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Pellet Grill vs. Gas Grill vs. Charcoal Grill

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A craftsman needs the right tools, and a grill master needs the right grill. When you choose the grill that's right for you, you have the ideal partner for a lifetime of incredible outdoor cooking adventures. You'll want to consider safety, cost, ease of use, and most of all, the way the grill will make the food taste.

Let's take a look at the three main types of grills: wood pellet grills, gas grills, and charcoal grills.

Wood-Pellet-Vs-Charcoal-Gas

Wood Pellet Grills

When you cook with a pellet grill, the heat that cooks the food comes from the combustion of wood pellets. You set the temperature you want, and the grill burns the proper measure of pellets, circulating heat, and natural smoke through the cooking area with built-in fans.

Pellet grills deliver consistent smoke and heat that is easily adjusted. The smoke gives everything you cook natural wood-fired taste. There are no flare-ups because the flame is kept safely away from the food. And there is no need to monitor a pellet grill — the temperature stays where you want it for as long as you want.

Pellet grills do require an electrical supply with GFCI protection, which protects against electrical shocks (if you have outdoor outlets, they are probably GFCI outlets). The maximum temperature of a pellet grill is about 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pros: Ease of use, consistent smoke flavor.

Cons: Higher starting cost, lower maximum cooking temperature.

Gas Grills

When you cook with a gas grill, the heat comes from burners fueled by combustible gas. It works much the same as an indoor gas stove. The big drawback is that because gas is odorless and tasteless, it doesn't impart any smoke flavor to food.

You can usually maintain consistent temperatures with a gas grill. Propane, the most common fuel source for gas grills, is relatively inexpensive and widely available. Many gas grills can deliver extremely high temperatures which some people prefer for direct grilling.

If you want any natural smoke flavor in your food, you have to add it yourself by utilizing smoke tubes with wood pellets or chips. And because the heat of a gas grill comes from open flame, if you want to cook anything low and slow you must do so over an unlit area of the grill — otherwise, the open flame will burn the surface of the food before the inside cooks

Pros: Ease of use, inexpensive fuel costs.

Cons: Not designed for low and slow cooking, smoking requires special equipment, fire flare-ups, and hard to keep clean as grease falls into the barrel.

Charcoal Grills

When you cook with a charcoal grill, the heat comes from charcoal briquettes. You light the briquettes, wait approximately 20 minutes for them to get hot, then pour them below the cooking grate.

Charcoal grills can be inexpensive, and briquettes are available at nearly every grocery store.

However, temperatures are hard to control when cooking on a charcoal grill. Different areas of the grill will be different temperatures, depending on how hot the charcoals below them happen to be burning at that moment. And to get true natural smoke flavor, you have to use specialty briquettes or add wood chips or chunks to the charcoal.

Any low and slow cooking process will require creating and maintaining a 2-zone system of higher and lower heat — with a pile of briquettes on one side and none or very few on the other. You must frequently check the temperature and add/remove briquettes as needed.

Pros: Inexpensive.

Cons: Very hard to maintain consistent temperatures unless using a more expensive ceramic charcoal grill, most inexpensive charcoal grills aren't designed for low and slow cooking.

Fuel Sources

Wood pellets are a natural, clean-burning product made specifically for use in pellet grills. They are designed to deliver ideal smoke for barbequing by combining flavor, ease of use, and maximum heat.

Propane is a byproduct of the natural gas refining process. It is also used to fuel vehicles and small engines. Propane is odorless and flavorless.

Charcoal briquettes are made from wood byproducts like sawdust and held together with chemical binders.

How Hot Each Grill Gets & Time It Takes to Heat Up

Wood pellet, gas, and charcoal grills all require a pre-heating or preparation phase before you can start cooking.

Wood pellet grills start-up process: For a wood pellet grill, you set the desired temperature, then close the lid and wait 15 minutes. After this pre-heating process, the grill is at the proper temperature and ready to use. Traeger grills achieve a maximum temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gas grills start-up process: Gas grills are ready for direct grilling as soon as you turn them on. If you are trying to achieve an exact temperature for low and slow cooking, you'll need to experiment with different heat levels, close the lid, and keep an eye on your gauge. The maximum temperature of a gas grill depends on the model you buy. Some models offer maximum temperatures of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Charcoal grills start-up process: Charcoal grills aren't ready for cooking until the charcoal briquettes are lit and burning hot (which takes about 20 minutes). For low and slow cooking, you'll need to close the lid and watch the temperature gauge to achieve an exact temperature. The maximum temperature of a charcoal grill depends on how many charcoals you add, how hot they burn, and other factors like the outside temperature.

Cost of Grills

The factors that affect the cost of a grill are how large it is, how much heat it can deliver, and special features like temperature gauges and warming plates.

Cost of Wood Pellet Grills

A quality wood pellet grill costs about $300, and prices range up to about $2,000. The main differences is the size of the grill. More expensive wood pellet grills give you more room to cook. Another difference may be advanced technology, like wireless-enabled grills that allow you to change the grill's temperature from anywhere.

Cost of wood pellets: $18.99 per 20 lb. bag

Cost of Gas Grills

Gas grills range in price from around $100 up to several thousands. More expensive gas grills deliver more energy and generate higher temperatures. Larger grills, which give you more space for cooking lots of food at once, also tend to be higher in price.

Cost of gas tanks: Around $40 per new tank, $30 to refill

Cost of Charcoal Grills

A small, no-frills charcoal grill is the least expensive grill. Really, you're just buying a container to burn the charcoal briquettes. You can often find small charcoal grills for less than $20. Larger charcoal grills with features like smoker boxes can cost up to $2,000.

Cost of charcoal: $10 per 18 lb. bag

Fuel Costs

Between gas, wood pellets, and charcoal briquettes, charcoal is the least efficient of the three, so the fuel costs of a charcoal grill are the highest.

The fuel cost of a gas grill is the least expensive — but gas is tasteless and odorless so to add wood smoke flavor to food, you'll need to buy expensive wood chips or wood chunks.

The ongoing fuel costs of a wood pellet grill work out to the best value because you not only get consistent heat, the pellets deliver wood smoke flavor along with it.

Grill Safety

A pellet grill is the safest of the three grill options. Cooking on both charcoal grills and gas grills requires working with open flame. With open flame, there’s always a risk that the flame will ignite something you don’t want it to — such as your clothes, or your home. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fires involving grills cause an average of 10 deaths, 160 injuries, and $149 million in direct property damage every year.

If you live under an HOA, the terms of your agreement may prohibit the use of open flame — no gas or charcoal grills are allowed. HOAs put these regulations in place to prevent the possibility of fires that could spread to other units.

Wood pellets burn in their own combustion zone and generate heat for the grill. With a wood pellet grill, there is no open flame and no risk of flare-ups if you keep it clean. For this reason, wood pellet grills are usually permitted under HOA regulations.

Grill Cleaning

With any grill, regular cleaning is critical to long-term performance. After every use, you’ll want to clean the grill grates and dispose of any food that may have fallen into the grill. It’s a good idea to wipe the exterior of the grill as well. A grill cover is a must for any outdoor grill to protect it against rust and harsh weather.

Wood pellet grills contain a grease pan that must be cleaned periodically. You can wrap the grease pan with foil to make cleanup easier. Because you're cooking with wood, there is ash build-up that must be disposed of — the best way is with an wet/dry vacuum cleaner.

Different gas grills have different cleaning setups. There will be grease buildup from fats and oils dripping down into the grill. So a periodic cleaning is recommended.

With charcoal grills, you'll be dealing with grease cleanup as well — but there's also the problem of dealing with the burnt charcoals every time you cook. Ash and partly-burnt charcoal should be disposed of after use.

Grill Ease of Use

Grills are definitely not created equal when it comes to ease of use. This is especially true if you plan low and slow cooking.

For ease of use, nothing beats a wood pellet grill. Wood pellet grills have a built-in temperature sensor. The grill uses the amount of pellets necessary to achieve the temperature you need. With a Traeger, you can even adjust that temperature remotely from your Traeger app.

There are no hot spots or flare-ups. Just set it and forget it.

For gas grills, you can easily adjust the power of the burners to get the heat that you want. This makes gas grills fairly reliable for direct grilling items like burgers and hot dogs — not that much different than cooking over an indoor gas stove.

However, cooking low and slow with a gas grill is tricky. You can’t just set a gas grill to a certain temperature; you have to experiment with the power levels of the burners to get the temperature you want. And even then, you have to make sure that whatever you’re cooking isn’t directly over the heat source. Food cooked directly over a flame can't cook low and slow because the exterior will burn well before the interior of the meat is cooked.

Charcoal grills are the hardest to use. Charcoal briquettes burn at different temperatures depending on the brand you buy, the shape of your grill, the outside temperature, and other factors.

This means that cooking even basic items like burgers and chicken requires a fair amount of guesswork and attention. You can’t expect a charcoal grill to give you the same results every time.

Grill Flavor Differences

Wood pellet grills are built specifically to deliver natural smoke flavor to everything you cook. And you are in full control of that flavor because you decide which flavors of chips you want. You never have to worry about off-flavors from chemicals if you use Traeger wood pellets. And you don’t have to deal with burning wood chips or chunks. You can also blend wood flavors to get the exact taste you're looking for.

The propane gas used in gas grills is tasteless and odorless. Gas won't interfere with any seasonings you put on your meat, but you won’t be able to get natural smoke flavor unless you add wood chunks or chips which are expensive and messy.

When you cook on a charcoal grill, the flavor of your food is at the mercy of your charcoal briquette manufacturer. Most charcoal briquettes contain chemical byproducts. These chemicals create an acrid flavor that can transfer to the food you're cooking. Though charcoal briquettes are made from wood, they do not give off much natural smoke flavor.

Grill Cooking Differences

The type of grill you use will make a big difference in the flavor of what you cook, and how easy it is to cook it right.

Burgers

On a wood pellet grill, a consistent high temperature (500 degrees Fahrenheit) means that burgers cook evenly and quickly.

On a gas grill, cooking burgers frequently leads to flare-ups as fat from the ground meat patties drips onto the open gas flame. Many gas grills also have hot spots — areas where food cooks faster. This can lead to burnt burgers on one part of the grill while other patties are still cooking.

On a charcoal grill, cooking burgers will nearly always lead to flare-ups as the fat from the patties drips onto the charcoals. It can be difficult to get a full batch of burgers to cook at the same rate because briquettes in different areas of the grill may be at different temperatures.

Steak

Steak is best with an appetizing sear on the outside surface and tender, medium-rare meat in the middle. Getting that sear requires high temperatures — which charcoal, gas, and wood pellet grills can all deliver — but properly cooking the surface without overcooking the interior of the meat is tricky. Often you'll need to cook at two temperatures, one high temperature to get the sear, and a lower temperature to cook the interior.

When cooking on a pellet grill, you can simply adjust the temperature to achieve the effect you're looking for.

On a charcoal or gas grill, you'd have to create two separate zones for cooking. This means you have considerably less space to cook all the steaks you want.

Fish

Fish is delicate and very easy to overcook. With a wood pellet grill, you can set the proper temperature and let fish cook — all the while getting a delicious natural wood flavor of your choice.

The imprecise temperatures of charcoal and gas grills can ruin your expensive store-bought fillets, or the fish you worked so hard to hook.

Chicken

Cooking chicken over the open flame of a charcoal or gas grill is often a recipe for disaster. The fat from chicken skin often drips on the flame, causing flare-ups that burn the chicken and give it an acrid taste. Even if you avoid flare-ups, you also have to be careful to cook the chicken all the way through without overcooking the surface. No one likes rubbery chicken, and pink chicken is flat out dangerous.

On a wood pellet grill, you don't have to worry. Just set the temperature for your chicken the way you would in your kitchen oven. On a Traeger, our WiFIRE technology lets you monitor the temperature of the grill and the interior temperature of the chicken, so you can be sure to get it just right.

Pulled Pork

With pulled pork, low and slow cooking is a must. And most gas and charcoal grills aren't up to the task. The typical gas and charcoal grill is made for direct grilling — burgers and hot dogs, for example.

For cooking low and slow on gas or charcoal, you must create a 2-zone fire, expertly monitoring the temperature of the grill for the hours-long cook time. Plus, if you want any smoke flavor, you'll have to add and monitor wood chips or chunks throughout the cooking process.

On a wood pellet grill, maintaining a low temperature is as easy as turning a dial. With WiFIRE technology you can keep an eye on the grill temperature and the temperature of the pork — if you need to increase the heat to avoid the dreaded stall, just turn the dial up. And the whole time the pork is taking on natural smoke flavors.

Brisket

This classic barbecue cut is really hard to do on most gas or charcoal grills. You need two zones — one area where charcoal or gas is generating the heat, and the other where the brisket is slowly cooking, safely away from the heat so it won't burn before it’s cooked through. Only the largest and most expensive charcoal or gas grills give you the space you need.

But on a wood pellet grill, with no open flame, the entire cooking surface can be used to smoke brisket. You set the temperature and let the wood pellets do the rest. Brisket can take from 10 to 12 hours, so the consistent heat and smoke from a wood pellet grill saves you a lot of waiting and watching.

Hot Dogs and Sausages

Hot dogs on any type of grill are pretty simple. They are pre-cooked, so you only need to get them hot. They are also small and evenly cut, so they don't take long to heat. And they can't really overcook, so you can always set them off to the side in a cooler zone, keeping them warm in case anyone wants a snack.

Sausages can be a little trickier, especially the large, uncooked variety. When exposed to direct flame on a charcoal or gas grill, uncooked sausages will typically burn before they are cooked through — and sometimes burst their casings. A better solution is to start the sausages over low heat until cooked, and then finish them up over hotter temperatures to get those appetizing grill marks.

But you need a large cooking surface and multiple cooking zones to make this possible on charcoal or gas grills. On a wood pellet grill, you simply start cooking at a lower temperature, then turn the temperature up at the end.

Corn

Cooking corn on a charcoal grill is tricky too. Placed directly over red hot charcoals, the exterior of the corn will burn before the kernels are cooked through. Corn on the cob is best cooked on a higher rack away from the coals or in a 2-zone setup with the lid closed.

On a gas grill, you can keep the heat on high and the corn in a separate zone, or set the heat to a lower setting and put the corn directly over the fire.

On a wood pellet grill, corn is easy. You don't have to worry about open flames burning it, just set the temperature based on how soon you want the corn to be done, and let time and heat from natural wood finish the job.

Set It and Forget It? Or Watch and Worry?

If you cook on a wood pellet grill, you can pick your favorite meat and vegetables, select your flavors and temperatures, and know the cooking process will go just as you planned. You can talk to your guests, enjoy the ballgame, or even run some errands while the delicious smoke flavor is permeating your food. A wood pellet grill also offers 6-in-1 versatility — you can grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise, and BBQ food.

With gas and charcoal grills, any type of cooking requires near constant attention to the temperature of the grill, and how the heat is flowing across the food. To leave such a grill unattended is to invite a sudden flare-up or a loss of heat that could burn your food to a crisp or require added hours of cooking time. While some foods benefit from the high temperatures of a gas or charcoal grill, you're sacrificing the wood fired taste that you get from a pellet grill.

At Traeger, we believe that outdoor grilling should be fun, and our wood pellet grills are designed to give you maximum enjoyment.