Pellet grills continue to grow in popularity due to their ease of use and versatility, especially compared to charcoal grills. They take some of the complexity out of smoking meat (mainly by being able to maintain consistent cooking temperature more easily) and provide an easy way to smoke a huge variety of different foods.
But, there are some important things that you need to know to ensure that your cooking sessions on a pellet grill are successful every time and to help extend the life of your grill. In this article, we’ve put together 12 pellet grill tips and tricks straight from Champion Pitmasters to help you master the art of smoking food using a pellet grill:
This is one of those situations where the old saying “you get what you pay for” is applicable. To get the best results when using a pellet grill, you should only use high-quality wood pellets. Doing so will result in better smoke and better flavor.
No matter what kind of pellets you use, you need to make sure they are only made from hardwood and aren't using other additives or flavor oils. The wood’s flavor should be all-natural.
Remember, there are a variety of different flavor profiles for wood pellets, and not every type complements every kind of meat/food. Usually, bolder flavor profiles of wood go with heavier meats, while lighter flavor profiles go with the more delicate items.
Check out our article on how to use wood pellets for more in-depth info on the pellets themselves.
It’s important to plan ahead with the amount of pellets you have to ensure you have enough to get you all the way through your cooking session. A good rule of thumb is to expect to use roughly 1 lb of pellets per hour at the usual “low and slow” smoking temperatures. The amount of pellets needed will increase as the cooking temperature increases.
To avoid a lot of hassle and ensure you end up with properly cooked food, you never want to let the pellets in the hopper run out. When this happens, your grill’s internal temperature can quickly start going down and it may shut itself off.
If you have run out of pellets mid-cook, check your grill’s owner’s manual before reloading the hopper and relighting the grill. Some pellet grills have a built-in low pellet level notification, but if yours doesn’t, set yourself a timer to help stay on top of the pellets.
Most grills have hot spots where the temperature ends up slightly hotter than the rest of the grill. You need to determine where these are on your grill. Even a small unknown difference in temperature can greatly affect the results of your cooking.
One easy way to figure out where any hot spots are is by using cheap white bread. Preheat the grill to medium-high and place the slices of bread across the grates shoulder to shoulder. Keep an eye on them carefully and flip them after a few minutes, leaving them in place long enough to take a photo of the results.
The darkest slices of bread will show you where the temperature is hotter than the rest of the grill. Make sure to save the photo somewhere readily accessible or print it out and keep it with your grill’s owner’s manual.
It is important to point out that pellet grills/smokers produce more smoke at the lower temperature settings and less smoke as you increase the temperature. So if you want more smoke flavor, start your cooking off on the lowest setting (or special “Smoke” setting) for 30 minutes to an hour and then turn it up closer to 225°F - 250°F, which is the normal cooking temperature for many different low and slow smoking recipes.
Pellet smokers are very efficient at burning wood. So you may feel like even after starting at the lowest setting for a little bit, you’re still not getting as much smoke flavor as you really want. This is where a smoke tube comes in handy.
This affordable accessory is a round or hexagon-shaped metal tube that is perforated with tons of little holes. You just fill it with pellets, light it, and set it on your grate just inside your grill. It will then produce smoke for several hours, giving you an extra smoky flavor.
Source: Mountain Grillers
Just like the oven in your home, a pellet grill’s cooking temperature can fluctuate up and down by 20 degrees or more. So your set grill temperature is essentially an average. Don’t worry about the fluctuations or try to constantly adjust the temperature. Just set the grill and keep an eye on the meat’s internal temperature for easy, stress-free cooking. (Make sure to have a digital meat thermometer on hand!)
For a deliciously caramelized exterior on the meat, don’t be afraid to utilize the reverse sear method. This two-step approach means smoking the meat at a low temperature first and then finishing it at a higher temperature. This method is great for when you are smoking whole chicken, roasts, and thick-cut steaks.
Pellet grills utilize both radiant heat and convection heat for cooking. So, if you are cooking more delicate meats and food items that are prone to drying out, like flaky fish fillets, shellfish, or chicken breasts, put them on the upper rack. This will ensure that they are cooked mainly by convection heat and protected from the more intense radiant heat coming from the bottom.
If your grill didn’t come with an upper rack, there are aftermarket options available or you can use a wire rack balanced on fire bricks. Placing a water pan to the side on your main grill grate will also help to generate extra moisture if needed.
It’s very important to make sure that you always store your pellets in a cool, dry place. If you don’t and they get moist, they will quickly disintegrate into sawdust. This also means not leaving unused pellets in the auger. If they get wet and break apart in there, it will be similar to cement stuck in there.
This may be the most obvious and simple tip on the list, but it is one of the most important and often slacked on. For the best performance and results, it is imperative to keep your pellet grill as neat and clean as possible. The cleaner your grill, the more sanitary the cooking surfaces are and the smokier and tastier your food is.
Ideally, you should thoroughly clean all of the surfaces of your grill once every 3 to 5 uses. Make sure to check and clean all corners, rims, and racks to properly clean up any food waste and grease.
If you scrape off the grill grates before and after each cooking session, while the grill is hot, it will be much easier to keep them properly cleaned.
You should also empty the ashes in the hot box after each cook to prevent a buildup of char which can negatively affect the taste of your food.
Check out our article on natural homemade grill cleaner that you can use to keep your grill/smoker properly clean.
After every time you are done using the grill, remove the grease trap and store it somewhere that will keep it out of reach of dogs, raccoons, and other hungry critters. The last thing you want is animals tearing apart your grill overnight. This is another reason it is important to keep your grill clean.
It is recommended to clean the grease trap every 2 to 3 cooking sessions if you are using it daily or once a week if you are using it every 4 to 5 days.
With the tips for using a pellet grill that we’ve covered above, you’ll be well on your way to mastering your cooker and smoking some delicious food. Each of the things above is important to keep in mind to not only help ensure you end up with a result you're happy with each cooking session but will also help protect your investment and extend the life of your grill.
Have you recently gotten a new pellet smoker and tried some of these tips? Do you know of some other pellet grill tips and tricks that we left out? Leave a comment below, we want to hear all about it!
If you are ready to really up your smoking game and start cooking competition-caliber meat, check out our All-Access passes. These include in-depth BBQ cooking classes like you’ve never seen before, taught by Champion Pitmasters. You can learn exactly, step-by-step how to cook 4 different cuts of meat to delicious perfection. Join BBQ Champs Academy today!
Also, make sure to subscribe to the BBQ Champs Academy’s YouTube channel to stay on top of all the latest competition BBQ news and insider info straight from the barbecue pros!
*Feature image courtesy of Traeger Grills.