I have long loved pellet grills. I think of them more as smokers than grills, and that is my number-one reason to own one.
It used to be that the first question that home cooks would answer before they bought an outdoor grill would be, “do I want a gas or charcoal grill?” Next, avid grillers like me would own both gas and charcoal grills. About five years ago, I added a pellet grill to my collection so that I could both smoke and grill at home. Today, pellet grills are the fastest growing segment of the outdoor cooking market. I have a Traeger Ironwood with a Super Smoke feature and that has changed my backyard cooking game.
Traeger was started in 1987 by its namesake and the company was sold in 2009, and then again in 2013. This time, it was acquired by entrepreneur Jeremy Andrus. Andrus almost passed on the opportunity because he thought that outdoor cooking was a commodity. But he gave Traeger a second look and realized it was a “gem-in-the-rough” that consumers hadn’t discovered.
Hearing “my Traeger changed my life,” in consumer focus groups gave him the impetus to create a brand that is based on a lifestyle experience, and invest in a team that would make creating that culture a top priority. These days, many companies speak about culture and lifestyle. As a grilling and barbecue expert, what convinced me that Traeger was walking the talk was the introduction of the ‘Super Smoke’ button on their Ironwood and Timberline series.
Meathead, the owner of amazingribs.com told me that “the biggest complaint that we hear from pellet smoker owners is that the [pellet] smokers aren’t smoky enough.” Traeger heard and saw its customers and addressed their concerns with the ‘Super Smoke’ button.
The special feature provides the option to add an extra layer of smoke to your food. I was impressed when I first learned about this innovation. Any company that would take the time to improve—their already good—product to add a feature that would address the audience of ‘super smokers,’ is a company run by people who love to cook as much as I do. And a company who understands the psyche of the pitmaster.
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That alone made me want to meet the people behind the ‘Super Smoke’ innovation. I spoke with Michael Colston, vice president of product for Traeger. He told me that the ‘Super Smoke’ mode was created to meet the challenge that pitmasters and hobby barbecuers had when using pellet grills.
“The ‘Super Smoke’ mode is engineered to burn at a temperature that will only emit the blue smoke, which is the clean smoke that you want on your food as it is sweet and not bitter and acrid, a.k.a. it doesn’t have a bad, off flavor,” he explained.
The future of pellet grills is bright. A rising tide lifts all boats and the popularity of Traeger has created interest in all pellet grills.
I have personally tested four different models in the past couple of years but there are many that I have yet to try. Max Good who tests grills and smokers full-time for amazingribs.com estimates that more 40 companies are making pellet grills.
“Even a few years ago, pellet grills were not very popular but now you see them everywhere. Once a backyard cook sees how easy they are to use, they want one—and pellet grills have taken off like mad,” he explained.
The heat is easy to control as it is powered by an electric fan, a wood-pellet transport system, a.k.a. auger, and a thermostat that works together to burn compressed wood pellets that many think look like rabbit food. The thermostat monitors the temperature, the auger controls the number of pellets that are burned, a fan controls the amount of oxygen that feeds the fire, and together that is what keeps the heat even and consistent.
The best thing about pellet grills is that you will rarely burn anything because they mostly operate using indirect heat and you can easily cook ‘low and slow’ barbecue at home. If you are patient, you will be rewarded with smoky, tender, succulent meats that rival any legendary barbecue joint.
They can be used to grill foods like steaks, vegetables and burgers but rarely reach a temperature higher than 500°F so you won’t get the same sear that you will get from a gas or charcoal grill. The one exception to this is the Weber SmokeFire grill which is a pellet smoker and a higher-temperature grill (600°F) that sears using their signature Flavorizer bars and wood pellets.
Many of the pellet grills also have apps that you can download on your phone to help you through the cooking process—it’s like having someone holding your hand while you are learning to smoke and grill.
If you are interested in dipping your toe in the pellet grill category, ZGrills is running an interesting promotion this summer. The company manufactured other brands of pellet grills for 20 years before deciding to create their own direct-to-consumer brand with factory-direct pricing.
This summer, they are offering a “blind box” pellet grill for $399.00 and free shipping. Anyone who takes a chance with this offer will open the box to see which of five models of ZGrills is in the box. The five grills range in price from $479 to $699—so if you roll the dice, you could get a $699 grill for $399. They are also running a Father’s Day sale happening right now.