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First things first, what exactly is a pellet smoker? A pellet smoker, or pellet grill, uses ignited hardwood pellets as the fuel source to produce heat for cooking. The wood acts along with a system of fans to heat food to a specific temperature, almost like an outdoor convection oven. Almost anything you can cook in a standard oven can be made on a pellet grill; it can be used to smoke, grill, bake, and even braise food, which makes it wonderfully versatile.
These grills are among the easiest backyard cooking appliances to use, just plug them in, set your temperature, and let them do all the hard work for you. You’ll get the taste and flavor of a wood smoker along with the convenience of a gas grill. And if you’re a barbecue nerd, rest assured, pellet grills are even sanctioned in Kansas City Barbecue Society contests.
Since pellet smokers plug into a standard electrical outlet, they’re great for car camping and tailgating, as they can be powered with car batteries, battery packs, or gas-powered generators. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, here are the top pellet smokers.
Best Overall: Traeger Ironwood 885 WiFi Pellet Grill and Smoker
Dimensions (LxWxH): 53 x 27 x 47 inches | Cooking Area: 885 square inches | Hopper Capacity: 20 pounds
Traeger invented the original wood pellet grill more than 30 years ago in Mt. Angel, Oregon, and they remain the top name in the pellet smoker game for good reason. This grill stands out as a backyard hero with its excellent craftsmanship and knack for cooking meat beautifully time and again.
Traeger’s WiFIRE technology allows you to monitor and control your cook from anywhere via your smartphone, and a powerful D2 drivetrain helps this smoker get hotter faster, and maintain consistent temperatures in any condition. Its double-wall stainless-steel interior helps sustain a perfectly even cooking temperature and keeps smoke inside.
It even has enough grilling space to hold up to 10 chickens or 7 racks of ribs, so you can cook for a crowd. The downside is that all this doesn’t come cheap, but this is a tool you’ll enjoy for many, many delicious meals over the years.
Best Budget: Camp Chef SmokePro DLX Pellet Grill
Dimensions (LxWxH): 50 x 20.5 x 47.5 inches | Cooking Area: 570 square inches | Hopper Capacity: 18 pounds
The SmokePro DLX Pellet Grill delivers an easy, reliable cooking experience every time. Its 570 square inches of cooking space has controlled smoke, which lets you tailor the amount of smoke your meal gets, and PID technology. An automatic pellet auger dispenses when needed and shuts down when done, and automatic ash cleanout minimizes mess.
Reviewers comment on its ease of use, easy cleanup, and quality of smoke. To get a true high-temperature sear, you’ll need to purchase an additional Sear Box accessory. Another con: it can be difficult to get pellets out of the hopper for storage.
Best Portable: Green Mountain Davy Crockett Pellet Grill
Dimensions (LxWxH): 34 x 23 x 31.75 inches | Cooking Area: 219 square inches | Hopper Capacity: 9 pounds
Since pellet smokers simply need electricity and pellets, they are the perfect mobile BBQ experience. Weighing in at only 57 pounds, with legs that fold compactly, the Green Mountain Davy Crockett grill is perfect for throwing in your car and bringing along to your next tailgate or camping trip.
With a cooking surface of 34 x 23 inches, it comes equipped with a digital Wi-Fi controller, a meat probe, and Sense-Mate, a thermal sensor that constantly monitors the grill temperature. Some reviewers complained of subpar customer service from Green Mountain, a company based in Tennessee.
Related: The Best Smokers
Best for Beginners: Z Grills 700D Wood Pellet Grill
Dimensions (LxWxH): 45 x 28 x 49 inches | Cooking Area: 694 square inches | Hopper Capacity: 20 pounds
Beginners can’t go too wrong with any pellet smoker since they’re perfect for “set it and forget it.” The stainless-steel Z Grills Premium ZPG-700D is an especially good pick for novices with its great value, three-year warranty, and precise temperature control that will keep your food within 10 degrees of your target temp for hours and hours.
This model comes with enough cooking space for 34 burgers and a hopper capacity for a full day of cooking. It can handle anything between 180 and 450 degrees, and heavy-duty locking wheels mean you can easily move it around the backyard if needed. Electronic auto-start ignition means one button is all you need to get cooking, and a real-time LED temperature display makes everything crystal clear.
Related: The Best Grills
Best for Barbecue Lovers: Green Mountain Grills Daniel Boone
Dimensions (LxWxH): 52 x 25 x 52 inches | Cooking Area: 458 square inches | Hopper Capacity: 18 pounds
If you taste smoked meat in your dreams, the Green Mountain Grills Daniel Boone will make your fantasies come true. This Wi-Fi-enable grill has 458 square inches of cooking space to produce fantastic brisket, pork shoulders, and racks of ribs, by cooking meat with an abundance of smoky flavor. That smokiness does mean it burns through pellets faster than other grills.
Beyond its Wi-Fi and cooking capabilities, this grill has a few more designer features like an interior light, rotisserie mounting, reinforced steel grates, and a venturi-style firebox, which means there are vertical vents to create a cyclone of heat. There’s also a sensor to monitor ambient temperature and adjust accordingly. Green Mountain does like to deal with independent dealers, but it created a nationwide map of where to buy its grills.
Related: The Best Grill Brushes
What to Look for in a Pellet Grill
A pellet grill works its magic by generating heat from wood pellets placed in a chamber called a "pellet hopper." The cylindrical pellets are made from sawdust that has been compressed under high pressure and come in varieties like hickory and mesquite. (Make sure to keep them dry; wet pellets are useless.)
Those pellets move through an auger to a fire pot, which heats the grill’s cooking chamber. A fan system disperses heat and smoke in order to cook your food indirectly, which means the food is not directly exposed to fire. Pellets burn at about 1 to 3 pounds per hour.
Meanwhile, every grill has cooking space measured in square inches. Pellet grills with between 200 and 400 square inches of space can handle a whole brisket or rack of ribs, but are usually light enough to be portable. Pellet smokers with up to 800 square inches of space are great backyard grills for small families and the occasional summer dinner party. If you regularly cook up multiple pork shoulders and dozens of burgers for a crowd, look for smokers with more than 900 square inches of cooking space.
Pellet smokers tend to be higher tech than gas grills, and often come equipped with state-of-the-art digital PID (proportional integral derivative) controllers, Wi-Fi connectivity, and moving parts. This means more possibility of something breaking, making warranties important.
Think about your grill’s controller, the brains of the operation. These will maintain a consistent temperature, essential especially for cooking in the cold, wind, and rain. Three position controllers, also called LMH controllers, have only three temperature settings: low, medium, and high. Multi-position controllers allow for more precision, at 25 degree increments. The most sophisticated type of pellet grill controller are PID controllers, which use sophisticated algorithms to achieve and maintain the desired temperature within a few degrees. They continuously measure the grill’s temperature and adjust its cycle accordingly, adding pellets when necessary to achieve the correct cooking temperature throughout.
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Hannah Howard has been writing about food and cooking for over a decade, including the memoirs “Feast” and “Plenty.” She is married to a Kansas City Barbecue Society-certified barbecue judge and dedicated meat lover.
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