Grilling is cooking meat over direct or indirect heat.

Smoking is cooking meat inside a closed space where the temperature is controlled, allowing the natural smoke from burning combustibles to flow over the meat. Could there be another cooking method that captures the primordial essence of cooking more than smoking? 

Wood. Fire. Smoke. Meat. Fat. Flavor.  The constant action of allowing smoke to gradually surround and slowly heat the meat causing the fats and collagens to melt and enter, imparting wonderful and varied flavors, is an addicting affair both to cook and to eat. Smoked meats are often called barbecue in most parts of the country, and any BBQ joint in the country worth its salt is smoking its meat in some fashion.

BUT OK, I GET IT! There is a very enthusiastic group of grillers and smokers who swear by their pellet grill and wouldn’t use anything else for their BBQing. You pour the pellets into the hopper, and then the auger moves the pellets into the firebox, where they are ignited to produce heat and smoke. Above the firebox lies the heat diffuser, which distributes the heat evenly and prevents flair-ups.

You can set the temperature and even the cooking time with a knob, very much like you do with an oven. So automatically regulating the amount of heat, thus smoke, helps make the grilling process simple and mindless.

There is also a fan that circulates the heat and smoke. There’s even an app now, so you don’t even need to be at your pellet grill to set it and watch it. And pellets come in all kinds of wood flavors, so just pick your desired smoke taste. This is an exceptionally easy way to grill and smoke. Throw on your steak and walk away!

pellet grill auger
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wood smoker grill grate
pile of wood pellets

So, what’s wrong with trying to smoke meats using a pellet grill? (Spoiler: The Meat Doesn’t Taste As Good, Here’s Why)

The pellet grill was invented so competition smokers could get some well-needed sleep while smoking a brisket for 18 hours. The problem for the competitors was that a pellet grill just could not produce enough smoke to alter the flavor of the meat.

This can only happen when you smoke meats with chunks of wood allowing the smoke to flow indirectly at a low temperature for a long period of time. A pellet grill cannot possibly produce enough smoke because you are not using chunks of wood or charcoal at a very low temperature with an indirect heat source.

Just for clarification, a pellet grill works beautifully for grilling your steak. And according to some, you can even bake, roast, and braise on your pellet grill. But using a pellet grill to actually smoke meats is a frustrating use of your precious time, money, and energy.

The folks over at Napoleon perfectly describe what happens to meat as it smokes,

“But really, it’s any meat that benefits from a low and slow, long cooking treatment to get the best results. The thing these meats have in common is that they are full of connective tissue.

This tissue is filled with collagen. Collagen, when cooked fast, contracts and gains the texture of a rubber band making your meat tough. But if you smoke or slow roast something, like a brisket, then the collagen breaks down and melts. While melting, water gets into this collagen and creates gelatin, basically giving you meat jello, which makes your meat tender, juicy, and flavorful.

Triglycerides, or meat fat, are saturated fatty acids found in meat. These fatty acids have high melting points. That means that when you are smoking meats at lower temperatures for longer periods, those fats melt. This process is called rendering, and it is integral to making your meat juicy and flavorful.”

offset smoker

A wood smoker is rich in tradition, and for the above reasons, BBQ purists consider it the only way to smoke meats.

It is specially created to draw a thick blanket of smoke from the wood indirectly over the meat for a long period of time to break down the collagen and fats, thus imparting delicious and remarkable texture and flavors into your meat.

A wood smoker has three main components that allow air to flow through it, thus allowing the smoke to flow freely over the meat.

The firebox – is located on the side of the offset smoker and this is where the fire is started and kept burning. It has dampers that are manually opened and closed to control the flow of air and smoke.

fire box with smoke
firebox with wood and flame

The grill – is where the meat is placed for the smoke to flow over it.This is referred to as the cooking chamber or “real estate” by the smoking community.

pellet grill controller

The chimney – is where the smoke is released and allowed to escape after it has done its job of imparting wonderful flavors to your meat. It, too, has a damper, which you use to either hold in the heat and smoke or release it.

But, let’s face it, wood smoking requires time, patience, and skill—a skill you will develop over time by trial and error.

Traditional wood smoking is eagerly pursued by smoking enthusiasts because of the learned skill, knowledge, and commitment required to master wood smoking. Wood smoking demands constant observation, awareness, and attention. The secret to great wood smoking is the fact that it is totally controlled by you, and only you, and not some automated machine.

Wood smoking has soul, not machine oil. It’s just you, the wood, the fire, the smoke, and the meat, and taking the time required to ensure the combination of all four is correct. Wood smoking is a commitment to a very lengthy learning curve with extreme highs and lows. Highs when you succeed, lows when you fail. And you will do both, finding satisfaction in the process.

Plus, there is a pot of gold at the end of the smoking rainbow. Actually two.

The flavor you created with the smoke that now happily lives in the meat is yours to taste and enjoy. Adjectives are just words that can’t correctly describe how truly remarkable your meat is. It is indescribable.

And now, the sense of pride and accomplishment in an intense and time-consuming job well done is also indescribable. YOU did it. YOU accomplished it. YOU with your four friends. Now, you are a member of the wood smoker brotherhood in good standing, and we welcome you warmly with smoke-smelling open arms.

So, while a pellet grill will give your meat a light smokey taste from being grilled with a gentle breeze of smoke, smoking meats with wood over indirect heat at a low temperature for a long period of time is really the only definition of smoking. And that is why, after 30 years of smoking, I never switched to a pellet grill.

Let us know down in the comments what you think.

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About Keith Morrison

Chef Keith has been a cook, restaurateur, and food writer for nearly 50 years. Since graduating of culinary school, Keith has completed classes at the world famous Le Cordon Bleu Paris, and has been a chef, manager, owner, consultant and recipe developer for dozens of restaurants and catering companies.

One of Keith's many cooking loves is BBQ in general and the Offset Smoker in particular. Keith has participated in competition BBQ for many years.

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  1. I completely agree. I started with a stick burner for smoking. My wife bought me a pellet grill. The pellet grill is great for grilling, not smoking. Plus some of the bags of mixed pellet types can leave a funky taste.