How Do Pellet Grills Work?
Pellet grilling is hot – pun intended – but it’s still very new for many in the grilling community. While generations of grillers are familiar with the inner workings of gas or charcoal grills, few grillers can confidently tell you how pellet grills work. In this post, we’ll take a journey from the hopper to the chimney and answer some of the most common questions consumers ask about pellet grills.
What is a pellet grill?
Pellet grills, often referred to as pellet smokers, are outdoor grills that use food-grade wood that has been compressed into a pellet as the fuel source. They combine elements of charcoal grills, gas grills, and convection ovens. They can be used to smoke, roast, bake, and sear, providing versatility and performance to meet any griller’s needs.
How Does a Pellet Grill Work?
Pellet grills burn food grade wood pellets (read about our pellets here), to generate heat and smoke to cook and flavour your food. From the hopper to the chimney, here’s a step-by-step on what’s happening inside of your grill.
- Pellets feed by gravity from the hopper to the auger.
- Pellets move along the auger as it rotates toward the burn pot.
- As pellets fall into the burn pot, the Hot Rod burns the pellets to start combustion.
- The fan blows in air to create flames and intensify the fire.
- Heat and smoke rises and is deflected by the heat plate for even heat.
- Heat and smoke are channeled with the drip plates upward to baste your food.
- Drippings are carried through the management system to the removable grease tray.
Remember: heat is generated from burning wood. The electronic aspects are only there to control the fire and regulate the temperature. Outside of these key steps, we receive quite a few questions around key pellet grill features.
Are the Wood Pellets for Flavour or Heat?
The answer would be both. It’s a common misconception that pellet grills get their heat from an electric element: after all, we do plug them in like other electric heat appliances. Pellet grills use the electric starter, called a Hot Rod, to start a wood pellet-fuelled fire in the burn pot. Once that fire starts, the starter stops running and the wood fire grows and generates heat. As the cookout moves along, pellet fuel continues to drop in and feed that fire, generating more heat and more smoke. Broil King pellet grills move a lot of air to help generate clean smoke, too. A healthy fire has a thin blue smoke, you can find out more about that here. You can always think about the burn pot in a pellet grill like one powerful wood-burning burner instead of the multiple gas fed burners in a gas grill.
Pro tip: The quality and size of your pellets matters: better fuel does offer better flavour. Broil King pellet fuel blends are designed to provide better heat and flavour. Wood pellets can absorb water easily and expand, so fresh pellets will burn better than pellets that have been outside for weeks or months. Find our full selection of Broil King pellet fuel here.
How Does a Pellet Grill Control the Temperature?
To answer this question, we need to understand what the electronic controller controls. Pellet grills use an electronic control panel to listen to or command the parts inside your grill.
- Listen: The controller listens to the temperature readings coming from the cookbox probe to make decisions on what to do next with the fan and the auger.
- Command: The controller tells the Hot Rod to ignite fuel and turn off at the end of its cycle.
- Command: The controller runs the fan to regulate airflow and the rate of combustion. The fan can increase and decrease in intensity depending on what the fire needs.
- Command: The controller tells the auger to turn and feed fuel. More fuel increases the size of the fire and heat being output.
The Master Control Unit (MCU) regulates the desired temperature throughout the entire smoking or cooking process.
Do Pellet Grills Cook Like Gas Grills?
This answer is: sort of. To master your pellet grill, you don’t want to think about it like a gas grill for several very important reasons.
Gas grills have multiple burners and pre-heat really fast. Your pellet grill pre-heats like a household oven: it’s going to get to the desired temperature, but it will take longer to get there. Respect the pre-heat: it’s one of the most important steps of the cookout.
Cleaning is key, especially if you’re switching up your grilling style. You should never smoke a brisket then crank up the heat and grill a steak. The brisket will have shed several ounces of grease onto the drip trays that needs to be cleaned up before you grill. Remember: a clean grill performs better and tastes better, too.
There really isn’t anything to fiddle with on a pellet grill. When using a gas grill or charcoal you’ll find yourself fine tuning the controls or vents: a little more heat here, a little less here. Temperature control on a pellet grill is just as reliable as the oven in your home: simply set it and forget it.
How Often Do I Need to Clean Out the Ash?
That depends on how often and for how long you’re grilling. A quick 45-minute cycle to grill up some burgers and sausages is not going to produce a lot of ash but a 24-hour smoke is. Ash isn’t your friend either: the more that builds up, the more it can hinder your performance. A pellet grill that is full of ash takes longer to start or may not start at all. When we burn gas, the burners generate carbon dioxide and water as the byproduct of combustion and we’re fortunate that it can’t build up in piles in the grill. Imagine your gas grill burners slowly burying themselves in a growing mound of ash: it’s not long before they can’t perform the way they’re supposed to.
Clean out the ash management system at the bottom of your Broil King pellet grill every cookout. This ensures great performance at start-up every time. Once you’ve run through a bag of pellets from top to bottom, take a look inside the grill around the burn pot. Fly ash – ash that is blown out of the burn pot – collects around the burn pot in mounds over time, which can obstruct your airflow. All of this takes only a couple of minutes but will ensure your pellet grill cooks like a dream every cookout.
Cleaning isn’t just for the burn pot: the entire system needs to be in optimal condition to run properly. Wood pellets can absorb rain water and ambient moisture from the air. That can cause them to expand and turn into a concrete-like pulp inside your grill, which will not burn well and can jam the auger. The Broil King Pellet Cleaning Kit is great for cleaning up any excess ash and grease around the inside of your grill.
Are Pellet Grills Just for Smoking?
They used to be, but thanks to a great deal of innovation, pellet grills like the Broil King Regal or Crown series can sear OR smoke. Searing happens at temperatures in excess of 550˚F (288˚C), which any Broil King pellet grill can easily accomplish. We like to encourage a performance range from 200˚F (93˚C) to 600˚F (315˚C) to give the best overall grilling and smoking experience while being able to cook anything in between.