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When you’re thinking about buying a new grill or barbecue, there are a number of things to consider. You might seek recommendations from friends and neighbors, but what suits one household might not be right for you.
When in doubt, it’s best to get an impartial opinion and look at the pros and cons of different options, so that you can establish which is going to suit your needs the most. That’s where we come in.
We know how confusing it can be when thinking about investing in a new grill, and it’s not the sort of thing you can afford to get wrong either because there is such a range in prices for outdoor grills.
With a view to being useful, we’ve put together this impartial guide about the benefits and the drawbacks of both charcoal grills and pellet grills.
While neither might be a clear winner over the other, they both grill types have their own pros and cons as you will see.
What Is A Wood Pellet Grill?
Pellet grills (or pellet smokers) are a kind of outdoor cooker that are fueled by hardwood pellets. The pellets are made from super tiny food-safe fine hardwood chips and fibers which are compacted together into pellet shapes.
Pellet grills work by burning these pellets as fuel, they burn slowly and emit a woody smoke that can flavor the food inside.
You can get different varieties of wood pellets depending on your personal taste such as oak, hickory, maple, and fruit tree wood. These produce smokes that have slightly different scents and flavors which are pleasant to taste and smell.
Unlike gas grills, you can’t necessarily control the temperature of the grill by turning a button. In this way, they are similar to charcoal grills in that their cooking temperature is determined by how much fuel you are using.
However, most pellet grills have an option for using air regulation to keep a consistent pre-selected temperature throughout, which dramatically reduces the amount of time the grill master has to spend attending to it.
Wood pellet grills are often considered to be cleaner than other types of grills because wood is sustainable. But, the main reason why wood pellet grill lovers are so enamored by them, is for the amount of signature smoky flavor they give combined with how easy they are to use.
How Does A Pellet Grill Work?
The first thing you should know about pellet grills is that they work differently than traditional charcoal grills.
Instead of having a chimney that burns the charcoal, pellet grills rely on a hopper system that feeds the pellets into the base of the grill. As the pellets fall through the grate, they start to combust and produce smoke.
If you’ve ever cooked with charcoal, you’ll notice that there’s no real “flame” associated with the process. That’s because the flames are produced when the hot air hits the surface of the charcoal.
In contrast, pellet grills don’t generate much heat, but they contain it better and can be more fuel efficient to use than charcoal grills.
The second thing you should know about these grills is that they operate on electricity. So you need a wall socket to run the unit. Some models come with built-in power supplies while others require you to connect an extension cord.
What Is A Charcoal Grill?
Charcoal grills are also known as open fire grills and are fueled by burning lump charcoal briquettes. They are usually used outdoors and are very popular in camping trips and tailgating parties.
Unlike pellet grills, you cannot regulate the heat of charcoal grills with ease. This means that you need to either add more charcoal, take some away, or adjust the configuration of your coals if you want to change your temperature.
Once the desired temperature is achieved, you must then wait for the coals to cool down before adding more charcoal to maintain the same temperature. It’s a constant balancing act that the tong-bearer will have to perform.
If you want to use a charcoal grill to cook outside, make sure you bring along plenty of charcoal as it does tend to burn pretty fast compared to the compacted wood pellets, or the amount of gas that gas barbecues use.
It’s also important to note that if you’re planning on using charcoal grills to prepare food for large groups, you may need more than one grill since they are not always space-efficient.
Charcoal vs Pellet Grills – Main Differences
One of the biggest differences between these two types of grills is clearly the type of fuel that they use. Pellets are made from compressed sawdust and wood chips while charcoal comes from burnt coal. So, what makes them so different?
Well, pellets are generally cheaper than charcoal, and they don’t require any additional equipment as most wood pellet grills are self-igniting.
On the other hand, charcoal requires a chimney starter or lighter fluid, matches, and sometimes even fire lighters to get the party started. Most wood pellet grills are self-igniting, so you don’t need to worry about all the extras.
Another major difference is the size of the grill itself. A pellet grill has more moving parts and tends to be larger than your average charcoal grill.
That’s not to say you can’t find large charcoal grills or smaller, more portable pellet grills though.
Advantages of Pellet Grills
The main advantage of using a pellet smoker is that it is much easier to use than a traditional charcoal grill. It requires no lighter fluid or charcoal briquettes to light up and start cooking.
In fact, all you need to do is add some pellets and turn the ignition button. This means that if you don’t want to spend time lighting up and tending to a fire, then a pellet grill is a good choice.
Another benefit of pellet grills is that they are more efficient than charcoal grills. They require less fuel to cook the same amount of food.
For example, a typical charcoal grill needs at least 20 pounds of charcoal briquettes per hour to keep an oven hot enough to bake bread. However, a pellet grill only uses 5 to 6 pounds of pellets per hour to achieve the same results.
That means that you’ll save money by buying less fuel, and you won’t have to replace them as often.
One of the main benefits of getting a wood pellet grill over a charcoal one is that the fuel you are burning is renewable and not a finite fossil fuel.
While deforestation is not exactly a good thing, a lot of pellets are made from safe by-products of other industries such as lumber milling, so they could help reduce waste.
Even though cutting down trees isn’t great, it’s got to be better than overusing the earth’s finite resources and producing toxic gasses in the process.
Disadvantages of Pellet Grills
While pellet grills are far better than charcoal grills when it comes to efficiency, there are still disadvantages associated with them.
One disadvantage is that pellets are much harder to find than charcoal. Many people who own pellet grills report having trouble finding them in their local stores.
Another problem is that pellets can be expensive. Some brands cost $20 or more per pound, which can make them prohibitively expensive compared to charcoal.
Furthermore, pellet grills tend to be high maintenance as they rely on electronics and somewhat complicated systems to run. You’ll need to deep clean your pellet grill after every 8-10 cooks at most to keep it running properly.
Advantages of Charcoal Grills
Charcoal grills are probably the oldest type of outdoor cooking device available today. They were used long before gas grills came along, and they continue to be popular even now.
There are many reasons why charcoal grills are still so popular and not just because of nostalgia. First of all, they produce incredible smokey flavored food.
Once lit, charcoal grills are extremely simple to maintain. All you really need is a chimney starter and a few pieces of charcoal, and you’re ready to go.
If you’ve never cooked on a charcoal grill before, then you might be surprised how easy it is to get started. You can also buy pre-packaged charcoal briquettes that come in different sizes.
These are convenient since you don’t have to worry about measuring out your own briquettes. The most important thing to remember when choosing a charcoal grill is to choose one that will fit into your lifestyle.
If you like to entertain a lot, then you should consider purchasing a larger model that can handle large quantities of food for lots of people.
The charcoal briquettes are also widely available from your local store and are cheap to buy. If you want a grill with minimal running costs then getting a charcoal grill is probably your best bet.
Disadvantages of Charcoal Grills
There are some drawbacks to using charcoal grills. One of the biggest problems is that they produce smoke and not the kind of woody, deliciously light smoke pellet grills do.
This means that they aren’t the most neighborly of appliances and not everyone will enjoy the smell either.
So, if you live in a neighborhood where children play outside – or an apartment, you may want to think twice before buying a charcoal grill. Many apartments actually have bans on charcoal grills.
Cooking on something that constantly produces pillars of smoke isn’t the most comfortable of experiences either, so you may want to think about that too.
It doesn’t take much to start a fire on a charcoal grill but once it gets going, it can be very difficult to put out.
Lastly, charcoal grills aren’t as efficient at heating food as other types of grills. For example, if you put a whole chicken on a charcoal grill, it’s going to take longer to cook than it would on a propane grill.
That being said, if you’re looking for a grill that won’t break the bank but isn’t quite as fuel-efficient as a pellet grill, then charcoal grills are definitely worth considering.
Pellet vs Charcoal Grill – Considerations When Comparing
Cleaning (Routine & Deep)
While pellet grills might generate cleaner fumes and be the eco-friendly option over charcoal grills, how easy are they to clean after use?
Generally, wood pellet grills are easier to clean than charcoal ones. This is mainly because charcoal doesn’t actually decrease that much in size as it burns, so there is more waste product, and it marks everything it touches a ghastly black color.
Burned wood pellets produce next to no waste, so it’s much easier to get rid of in that respect. In terms of which is easier to clean, we’d recommend wood pellets over charcoal grills in this aspect.
In our experience, most people who prefer charcoal grills because of the taste only say that because it makes food taste how they remember grilled food tasting when they were younger.
The smoky flavor itself is more of a burnt flavor than smoky in our opinion, but each to their own.
The flavor is really where wood pellet grills excel because they have the unique ability to cook and smoke while infusing the meat or protein inside with a delicious natural wood flavor.
Don’t even get us started on the smell of a slow roasting wood pellet grill at work. It’s heavenly.
Pellet grills tend to be more expensive to buy than charcoal grills. Perhaps this is because of the recent popularity of pellet grills or because they are a relatively new product compared with charcoal or gas barbecues.
Whatever the reason, a pellet grill is likely to set you back between $600 and $2000, whereas in charcoal grills you would be looking mostly in the hundreds rather than thousands of dollars for a new, quality one.
Wood pellets can be harder to source than charcoal briquettes and more expensive too. Then again users of pellet grills would likely say that you get more flavor options with wood pellet grills due to the varieties of wood pellets you can get.
Charcoal is widely available and relatively cheap to buy, however, you should bear in mind that it takes a much larger volume of charcoal to cook the same thing as fewer pellets could.
In terms of running cost, you will probably find that there is not much difference between pellet and charcoal grills.
Ease Of Use
To use a pellet grill is a simple affair. Fill the hopper with pellets and set the right temperature. The auger will then feed the right amount of pellets into the firebox as it needs them.
If you want it hotter, then you turn up the temperature which will increase the rate that pellets are fed into the firebox. Simple.
Charcoal grills are user-friendly, but they aren’t quite as easy to use as pellet grills or smokers. To set up your charcoal grill you will need either a charcoal chimney or lighter fluid as well as a lighter to get it going.
Once the fire has established you will need to wait for around twenty to thirty minutes to make sure the coals are hot enough to cook on.
Wood pellet grills are amazing at grilling – but they’re also able to smoke BBQ low and slow. And since they operate similar to a convection oven, you can also bake and braise on them too.
Charcoal grills can be used to both grill for a traditional barbecue experience and to smoke with ease, but the smoky flavor they create is not the same as you would get with a wood pellet grill.
Pellet grills are seen to be somewhat limited in their temperature capabilities in that they can reach up to ranges of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, but charcoal grills can get much hotter than that.
An experienced charcoal king or queen should be able to achieve temperatures over 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
The most important thing to consider when buying a new grill is to consider which type of grill is going to fit best into your lifestyle. You’ll need a grill that ticks the boxes that are important to you.
Do you like the distinct charcoal flavor you get when using a charcoal grill? Or is the remarkable convenience of a pellet grill more important to you?
These two types of grills have different pros and cons, so it is important to know what you like before making a purchase.
If you’re thinking about getting a pellet grill, you’ll also need to think about the initial cost of one and consider how you will justify it. One way you might be able to decide between the two is to ask yourself how often you plan to use it.
A good rule of thumb is that if you plan to use it once every few days, at least in the summer, then a pellet grill might well be worth the initial investment.
On the other hand, if you’re on a budget, you could arguably get more grilling space for your money with a charcoal barbecue.
In the end, deciding between various types of grills is a personal decision and the right answer is going to be different for different people.
If you have some cash to burn (not as fuel, obviously), and you want to take your backyard barbecues to the next level, then you might seriously consider a wood pellet grill, and you’ll soon be the envy of your whole neighborhood, but it really does come down to personal preference.