What is a Pellet Smoker?
A pellet smoker is an outdoor cooker that burns clean compressed wood pellets to produce heat for cooking, grilling, baking, or smoking. One of the advantages that pellet smokers have over traditional cookers is they can cook at very low temperatures consistently for longer periods of time resulting in more flavorful food. They can cook at high temperatures as well, high enough to bake. And they are as easy to operate as a kitchen oven.
Another advantage of the pellet smoker is their precision with temperature control. On many models, the temperature setting can be adjusted by your smartphone. Plus, wood-pellets burn much cleaner than old-fashioned charcoal briquettes. This can produce food that is better for you as well as being better for the environment. Pellet smokers make the best use of fire and smoke which will bring your recipes to life.
How does a Pellet Smoker Work?
The secret to a pellet smoker is the use of airflow. The smoker is designed to regulate a consistent flow of air heated by burning wood pellets. To reach the desired temperature, wood pellets are mechanically moved into the fire by an auger to heat the air in the chamber. That hot air is circulated into the cooking chamber by large built-in fans. The wood pellet feeding system keeps the fire steady so that the air being funneled into the cooking chamber remains at the precise temperature for the entirety of the cook-time.
The flow of hot air cooks the food, not the direct flames from the wood pellets. This process is the same as the one used by a conventional oven to cook food quickly and efficiently. At the bottom of the pellet smoker is a drip tray that keeps the flames contained in the fire chamber and blocks any fire flare-ups which could scorch your food.
How to Choose a Pellet Smoker
One important consideration when choosing a pellet smoker is the space of the cooking chamber Make sure you choose one that can accommodate the amount of food you need to cook at one time. Another important concern is the location of the cooker. There are three primary styles to accommodate space concerns. Each style has its own unique advantages and specific reasons for why it should be chosen.
- Freestanding Pellet Smokers
A freestanding pellet smoker is a unit that’s not attached to a wall or installed in any fixture. The advantage of this type of configuration is they are mobile. Plus, many of these models come with the option of a chargeable battery pack so you can take it anywhere around your backyard. Or take your freestanding pellet smoker on the road for a night of camping or for a tailgate party.
- Built-in Pellet Smokers
A built-In pellet smoker is one that’s meant to be installed into a backyard fixture. This type of smoker has one very large advantage of the gas grills that you normally see in an island fixture, for example. It will not need a supply of gas from the house. They look just as sleek and operate as dynamically as the freestanding units.
- Vertical Pellet Smokers
A vertical pellet smoker is specifically designed for slow cooking at low temperatures. Some vertical pellet smokers are sold in the same upright position as other pellet units so that they appear similar. But they offer consistent low degrees of cooking for savory smoked foods which can’t always be accomplished with gas or coals alone.
The first thing you must do is choose the flavor of wood pellets you want to burn. Your choice of flavor in wood pellets will drastically affect the taste of the meat you are smoking. One thing to be aware of is that in wood pellets, the word “flavor” does not refer to the flavor of the wood. When we say flavor, we mean the strength of the smoke that the wood pellets will produce when they are burned.
Wood pellets come in a variety of flavors. You may want to experiment with several different kinds to find the ones you like best. Here’s a pro-tip: Mild flavors such as Oak and Cherry are best for light meats like poultry and fish. The stronger flavors such as Hickory, Black Walnut, and Mesquite should be used when smoking heavy and robust meats such as beef, brisket, and certain types of wild game. Vegetables tend to taste good with strong flavors as well.
Here’s another pro-tip: At least 24-hours prior to cooking on your pellet smoker for the first time, be sure to place cooking on the inside chambers and on the grates of the cooker. Next, let the cooker run with no food on the grill which will heat the oil and create a protecting layer on the surfaces. This will help protect your smoker from the effects of long-term use. Finally, let the cooker cool for a day. After that, your cooker is ready to use.
How to Smoke Food
Smoking food on a pellet smoker is just as easy as cooking food in a kitchen oven. In just a few simple steps practically anyone can prepare food like a gourmet chef.
- Preheat your pellet smoker.
The first step is to preheat your pellet smoker to prepare it for cooking. To preheat the cooker, you’ll need to plug it into an electrical outlet. Then open the lid and set the temperature setting to “smoke”, which should be 225°F degrees. Be sure to leave the lid open during preheating. Once smoke begins to come out of the exhaust on the top, your cooker is hot which means you’re ready to move on. This usually takes 5 to 10 minutes.
Here’s a pro-tip: Pay attention to the smoke that comes out of the exhaust. If the smoke is a grayish color, this means your wood pellets may not be burning correctly. This might add a bitter flavor to the food you are cooking. The ideal smoke to look for is clear with possibly a blue tint to it. Your owner’s manual should offer troubleshooting solutions on how to respond to discolored smoke.
- Add your food
Once smoke is established, close the lid and adjust the temperature for the food you are about to prepare. Allow additional time for your smoker to reach the optimum temperature before you start cooking. With the food chamber at the correct temperature, place your food in the middle of the grates. Then close the lid of the smoker and cook your food for the correct length of time based on the type of food you are cooking.
Here’s a Pro-tip for cooking steak: Start by searing both sides to seal in the natural flavors of the meat. To sear a steak on a pellet smoker, set your smoker to at least 350 degrees during preheating. This temperature is required to sear in flavors fast and leave grill marks on the meet. Once the meat is in, close the lid and let it sear for 3 to 5 minutes. Then flip the meat and repeat the process.
- Be patient
Don’t obsessively open the lid! Pellet smokers do not cook using the direct flames of the burning wood pellets. It cooks using the airflow of heat. Opening the lid of your cooker impacts the flow of heated air from the pellet chamber. This means the more you open the lid, the slower your food will cook.
Final pro-tip: When cooking heavy meats such as pork shoulder or brisket, it is important to let the meat rest after the cooking process is completed before carving into it. This time is necessary to allow the smoky flavor of the wood pellets to seal into the meat. The longer you allow the meat to rest before carving, the smokier and juicier your meat will taste. One good idea is to wrap the meat with butcher paper or aluminum foil after cooking and placing it in a cooler. That way you can allow it to rest for hours.
- Cool Down
After all the cooking is complete, cooling down your smoker is easy. Simply turn off the auger so that it stops feeding pellets into the fire chamber. The burning pellets will die down almost immediately. Keep the smoker at its lowest setting until all the wood pellets have burned out completely. Then turn off the smoker and allow 20 to 30 minutes for the unit to cool. The internal motor may continue operation for several minutes, but once the unit is cool, the motor will stop.
A pellet smoker is a machine that everyone from professional chefs to backyard event planners universally embraces to get the job done right. They are easier to operate than a charcoal grill and burn wood pellets as fuel which is a much cleaner product than the propane you find in a gas grill. Plus, the start time is faster, temperature settings are more precise, and the long-term maintenance is lower. Treat your friends and family to a perfectly seared steak or smoky and juicy brisket at your next outdoor gathering.