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Culinary Arts

How to Smoke Meat With a Pellet Smoker

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 20, 2020 • 4 min read

When it comes to grilling meat, today's barbecue pit boss, camp chef, or tailgater has many appealing options. Traditionalists may prefer a charcoal smoker or charcoal grill, while efficiency fiends may opt for a gas smoker, electric smoker, or gas grill. If you're an outdoor cooking enthusiast and you want to combine several of these methods, consider the option of a wood pellet smoker.

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What Is a Pellet Smoker?

A pellet smoker (also known as a pellet grill) is a wood-burning cooker that can smoke, grill, or bake meat. Pellet smokers are fueled by wood pellets made of food-grade compressed wood, which burns slowly and cleanly at a lower temperature than most standard wood chips. Pellet smokers are great for cooking brisket, racks of ribs, turkey, fish, and more, imbuing them with a mouthwatering smoky flavor. What's more, pellet smokers are easy to work with: Simply open a smoker's lid to flip your meat, rotate it in the grilling area, or braise it with a marinade.

Wood pellet grills come in a wide array of models from prominent brands, and they vary in terms of features, cooking area, temperature control options, warming racks, and accouterments such as digital controllers. Nearly all feature stainless steel construction, but old-school purists may seek out cast-iron models. With so many models on the market, it's wise to consult a buying guide for these devices—bearing in mind that new models are released every year.

How Does a Pellet Smoker Work?

A pellet smoker works by heating a cooking chamber where air circulates, heating food via convection. Charcoal and hardwood pellets burn at the bottom of the cooking chamber (this area is sometimes called a burn pot or fire pot), while food sits on grill grates near the top of the chamber. When fuel runs low, more wood is dispensed from a pellet hopper located above the cooking chamber. An auger pushes these pellets down a chute and right into the heart of the chamber.

The temperature settings on a pellet smoker are controlled by airflow. To increase the temperature, heavy-duty fans near the bottom of the unit suck air into the lower part of the cooking chamber, where the oxygen is consumed by the smoldering pellets. Meanwhile, heat can escape from the smoker when the top lid is opened.

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How to Use a Pellet Smoker to Smoke Meat

Using a pellet grill is easy with a little practice. There are a few simple tips any aspiring pit boss should be mindful of:

  1. Keep your smoker clean. A big appeal of cooking with wood pellets is that they burn clean. Don't cancel out this asset by letting charred waste build up in your grill. After each cooking session, take some time to clean up by scraping grill grates and removing unused pellets from the hopper.
  2. Use your own temperature probe. Many of today's pellet smokers come with a meat probe, but this can be one of the lowest-quality components of the whole device. Invest in a high-quality digital thermometer, and be precise about cooking at your desired temperature.
  3. Experiment with hardwoods. In addition to developing a custom dry rub or wet brine, you can work toward creating your own custom blend of hardwoods. Perhaps you're a purist and would never blend one type of wood with another. Or, perhaps you'll find success using pellets from a base wood like hickory, alder, or mesquite, then adding pellets made from fruitwood such as apple or cherry. As a general rule, beef smokes well with all woods except for apple. Chicken tastes great smoked with anything other than oak and maple. Fish is particularly tasty when smoked with alder, oak, or mesquite. Veggies can taste great when smoked over hickory, pecan, and maple wood. And pork works with nearly everything other than mesquite and oak.
  4. Give yourself plenty of cooking space. While you don't want your smoker to overwhelm your patio, make sure you find one with a large enough cooking area that you can prepare your meats with precision. A good pellet grill can range from just over 200 square inches to well over 800 square inches, so think about your ambitions and choose accordingly. At the end of the day, it's better to have a grill that's a little too large rather than a little too small, but some situations (such as tailgating) are going to mandate a smaller cooker.
  5. Use a sear box. Pellet smokers do not get nearly as hot as standard charcoal or gas BBQ grills. If you're looking for a single device that can handle both pellet smoking and traditional searing, consider getting a pellet grill that comes with an add-on sear box—essentially a mini grill that can produce temperatures far higher than the smoker itself.

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