Whether your taste is for hickory ribs, maple ham, mesquite bell peppers or apple wood cheese, then using wood pellets is the easy way to smoke all these foods and so much more. Ideal for pellet grills and smokers, wood pellets can also be used in all types of smokers, smoke generators and under-grate smoking boxes.What smoke flavor we enjoy is very personal to us; some of us prefer the milder and sweeter flavor of maple or beech while some love the richness of hickory or mesquite when smoking foods. Whether you are a smokin’ hot smoker, or new to the world of home smoking, we hope that you will find this article of interest. Taking a peek at some of the best wood pellets for smoking, we also provide the lowdown on some of the finer points of smoking with wood pellets.
Made from 100% natural virgin hardwood, the Traeger Hickory PEL319 Premium Hardwood Pellets offer a classic hickory smoked flavor to meats and more.
The CookinPellets Perfect Mix is an all-purpose hickory base hardwood pellet free from any additives or fillers.
Quick Comparison: Top 6 Best Wood Pellets for Smoking
1. Traeger Hickory PEL319 Premium Hardwood Pellets
The Traeger hickory PEL319 premium hardwood pellets are from 100% natural virgin hardwood and are free from fillers and binders. These pellets do offer a rich hickory flavor which can be a little strong for some palates, but they are suitable for most meats, especially bacon and pork ribs, as well as other foods.These pellets are not 100% hickory hardwood; they are hardwood pellets that also contain hickory oil. They come in a 20lb bag and made in the US, the timber is sustainably sourced and manufactured. These are slightly larger pellets, so you may need to break them up for more uniform heating in a smaller grill. Like any pellets, they do need storing away from any source of moisture as the pellets will break down into dust.
2. CookinPellets Perfect Mix Smoking Pellets
A hickory base with cherry, hard maple and apple, CookinPellets perfect mix is made from log centers only, reducing the amount of lignin it contains. These pellets do not contain any alder or oak wood and are free from fillers or additives. Although an all-purpose pellet, some of you may find the flavor a little too mild.Some users may find higher amounts of dust in the bags, although this may be due to handling during shipping. These pellets may not be as suitable for use in all grills, as some people with specific grills have experienced temperature variations, although the manufacturer of these pellets state that if you use these pellets it will not void your grill manufacturer’s warranty.
3. Camp Chef Bag of Premium for Smoker
The Camp Chef apple wood premium hardwood pellets contain no additives or fillers and are 100% kiln-dried virgin hardwood. A blend of various hardwoods, they include apple and are ideal if you are smoking meats such as pork and poultry and many other foods including cheeses. Made in the US, they have an ultra-low moisture content, burn cleanly and come in a 20lb bag.You may want to ensure that these food grade pellets are stored in a sealed container away from any moisture to ensure that they do stay lit in the grill. Some bags may have a higher dust content than would be expected – possibly due to handling during shipping. Also, they may not be as suitable for smoking at higher temperatures in all grills.
4. Lumber Jack Grilling Pellets
The Lumber Jack grilling pellets – 100% Hickory are made from actual tree bark and the cambium layer rather than residual wood to give the most flavor. They do not have any oils or additives in them so as these are pure hickory, extra care is needed to not over-smoke, otherwise your food will end up very bitter.These are smaller diameter pellets for more smoke and a hotter burn with more surface area. They also create minimal ash. The chemical composition and ash from these food grade pellets are tested independently.
5. Camp Chef Competition Blend Pellets
With a mix of hickory, maple and cherry, the Camp Chef competition blend premium hardwood pellets are 100% natural food grade pellets made in the US. Free from any fillers or additives, they have ultra-low moisture content and come in a 20lb bag. Like any pellets these are prone to damage if exposed to moisture during transport or in storage, so some extra storage care will help keep them in good condition.The competition blend is suitable for smoking all meats including beef, as well as seafood, vegetables and can be used when baking. Some users may find this a milder smoke, particularly for red meats.
6. Apple Flavor BBQR's Delight Smoking BBQ Pellets
The BBQr’s Delight apple pellet grill fuel is a blend of two thirds oak mixed with a third of apple wood, giving a milder and smoke than full oak. The blend of apple may make it slightly too light on flavor for meats such as steak or brisket. These pellets offer a hot and clean burning low ash smoke. Available in a 20lb bag, these pellets are 100% natural wood and are free from any oils, additives or fillers.
Things to Consider Before Buying Wood Pellets for Smoking
Wood Chunks, Chips or Pellets for Smoking
You can use wood in different forms when smoking. Wood chunks give a steady and slow release of smoke, while wood chips and wood pellets smoke quicker, making them ideal for shorter cooking times.
Pellets are compressed sawdust held together by lignin – a natural part of trees – and are similar in size to chicken feed. Manufacturers compress sawdust or dry wood fiber under high pressure then force it through holes with a hammer milling machine. Once the sawdust comes through the holes, its lignin is melted at a high temperature, binding the sawdust together. This leaves highly dense pellets that are clean, dry and very combustible.
When pellets burn, they burn hotter, do not burn out as easily and have more intense smoke. Pellets are less expensive than other types of smoking woods and because they are processed from sawdust, they are sterile – or food grade. They also produce little ash or creosote buildup.
Wood pellets are a biomass fuel – a safer, cleaner and more efficient form of fuel – and an eco-friendly agricultural byproduct from processes such as furniture or flooring manufacture. Over a million US homes now use wood pellets as a source of energy and interestingly, it was a pellet heating manufacturer who devised the pellet grill to counteract the low demand for pellet heating during the summer months.
Pellets for heating are not suitable for food smoking, unless marked as food grade or food safe.
Why Hardwood is Used for Smoking
Softwood trees such as spruce, fir and pine have more sap, which makes them pungent and quick to burn. Softwoods are not suitable for smoking food with, which is why you should always choose food grade pellets. Because wood pellets for heating may be formed from softwoods, it makes them unsuitable for cooking with.
Hardwoods such as oak and hickory have a dense cellular construction which makes them ideal for smoking. Hardwoods include the nut and fruit woods.
What Wood Pellets Are Suitable For
Wood pellets are suitable for pellet grill and smokers which offers the best of the grill – allowing you to grill at high temperatures or sear long and slow. These have thermostatic control like your oven and once set, the grill will keep the temperature constant by adding pellets when needed.
Wood pellets are also suitable for use in gas, electric and charcoal smokers, smoke generators and under-grate smoking boxes. Unlike other types of wood for smoking, pellets should not soak in water before use as they will disintegrate.
How Pellet Grills Work
Pellet grills work through convection – a fan circulates heat through the cooking chamber, giving even cooking and heat distribution.
When using, you fill the hopper on the grill with pellets. Once the temperature for the pellet grill is set, then the grill uses an auger to move pellets from the hopper to the firepot under the grill. A hotrod ignites the pellets and a fan stokes the fire, creating convection heat that evenly cooks the food in the grill. There is usually a drip-tray between the firepot and grate which keeps direct heat off the food and prevents drippings from splashing onto the fire.
Pellet Grill vs. Gas and Charcoal Grills
The consistency of cooking is the key difference between a pellet grill and a gas or charcoal grill. They are also easy to start up, easy to clean and because cooking is controlled; pellet grills need minimal effort and attention.
When pellet grills are cooking at higher temperatures they do generate less smoke; ideally, you need to cook at 250°F or below for effective smoking. Unlike other types of grills, pellet grills also need a permanent power outlet which can limit where you use them.
Starting Small with Smoke
As well as bringing depth of flavor and color to our meat, smoking also forms a bark or crust on the meat. Many of us may have made the mistake of over-smoking - a third of a cup of wood pellets is usually more than enough for all types of cooking.
If you are new to pellet grilling or want to try a different wood, then experimenting with a couple of chops or steaks will potentially waste a lot less meat and fuel than doing an 18 hour brisket.
Choosing the Right Wood for the Right Flavor
Trying out different woods is always the best way for you to experience the wide variety of smoke flavors. But as a guide, here are some of the main woods, what they are most popular for and what other woods they often blend with. Smoking flavors range from mild to strong.
- Alder is ideal for smoking fish and poultry with its subtle smoke flavor and some natural sweetness.
- Maple has a sweet flavor and its mildness is ideal for poultry, cheese and vegetables. Maple also darkens the meat and can easily mix with other woods such as alder, oak or apple.
- Beech adds mild flavor to meats and seafoods.
- Apple works well with pork and ham, poultry and lamb. Some may also use it for seafood or beef, although some may find its flavor too mild for red meat. Apple is also a blending wood, mixing well with oak or mesquite.
- Mulberry gives a similar flavor to apple.
- Cherry works well for beef as it turns the meat a mahogany color. It is also suitable for any other type of meat and mixes well with oak, alder, pecan or hickory.
- Grape vine gives a fruity and tart flavor to poultry, pork, sausage, lamb and game birds, but needs using in small amounts to prevent too tart a flavor from developing.
- Olive wood gives a similar flavor to mesquite but is a lot lighter and tends to work better with poultry.
- Oak burns very hot and gives a medium smoke flavor to meats. It is also a good blending wood.
- Pear or peach have a light fruity and sweet flavor; ideal for poultry or pork.
- In the stronger woods, the southern and Midwest favorite – hickory - adds a strong, smoky and sweet flavor to any meat, but especially bacon and ribs. Over-smoking with this can cause very bitter tasting food.
- Pecan is a member of the hickory family and although not as strong as hickory, it will cause bitter and pungent food if you use too much. Pecan is a cooler burning wood and gives delicate flavor to pork and poultry.
- Walnut is often a mixing wood because of its strong and bitter flavor – which also makes it a favorite for red and game meats.
- Mesquite is an oily wood that burns hot and fast. It has an extremely strong flavor, ideal for dark meats. If you are unfamiliar with smoking with mesquite then its recommended that you always blend this with other woods and minimize food exposure time until you become used to it. Too much will cause your meat to become bitter and harsh, rather than the strong, earthy flavor that it should have.
It is also worth noting that all these hardwoods have distinct species, such as white oak, black oak or post oak which alter flavors, as well as where the ground/environment that the trees grew in. A tree grown in a cooler and wet climate will give a different flavor to the same tree grown in a hot and droughty environment.
How the pellets dry and how much moisture is left in them, as well as how you cook with them will all alter the flavor.
Starting to feel overwhelmed?
There is no reason to be. If you are new to smoking or even using wood pellets, then probably the easiest way to begin is by trying one type of pellet and stick with that for a while and experiment with temperatures, meat cuts, spice rubs and sauces until you find the best combos. In time you can then try different pellet blends.
Health Concerns from Smoking Food
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed when meat reacts at high temperatures, such as when searing and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when smoke is created from meat juice and fats dripping into an open fire. PAHs also form when you smoke meats and are found in cigarette smoke, products such as gasoline and oil and other products made from fossil fuels.
Researchers have linked various long-term health effects from long term exposure to PAHs. These may include liver and kidney damage or cataracts. Some studies show that PAHs can cause cancer, or are carcinogenic, in laboratory animals, while other studies show links with higher rates, or poorer outcomes from certain types of cancer in humans.
Because we are exposed to PAHs daily in our environment, it is difficult to know how much one source of PAHs – such as smoked meat or fish – can contribute to an increased risk of cancer. This means that as of yet, there is no definitive link between PAH (and HCA) exposure from meats and cancer in humans.
Although there are some standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for total levels of PAHs in public water supplies, there are currently no regulations for PAH levels in foods.
Like any food or lifestyle factor that may contribute to ill health, we can try to reduce some of our risk, even just with a small step such as by cooking lower and slower when using the grill.
Whether new to smoking, or a well-seasoned pro, we hope that this article has given you some food for thought about which wood pellets to choose for your smoking needs. As well as looking at wood pellets in some detail and what benefits they bring to our cooking and smoking; we have also looked at some of the health concerns around smoked foods in the diet.If your personal taste is for beech, oak or walnut, or another hardwood, if you choose the best wood pellets for smoking you will always be able to serve up meats, seafood, vegetables or other foods that are rich in natural smoked flavors and depth of color.