Set it and forget it. Five words that perfectly encapsulate all that is good about using a pellet smoker and five words that have become synonymous with the ease of use that these grills offer within the pellet smoker’s community.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 5 Best Cheap Pellet Smokers Under $1000
- 3 A Brief History of Pellet Smokers
- 4 How Do Pellet Smokers Work?
- 5 Benefits of Smoker Pellets
- 6 Types of Wood Pellets
- 7 Pros and Cons of Pellet Smokers
We have a long tradition of smoking our food but there has been a noticeable increase of people turning to this particular method of cooking over the last decade or so. There are many reasons for this I think, such as the whole inception of “food porn”. We live in a time now that caters to ever-increasing numbers of food channels, all with their own celebrity chefs who bombard us with visually stunning masterpieces which we want to go and create ourselves to varying degrees of success.
Add to this the rise and rise of the internet where information, recipes and tips and tricks are so prevalent, we find ourselves gorging on so much information that, in our minds, we are basically experts before we have even attempted any actual smoking ourselves.
This is why pellets seem to be the smoker grill of choice for many novices. Set it and forget it, it’s just a bit too self-explanatory don’t you think? Smoking food used to make people a bit wary. They would be put off by not knowing how much fuel to add, how long the smoke should take, how to know if they were achieving steady temperatures, the list would be endless. With modern pellet smokers however, all of the guesswork is taken out of the equation for you. Fuel is fed automatically into the fire pit for a steady flow of constant temperature which is regulated by internal sensors. All you need to know is how long the cook is, what temperature you need to achieve, press a couple of buttons and hey presto!
Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because a pellet grill is a breeze to use that it will somehow suffer in terms of quality of flavor produced. Many Pitmasters have been winning national competitions using pellet smokers, with teams like Pellet Envy having some truly great results. The legitimacy of using them in competition may be contested by some (mainly bad losers) due to the automation of most of their parts but, for now, they are legitimate pieces of equipment and have been storming the scene for quite some time now.
5 Best Cheap Pellet Smokers Under $1000
Let’s be honest, smokers can be pretty darned expensive if you let yourself get carried away. Competition smokers can run into the thousands of dollars and if that’s what you want to spend your money on then that’s up to you but I’m guessing you don’t need our advice to do that.
For us mere mortals whose purse strings are a little tighter, I offer a few cheaper options for you to start your pellet smoking journey. These are all good quality smokers that will give you a great taste of barbecue without breaking the bank.
Camp Chef PG24 Deluxe Pellet Grill and Smoker
Camp Chef isn’t one of the top names that spring to mind when you think of pellet smokers but with the PG24 they are making a lot of noise that seems to be resonating with experts and consumers alike. The reason that this is the case is because it is a hugely versatile piece of equipment, jam packed with features yet undeniably simple to use. The icing on the cherry is the price. With all the features it has you would be expecting to pay at least double what you actually have to.
Like so many of the newer models that have been introduced to the market recently, the PG24 is a grill smoker combo that allows you to cook in almost any fashion you want. As well as smoking you can grill, bake, baste, braise etc to your hearts content but, of course, the star of the show is the smoker. It features:
- A huge cooking area. Boasting an area of 573 square inches split between the main rack (429 square inches) and a secondary rack (144 square inches). This is more than enough room for 2 turkeys and a load of extras.
- Awesome temperature control. Achieving correct temperatures and maintaining them is what makes the difference between an amazingly succulent piece of meat and a bang average piece. The PG24 has a built in thermostat with a digital thermometer, giving you the ability to set it and forget it. Just how it should be.
- Internal meat temperature probe. This allows you to see what exactly is going on with your meat in the cooking process. The accurate probe lets you know when your meat has reached optimal temperatures without you having to fiddle with it or guesstimate by touch.
- Trap door for easy cleaning. No more having to wade through the grease and ash because the trap door makes it so much easier to clean the fire pot after every cook. This is a feature that can be found on other smokers but the catch is that they cost around double the price of the PG24.
- Power outage bypass. If you’re unlucky enough to experience a power outage, this feature will allow you to bypass the relight feature that will ultimately save your hot rod from wear and tear.
Traeger TFB65LZBC Texas Elite 34 Series Wood Pellet Grill
Now, if we’re talking about big names in the smoking world then they don’t get any bigger than Traeger. I’ll delve into their history a bit later but suffice to say without Traeger grills we would still be in the dark ages.
The Traeger TFB65LZBC is a proper big boy in every sense of the word. The dimensions are 22 x 54 x 49 inches which allows space for a 646 square inch grilling area. This is sufficient for roughly 20 racks of ribs, 40 burgers or half a dozen turkeys.
Also featured in this entry level Traeger are:
- “Digital Elite Controller with LED display maintains precise temperature, just like your oven”. Their words, not mine. There is an admission of a +/- 20 degree variance although you can read of variance up to 40 degrees. I’ve never heard of such feedback from anyone I know who has one.
- Porcelain grills. What an absolute joy it is whenever you read those two words. You instantly know the grill is going to be made of great quality and you also don’t have any nightmares of scrubbing down the grates for hours afterwards.
- Digital temperature capability. Set it and forget it, or you know, set it and have a few poke arounds. The temperature will reach 400 degrees which isn’t as high as some other grills but all the best features of this Traeger grill are at the lower smoking temperatures, not the high searing ones.
- Electronic auto start. It could not be easier to fire up this Trager grill. Make sure there are wood pellets in the hopper, and switch a button to ignite.
Although strictly the Traeger may not be seen as a budget option it is still an entry level grill for under $1000. For this you get the best name in the business along with a huge grill which is made from some of the best materials. If you are truly interested in investing time and effort into pellet smoking then you won’t go far wrong with the Traeger Elite series.
Pit Boss 71700FB Pellet Grill
The Pit Boss pellet grill is a great performing pellet smoker that comes at a truly bargain price. It might not have the fancy extras that the PG24 comes with but it’s cheaper and a lot bigger.
In fact, the Pit Boss weighs in with a massive 700 square inch cooking surface. Without wanting to seem just a little hyperbolic, you might as well invite the whole neighborhood round when you fire this bad boy up!
What we can also find on this grill is as follows:
- Higher cooking temperature than Traeger. The Pit Boss will achieve temperatures of up to 500 degrees. This is 100 degrees higher than the Traeger, which although is a nice point scoring win on behalf of the Pit Boss, is not to be seen as reflective of the quality of food that can be produced. 400 degrees is hot enough to cook most of your food stuffs but as mentioned in the Traeger review, these pieces of equipment come into their own at lower temperatures.
- Digitally controlled burn system. This kind of ties in with the first point and is pretty much the norm now on pellet smokers. The burn system reacts to your temperature settings by pushing smoker pellets through the auger into the fire pit to maintain steady all round temperature.
- Porcelain grids. In fact, to be wholly accurate, cast iron grids that are coated in porcelain. Whichever way you look at it, this is a great feature to have on a grill that costs as little as the Pit Boss does.
One thing that I would urge you to note with this grill is that it does have a few negative comments in the reviews. Dig a little deeper though and you can see most are over the way the item was received. It seems there are some suppliers or freight companies who have been throwing some of these smokers around and leaving customers with dented and misshapen pieces of equipment. Our advice is to either see if Amazon can package it for you or to do a little research on the supplier’s feedback. From what I can see, the 2 cheapest options actually have great feedback so I would perhaps not worry too much about these.
REC TEC Wood Pellet Grill
Like the Traeger, the REC TEC can’t really be thought of as a budget product even though it is still a pellet grill for under $1000. However, REC TEC can be identified as one of the new wave of companies that are bringing pellet smokers slap bang up to date with a host of innovations and designs.
These are features that you would normally find on commercial smokers and they include but are not limited to:
- PID temperature control. Proportional integrated derivative temperature control is the best form there is for keeping constant temperatures. Whereas other grills may show variance of +/- 30 or 40 degrees, the PID sensors will keep temperatures at almost exact desired levels with variance of around +/- 5 degrees maximum.
- Stainless steel everywhere. fire pots, handles, grills, deflector shield, drip pan – you name it, it’s probably stainless steel. This makes for awesome longevity.
40lb hopper. This is probably double, or in many cases more than double all other hoppers that are around this price range or below. This means if you are cooking low and slow you get so much more time to get that awesome smoky flavor onto your meat.
- 6 year warranty. This blows most warranties out of the water. As well as this the owners of the company suggest that with every purchase you receive their personal cell number which you can contact them on if something has gone amiss.
- 702 square inch cooking area. That’s a whole lot of grilling right there.
Green Mountain Grills Davy Crockett Pellet Grill
You know we love a portable grill here at GoShindig and Green Mountain Grills provide us with a fantastic portable pellet grill. This grill can be used on camping trips or for tailgating and can easily take on some of the smaller cooks that you want to take on at home.
Despite its small size the Davy Crockett pellet grill packs in some rather surprising features that you simply don’t see in home grills that can cost three times as much. These include meat probes and wifi capabilities which you can read about below along with some other features such as
- 216 square inch cooking surface. If using this for tailgating then this is more than enough to get through a few dogs and some burgers.
- Meat probe. A feature not often included in some of the budget pellet smokers, the meat probe will tell you when the internal temperature of your meat is hot enough to safely eat. No more accidental cases of food poisoning.
- Digital wifi controller. Green Mountain Grills have an app that allows you to set temperatures through the magic of wifi. Ignoring the fact that this is not perhaps the most practical thing to include on a portable pellet smoker when you are bound to be close to the grill at all times, it sure is a pretty cool thing for you to show off to your friends.
- Multiple power options. The grill will run on 110v or 12v power source, depending on the situation, and comes with an adaptor which will let you run it through 3 different power options.
- PID temperature control. This enables you to keep the temperature a lot more stable without any wild variance.
Temperature range. The Davy Crockett pellet grill achieves temperatures up to 550 degrees which is more than almost all budget grills.
A Brief History of Pellet Smokers
In the 70’s we were experiencing higher and higher prices to keep ourselves warm through the winter months, mainly down to the fact that there was a bit of an oil crisis going on. Joe Traeger and Jerry Whitfield began experimenting with wood pellets made from compacted sawdust from the mills and burning them in stoves to see if they were a viable, cheaper option to provide heating.
Suffice to say that they proved to be a great success and both men went on to varying degrees of success with their wood pellet stoves. Whitfield sold nationally and would eventually own the company that produced the most wood pellet stoves in the world whilst Traeger mostly sold locally.
Traeger was good at thinking outside the box though. The vast majority of his sales were made in the winter months so come summertime he started experimenting with wood pellet grills. He came up with the idea of fitting an auger which would feed the pellets and figured out that he needed a blower to help keep them burning.
Over the years, and with the aid of technology and fierce competition the wood pellet smoker has evolved into an entirely different beast altogether. Almost everything has been automated or digitized and a competition smoker will have thousands of times more processing power than was available to the first shuttle missions to the moon.
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How Do Pellet Smokers Work?
Pellet smokers are incredibly easy to operate. The whole industry is based around the set it and forget it slogan and it is of great comfort to most owners knowing that their time can be spent on things other than babysitting their meat. However, a fair few clever innovations have made the humble pellet smoker such a joy to work with and knowing and understanding how these things work in unison will only benefit us all in the long run.
Digital Controller – The brain of the whole operation. From this control you can set your desired temperatures and keep an eye on everything that’s going on during your cook. There will be an LED display showing you current temperature inside the chamber, and on some models that have a probe, the internal temperature of your meat. There will also be ignition switches on the digital controller.
Wood Pellets – The fuel for your smoker. Wood pellets for smokers are made from compressed hard wood sawdust. They are formed into pellet shapes that are generally around an inch long by a quarter inch wide. They can be made from different types of wood, each giving off distinct flavor notes and each complimenting some food better than others.
Hopper – The hopper is the storage point for the wood pellets. Hoppers come in various sizes with the larger sizes obviously accommodating a more set it and forget it experience as the longer smoking sessions will not require a refill. Hoppers are generally covered which will keep the wood pellets dry in most reasonable conditions.
Auger – The auger is the fuel delivery system. Normally described as a corkscrew like piece of apparatus, I prefer to think of them as the spirals in vending machines that deliver just the right amount of snacks to you that you have paid for. The auger fills up with pellets from the hopper and is told by the digital controller when to deliver more fuel to the fire to enable a steady temperature.
Fire Pot – The fire pot sits at the end of the auger and collects all deposits of wood pellets from it. Also housed in the fire pot is an ignitor rod which will burn red hot when the switch on the digital controller is flicked. This will ignite the wood pellets which enables them to do their thing and start imparting their smoky flavors upon the food.
Blower – The blower’s job is to keep the heat source continuing. It will detect when there are changes in temperature and whether the pellets need to be fanned more or less. The blower will directly take over from the ignitor rod so when it shuts down because the pellets are alight, the blower will jump right into action.
There are a few more pieces included on your grill such as the drip tray and the grill itself but the above parts are the most important working parts that you will find and need to know about.
Benefits of Smoker Pellets
Smoker pellets differ from normal wood pellets in the fact that they are food grade products. This means that there are no extra additives introduced to them which may give off smoke that is unpleasant when eaten.
Because the wood pellets used for smoking are basically 100% wood it means that they burn highly efficiently and combust with almost zero by product. This means no ash and anyone who has used something like charcoal before can attest to how much of a difference this makes at the cleaning up stage of your meal.
Types of Wood Pellets
What are the best wood pellets for smoking? Well, as with most things it’s down to personal choice. There are numerous different types of woods used in smoking and each will give off a different flavor tone. When paired with different meats these can become more or less pronounced and, with experimentation, you will come to learn what flavors you enjoy the most.
However, in the interests of a bit of time saving, I have given you a rough guide to flavor notes and meat pairings you might like to consider.
- Mesquite – A spicy, strong smoky flavor. Works well with Chicken and fish.
- Hickory – Hickory goes with almost any meat and is probably the most used wood flavor. It will give off a strong smoky flavor that will taste a bit like bacon.
- Alder – Alder will literally go with any meat you wish to smoke. It gives off a milder, earthier smoky note than Hickory or Mesquite and is known for good smoke production.
- Maple – Another wood that is on the milder side. Maple possesses a bit of a sweeter flavor on the palate. Works great with pork, beef or turkey.
- Pecan – An absolute taste sensation. Pecan delivers flavors of vanilla, nuts and spice which are all produced through a good strong smoke. Use pecan wood pellets with pork, beef and chicken for best results.
- Cherry – Cherry can add a little, mild tang to your smoke which can be a most pleasing experience. Cherry pellets are also great for producing those oh so impressive smoke rings on your meat. Use when smoking fish, chicken, beef and pork.
Pros and Cons of Pellet Smokers
It seems that for the whole article I have been waxing lyrical about pellet smokers and it’s true, I think they’re great pieces of equipment. However, they are not perfect and there are some things that might detract from your grilling experience if you were to purchase one.
At the end of the day it’s up to you whether, when weighing up all the pros and cons, a pellet smoker is the smoker for you. Below are a few key points into the good and the bad involved in selecting a pellet smoker.
- Set it and forget it. Pellet smokers allow you to focus your attention elsewhere whilst it quietly goes about its business of producing quality smoked food.
- All round even cooking. Because the pellet smoker produces convection heat you are ensured even temperatures all over the chamber and theoretically no hot spots. There’s no need for things like rotisseries as the heat is constant throughout the whole grill.
- Virtually no flare ups. Because of their design, pellet smokers will not allow any flare ups even when grilling. Trying to battle flames whilst trying to maintain temperature is not a fun grilling experience.
- Full Temperature control. Want to change from 200 to 400 degrees for that specific piece of meat? This is an absolute breeze with pellet smokers as the digital controls can take you through all the range of temperatures eliminating guesswork.
- Easy clean up. The drip tray will deposit most grease into the exterior pail and the wood chips produce close to zero amounts of ash. It could not be simpler to clean the major components of a pellet smoker.
- Extremely fuel efficient. When set to smoking temperatures, pellet smokers will burn through around half a pound of fuel an hour. When set to highest temperatures this will run to about a pound and a quarter.
- Pellet smokers aren’t really fully fledged grills. If you love your deep sear marks and flash cooking then you probably should look elsewhere.
- Require electricity. You need to be able to hook your smoker up to an electrical point and ensure that all health and safety issues that are associated with this are adhered to.
- Expensive. We tried to give you a few budget options in this article because of this. The intermediate/advanced pellet smokers can make a serious dent in your bank balance.
- Smoke production. Although the set it and forget nature of pellet smokers is a massive draw for some it comes with a pay-off. Electronic pellet smokers do not produce as much smoke as other smokers, hence the flavors may not be as pronounced. The flavor is still good but if you’re all about that lip smacking smoke there are better alternatives.
- Maintenance. There are electrical components in pellet smokers and they are bound to fail at some point. Make sure there is a good warranty or a good history of customer service with the smoker you buy.