SMOKE! The GOOD. The BAD. And the SUBJECTIVE.
When discussing pellet grills with owners and prospective buyers, we are often asked about the smoke profile produced by a pellet grill. We hear questions like, "Do pellet grills produce less smoke than an offset?" and "How do I get more smoke from my pellet grill?"
The truth is a bit complicated. To better understand the answers, it starts with smoke. Let’s jump in.
What is Smoke?
In order to understand the differences between an offset smoker and a pellet smoker, it is important to first understand smoke.
Smoke is the release of partially combusted materials from a fire, due to the lack of oxygen required to fully burn the fuel (in our case, wood). It stands to reason that all fires create smoke, but more efficient fires will produce less visible smoke.
In the barbecue world, it is universally understood that clear or thin, blue smoke is desirable; and thick, white, billowing smoke is undesirable. So, how do we end up with white smoke? White smoke is the product of inefficient combustion, simply put; it is airborne wood particles that produce the white smoke. It is the white smoke that will make your meat taste bitter and can irritate the stomach resulting in indigestion and heartburn.
What are the smoke differences between an offset and a pellet grill?
When you take away material thickness and grill size, the primary difference between an offset and a pellet smoker is how the heat source and airflow is managed through the cooking chamber.
An offset smoker depends on the operator to control heat and airflow by opening and closing the fresh air intake as well as opening and closing the chimney vent. When using an offset smoker, wood fuel is manually added to the firebox by hand. These factors create a larger fire that consumes more fuel and requires adding and removing oxygen to control temperature. Adding oxygen produces more heat and cleaner smoke while removing oxygen produces less heat and more smoke. This is why smoking on an offset is a balancing act of monitoring smoke and temperature, and requires a higher level of interaction than many other grills.
Pro Tip: When managing an offset, more fuel requires more oxygen. If you want cleaner smoke, start with a small, hot coal base using splits that are sized appropriately for your smoker, and add preheated wood to the coal bed as needed to maintain the desired temperature. This will give your fire just enough fuel to ignite and burn clean so you don't have to restrict oxygen and create too much smoke.
Caveat: Wood with high moisture content resists ignition and delivers white smoke until the moisture has been reduced by the fire.
A pellet grill uses a computer control and a thermocouple to monitor temperature and manage the rate wood fuel is fed into the firebox. The pellet grill also uses fans to keep the fire burning and maintain constant airflow over the cooking grates and out the chimney. This means that the user needs less manual control of the fire and airflow, and results in more consistent temperatures.
The fire inside a pellet grill is contained in a smaller firebox and receives more oxygen which means you have a more efficient fire that burns hotter and leads to more favorable (or CLEANER) smoke. Due to the automation of a pellet grill, it will operate on a fraction of the fuel by weight of an offset and also requires less interaction which means less opportunity for mistakes.
Point of Interest: An offset smoker and a pellet grill running at maximum efficiency will both produce the same clear or thin smoke and will share a similar smoke flavor.
How much smoke is preferable?
Because everyone has a different expectation and tolerance level when it comes to smoke, there really is no one answer regarding how much smoke is perfect. Along with the people we talk to who say a pellet grill doesn't provide enough smoke, we also talk to many people who say an offset produces too much smoke. It all comes down to personal preference.
The key to smoke on an offset smoker is to manage the fire well and the key to smoke on a pellet grill is to manage your expectations when it comes to smoke flavor, just like you would add a seasoning.
I prefer more smoke. How do I get more smoke from my Yoder Smokers pellet smoker?
Since smoke flavor is a matter of preference, there will always be folks who like more smoke on their food than a pellet grill provides. To get that, we recommend using a pellet tube smoker to add more smoky flavor. We previously used a smoke tube in our article on Cold Smoking Cheese, and you can use the same tube for hot smoking as well.
To use a pellet tube, simply fill the tube with wood pellets, light the open end, and let it burn for a few minutes before blowing it out. The wood pellets will begin to smolder. Place your smoke tube on the bottom grate directly over your heat source. This should create a steady stream of smoke for at least 2 hours, or more if you own the extended tube.
Your pellet choice will vary depending on taste. We use lighter fruit woods such as apple or cherry for lighter smoke flavor and hardwoods such as oak, hickory, or pecan for more smoke flavor.
ProTip: Pellets sold in one-pound bags are often made of 100% of the smoking wood on the package; pellets sold in 20-pound bags are usually made with an oak base.
Adding smoke to short cooks:
Lighting a pellet tube for a hot and fast cook such as chicken, burgers or steaks infuses a smokier flavor along with the chargrilled crispiness from the higher temperatures from cooking directly over the fire.
Author’s note: I recently smoked chicken thighs for 45 minutes at 180 degrees and added a smoke tube filled with oak pellets, then seared the thighs over direct flame. My family commented on how they could taste more smoke on the food. I will admit that it made for excellent tacos made with the Monterey Jack cheese I smoked a few weeks ago.
Adding smoke to longer cooks:
Using a pellet tube at the beginning of a long cook allows you to add a steady supply of light smoke flavor during the crucial first few hours of long cooking sessions, while the meat is absorbing the most smoke. If you wrap your meat in butcher paper or foil, you can remove the smoke tube at that time since the smoke is less likely to get through to the meat. This should add the extra smoke you are looking for.
Author’s note: I recently used this process with some hickory pellets to make a savory pork shoulder (Stay tuned! This recipe has been gaining a lot of fans throughout our team and our families, so we plan to share the recipe soon in another article). What I found is that I could taste the extra smoke that I was expecting, but it wasn't overpowering.