Last Updated on August 25, 2022
If you want to upgrade your grill or you’re looking to expand your horizons in the world of outdoor cooking, you may be wondering if pellet grills or charcoal grills are a good investment.
The idea of the best grill type just comes down to the personal preference of the grill master using it.
If you’re looking for a low-and-slow grilling experience that doesn’t need a lot of maintenance, then the pellet grill may be worth the investment. However, if you want to sear meat at high temperatures over an open flame, a charcoal grill is probably the best choice.
Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Grill Overview
Pellet grills and smokers are the ideal choice for outdoor chefs. These high-tech outdoor appliances manage to accomplish just about anything that an indoor oven or stovetop can do with most of the work coming in during the prep and cleanup phases of the cooking process.
While pellet grills struggle at higher temperatures, they excel at things you wouldn’t normally expect a grill to do, like baking. That means you can grill your child’s birthday cake during their summer pool party without having to leave them unattended to go back into your kitchen.
Besides birthday cakes, pellet grills are ideal for low-and-slow cooking processes like ribs or brisket. They run on electricity, which is usually easy to hook up to an outlet, and wood pellets that can be a bit trickier to locate than charcoal or wood for cooking over an open flame.
Charcoal grills are the veteran grillmaster’s dream. They’re inexpensive, cheap to fuel, and anyone with a match can use them. They can be a bit tedious in the cleaning up stages as the grill grates need to be scrubbed clean after each use. It’s also best to empty and clean the ash from the grill regularly which can be a mess.
For all the cleanup involved, there’s a ton of other benefits to choosing a charcoal grill. They’re portable enough to be taken anywhere, including to your tailgate or to the beach. They’re simple to use and the traditional barbeque flavor that everyone associates with summer is best achieved on a charcoal grill.
The main drawback of charcoal grills is that it’s difficult to control the temperature of your cooking surface. You need to become adept at operating dampers. While searing food is exceptionally easy over the fire, the lower temperatures of pellet grills are more difficult to manage.
Pellet Grill Overview
Photo by Traeger Grills (@traegergrills)
If you’re unfamiliar with a pellet grill, it’s easiest to think of them as an outdoor oven instead of an actual grill. They have a variety of uses, but their most outstanding quality is to smoke meat at low temperatures, infusing it with flavors of applewood or hickory, and then grilling that same meat without needing to switch to a different appliance.
In recent years, the American summertime tradition of the cookout has started to center more on smoking and barbequing, rather than just grilling burgers for family and friends to enjoy. Pellet grills feed into that need with ease. They work on dual fuel sources: Electricity and wood pellets.
That means that even though you purchased those specialty wood pellets at your favorite home improvement store, you’ll still need to find an outlet to plug in your grill. The electricity powers a convection fan inside the grill to circulate indirect heat to smoke and cook your food.
Small wooden pellets are the primary fuel source for heating and cooking food when using a pellet grill. They’re made by collecting the sawdust from different wood types whose flavor is then infused into the food being cooked. The sawdust is compressed into small, cylindrical-shaped pellets and then placed into the pellet grill’s hopper.
The hopper feeds the wood pellets into the grill using a large screw-shaped tool called an auger. As the auger turns, the pellets are dropped into the grill’s firepot where they are ignited by a red hot metal rod. As the pellets burn, they create the smoke used to both heat and flavor the food on the grill rack.
While the pellets burn, the onboard convection fan blows smoke through the grill and heat baffle to evenly distribute heat through the cooking surface. This ensures that all meats are cooked evenly and thoroughly.
Charcoal Grill Overview
Charcoal grills are the old faithful of the grilling world. From early morning chorizo sausages to dinner time steaks, charcoal grills have seen and done it all. Newcomers and veteran grillers love them because they’re easy to find, cheap to buy, and a cinch to learn with a bit of trial-and-error.
Most people love them because they are no-frills, have no bells and whistles, and no complications about them. Just dump your coal or wood fuel into the grill’s pit, maybe use a bit of lighter fluid and a match to get your fire started, then cover the cooking surface with a lid to let it get hot.
The biggest fundamental flaw with charcoal grills is that they’re inconvenient when compared to other grill types. Other grills are easy to clean and operate and while charcoal grills are easy to use, there is a steep learning curve involved with getting your food perfect each time. Some cooks swear by timing the flip of their burgers, while other grillmasters are meticulous about temping everything with a thermometer. There are no dials or gauges to control the heat source, just dampers to control oxygen flow, leaving the user guessing as to when to add more fuel or if it’s even necessary.
Lighting a charcoal grill and getting it ready for cooking can be a chore, especially for novices. Cleaning up after a cookout on a charcoal grill is always a messier ordeal than with any of its competitors. However, the upside of all this work is that your food tastes incredible with little-to-no prep involved because it’s the charcoal that infuses burgers, chicken, steak, kabobs, and veggies with that “just grilled” flavor that everyone loves at a summertime cookout.
Charcoal briquettes are readily available just about anywhere, especially around the summer holidays. You can easily find it at supermarkets, convenience stores, home improvement stores, and even some drug stores. It’s relatively inexpensive to purchase and one bag can go a long way. Lump charcoal can be more expensive and it burns more quickly which can add up if you grill a lot.
Pellet Grills and Charcoal Grills Go Head to Head
When comparing pellet grill vs charcoal it’s important to remember that their similarities are also what gives each grill type its unique personality. They are both exceptionally easy to use, can prepare delicious food that impresses even the harshest critic, and they can be very versatile.
Easy to Use
Using a pellet grill is one of the easiest things to learn how to do in the world of outdoor cuisine. When you turn the temperature up to higher levels, the auger turns faster, dumping pellets into the firepot at a higher rate. This means there is more heat being generated by the fuel source.
The reverse is also true: Turning the temperature down slows the auger and causes less fuel to be dumped into the firepot, producing less heat. It’s at these lower temperatures that the pellet grill hits its stride, so waiting for it to heat up is no issue at all.
With charcoal, there’s a lot of work in just getting the grill flames burning. It can take up to 20 to 30 minutes to get the charcoal fuel lit and to the right cooking temperature, even with help from lighter fluid or a charcoal chimney. It takes some practice but you can easily manifest temperatures of over 500°F to sear steaks on the grates.
By learning how and when to open and close your charcoal grill’s air vents, you can control the airflow and slow smoke at as low as 250°F.
Grilling and BBQ Flavors
Because pellet grills use wood to heat and smoke the food they cook, the type of wood used in pellet grills impacts the food on the grates. If you use hickory pellets, expect an incredible rich hickory undertone to your slow-cooked ribs or mac ‘n’ cheese.
Some veteran grillers complain that using pellet grills doesn’t provide the same, intense smokey flavor as a charcoal grill using wood instead of briquettes.
Charcoal grills consistently provide the characteristic flavor of the grill that most outdoor cooking enthusiasts want. It’s possible to deliver delicious food regularly with a charcoal grill.
No matter how you prepare your food, it will always have that delicious summertime taste thanks to the charcoal fuel being used. Additionally, with the high temperatures that charcoal grilling offers, you can easily sear your steaks and burgers to perfection without too much preparation.
Pellet grills are intended to be outdoor ovens and smokers as much as a grill. They demolish the competition at lower temperatures, paving the way to bake, braise, and roast, as well as grill. Higher temperatures for searing and quick sealing of meats are difficult to achieve because this grill is simply not made for that cooking style.
Some manufacturers, however, have found a solution to this problem by creating accessories that allow you to sear, but they are a separate purchase.
Charcoal grills work in the reverse. It can take time to get them to higher temperatures, but once they’re to temp, it’s easy to sear and cook over an open flame. With practice, you can learn how to use wood to slowly smoke ribs or other barbeque favorites.
The Bottom Line
Grilling has seen a lot of dramatic changes over the past few decades. These changes have given grilling enthusiasts a lot of choices when it comes to the appliance they want to use in their backyards.
While some folks may prefer the gadgets and wizardry that high-tech pellet grills provide, others may prefer the straightforward use of and open flame of a charcoal grill. Both grills have specialized features that allow them to be used independently, but true outdoor grillers love to use them synergistically because they can each adapt to the other’s needs quickly. Once you determine how you prefer to cook outdoors, the rest of the buying process is easy.