short of it is if you’re used to allowing grease to drip down into the bottom of your gas grill, where some small portion of it escapes through a hole into a little grease container and the rest ends up stuck to the grill (and might later ignite a grease fire), there’s definitely more maintenance with a pellet grill. Also, because it’s more high-tech than your basic gas grill, you feel obligated to keep it cleaner and make sure it’s operating optimally. You don’t have to degrease the grill after every time you use it, especially after shorter grilling sessions, but I ended up degreasing it more frequently than my gas grill.
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I’ve had some good results from my gas grill over the years. But overall, food I cook with the pellet grill ends up being juicier and more flavorful. Some of that has to do with how evenly items are cooked and some with the flavor from and the quality of the smoke. Again, you want the more “clear” blue smoke, not the thicker white-gray stuff that creates creosote.
Using the plug-in thermometer also allows you to keep the lid closed, which is better for keeping even temperatures. Since you can only plug into one piece of meat at a time, I ended up opening the lid when I was cooking a bunch of burgers and hot dogs about as much as I would when cooking on my gas grill, but when you’re cooking stuff like a beer-can chicken or a large steak, you just plug the thermometer in, close the lid and keep it closed until the thermometer hits the desired temp.
Not everybody feels the same way, of course. Some people actually don’t like too much of a smoky flavor. And some crazy people like their food well-done, which will rob it of most of its flavor, whether you cook it on a gas or pellet grill.
Moving to a pellet grill from a gas grill is like moving from a gas-powered car to an electric one. Once you go electric it’s hard to go back full-time to a gas-powered car, although I still feel fine driving a gas-powered car. And yes, I still feel fine using my gas grill – and I still use it sometimes when my kids want me to cook up something quickly. But the wood-fired grill feels a little more fun to use. And it does make you a better chef because it encourages you (or at least gives you the courage) to make more advanced recipes.
Here’s a look at some of the best pellet grills out there.
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