Without a doubt, Traeger and Big Green Egg are two of the hottest names in grilling. Each has generated a ton of buzz while cultivating a rabid following that believes they’ve found BBQ nirvana. Unsurprisingly, such devout popularity has fueled plenty of comparisons. However, comparing these BBQ behemoths goes well beyond two grills. As the best-known pellet grill and kamado brands, the Traeger and Big Green Egg names are often used when referring to any pellet or kamado grill. So the real question isn’t why you’d buy a Traeger vs. a Big Green Egg, but why you’d get a pellet grill vs. a kamado grill.
On the surface, pellet grills and kamado grills couldn’t be more different. One is a modern invention with sensors, circuits, and advanced technology, the other is a traditional ceramic charcoal grill with a 3,000-year history. Obvious differences aside, though, pellet grills and kamados share the same strength: versatility. At the root of their popularity is an almost limitless capability—both pellet grills and kamado grills can grill, smoke, roast, and bake. The same cooker that grills steaks can be used to smoke brisket, slow-roast a turkey, or bake pizza. Such flexibility is attractive to people looking for a single do-everything backyard cooker.
To better understand the unique strengths and weaknesses of each type of grill, it’s first important to know the basics of pellet grills and kamados.
What is a Pellet Grill?
When wood pellets emerged as an affordable heating alternative during the 1970’s oil crisis, Joe Traeger developed a pellet-burning furnace. In 1985, he applied the same technology to a grill. His invention, the Traeger Grill, was an electric grill that automatically fed pellets to the fire and maintained its own heat. A versatile set-it and forget-it grill, the Traeger could grill, roast, bake, and smoke at the touch of a button. Both fuel source and flavor enhancer, the hardwood pellets produced the heat for cooking and infused food with a light smokiness reminiscent of authentic BBQ. (Read our Pellet Grill FAQ)
Traeger’s invention served as inspiration to brands like Louisiana Grills, Memphis™ Wood Fire Grills, FireCraft®, and Fast Eddy’s™ Pellet Grills. Although today’s pellet grills have evolved from the original Traeger, they still work very much the same way. You simply set the desired temperature into a digital controller, which uses algorithms to calculate the amount of pellets needed. A rotating auger then feeds the pellets to the fire at regular intervals while a fan distributes heat evenly throughout the grill. More advanced pellet grills also use sophisticated sensors that continuously monitor their temperature and communicate with the controller, telling it adjust the pellet feed as necessary.
What is a Kamado Grill?
Kamado grills have their origins in clay cookers that date back 3,000 years to China. However, the modern kamado grill is derived from the “Mushikamado,” a Japanese ceramic cooker with a removable dome brought back to America by soldiers after WWII. In 1974 Big Green Egg began producing its updated version of the mushikamado, and its popularity spawned an entire market of kamado grills, including Kamado Joe®, Primo®, and Saffire.
At the heart of the kamado’s popularity is its versatility, which is owed to a combination of construction and design. Traditional kamado grills are ceramic, which absorbs heat incredibly well. That heat retention allows kamados to reach temperatures of 800°F+ and maintain a consistent low temperature. Meanwhile, its egg shape maximizes airflow for efficient convection cooking. The result is a multi-purpose cooker that can be used for high-heat grilling and searing, roasting and baking, or authentic low-and-slow smoking.
The Pros and Cons of Pellet Grills and Kamado Grills
While their reputation as do-everything cookers puts pellet grills and kamado grills at the forefront of any conversation about best backyard grills, each has specific strengths and weaknesses that might persuade you to select one over the other.
The Pros of Pellet Grills
- An Easy-to-Use, Set-It and Forget-It Grill
- Excellent Temperature Control
- User-Friendly Features
- Many Sizes for Many Needs
- Wood Fire Flavor
An Easy-to-Use, Set-It and Forget-It Grill - For all their technology and capabilities, pellet grills are remarkably simple to use. In fact, if you can press a button or turn a knob, you can cook on a pellet grill. They are true set-it and forget-it grills that require little effort or attention. All you have to do is load your favorite hardwood pellets, set the desired temperature into the controller, and walk away. The pellet grill does the rest, automatically maintaining that temperature. This allows you to entertain, relax, or do just about anything other than babysit the grill.
Excellent Temperature Control - A consistent temperature is key to cooking great food. Most of today’s pellet grills feature digital controllers that have either a multi-position knob with temperatures in 25°F increments or one-touch buttons that allow you to set temperatures in 5°F increments. A decent pellet grill should be able to maintain +/-20°F, about the same as a kitchen oven. Better pellet grills with sophisticated PID controllers can precisely hold the desired temperature within a few degrees, even in wind and cold.
User-Friendly Features - Many pellet grills have integrated user-friendly technology into their digital controllers to make cooking even easier. Some brands offer meat probes that can be used to monitor the internal cooking temperature of your food on the controller’s LCD display. Others go a step further, offering programmable meat probes that lower the heat when your food is done cooking. Some pellet grills have even begun incorporating WiFi connectivity, allowing you to monitor and control your grill from your phone, tablet, or computer.
Many Sizes for Many Needs - Pellet grills come in a wide range of sizes to fulfill a variety of needs—from small portable pellet grills for camping and tailgating, to mid-sized grills for feeding a family and hosting friends, and even extra large pellet grills for catering and competitions.
Wood Fire Flavor - The food-grade pellets that fuel pellet grills are made from real hardwood and infuse food with a smoky wood fire flavor. Available in a variety of hardwoods like hickory, pecan, apple, and cherry, the pellets can be paired with foods to compliment and accentuate its natural flavor.
The Cons of Pellet Grills
- Needs Electricity
- More Parts to Replace
- Limited High-Heat Capability
- Pellets Aren’t Readily Available Everywhere
Need Electricity - Pellet grills need electricity to operate and require a standard 110v outlet. Although you can use an extension cord, this limits where you can cook with a pellet grill. Even portable pellet grills that can be taken on-the-go need a power source, such as an inverter for drawing power from a 12v battery.
More Parts to Replace - There’s no denying the technology behind pellet grills is impressive. However, the parts responsible for a pellet grill’s capabilities—the sensors, control board, auger, fan, firepot—are added components that could eventually need replacing. Compared to a traditional charcoal grill, there’s a higher probability you’ll have to invest money in maintenance and replacement parts over the life of a pellet grill.
Limited High-Heat Capability - Pellet grills are primarily indirect cookers that do not typically excel at high-heat cooking—a deflector plate sits between the food and fire. In fact, many pellet grills max out at 425°F, not nearly hot enough for a proper sear. Although some high-quality pellet grills reach 500-700°F and offer open-flame grilling options, they are in the minority and the grilling zone is usually a relatively small portion of the main grate.
The Pros of Kamado Grills
- Authentic Charcoal Flavor
- Kamado Grills Get Hot, Real Hot
- Efficient Fuel Consumption
- Food Stays Moist
Authentic Charcoal Flavor - For many purists, BBQ begins and ends with charcoal. Gas is not an option and neither are wood pellets. Kamado grills are traditional charcoal cookers, so you get that rich authentic BBQ flavor that only charcoal can produce.
Kamado Grills Get Hot, Real Hot - Thanks to their remarkable insulation and airflow, kamado grills can get incredibly hot. Combine that with the fact that they use lump charcoal, which gets hotter than briquettes, and the typical kamado grill can easily reach 700-800°F. That type of high heat makes searing a cinch and is the perfect temperature range for cooking pizzeria-style pizza on the grill.
Efficient Fuel Consumption - With a kamado grill, a little charcoal goes a long way. Because they are so well-insulated, kamado grills not only hold in heat, they keep out unwanted air, making kamado grills very efficient burners. In fact, if you’re smoking at 250°F, a pound of lump charcoal will likely last several hours.
Food Stays Moist - Kamado grills don’t just hold in heat, they also lock in moisture, which is particularly important on long cooks. With many smokers, you have to compensate for evaporation by putting a water pan in the cooking chamber or regularly spritzing meat to keep it from drying out. However, kamado grills are so well insulated that the food’s natural moisture remains in the cooking chamber, so everything comes off the grill tender and moist.
The Cons of Kamado Grills
- Heavy, Immobile, and Fragile
- Small Cooking Area
- Temperature Control Can Be Difficult
- Adding Charcoal and Wood is a Pain
Heavy, Immobile, and Fragile - The obvious benefit of ceramic construction is heat retention. However, those thick ceramic walls also add a lot of weight. An average-sized kamado grill weighs in excess of 150 pounds and larger models are well over 200 pounds. That makes moving a kamado difficult, unless you have a cart, which often has to be bought separately at an extra cost. Ceramic is also fairly fragile and can be easily nicked or cracked. However, there are steel kamados like the Broil King Keg and Weber Summit Charcoal Grill, which are somewhat lighter and more durable.
Small Cooking Area - The average kamado grill has a 19 inch (diameter) cooking grid, or 280 square inches of cooking space. That’s not a lot of room—in fact, it’s roughly the same size as a small 2-burner gas grill or a portable pellet grill for camping. Even “big” kamado grills only have 24 inch grates and 450 square inches of cooking space. In order to get more cooking area, you need to buy extra racks and grill extenders. However, even then, there’s a limit to how much cooking space you can add to a kamado. For people who like to host large gatherings, kamado simply may not offer enough cooking space.
Temperature Control Can Be Difficult - Kamado grills hold and maintain heat well, but nailing a precise temperature takes a lot of trial and error—you need to learn how much to open and close the dampers and to what extent each adjustment will affect the temperature. Furthermore, going up in temperature is easy, but bringing it down can take some time and patience. Because kamado grills hold their heat so well, they tend to stay hot for several hours after you’re done cooking, making it difficult to lower the temperature if you overshoot your mark.
Adding Charcoal and Wood is a Pain - Let’s say you’re 7 hours into smoking a pork butt and suddenly realize you’re losing heat and need to add more charcoal. You’re going to have to open the grill, remove the food, take off the grill grate, take out the diffuser plate, add the charcoal, and then put everything back in. In the meantime, you probably lost all of your heat.