If you have a pellet grill or are thinking about getting one, we’re sure you’ve wondered at some point: “What are BBQ wood pellets and what makes them superior to charcoal or gas?”. Great questions!
Hardwood BBQ pellets can add a variety of extraordinary flavor profiles to food when used to smoke. They are also an efficient and effective fuel for grilling and baking at high temperatures. The fact that they burn cleanly and with a more than 98% efficiency also means that they are better for your health and the environment than other fuel sources.
Food Grade BBQ Pellets are a clean natural biomass fuel, made of 100% hardwood sawdust. Reputable brands will subject them to multiple quality control processes to ensure a high quality, sanitary final product.
The process starts by selecting quality hardwoods from trusted suppliers, ensuring they are clean and free of debris, and grinding them into dust. They are then shaped into pellet form using sanitized, often stainless-steel machinery through a process known as extrusion. The extrusion process compacts the sawdust into highly dense, uniform pellets through sheer force.
The energy created during extrusion temporarily heats the pellets, and the lignin within them, giving them structure and activating the antimicrobial and sanitizing properties of lignin and heat. This is also what gives their exterior a sort of sheen.
Pellets are then air cooled and sealed in plastic bags for distribution. More than 98% of the pellet content is consumed completely during the cooking process, creating a thin blue smoke that will flavor your food without releasing excessive particulate matter and carcinogens into the atmosphere. This also means less soot build up in vents, improving heat distribution, airflow, and making cleanup and maintenance easier.
Hardwoods are naturally dense and become even more dense when made into pellets. This means that they stand up to and generate heat well and will burn efficiently whether you’re slow smoking for long lengths of time or grilling at high temperatures. In fact, the harder the wood, the longer and hotter it will burn. As a result, you’ll save money.
The levels of heat or energy created by the burning of wood pellets is measured in BTUs or British Thermal Units. For every BTU generated, the temperature of one pound (approximately 12% or 3/25 of a Gallon) of water should increase by one degree fahrenheit.
As we now know, harder woods tend to burn hotter, and thus heat generated by wood pellets will vary from species to species. This variance in heat generation between pellets makes it a very versatile fuel. If you’re grilling at high heat, oak based pellet blends will be a more efficient means of achieving high temperatures. If you’re smoking at low heat over a long period of time, alder blends would be the more efficient choice.
Does this mean you can’t grill with alder pellets, or smoke with oak? Absolutely not. It just means that some pellets will accomplish certain goals more efficiently than others.
Say goodbye to chopping and hauling! Wood pellets come in easy-to-carry 20 or 40 lb. bags and are denser than logs or chips, carry a higher calorific value, and require far less storage space.
Finally, we arrive at the one thing that really sets wood pellets apart from other fuels: flavor. Skeptics may ask if there’s really a noticeable difference in the flavor of food that’s been smoked on a pellet grill, or perhaps just if there’s a difference between flavors imparted by different woods. In either case, the answer is emphatically yes!
Using a pellet grill for the first time, even and perhaps especially as an experienced outdoor cook, is often an experience composed of a series of delightful moments. Virtually every step of the cook is easier and faster than ever before, from adding fuel, to ignition, to monitoring & controlling the cook itself.
The moment that people’s minds are really blown, though, is the moment that they try food that has been slow smoked on a pellet grill for the first time. It’s a revelatory and transformative culinary experience. Meat will be the most tender and moist that you’ve had in your life and the smoke will have imparted a flavor profile that can range from delightful to heavenly. This will vary according to the time that the food was exposed to smoke and the type of wood that was used.
Most wood pellets will be blends of a neutral or mild base wood like oak or alder and a more flavorful wood such as apple or cherry. Oak is among the hardest of hardwoods and burns very hot, it’s also very common, making it a great base for blended wood pellets. Alder is similarly common and very mild in flavor, so while it won’t contribute as much to the level of heat generated, it’s another common base for blended wood pellets and will result in a consistent experience. In addition to reducing costs and creating interesting flavor combinations, blended woods will burn more efficiently and create less ash, which means less cleanup and potential complications due to ash buildup. Still many choose to use 100% species pellets, which are composed entirely of one variety of wood. The benefits and flavor profiles of each are as follows.
Alder is a mostly neutral wood that can add just a hint of sweetness. It is well suited for poultry, pork, and seafood that can cook long enough to soak up the flavor. Alder is especially plentiful in the Pacific Northwest and is thus a natural choice for brands like Bear Mountain BBQ to use as a base wood in their blends.
Oak is a plentiful hardwood that is capable of generating intense heat. It’s flavor profiles can range from mostly neutral to medium in intensity. Its availability and heat generation capability make it a very popular choice as a base wood. Oak is a good all around choice when smoking meats. It’s also famously the go-to wood of choice for aging wine, beer, and spirits.
Maple imparts a mild sweetness and is a popular choice for cold smoking cheese, vegetables, and fish.
Fruitwoods are representative of the fruit which grow on them, and generally impart a medium intensity sweet smoke flavor that is best suited for meats that aren’t red or gamey, such as pork and poultry, seafood, and vegetables.
Apple & Cherry seem to be the most popular fruitwoods and among the most popular wood pellet flavors in general. Like other fruitwoods, they are best suited for meats that aren’t red or gamey, seafood, and vegetables.
Pecan is the most popular and mild nutwood. It can be used with pork or chicken, but is best suited for meats that are already very flavorful and can stand up to the added smoke, like steak and salmon.
Walnut is best suited for red and gamey meat.
Hickory is harder, burns hotter, and is very common. Many blends use hickory, but be aware that hickory and hickory blends will impart a stronger, richer flavor than most other woods. The flavor of hickory is 2nd only to mesquite in terms of strength and recognition by the general population. Many meats that you would pick up in a grocery store approximate a hickory smoked flavor in some way, particularly bacon. The “off the shelf” flavor of even high quality products will never quite match up to the taste of smoked meat fresh off of the grill.
Mesquite burns hot and its smoke is strong and could almost be considered spicy. It’s great for red and gamey meats, but also for anything, when a strong smokey flavor is desired.
Now that we have taken an in-depth look at all of the many benefits of barbecue wood pellets, let’s clear up some misconceptions.
You may see pellets that have been infused with oils, or wine, or any number of other substances. These are generally billed as small batch gourmet products, but may be a waste of money. Smoke generated from the wood itself is the spice. Adding in artificial substances isn’t likely to positively impact the flavor, but may influence the performance of the pellets themselves. Pellets are manufactured to breakup and burn efficiently. Adding wine, for example, tends to make them so hard that a steel auger will have trouble snapping and moving them, leading to a jam. Any substance which fundamentally changes the structure or moisture content of the pellet should be avoided. A small amount of vegetable oil to assist in the extrusion process is fine. Anything else may be harmful to your grill and your wallet.
This is a common question that we see and the answer is definitively, YES.
When you cook with wood pellets you are burning pure hardwood sawdust that has been made even more dense during the extrusion process that forms it into pellets. They will smoke and, under the right conditions, create more than enough of it to impart tremendous flavor and build a satisfying bark.
Some pellet grills do have trouble generating a lot of smoke due to design shortcomings or poor pellet manufacturing. In order to create smoke the pellets have to slowly, but steadily, smolder. This requires relatively low temperatures and just enough airflow to create a constant supply of oxygen. If the fan isn’t able to control airflow or the grill has issues reaching or controlling ideal temperatures, the result will be a disappointing amount of smoke or an undesirable billowing white smoke.
If pellets are manufactured or stored improperly, and thus exposed to the elements, they can absorb moisture content from the air. Pellets with an excessive amount of moisture will not burn as efficiently and may have trouble smoldering or reaching high temperatures.
Once pellets are in your possession, storing them indoors and / or in sealed containers will prevent moisture related issues from occurring.
Food grade BBQ pellets and heating pellets are not the same thing.
We suggest never using home heating pellets to cook food. It may seem tempting to use the often cheaper pellets, but it could end up costing you in more ways than one. Heating pellets are cheaper both because they are used in greater quantities and more importantly because manufacturers may be able to cut costs in materials and quality control.
Heating pellets are not expected to come into contact with food or exhaust near humans. Thus, the quality of the smoke or the flavor it will impart are not taken into consideration. Heating pellets may contain sawdust from any number of hardwoods and softwoods.
Softwoods are not used to make BBQ pellets for several reasons.
The terms “hardwood” and “softwood” are somewhat misleading. While hardwoods tend to be more dense, there are some softwoods that are actually harder and more dense than some hardwoods. Trees are classified as hardwood or softwood based on their structure and how they reproduce. Hardwoods flower seasonally, creating pollen, as well as fruits, nuts, or acorns that can be carried away to seed new trees. Softwoods are evergreens that shed needles and cones and reproduce when pollen is spread by the wind. They contain resin and may produce higher amounts of sap, which would corrupt the quality of smoke and smoke flavor generated by them. The softer, less dense softwoods burn less efficiently and absorb moisture more easily.
Softwoods are easier to work with and thus make up the majority of lumber, scrapwood, and sawdust waste in the world. Heating pellet manufacturers can potentially save money by using this leftover wood and wood sawdust to make pellets.
In addition to sap, resin, needles, cones, and other natural wood bi-products that you wouldn’t want flavoring your food, leftover wood and sawdust may contain any number of other more harmful contaminants from glue, to toxic chemicals, which will adversely impact the flavor of your food and potentially your health.
The best pellet manufacturers oversee the entire pellet manufacturing process and have quality control procedures in place to ensure that their products have a low moisture content and are clean food grade hardwoods, free of debris.
Some cooking pellet manufacturers will say that you can only achieve “true” flavors by using 100% species wood. This is an impossible claim to make definitively, quite simply because there’s no accounting for taste. What affects one person’s palate one way may not affect the next person’s palate the same way. There are also potential problems with using 100% species wood to make cooking pellets. For one, the pellets are harder, potentially causing more auger jams. For another, 100% species wood produces much more ash than blends, meaning you’ll have to clean your firepot much more frequently.
There is a test you can run to see how much ash your preferred pellet brand is producing. Starting with a clean firepot, for the first five cooks dump your firepot after every cook; for the next ten cooks, dump your firepot after every second cook; and for the next twelve cooks, dump your firepot after every third cook. This should give you a good sense of the amount of ash produced by your pellets in a variety of situations and cooks.
Our favorite pellet manufacturer is Bear Mountain BBQ. They’re made in Cascade Locks, Oregon, and to the best of our knowledge, they have the highest quality control standards of any manufacturer in the business. This means that you can expect consistent results from their pellets, cook after cook. Bear Mountain BBQ Pellets have a moisture content of no more than 5%, contain no additives, binding agents, or contaminants of any kind.
After combining lots of different choice hardwoods, Bear Mountain BBQ has figured out how to create the perfect blends that advance the flavor for each type of food. From the balanced sweet, smoky flavor of their Gourmet Blend, to the mild fruity flavor served up by Cherry, we welcome you to mix and match to create the experience you envision.
With a solid brand like Bear Mountain, you should be able to complete 10-20 cooks (depending on what you’re cooking and for how long) before you need to empty your firepot. With other manufacturers, particularly those who use 100% species wood, you could have to empty your firepot as much as every two cooks.
Pellet grilling is something every BBQ enthusiast should try. You really can’t beat hardwood BBQ pellets as a fuel. It’s true that you can get real wood smoke flavor from a stick burner as well, but doing so will take much more work and much more experience. Even if you have the experience, getting wood logs to burn as efficiently and cleanly as wood pellets is extremely unlikely and difficult, to say the least. You simply can’t beat the convenience of a system that will control everything from ignition to cool down with essentially the push of a button, and deliver a consistent experience every time.
You can add wood chips or pellets to a gas or charcoal cook, but it’s just not the same, and by themselves you won’t have the flavor of real wood smoke, and we just can’t overstate how transformative that flavor can be. There are great rubs and sauces out there that will add great flavor to your food, but smoke is an essential flavor component to great BBQ.
The bottom line is that you can use whatever cooking pellets you want in your MAK Grill. We don’t have any proprietary conditions that would prohibit you from burning your favorite cooking pellets. This information is designed to deliver the ideal outdoor cooking experience. If you use a certain pellet type that gives your dishes a great flavor and you don’t feel that cleanup is more difficult than it needs to be, you’ve probably got a winner!