Barbecue enthusiasm seems to be growing every year, and many backyard cooks, no longer content with burgers and chicken, are venturing into the mysterious—and myth-laden—realm of smoking. I’ve long been an advocate for pellet smokers, and it seems that this equipment is finally coming of age.
What is a Pellet Smoker?
Of all the different smoker designs available, pellet smokers are the easiest to use, because they’re thermostatically controlled, like your kitchen stove. You just select a cooking temperature, and a controller maintains it by feeding wood pellets to a fire pot as needed to maintain your set temp. Set it and forget it. You can throw a brisket in a pellet smoker, set it for 225°F (105°C), go to bed, and sleep like a baby, knowing you’ll wake up to delicious smoked meat.
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It’s true that even the entry-level models of pellet smokers are a bit pricey. But I’ve never met an unhappy pellet smoker owner, even if they paid a few hundred bucks more than the cost of their neighbor’s grill. And manufacturers are rising to meet increased consumer demand, with more selections, more features, and more competitive pricing. While many folks struggle trying to get cheap offset and bullet smokers to work, with a pellet smoker, it’s easy to make the best smoked ribs, brisket, and pulled pork in the neighborhood.
Where Did Pellet Smokers Come From?
In 1982, Oregon’s Traeger Heating introduced a home heating system that burned wood pellets made from compressed sawdust, a by-product of local lumber milling. Since demand for these furnaces and wood pellets dropped off after winter, Traeger came up with a grill that would burn pellets and keep the business afloat over the summer months.
They had the field to themselves for a few years, but the idea was too good to go un-imitated, and soon competitors began popping up. In the early days, most pellet smoker controllers had only three settings—low, medium, high (LMH)—and there was no temperature probe in the oven to create a feedback loop. So, whether you were smoking a few slabs of ribs on a scorching summer day or six pork butts during a blizzard, the controller only knew pellet-feed on and off times for its standard settings. It had no information on the actual temperature inside the cooking chamber.
Today, all serious players in the pellet smoker market have switched to digital thermostatic controllers that dictate pellet-feed commands based on a temperature sensor inside the cooking box. Just like with the oven in your kitchen, you set the desired cooking temperature, and the heating system kicks on and off to maintain that set point. An LED display shows your set temp, and most models allow you to toggle between set temp and actual temp readings from the internal thermostat. Actual temperatures will fluctuate a bit as the controller switches on and off to hover around your set temp, but many sophisticated touch-pad controllers can maintain tighter tolerances than your indoor oven. Some pellet controllers also have integrated probes that let you monitor the internal temperature of whatever you’re smoking. Wireless remote control and monitoring from your smartphone or tablet are also increasingly common. (You can learn more about pellet smokers on AmazingRibs.com.)
Using accurate digital thermometers to monitor cooking and internal meat temperatures is essential to being all that you can be in the backyard. Unlike the caveman-era heat estimators built into the lids of most grills and smokers, modern pellet smoker LED displays will give you the real story of what’s happening in your smoker. Of course, if your smoker doesn’t come with a dual-display system that monitors both cooking and meat temps, you’ll still need an accurate digital meat thermometer.
Is It a Smoker or a Grill?
Manufacturers advertise this piece of equipment as both a smoker and a grill, but it’s best to think of it as a superb indirect-heat convection smoker, not a grill. Most models just don’t do as good a job of searing a steak as a charcoal grill or even a gas grill with a sear burner can. You’ll sear steaks better on a $20 hibachi than on most pellet smokers.
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To solve this problem, several companies have come up with alternative ways to expose food to the flame by allowing you to use the small area directly above the fuel pot. It’s still not as good as a charcoal or sear burner, but better than the designs that are strictly indirect. Check out the Memphis Elite, Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack PG500, and the Yoder YS640 for this feature. Camp Chef also recently introduced its Woodwind pellet smoker, which has a super-hot gas-fueled sear box attached to the right side.
Another option is to put a griddle (or GrillGrates) on the pellet smoker when it’s cranked to high heat, get it blistering-hot, add just a little oil to prevent sticking, and sear by conduction on the metal. It should take only two to three minutes per side. This is a good technique for reverse-seared meats: You start them indirect, low and slow on the cooking grate, with a little smoke, and then sear the surface with direct contact to the hot metal griddle to create a delicious brown crust. It’s not as good as searing directly over hot coals or gas, but it’s a good compromise.
So which pellet smokers and grills are worth your hard-earned dough? We’ve put together a list of the ones we think make the cut, organized from lowest to highest price. Sorry for the sticker shock—even a low-priced pellet model will cost more than many grills, and our first selection lists at $333, at the time of writing. These motorized, digitally controlled devices just plain cost more, but believe you me, they are worth it! And all of these selections have won the AmazingRibs.com Best Value Gold or Silver Medal.
The Criteria: What to Look for in a Great Pellet Smoker
Since pellet smokers are generally easy to use and most are thermostatically controlled, you can start shopping for one based on size and budget. We do recommend choosing a pellet smoker that utilizes digital thermostatic controllers, because while it’s possible to use a digital meat thermometer, if the whole point of buying a pellet smoker is to have a device that regularly turns out excellent meat, you might as well buy one that can competently do the job. So, above all, look for a pellet smoker that has displays for both cooking temperature and meat temperature.
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