Pellet smokers are the trendy thing in the barbecue world, and a lot of pitmasters might be wondering if now is the time to buy-in. What are the basics, and what are the best things to know before buying one?
How Do They Work?
In order to use the pellet smoker, you must first understand the pellet smoker. As Sun Tzu said, in order to know your enemy you must become your enemy.
The name pellet smoker is fairly accurate when it comes to function. Essentially, pellet smokers are electrically powered grills that use small pellets of sudust, natural glue, and flavoring as their fuel source.
The grill uses a hopper to control the amount of fuel being used at any given time. This means that the pitmaster doesn’t need to do much work on the fuel front, aside from monitoring the temperature.
The pellets are burned by an electric element, producing the heat and the smoke that the grill needs to cook the food.
The reason that pellet smoker grills are on the rise in particular is that they can double as both a grill and a smoker, sometimes at the same time. If you’re in the market for both, it can definitely be a good investment.
But the primary use of the pellet smoker grill is definitely smoking, and they are pretty good at that. The wood pellets the smokers use are both efficient for burning and great for releasing delicious smoke.
How To Start The Grill
This is pellet smoker basics. We’re going to be talking about the simple things. Before you start anything, you’ll want to make sure that the hoper is filled with fuel.
Generally speaking, two pounds of pellets will equate to two to four hours of smoking time depending on the temperature that you want.
Once the grill is fueled it’s time to turn on the power. If you’re using the grill for smoking, you’ll want to put it on the “smoke” setting and then open up the lid.
Opening the lid is important because the hopper likes to keep feeding pellets into the machine even if the igniter isn’t lit. Keeping the lid open for the first 3-4 minutes gives the igniter time to get a fire going.
It also gives you time to get all of your meats together so that you can finish any final preparations that you want to do.
Eventually, you’ll start seeing thick smoky clouds. That means it’s time to start working. If you want to increase the temperature for whatever you’re cooking, now is the time for it.
Once that’s done, it;s time to apply the meat, close the lid, and just wait.
Where To Buy Pellets
Of course you can buy anything on the internet, and that might be a good option for you. But you may want to get your pellets a little sooner than that.
You can buy pellets for a pellet smoker at pretty much any hardware store. You can even pick them up at Wal-Mart if that’s the only store nearby.
Most manufacturers also sell their own pellets directly over their websites. These are usually pretty safe when it comes to quality.
I would suggest buying a variety of different fuel pellets so that you can expirement with the taste. Different kinds of wood taste better with different meats, and with pellets as fuel you can even mix different woods together to make a unique blend.
It definitely adds another layer of artistry to the smoking process.
How To Maintain Your Equipment
Keeping your pellet smoker clean will help it last a long time and ensure that your smoked meat doesn’t end up coated in ancient burnt garbage, which I think we can agree would be a bad thing.
I’ll list the different cleaning activities according to how frequently they need to be done.
Burning off is something you’re probably familiar with if you’ve ever had a grill or a smoker to take care of before. All you need to do is get the heaviest debris off of the surface of your grill, then turn the temperature up to any anything higher than 350 degrees.
When doing a burn off for a pellet cleaner, you do need to empty the hopper of pellets. This allows the smoker to clean the auger along with the rest of the grill. You should do a burn off every time you use your smoker.
You should do a general cleaning session every time you finish a bag of fuel. If you wait any longer you risk inconvenience every time you turn on the grill.
You can use an ordinary grill brush to give the grill a good scrub, getting as much gunk off as you can. Then you can open up the flame broiler plate and wipe any fat or grease that might have fallen in there but not dripped out through the frease management system.
Some people like to line the whole thing with easily changable foil. If this seems like it would work for you, go ahead and give it a shot.
Finally, you’ll need to get out all the ash. A shop vac would be optimal, but if you don’t have one you can try using an ordinary vacuum instead.
You should probably degrease the grill once every nine to ten uses. You’ll need to find a safe degreasing solution that won’t accidentally poison you.
All you really need to do is spray the grill, wait for it to soak, wipe it down, and then rinse it with water when that’s done. It’s a pretty quick job really.
While most pellet smokers come with pretty much everything you need to get started, there are a few tools that will make your smoking experience far better.
The first thing is to get your own meat thermometer. Most pellet smokers have one built-in, but it’s generally a cheap model, so if you want accurate temperature readings, you should probably buy your own.
The second thing that you’ll want to get is a pellet smoker tube. Now you may be wondering why you would want a pellet smoker tube for your pellet smoker. The answer is that some people just like their food to be extra smoky.
If you can never get enough of smoke, then go ahead and double smoke everything in your grill. The tubes aren’t very expensive and you’ll already have the right fuel for them anyways, so I’d definitely reccomend trying it at least once.
You’ll also probably want to get a sear box. While smoking, it can sometimes be tough to get the ambient temperature of the grill high enough to sear a piece of meat. A sear box allows you to put your meat closer to the fire without instantly burning it.
Picking The Best Pellet Grill
The kind of pellet grill you get should depend on a couple of things. Budget, how devoted you are to the idea of pellet smoking, and the kind of tech you want should all be playing a part in this decision.
If you have a larger budget and you want a more expensive model, you should get a Mak. Mak has four models, but the most expensive one is the Mak 4 Star General. How expensive is it? Their cheaper models run from between one thousand to four thousand dollars, and they’re pretty well equipped.
If you have a big budget, but still want something that isn’t several thousand dollars, you can get the Camp Chef Woodwind. The Woodwind has produced some significant industry buzz. It runs around a thousand dollars and has all sorts of cool little features like WiFi capabilities, so you can check on your meat from anywhere in your home.
If you’re looking for a quality grill that isn’t as expensive as the last two models, try a Traeger. Traeger is one of the oldest names in the pellet smoker business, and the grills only cost about six to eight hundred dollars. Many of them come equipped with wifi controls, if you care about that, which can help you keep an eye on your meat from a distance.,
Mistakes To Avoid
When you’ve only just started using a pellet smoker, there are plenty of little mistakes that you might make that can effect the quality of the meat. Here are a few that are particularly common and/or dangerous.
Smoker pellets are mostly made of sawdust, so if they get wet, they swell and start to lose their integrity. Not only could this potentially clog the hopper, but even if the wet pellets make it out into the heat they might either take too long to burn or not burn at all.
People sometimes do this because they think that the extra steam from the water will add to the smokey flavor, but it is more likely to just not work, and ruin your meal. If you do want that extra-smokey flavor you should get a pellet smoker tube and use it whenever you’re smoking.
Not Shutting The Grill Down Properly
Pellet grills tend to have very specific shut down instructions in their manuals. You need to follow them. If you don’t your pellet smoker will explode.
This happens when the pellet grill still has some of the pellets from the last time you used it and then gets turned on again. The Auger will flood the igniter with pellets like it usually does, but there will be double the amount of pellets there usually are.
This can cause a mini-explosion, sometimes called a flame-out, to erupt out of your pellet grill. This can damage the grill, but more importantly, it could damage you. In order to avoid this, you need to follow the proper shutdown instructions in your smoker’s manual.
When To Use Your Pellet Smoker
You can use a pellet grill any time, even in the rain if you think you can make a plan to keep your pellets dry.
One of the advantages of a pellet smokers compared to an electric smoker is that because the fuel for the smoker isn’t technically electricity you’re far less likely to hurt yourself smoking in the rain.
Of course, if you can avoid using the device in the rain that would probably be for the best. Rain does complicate things significantly even if you can work through it.
You can probably use your pellet smoker in the winter as well. Different temperature controllers are better at working through cold weather conditions, but other than that most pellet smokers can smoke in cold weather with the simple addition of a thermal blanket to keep the heat from all escaping.
This is probably the hardest point to narrow down, but it’s one that you might be able to have the most fun with! When it comes to rubs and sauces, everyone generally has their own preferences. Brines, bastes, and rubs are all great ways to imbue your meat with a specific flavor that will take your smoked meal to the next level.
While it may be hard for us to give specific recommendations, we do have a number of great suggestions you can take a look at! Check out this video to try and take a few ideas to try out with your smoker.
At the end of the day, smoking your meat is going to be an experience tailored to you. Mess around with different wood, sauces, meats and rubs, and eventually you’ll find something that perfectly suits your tastes.