Pellet Grill & Smoker Glossary
Pellet grills: unbelievably fuel-efficient, jaw-droppingly versatile, outstandingly economical, and outrageously friendly to multi-taskers. Hefty adjectives? Sure. But you'd better believe that these incredible machines have earned them all. Pellet smokers and grills can do so much more than assert your place atop the food chain. Beyond the sheer depth of barbecueing everything under the sun, the high heat and wide temperature range are perfect for baking cakes and cobblers, broiling vegetables, braising stews, smoking side dishes, and even roasting smoked crème brulee. Imagine all that, with barely any ash left over. Convinced? We sure are! To brush aside some of the confusion around these easy, adaptable grills, we consulted every expert under our roof to build this in-depth glossary of pellet grill know-how. With our help, you'll go from pellet pupil to pro in no time flat!
Pellet grills are among the most convenient grills for clean-up, but they do still create some debris. Ash builds up in the fire pot and grill body that you would scoop clean into a non-combustible container, or use a shop vac (better yet, one designed specifically to work with ash) to extract the material. This prevents the ignitor from facing a build-up: more effort spent on lighting your grill is more stress you can easily avoid. For more information, we’ve written a detailed article (with photos!) explaining how to clean a pellet grill.
Pellet grills and smokers are fueled by a steady stream of — you guessed it — pellets. A long, metallic corkscrew called an auger turns itself at a precise speed, gradually siphoning fuel from the hopper to the fire pot. Fan-forced air helps keep the continuous combustion where it needs to be. Together, these elements keep just the right number of pellets entering the fire to maintain appropriate heat and smoke for your cookout.
Brushless DC Motor
Brushless motors boast higher torque at a lower RPM, and contain fewer moving parts than standard brushed motors. Pellet grills that feature one see a few benefits in their internal mechanisms here: greater efficiency (and therefore, less energy needed), higher durability, low electronic noise generation, and greater precision control. In layman’s terms? Your motor battery will last even longer, make less noise, and work more effectively.
When pellets burn backwards through the auger and up to the hopper, even after the grill has been turned off, that’s called “burn-back.” It’s also called “a lot of problems.” This is a rare concern, but it can happen if the hopper lid isn’t completely closed during operation — as the process isn’t exactly designed for external air — or if the pellets have been sitting unused for an extended period of time and have begun to break apart. For an easy solution, consider cleaning the pellets out of your grill a few times a year while thoroughly cleaning out the hopper, the auger, and the fire pot.
This is a “first start” process that’s important to do after your hopper has been properly primed, and especially before cooking on your grill for the first time. Simply start your grill and operate at high heat — we recommend over 450 degrees Fahrenheit — with the lid down for half an hour (no less; more is fine). This, hence the name, burns off any foreign material in your chamber and leaves your grill ready to go.
If you think of the interactive panel on an oven, you’ve got the right idea. The controller on a pellet grill adjusts your auger feed and the fan speed, which work together to maintain the smoke chamber at your intended heat levels. Though there is an earlier LMH design, today there are three prevalent types of controllers: Non-PID (simple multi-positional dial), PID (algorithm-assisted temperature control), and PID-Plus (PID, but with Wi-Fi and smartphone app support).
Today, we’re learning electronics! Direct current motors convert electrical energy straight into mechanical energy; an electromechanical or electronic mechanism will, in the case of most DC motors, cause a periodic change in current direction. This was the earliest form of common motor (as opposed to AC motors), and is the common basis for many pellet grills.
Any motor that directly drives a rotor or load without moving pieces, such as gears, pulleys, and chains, can be considered a direct drive motor. They work similarly to brushless DC motors, providing improvements such as: excellent dynamic performance, zero or low maintenance, great energy efficiency, and low self-induced vibration (meaning much lower acoustic noise). Traeger, in particular, has launched a D2® Direct Drive drive-train that capitalizes on this technology.
Direct Flame / Direct Sear
Some pellet grills offer a direct flame or sear function; this is to say, you sear meat directly over a wood fire. This creates a more complex flavor and texture than traditional convection smoking and cooking. You’ll need to keep a few things in mind before you start — always clean the grease tray first (to avoid those flare-ups), set your grill to its highest temperature settings, and keep the lid closed unless moving or flipping food. For best results? The hottest temperatures almost always be directly over the fire pot, and you’ll find that iron grill grates work wonders for heat retention.
A feature on higher-end Traeger pellet smokers that forsake the smoke stack, this design guarantees that the smoke in your cooking area does what it’s supposed to — completely circle your food and impart all that delicious flavor — before it is released back out from the chamber.
As opposed to other grill types, pellet grills don’t need drain pans or drip trays. In this sense, a “drip pan” applies to higher-end luxury pellet grills. In their case, the heat baffle channels grease into collection pans within compartment drawers — simply allow the grease to cool, pull out the drawer, then scrape it into an appropriate container (coffee cans, bottles, and milk cartons work great for this) to seal. You can save this grease for later use (if kept from spoiling), take it to a cooking oil recycling program in your area, or – if you must – toss the container in the trash. Never use a drain. Only jerks pour grease down the drain.
Simply put, this is your burn chamber. Set at the lower portion of your pellet smoker or grill, the fire pot accepts pellets from the hopper and incinerates them — creating those rich, burning flames and that delicious smoke. A flame taming panel usually rests above the fire pot, stopping flare-ups and redirecting even more smoky flavor back towards your food.
If you want to keep grease drippings off the ground beneath your pellet grill or smoker, a good old-fashioned grease bucket is your easiest bet. This bucket will hang on a hook underneath an open channel; this is where the heat baffle will funnel grease. A few pellet grills have moved away from the bucket design and towards a disposable pan instead, hidden within a discreet drawer.
Brands such as Pit Boss, Louisiana Grills, and Camp Chef feature a cooking chamber shape that brings a barrel to mind. Overall, this is based on the design of offset charcoal smokers; seeing as the heat element is bottom-center, not offset, this is a purely aesthetic build. It used to be a much more popular design, but market saturation has slowly pushed alternative builds into the fold.
Meet the cousin of your standard gas grill’s flame tamer. This large, flat, metal plate sits in the belly of the cooking chamber, acting as a buffer between the cooking grids and the fire pot (especially the ignitor). They play three roles: indirect heat, drip vaporization (and, by extension, fewer flare-ups), and the channeling of grease into the run-off collector (usually a grease bucket).
Like any other kind of grill, a hood gasket serves as the seal lining between your grilling body and its lid. Some pellet grills have a flanged lip to seal in smoke; others still use a fiberglass weave oven-style gasket. Note that not every pellet smoker incorporates a hood gasket, as some are designed to “breathe” and accommodate a slight loss of smoke in their construction. If yours has one, it won’t need any maintenance other than checking its durability — and an outright replacement shouldn’t be necessary more than once every several years, if that.
This large compartment stores your wood pellets. Often built on a slanted design, it gradually feeds your fuel into the cooking chamber thanks to the corkscrew auger. You’ll want this container to stay as dry as possible — for pre-cooked wood pellets, moisture is not your friend.
The chillier your grill, the more pellets it’ll have to burn to keep those steady temperatures. A trusty insulation blanket guarantees your pellet grill or smoker will run as efficiently as possible — especially through surprise cold fronts or extremely low climates. These aren’t often suggested for outdoor temperatures above 35- or 40-degrees Fahrenheit, though manufacturers can differ. Be certain to absolutely keep those vents uncovered to avoid fire-out or backflow problems.
Named for its Low, Medium, and High settings, this is the old guard of pellet grill control. This is the simplest, most elementary pellet grill controller available. You’d be hard pressed to find one of these three-setting dials on anything higher than the most entry-level of pellet grills. This design was later outright replaced by the multi-positional (and occasionally digital) Non-PID temperature controller.
This is the next step up from the three-setting limitations of the original LMH temperature controller. By today’s standards, however, this is less of a “2.0” and more of a “1.5.” Imprecise at best and unreliable at worst, this temperature regulation uses up to ten pre-set temperatures that can cycle as far off the mark as 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit — not the best for cookouts of any kind. The further down in budget your pellet smoker or grill, the far likelier it is to carry one of these controllers. Buyer’s budget remorse can be compromised later with a remote grill thermometer, which can help somewhat close the gap — realigning your readouts with the temperatures within the grill.
In layman's terms? Cruise control, except for your auger. While standard controllers basically work on a timer, these improved designs add variance to the regular temperature readings by either restricting or feeding fuel thanks to proportional-integral-derivative functions (hence, PID). An error value is constantly calculated through an algorithm, and the system corrects based on proportionate, integral, and derivative terms. These variables are adapted on the fly, taking in both internal and external factors: think wind, heat, and so on. It involves a whole lot of math, but the end result is that your controller can sense and moderate auger speed with finer precision.
What’s better than an algorithm controlling your auger, and therefore your cooking temperatures? Range. Mathematical jokes aside, these interfaces are designed to provide the only major conceivable improvement on the PID design: checking the readouts from a distance. As the gold standard of today’s controllers, PID-Plus controllers offer Wi-Fi features, often alongside smartphone integration (sometimes with a companion app) — allowing a busy homeowner to monitor the status of their cookout from a distance at any point. Some brands even include a programmed database of recipes and tutorials on their touchscreens, adding even further value to the “set and forget” quality of pellet cookers.
This comprehensive visual check is a must under either of these conditions: your grill hasn’t been used before, or your hopper has gone empty. First, you’ll need to remove all the cooking components from within the grill, then perform a visual inspection inside your hopper and auger for foreign material (do not touch the moving auger). With the temperature dial off, plug in your power cord, turn the dial to “smoke”, then check for the following: Is the auger turning? Is air moving above the fire pot? After a minute, you should smell the igniter — safety first, do not directly touch the igniter — and feel the air warming up. Turn the dial off, fill the hopper with pellets, then back to “smoke.” Once flames are coming out of the fire pot, shut the grill down and allow it to completely cool down — it’s ready to use!
Many pellet smokers and grills contain a probe port, which is an isolated gap for temperature probes to thread into the grill to reach your grates and food.
Though these aren’t a standard feature on pellet grills, as they use fan-based forced air control for draft with special vents for smoke release, some brands have designed built-in or accessory smoke stacks. These are simply another way to ventilate the grill.
Variable Speed Fan
This fan stokes the fire of your burning pellets, helping you quickly nail (and maintain) that proper temperature. Fan-forced air enforces complete combustion and circulates smoke throughout the entire grill, ensuring that everything on the cooking surface is imbued with that deliciously light, smoke-fired flavor.
Appliance like these specialize in smoking (surprise!). This is counter to pellet grills, which are more versatile machines overall. In nearly all cases, you can’t grill on a vertical pellet smoker because the heat source is further away from the meat. This means lower temperatures; lower temperatures mean practically no charred or burnt meat. Their upright design resembles electric smokers, but make no bones about it: the combustion is all pellet — and about efficient as a smoker can come.
Food-grade wood pellets — hands-down, the only kind you want in your grill or smoker — are made entirely from compressed hardwood and contain none of the usual additives: softwood, biomass scrap, and so on. Pressurized at extreme heat and held together with the wood’s natural lignin, this type of fuel burns cleanly and produces a light but tantalizing smoky flavor. How cleanly? They produce the lowest ash yield — an entire 40-lb bag of pellets should only release a ½ cup of ash. Food-grade pellets are commonly found in delicious, flavorful varieties such as oak, maple, apple, mesquite, hickory, and many more.
Wood Pellets (Storage)
Seeing as food-grade wood pellets are literally compressed sawdust, they include no binders or glue in their composition. If you want sawdust again (hint: you don’t), let them get wet, damp, moist, or otherwise humid. Between uses, keep them in a watertight container somewhere dry; after all, leaving them unused in your hopper for an extended period of time could create the conditions for a burn-back, and nobody (especially you) wants that.
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