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Jan
2
2022
by
Sara Hansen
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2
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Pellet vs Charcoal Grill / Smoker: Their Differences & Best Use Cases

Maybe you are wanting to get into backyard cooking or maybe you are wanting to step up your game with a higher quality grill. In either of those circumstances, you may be wondering what type of grill or smoker you should get. With so many different options available these days, it can be overwhelming to think about. 

One common question lately is which is better, pellet vs charcoal grill? This is a tough question to answer definitely because they operate very differently from each other. Pellet grills have been growing in popularity over the last several years and are a favorite of many cookers. But, of course, there are still faithful supporters of charcoal. Both types of grills have their own set of advantages and best use-case scenarios.

So, in this article, to help you pinpoint which grill would make a better fit for your cooking needs, we’ve broken down the comparison of a pellet vs charcoal grill, including the differences between the two and the best use cases.

 

Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Grill - How They Differ (and Similarities):

Ease of Use

In general, using a pellet grill is very easy. It’s as simple as filling the hopper with your wood pellets and setting the desired cooking temperature. The internal auger that is attached to the hopper then feeds the pellets at a controlled pace down to the firebox where they are burned. So, turning up the temperature would increase the rate that the pellets are being fed into the firebox and create a hotter fire.

Pellet grills do run on electricity, so you will need to have an outlet nearby your cooking area outside. This is no big deal for some people if they have multiple outlets outside, but for others, this can be a significant drawback, since it would require having a new outlet put in outside.   

Using a charcoal grill does require a little more work and there is a significant learning curve when it comes to cooking with charcoal properly. You’ll need to light the charcoal first (using a charcoal chimney is the best way!) and then it will take 20-30 minutes for them to be ready to cook over. Learning how to set up your charcoal grill to reach and maintain the desired temperatures will definitely take some practice. But once you’ve got it down, you can utilize multi-zone cooking to cook low and slow and sear at high heat.

 

green mountain grill | pellet vs charcoal grill | pellet grill vs charcoal grill
Source: Green Mountain Grills

 

Flavor Impact

Since pellet smokers are technically cooking with raw wood, a more nuanced and refined taste of the wood flavor comes through in the food you are cooking. And different flavors/types of wood pellets mean different flavors imparted on your meats and other food.

When it comes to charcoal grills, you will always get the unmistakable char flavor that comes from cooking over charcoal. Because of the charring process used to create charcoal, most types of wood will give a similar flavor, unlike the differences you can taste from wood pellets.

Some people do complain that cooking on a pellet grill will not give the food as smoky a flavor as when it is cooked on a charcoal grill. Adding wood chunks or chips to the charcoal will give a strong wood flavor.

Another thing to note when it comes to the flavor differences in a pellet grill vs charcoal grill is that because of the higher temperatures you can achieve on a charcoal grill, the food can be seared more than on a pellet grill. This will give you more of that Maillard reaction on the exterior of the meat. (Unless the pellet grill has a searing station as an attachment/accessory.)

 

Temperature Control

You’ll never have an easier time controlling the cooking temperature, especially during a low and slow smoking session, than you will with a digital pellet grill. As mentioned above, all you have to do is turn a dial to the desired cooking temperature and sit back.

With a charcoal grill, the temperature control is totally done manually, either by opening and closing air vents or manually adding more charcoal. The more air you allow to flow through the grill, the hotter it will get. So, controlling the cooking temperatures in a charcoal grill is definitely a learned skill, especially when trying to slow-smoke meat. Setting up a two-zone cooking setup, with a direct heat side and an indirect heat side can help when cooking with charcoal, but it will still have to be manually controlled.

 

Temperature Range & Versatility

Pellet grills are most often used for cooking/smoking at lower temperatures versus high heat grilling since they excel at being able to hold a steady smoking temp of 250 °F. The temperature range in most pellet grills will not go much higher than 550 °F, with some having a hard time getting that hot.

One thing you can do to increase your surface cooking temperature in a pellet grill is to utilize a GrillGrate. This is an accessory that can either sit on top of the existing grill grates or temporarily replace the normal grates and get up to 100 °F hotter.

Charcoal grills do have a wider temperature range and can get much, much hotter very easily. They can be used to cook at lower temperatures for smoking as well as high temperatures for quick grilling, like putting perfect sear marks on a thick steak. Depending on the type of charcoal you are using (lump charcoal tends to burn hotter than briquettes) and the size of the grill, it is possible to get to temperatures over 800 °F. 

 

Run Time

Most pellet grills are designed to easily be able to cook for 8 or more hours without needing to add more wood pellets. If the pellets do start to get low during a cooking session, all you have to do is simply open the lid to the hopper and add more pellets.

With a charcoal grill, during a low-temp smoking session, you can easily cook for over 12 hours on a single load of charcoal. But, if you are grilling hot and fast, you can quickly burn through all your charcoal in just a couple of hours. So, depending on your cooking temperatures, it’s important to always have enough charcoal on hand to get you through your whole cook.

 

charcoal grill | pellet vs charcoal grill | pellet grill vs charcoal grill

 

Level of Cleanup Needed

There’s no denying it, charcoal can get messy fast. The carbon from the charcoal itself can get on your hands, your clothes, and definitely all in the bottom of the grill. Alternatively, when using wood pellets, there is virtually no mess. In fact, when you get high-quality pellets, there will be almost no dust in the bag. 

With a pellet grill, you’ll have to do regular cleaning every couple of cooking sessions to help extend the life of your grill. A charcoal grill will require cleaning out the ashes after every cook. No matter what type of grill you use, it’s important to keep it properly clean

 

Initial Cost

In general, a good pellet grill is going to be a bigger investment than most charcoal grills. Pellet grills can range anywhere from $499 (check out this one from Green Mountain Grills) to $2200 (like this one from Traeger). Though, with increases in competition between grill manufacturers, high-quality pellet grills are not as high-priced as they first were.

Of course, some high-quality charcoal grills, like a Kamado grill, can cost just as much. But, in general, charcoal grills will usually be slightly less expensive compared to pellet grills. For example, you can get a good kettle grill from Weber Grills for less than $300. Compact charcoal grills, which are perfect for tailgate parties, are less than $100.

 

wood pellets | pellet vs charcoal grill | pellet grill vs charcoal grill

Source: B & B Charcoal

 

Operating Costs

Wood pellets are often more expensive than charcoal. And like with high-quality charcoal, the best pellets for smoking are going to be more expensive than others. In pellet grills, if you can, you want to go with high-quality pellets to prevent the auger from jamming.

For charcoal, briquettes are cheaper than lump charcoal and can be used for cooking low and slow or grilling hot and fast. Lump charcoal tends to burn a little hotter and faster. Many people prefer to use lump charcoal just for high-heat grilling due to the added expense.

But, the thing to keep in mind is that wood pellets burn slower than charcoal. So, if you are cooking frequently, the cheaper cost of charcoal can add up very quickly compared to a large bag of pellets that will last five times longer. Long-term costs of fuel will just come down to how often you are cooking.

The other thing to consider with pellet grills is the cost of replacement parts if they break down the road after your grill’s warranty has run out. With so many electric and mechanical parts, this is always a possibility.

Outside of fuel, there aren’t really any other costs associated with the charcoal grill itself.

 

Pellet Grills are Best For Those Who:

  • Value the convenience of mainly hands-off cooking.
  • Are primarily interested in smoking meat slowly at lower temps.
  • Like the added flavor of wood smoke, but not the char flavor.
  • Want to be able to use different types of wood pellets to change the flavor.
  • Want to cook with fire but also want the convenience of not having to actively manage a fire. 
  • Want to still be able to occasionally turn the temperature up and sear meat with direct heat.

 

Charcoal Grills are Best For Those Who:

  • Really love the idea of building and actively maintaining a fire.
  • Want that classic char flavor with the ability to add different types of wood-smoke flavor as well.
  • Want to be able to not only cook low and slow but also reach much higher temperatures for high-heat cooking and searing.
  • Want to cook directly over a real fire.
  • Think it isn’t real barbecue without charcoal and wood.
  • Want to have a more portable option when it comes to outdoor cooking.

 

Determining Which Type of Grill is Best For You - Pellet vs Charcoal Grill

As you can see, there are pros and cons to both pellet grills and charcoal grills. If you have to choose one over the other, try to find the best-quality options. When trying to decide between a pellet grill vs a charcoal grill it’s really going to come down to what is most important to you (ie. ease of use, cost, etc.). You should especially consider what you are cooking, the cooking temperatures you need to cook at, and what kind of flavor you want to achieve. 

We want to hear your opinion on the pellet vs charcoal grill. Do you prefer the ease of use of a pellet grill over charcoal? Or do you prefer the taste and method of charcoal? Leave us a comment below!

Once you get your grill, whether it be pellet or charcoal, if you want to elevate your outdoor cooking game, check out the step-by-step virtual Championship Backyard BBQ Classes here at BBQ Champs Academy. You’ll learn a variety of great recipes, along with all the insider tips you need to know, directly from some of the top competition Grillmasters and Pitmasters. Start mastering your grill or smoker today!

Make sure to also check out the BBQ Champs Academy YouTube channel! Click Subscribe to ensure you never miss the latest competition barbecue news and insider info straight from the pros!

 

*Feature image from Food & Wine Magazine

Sara Hansen

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2 comments on “Pellet vs Charcoal Grill / Smoker: Their Differences & Best Use Cases”

  1. https://www.masterbuilt.com/products/gravity-series-1050-digital-charcoal-grill-smoker
    After seeing this at our local Home Depot next to the Traeger, I did a little research checking reviews from others on both. I prefer the charcoal taste over propane for sure, and pellets are better as well, no question there!
    But living in Idaho pellet grills are hard to start up when the weather starts to get cold. Never mind holding the temp.
    That’s where my Masterbuilt shines!
    I had a friend who has a Traeger and it can take up to a half hour to hit a 400 temp! Longer during the winter months! Mine takes about ten minutes no matter what the temp is outside.
    I absolutely love mine, you should definitely take a look!

    1. Hi Phil,

      Thanks for checking out our article! In this article, we were simply focusing on just pellet and charcoal cookers because of the common question we hear of which is better between those two types. Check out our other article on 8 Types of Smokers where we talked about electric smokers as well, specifically mentioning Masterbuilt. (We're fans of those too ;)! )

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