Pellet Grill vs Charcoal Grill: Different Strokes for Different Folks

August 26, 2022

These grills differ by fuel source type, price, how easy they are to use, temperature control, temperature range, and more!

Growing up with BBQ addicts, I learned all about the real barbecue experience. This meant that I put a number of grills through their paces, figuring out exactly what made them tick and what separated them. Now I can pass on this information to you!

In this pellet grill vs charcoal grill post, I will outline the differences and give you a clearer idea of which one might be the right one for you. Let’s begin!

Pellet Grill vs Charcoal

What is a Charcoal Grill?

Of all the grill types, you are probably most familiar with charcoal grills. This is because this type of grill has been around for ages and is affordable enough for most families to enjoy.

Now, as you are probably aware, charcoal grills use charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal as a fuel source, hence the name. What a lot of people don’t realize, though, is that there is more than one kind of charcoal grill!

First up, there are the charcoal kettle grills – this probably what you conjure up in your mind when you think of a charcoal grill. They have a round, tapered shape that is usually propped up on wheels. A kettle grill works best for all-purpose cooking.

Next, there is the barrel grill. These look like a barrel placed on its side. The main advantage with this design is that it allows you to barbecue a lot of food at the same time. You should be warned that the coal can run out pretty quickly with these and you will need to keep loading it up.

Then, you have your kamado grill – the most popular example of this would be the Big Green Egg. Usually made from ceramic, these are egg-shaped grills that are excellent at retaining heat and temperatures, although they can be a bit tricky to get the hang of. Unlike most charcoal grills, these can also be rather pricey.

What is a Pellet Grill?

The more accurate name for this type of grill would be a wood pellet grill. This, of course, is because it uses wood pellets as a fuel source.

Now, wood pellet grills do have a rather complex design. These grills are made up of a pellet hopper, auger, fire pot or firebox, and cooking chamber. The wood pellets burn, generating heat. They move from the hopper to the auger and finally to the firebox where it heats the entire grill.

Pellet grills are also made up of a system of fans. These dispense heat and smoke, giving food their distinctive flavor. Although once a niche item, these are quickly becoming more popular.

Grills vs. Smokers

At this point, I feel like I should also talk a bit about the differences between a charcoal grill, a pellet grill, a wood pellet smoker, and a charcoal smoker.

The main difference is that in addition to heat, smokers produce a great deal of smoke. This adds a lot more flavor to the food. To add to this, smokers typically take a lot longer to cook food.

round charcoal grill

I have to say that the distinction between these two machines is becoming smaller. This is because with a little bit of tweaking, most pellet grills and charcoal grills can be turned into smokers. It simply requires a bit more work.

Pellet Grill vs. Charcoal Grill – Understanding the Differences

Now, let’s get down to business and discuss the top differences between these two types of grills:

The Price

When you consider the price of a grill, there are two things that you must consider – initial cost and operating costs.

Now, in general, a pellet grill is going to cost more, but what about how much each grill will cost you over a lifetime? Well, once more, a pellet grill is going to be the more expensive option here. As it is made up of so many different parts, each of these parts are more likely to break down, requiring repair or replacement.

Then, what about the fuel costs? This is a bit trickier to decide. On the one hand, charcoal briquettes are cheaper – very cheap, but they aren’t good quality and are rarely used. Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is better but a bit more expensive.

Wood pellets or wood chunks are the most expensive of them all, but they tend to burn for a longer period of time. While charcoal is often used up in three to six hours, pellets can burn for over 8 hours. A full bag may last you over 24 hours at a time.

Ease of Assembly

Let’s face it, we all want to know which grills are easier to put together. Due to their simple design, charcoal grills are easier to assemble. Once you have the stand all set up, it should take you a few minutes to put the main components of the grill together.

Things aren’t quite as simple with a pellet grill, however. As mentioned, there are various components to put together and you have to know how they go together. Thus, you can often spend several hours trying to set up such a grill.

Ease of Use

Pellet grills win this category easily! Despite the fact that they are made up of so many moving parts, they are simple to operate. It is simply a matter of powering up the grill and setting your desired cooking temperature. The grill handles the rest.

This is especially true for newer models. These days, pellet grills are incredibly sophisticated, with a central display unit that gives you complete control over how the grill functions. With just a press of a few buttons, you can ensure that finetune the performance completely.

To add to this, you will often find that a newer pellet grill will be equipped with Wi-Fi features. This syncs the grill to your smartphone, allowing you to control the temperature and other features from your phone. As a result, you will not have to spend as much time standing over the grill.

man showing his son how to bbq

There is a more significant learning curve to charcoal grills. As it has such a basic design, you have to expend more effort in lighting the fire, getting it to stay lit, and managing the temperature. Thus, it can take time to learn how to master such a grill.

Temperature Range

When it comes to pellet grills, the range does depend on the brand and the model. More often than not, though, a pellet grill will not go over 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Charcoal grills, on the other hand, can easily get to over 650 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, the trick with the charcoal grill is trying to maintain a lower temperature.

If you are looking to sear meat, then a charcoal grill is the way to go. On the other hand, if low and slow cooking is what you are looking for, a pellet grill will be of better service to you.

Temperature Control

Temperature control with pellet grills is undoubtedly easier. In fact, all you have to do is turn the dial and it is all set. With a digital pellet smoker, you will be able to see your desired temperature and the actual temperature inside the cooking chamber to understand the cooking temperatures.

With charcoal grilling, there is no real way to know what temperature your grill actually is. Thus, you have to carefully check how much fuel is in the grill and how alight they are to estimate the temperature. You will often have to hold your hand over the grill grates to determine the exact level of heat.

Attaching a hood thermometer to a charcoal grill may overcome this issue, but there is still plenty of discrepancy that you will need to watch out for.

To ensure that you don’t burn certain foods too quickly, you have to create two cooking zones – one where the coals are situated directly under the grates and the other where there are no coals at all. This creates direct and indirect zones of cooking.

Added Flavor

One of the reasons that both of these grills are so popular is because their fuel sources add flavor to the wood. So, what can you expect here?

Well, with charcoal grills, you get a char flavor and a strong smoky flavor as well. In general, when cooking on these grills, your food is strongly flavored. It is due to this that you should take care to avoid using lighter fluid with these grills as it can end up being infused into the food as well.

As for a pellet grill, the smoke flavor isn’t as notable here – instead, you will find a strong wood flavor. In fact, change wood flavors and you will be able to alter the taste infusing your food as well. For instance, fruit woods like cherry will make your food taste sweeter while hickory can have a stronger, smokier taste to it.

Cooking Versatility

So, which grill produces more versatile results? Well, this all depends on what you mean by versatility.

Charcoal grills are great if you want to cook foods at either lower or higher temperatures. So, if you want to cook a wider variety of foods at various temperatures, then then this is the grill for you.

On the other hand, a pellet grill is far more suitable at offering versatile flavors. Just choose a different type of wood and you will be able to enjoy an entirely new taste. To add to this, it is far more easier to use this type of grill for smoking as well.

Portability

Now, portability isn’t just about how light or easy a grill is. This will often vary quite a bit in between models. So, you cant really determine whether a pellet or charcoal grill may be more portable. In general, though, charcoal designs are smaller and lighter.

burning charcoal

Nevertheless, charcoal grills are seen as being more portable simply because unlike the pellet version, they don’t need to be hooked up to electricity. In fact, they don’t require any kind of power source. As such, you can easily drag them out into the middle of nowhere and set them up.

Maintenance and Cleaning

I would argue that most grills are a pain to clean, but which one is trickier? Unfortunately, charcoal grills lose out here. This is because coals and their ash can leave behind quite a mess. Thus, getting rid of them can be rather tricky.

Now, with most pellet grills, the ashes are neatly contained with a section. As such, a shop vacuum or brush is often enough to clean this mess up. I should warn you that this can depend on the make and the model of the grill, though. While some are incredibly easy to clean, others can involve a messier process.

Pellet vs. Charcoal vs. Gas Grill

Just for the sake of being thorough, I would also like to discuss the difference between pellet, charcoal, and gas grills.

The main difference, of course, is the fuel sources – gas grill can be run on natural gas or propane. Although these types of grills are found in most homes, they aren’t the preferred option for most pitmasters. They are easy to use, but they dont offer up the same flavor as a pellet or charcoal grill.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Do Pellet Grills Taste Like Charcoal?

No, they taste more like wood as they use wood pellets.

2. Are Pellet Grills Safer Than Charcoal?

There is no evidence to suggest that one type of grill is safer or more dangerous than the other.

3. Can Charcoal Be Used in a Pellet Grill?

No, charcoal can’t be used in a pellet grill.

4. Do Pellet Grills Make Good BBQ?

If you like a wood flavor and low and slow cooking, yes this can make good barbecue.

The Final Verdict – Are Pellet Grills Better than Charcoal?

I would argue that there is no real winner in this showdown. This is because, in the end, it is all down to preference. What flavors and cooking styles do you prefer? Are you old school or do you prefer a machine that is quick and easy to use?

Now that you are fully aware of the differences between each type of grill, you are better equipped determining which one is the right option for you. And, after using each grill for a while, you may come to a better understanding of your preferences.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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