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Published Feb 18, 2023 1:00 PM
Pellet grills first arrived on the barbecue scene back in the 1980s. That makes them toddlers compared to models that burn propane, wood, and charcoal. Despite their relative youth, pellet smokers have won over many outdoor cooks by combining the easy starts and simplicity of gas grills with the smoke-laden flavors from charcoal. They’re so simple to use that some hardcore barbecue purists call them cheating. We honestly can’t disagree, but we consider that a good thing. The PopSci GOODS team has been smoking, searing, reporting, and researching to find the best models on the market. After many hours of work (and an expense report from the butcher shop that Accounts Payable called “irresponsible”), we have narrowed down this list of the best pellet grills for just about any type of culinary creation.
What is a pellet grill?
Before we get to the picks, here’s a quick primer on how pellet grills work. Most models have a main cooking chamber with a hopper full of compressed sawdust pellets attached to its side. A motorized auger (a screw-shaped mechanism like what you’d find on the business end of a snowblower) pushes a steady stream of those hardwood pellets into a burn pot where they’re subjected to intense heat and a stream of forced air to facilitate the burn. The grill can increase or decrease the temperature by regulating the rate at which air and wood pellets enter the crucible. Early versions only offered a few constant auger speeds, so they required babysitting, but most modern versions automatically regulate the fuel to maintain constant temperatures—no tending required.
How we chose the best pellet grills
I [Executive Gear Editor Stan Horaczek] have been writing about grills for more than a decade for publications such as Maxim, Men’s Journal, Saveur, the New York Post, and more. For this test, I’ve relied on a mixture of hands-on cooking, editorial reviews, user feedback, and spec comparisons involving dozens of models. For the hands-on tests, I focused largely on smoking since that’s the pellet grill’s bread and butter. I also baked, seared, and grilled when available.
The best pellet grills: Reviews & Recommendations
Still wondering what a pellet grill is good for? The constant pellet feeder system of our top grills excels when it comes to maintaining consistent temperatures over a long period of time. That makes them ideal for low-and-slow smoking for meats like brisket, pork shoulder, whole chickens, and other meats that benefit from smoke penetration. The pellet grill temperature range also makes them a solid option for baking and roasting. I’ve made everything from smoked queso (which is amazing) to smoked apple crisp (which is even more amazing).
Best overall: Traeger Ironwood
Why it made the cut: Traeger’s revamped Ironwood series offers a streamlined cooking experience with a solid selection of premium features.
- Cooking space: 616 square inches
- Pellet capacity: 22 pounds
- Temperature range: 165-500 degrees Fahrenheit (F)
- Wireless connectivity: Yes
- Dimensions: 59” W x 40” L x 25” D
- Weight: 199 pounds
- Outstanding temperature consistency
- Easy assembly
- Robust smartphone app and wireless features
- Modular accessory system
- Quick to heat up
- Easy cleanup
Traeger’s Ironwood series grills require a heftier up-front investment than other entries on this list, but they also provide the best mix of features and performance for most people’s needs.
The Ironwood series got a serious overhaul with its latest iteration, and it now borrows heavily from the flagship Timberline grill, which costs nearly twice as much. A seriously insulated cooking chamber, powerful direct-drive auger, and the advanced DS electronic controller all help the new Timberline perform like a truly top-tier grill.
I’ve had ample hands-on testing time with the Ironwood XL, which offers the same feature set but increases the overall cooking area to 924 square inches. Traeger has streamlined the assembly process with its clever packaging methods and excellent video instructions to accompany the printed materials. This grill is simple to sync with its companion app and actively guides cooks through the initial seasoning process.
Once it’s up and running, the Ironwood offers some of the most consistent temperature control I’ve encountered on a grill full-stop. Set the temperature from the app or the built-in touchscreen, and the Ironwood will hold that temperature +/-10 degrees with little to no effort. I cooked everything from pork shoulder to (my favorite) pork belly burnt ends without as much as a hiccup.
Accessories clip onto the new integrated Pop-and-Lock rail system, which has also trickled down from the Timberline. While the additional flexibility is nice for those who want to expand their accessory arsenal, some cooks may never really take advantage of it. The Ironwood also tops out at 500 degrees, which is common for pellet grills, but lower than other models out there.
In total, however, the Timberline provides the best overall cooking experience. Its reliable temperature control prevents ruined cooks (and, by extension, wasted money). It’s simple to set up and easy to use in just about every capacity. Plus, Traeger offers a 10-year limited warranty, so we expect it to last for quite a while, even with frequent use.
Best portable: Green Mountain Grills Trek Prime
Why it made the cut: At roughly 60 pounds, this portable grill is relatively easy to lug around in an SUV, truck, or RV. Plus, it doesn’t require combustible gas fuel or soot-spewing charcoal.
- Cooking space: 219 square inches
- Pellet capacity: 9 pounds
- Temperature range: 150-550 degrees F
- Wireless connectivity: Yes
- Dimensions: 16 x 32 x 24 inches
- Weight: 63 pounds
- Compact and light compared to full-sized models
- Sturdy legs make it solid once setup
- Optional cart accessory converts for home use
- High 550-degree max temperature
- Built-in wireless connectivity isn’t as common with portable models
- Works with 12V power in addition to 120V AC
- Limited cooking area due to its small size
Just because you’re camping or tailgating doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the convenience of pellet cooking. This 63-pound cooker offers 219 square inches of grilling area, which is more than enough for a dozen burgers, but it can also handle ribs or other typical low-and-slow fare.
The hopper holds a very respectable nine pounds of pellets, which the grill dishes out with the same precision Green Mountain promises from its full-sized smokers. The built-in wireless connectivity connects the grill to a companion iPhone or Android app. It can work through a home network like a typical non-portable grill, but it also has a server mode that creates an ad-hoc network to maintain full functionality at a campsite or other location without local Wi-Fi.
Older models of this grill relied on a folding design, but the current model (which got a revamp in 2021) offers sturdy fixed legs that make the whole thing more stable and reliable.
Despite its compact size, this pellet grill offers pretty much everything a full-sized model promises. In fact, Green Mountain offers a kit that converts the Trek Prime into a regular height home grill.
Best gas-and-pellet combo: Camp Chef Apex with Gas Kit
Why it made the cut: The high-end model offers the fine temperature control you’d expect from a pellet grill and the high heat-searing power that comes with gas.
- Cooking space: 811 square inches
- Pellet capacity: 30 pounds
- Temperature range: 150-600 degrees F + (with the gas)
- Wireless connectivity: Yes
- Dimensions: 67 ¼” x 44” x 32”
- Weight: 295 pounds
- Provides the benefits of both pellets and gas
- Gas kit also adds a handy side burner
- Huge pellet hopper holds 30 pounds of pellets
- Built-in wireless compatibility for simple control
- Ample cooking surface area
- Excellent overall temperature performance
If you want to enjoy the simplicity of pellet smoking without giving up the familiar advantages that come with gas grilling, then this high-end model scratches both of those itches. It comes in both 24- and 36-inch models. Without the optional gas kit, this smoker offers a familiar feature set. Wireless connectivity allows cooks to monitor and control temperatures from afar. The huge 30-pound capacity pellet hopper has a built-in sensor to let you know when you’re running out of fuel. It even has an advanced downward smoke exhaust system to improve airflow and ditch the hard-to-clean chimney.
Add the optional gas kit, however, and the Apex becomes a full-on propane grill. Once installed, the gas kit adds four (or six in the case of the 36-inch model) 9,000 BTU burners to the main cooking chamber. It also includes a 14,000 BTU side burner compatible with all of Camp Chef’s accessories. The kit includes a griddle, but cooks can purchase optional accessories like a pizza oven to go with it.
Switching between fuels simply requires turning a knob, so there’s no awkward transition necessary. This grill is the biggest on the list, so it’s not ideal if you plan to move it around a lot. But, if you’re content to let it chill in its designated spot on the patio, it’s the most flexible option by far. Sometimes you just want to fire off a couple of grilled chicken breasts in between 14-hour briskets, and this grill does both with aplomb.
Best for searing: Weber SmokeFire EX4
Why it made the cut: It offers many of the same advanced features as its competition, but it pushes the maximum temperature to 600 degrees F.
- Cooking space: 672 square inches
- Pellet capacity: 22 pounds
- Temperature range: 200-600 degrees F
- Wireless connectivity: Yes
- Dimensions: 33 x 43 x 47 inches
- Weight: 176 pounds
- 600-degree F max temperature setting comes in handy for searing
- Robust wireless connectivity via Weber Connect
- Easy cleanup thanks to pull-out grease and ashtray
- Unique Flavor Bar design adds taste
- Durable porcelain enamel finish
- Clever grate design offers lots of optional accessories
- Small side table
- More advanced app features won’t be useful for everyone
Weber has been a 1,000-pound gorilla in the gas grill world for decades, but it’s no slouch when it comes to pellet cookers. The SmokeFire EX4 pumps pellets from its 22-pound capacity hopper into a burn pot. Weber’s Flavor Bars sit below the grill just like they do on gas models. These triangular bars quickly evaporate juices as they run out of the meat, sending smoke back up onto the surface to add more flavor. That type of feature comes in handy when cooking burgers, steaks, and other meat that require higher heat.
Because the Weber can hit 600 degrees, it’s more adept at searing and other high-heat applications than the competition that top out at 500 degrees. The Weber’s porcelain-enameled construction helps bottle in the heat while resisting dings and dents that come with regular use.
Weber has built out a very robust wireless connectivity system called Weber Connect. It allows for typical functions, like monitoring and controlling temperature, from a companion app. But it also provides more in-depth and interactive instructions on how to make specific dishes. For instance, it knows when it’s time to wrap a brisket in butcher paper at a certain temperature, and it will alert you via phone to do so. I tested an early version of the platform, which worked well most of the time, but it has come a long way since then.
This is a great overall option if you’re willing to invest upfront but don’t want to shell out the extra cash to get the cutting-edge bells and whistles that come with the Traeger.
Best budget: Pit Boss 440D2
Why it made the cut: You don’t necessarily need many advanced features to get a great cook. This model’s beauty comes from its simplicity (and affordable price).
- Cooking space: 465 square inches
- Pellet capacity: 5 pounds
- Temperature range: 180-500 degrees F
- Wireless connectivity: No
- Dimensions: 50.2” x 24.02” x 39.8”
- Weight: 96 pounds
- Ample cooking space for most people
- Removable plate allows for flame broiling via direct heat
- Porcelain-coated steel grates
- Simple interface
- No wireless connectivity
- Very small pellet hopper
Advanced features like wireless connectivity can be nice, but they also typically drive the price of a pellet grill way up. This simplified smoker provides all the basics you’ll need for just about any kind of cooking. It can maintain temperatures as low as 180 degrees F for low-and-slow cooking (which typically happens around 225 degrees). But it can also go as high as 500 degrees for searing and grilling.
While you can’t control this grill with a smartphone app, the controller interface couldn’t be simpler. Use the integrated knob to dial in your desired temperature, and the grill automatically dishes out the right amount of fuel to keep it there.
While the 465-square-inch cooking surface should be plenty for most people, the five-pound pellet hopper is considerably smaller than other models on this list. If you’re planning a long smoke, you’ll probably have to provide an occasional refill.
Heavy-duty steel construction makes this durable for its price and provides sufficient heat retention to combat dinner-ruining heat fluctuations. Because it’s not overly insulated, it won’t be quite as adept at staying perfectly on temp in colder or more challenging conditions. For the price, though, it’s tough to beat.
While just about all of these grills work on the same basic mechanism, they can vary widely in terms of features, build quality, and overall performance. Here are some essential factors to consider before you plunk down the cash for a new pellet cooker.
Cooking surface area
There’s an undeniable allure that comes with getting the biggest, baddest grill you can afford, but going huge isn’t always the right move. Most pellet grills offer between 400 square inches and 1,400 square inches of total cooking area. The sweet spot for most people is somewhere in between.
The Traeger Ironwood XL (the larger size of our top pick), for instance, offers 924 square inches of total cooking space. According to Traeger, that’s enough for eight chickens, eight pork butts, or 16 racks of ribs. The standard size offers 616 square inches in total and can accommodate half those amounts, which is much more in line with what the average person typically cooks.
While the extra space may be nice to have when you’re throwing a big cookout, it leads to extra fuel consumption during normal cooks because you have to heat the entire main chamber every time, even if you’re just firing off a couple burgers.
Modern pellet grills offer “set and forget” temperature modes, but wireless connectivity makes the cooking process even easier to manage. Connected grills typically rely on companion smartphone apps that enable cooks to change temperatures, monitor temp probes, and initiate the shutdown process without venturing out to the grill. While connectivity isn’t absolutely necessary for some cooks, it comes in handy, especially if you want to do overnight smokes or cook during the colder months.
You could take a solid instant read thermometer out to the grill every once in a while to check on the temperature of your meat. Or, you could simply stick a meat probe in there and let it monitor your food’s temperature in real-time. Most pellet smokers offer one or two wired probes that cooks can monitor simultaneously via the onboard display or the companion smartphone app.
Some grills integrate wireless meat thermometers into their proprietary connectivity systems. Both Weber and Traeger offer their own wireless meat thermometer systems that sync easily with their high-end grills.
This is one situation where bigger typically is actually better. Most pellet grill hoppers hold between five and 22 pounds of pellets at one time. If you’re doing long cooks, it’s very convenient to simply dump in a whole bag of pellets and not worry about having to refill. A five-pound hopper likely won’t provide that.
Even if you like to change pellet types relatively frequently (different woods produce unique flavors that lend themselves to specific meats), most high-end smokers offer a simple system for emptying the hopper. Just make sure you have an airtight container to hold your pellets, as moisture will ruin them and possibly damage the smoker if you try to use them. A hardware store bucket works just fine, but Traeger also offers a dedicated pellet container for people who want everything to match.
Accessories and side burners
Most pellet cookers don’t offer side burners because they run on electricity instead of gas. The Traeger Timberline is one of the few that offer a side burner, and it’s a fancy induction model that requires specific cookware.
As for other accessories, availability varies by manufacturer. Traeger offers multitudes of grilling gear to go along with your pellet smoker. Its Pop-and-Lock rail system opens the door for a whole slew of modular accessories, including paper roll holders (for butcher paper), tool hooks, and sauce containers.
Most pellet grills can keep consistent temperatures between 200 and 500 degrees F. The Weber model on this list, however, can get up to 600 degrees F, so if you plan to do a lot of searing, that model may offer you an advantage.
Q: How much do pellet grills cost?
On the extremes of the pellet grill market, you’ll find models that cost as little as $250 and as much as $3,500. We typically recommend models that range from $400 to $1,800, depending on your desired mix of features and performance.
While more expensive grills do require a bigger upfront investment, you should consider the cost of ownership before making a purchase. Cheaper models may not be as reliable when it comes to keeping consistent temperatures, and that can ruin pricey meat. Briskets are finicky and cost a lot per pound, so ruining one can really hurt. Also, cheaper models typically offer lackluster insulation, resulting in a faster pellet burn rate.
Q: Can I use a pellet grill as a normal grill?
Yes. A pellet cooker can handle just about anything a charcoal or gas grill can. Pellet grills aren’t as adept in high-heat searing, and you won’t necessarily get that flame-licked, grill-marked effect you’re used to. But I’ve cooked everything from simple burgers to elaborately sauced chicken wings on pellet setups with no issues.
Q: What are the different flavors for a pellet grill?
Once you’ve bought a pellet grill, you can actually change the way your food tastes by varying the type of pellets you burn. The pellets are essentially made of compressed sawdust, so manufacturers can create them from one specific kind of wood or blend several types together to mix flavor profiles. I like Traeger’s signature blend pellets a lot because they’re extremely versatile.
Q: What are the cons of a pellet grill?
From a culinary standpoint, pellet grills typically top out around 500 degrees F, which is OK for searing but not ideal. If you’re just cooking a lot of burgers and hot dogs, they don’t cook very long and won’t pick up much of the smoke taste, so pellet grills don’t offer much advantage there.
Pellet grills also require more moving parts and electronic components than a simple charcoal or gas grill. That leaves more opportunities for things to break and also increases the amount of regular cleaning and maintenance you’ll have to do if you want things to keep running smoothly.
Lastly, pellet grills require electricity to power their auger systems. So, if the power goes out, you can’t simply fire up the grill to cook up some grub unless you have a generator to plug into.
Final thoughts about the best pellet grills
Pellet grills have made home barbecue—especially the low-and-slow variety—more accessible than ever. These reliable cookers can keep consistent temperatures with little to no babysitting beyond occasionally checking in via smartphone app. While some barbecue purists poopoo the whole concept, the rest of us can simply enjoy the smoke-infused flavors without sacrificing our free time and endangering our arm hair from reaching into burn boxes. The best pellet grills can cook just about anything with ease and efficiency.