Pellet Grills vs Gas Grills

By Bob McCarthy

More than ever, people want a versatile, easy-to-use grill. Not simply satisfied with a cooker that can handle burgers and dogs, they want one that can do everything—grill, smoking, sear, roast, and bake.

In the world of BBQ, the two easiest grills to cook on are gas grills and pellet grills. Both light easy, get up to temp quickly, and have you cooking in no time. They also happen to be two of most versatile grills, giving you the ability to cook everything from grilled fish and seared steaks to roasted chicken and BBQ ribs. However, there are also some notable differences between gas grills and pellet grills—from the fuel they use and how well they maintain temperature to what they cost and to the type of cooking they excel at.

So what’s the better choice, gas or pellet? That largely depends on your wants and needs. To better help you navigate the decision, here’s a breakdown of how gas grills and pellet grills compare.

Ease of Use

One of the most appealing things about gas grills, and the reason they’re so popular, is how easy they are to use. So long as there’s gas in the tank, you just press the igniter and adjust the knobs to achieve the desired heat. The most difficult part of cooking on a gas grill is dialing in a specific cooking temperature. If you’re simply grilling burgers, it’s not an issue, but if you want to roast a chicken at 350°F, you may need to play with the burner settings to figure out how to achieve the desired temperature.

Pellet grills are even easier to use than gas grills, taking simplicity to a whole new level thanks to digital controllers that automatically achieve the correct cooking temperature. In fact, if you can use an oven, you can use a pellet grill. Once the hopper is loaded with pellets, you just use the digital control board to light the grill and set the cooking temperature. True set-it and forget-it cookers, pellet grills maintain the desired temperature on their own, so you can walk away from the grill confident that your food will cook properly.

Temperature Control

Many people never give a thought to how well their gas grill maintains its temperature because they use it almost exclusively for high-heat grilling. But for those who want do more, a quality gas grill can also be used to smoke, slow roast, or bake. Broil King and Napoleon grills, for instance, have efficient burners that produce consistent heat and well-designed cookboxes that retain that heat exceptionally well and distribute it evenly throughout the cooking area, allowing you to cook as well as you do with your kitchen oven.

The hardest part of controlling the temperature on a gas grill is figuring out how high/low to run each of the burners to achieve a desired temperature, and that requires some trial and error. Whether your gas grill can then maintain that temperature for the entire cook depends on how well it’s built—a good gas grill can hold its temperature within several degrees, while a cheap one will likely leak heat and suffer from temperature fluctuations. Because they are primarily direct cookers, gas grills are also prone to flare-ups that can char food and cause some pieces to cook quicker than others.

Automatic temperature control is a pellet grill’s most impressive feature. All pellet grills allow you to set the temperature as you would a kitchen oven—depending on the grill, you typically set the temperature in 25° on a knob-style controller or 5° on a one-touch push-button controller. How well it then maintains that temperature depends on the brand and model. A basic pellet grill can generally hold its temperature within +/- 20-25°, while an advanced PID controller can maintain +/-5°. Either way, so long as there are pellets in the hopper, a pellet grill will continue to hold its temperature for hours on end.

Because pellet grills are primarily indirect cookers with a diffuser plate between the fire and the food, there are no flare-ups or hot spots. They also utilize an induction fan, which circulates heat evenly throughout the grill for convection-style cooking that produces consistent cooking temperatures across the entire grill surface.

Temperature Range

Most gas grills are extremely good for medium- to high-heat cooking. The average gas grill has no problem reaching 500°F, which is where you need to be if you want to sear a steak, and better models can get to 700°F or higher, which is ideal for cooking pizza. It’s on the lower range that some gas grills struggle. A well-designed gas grill with good heat retention can be used for smoking low-and-slow BBQ and will have no trouble holding a temperature of 225°F. However, cheap low-quality models are less likely to hold their heat and maintain consistent temperatures, particularly over the course of a long cook.

Also, while it’s possible to do low-and-slow cooking on a gas grill, to do it right you have to set up direct and indirect cooking zones, which often cuts into your usable cooking space (you typically don’t use the direct cooking zone when cooking at low temperature).

Meanwhile, most pellet grills excel at low-temp cooking, but aren’t quite as good at producing high heat. Pellet grills were invented as an easy-to-use alternative to smokers, so it’s no surprising that they’re strength is cooking between 200°F and 350°F. That makes them great for BBQ, baking, and slow roasting. However, having a diffuser plate inhibits the grill’s ability to achieve high temperatures. In fact, many pellet grills don’t go above 425-450°F. While that’s hot enough to grill hamburgers or hot dogs, it’s not hot enough to sear.

There are some pellet grills, like Louisiana Grills and Memphis Grill, that reach 600-700°F, but they are the exception not the rule. Because many people want a single grill that can truly do everything, some pellet grill makers have developed a direct grilling option that allows you to use a portion of the grill to cook over an open flame. The upside is that you can then use your pellet grill to sear; the downside is that you can usually only do it on small portion of the grill’s surface.

Versatility

Far too many people think their gas grill is only good for cooking burgers, steaks, and hot dogs over an intense flame. That’s a shame, because a quality gas grill can cook as well as a kitchen oven. White it’s true that gas grills excel at high-heat direct grilling, they can also be used to slow-roast chicken, bake dessert, or cook pizza. You can also turn your gas grill into a smoker and make authentic BBQ like ribs or brisket. However, not all gas grills are created equal, and some lesser models may have trouble holding a steady low temperature or suffer from fluctuations and hot spots.

Known for their versatility, pellet grills are often hailed as do-everything cookers. Because they’re primarily indirect cookers, pellet grills excel at low- to mid-temp cooking styles like smoking, roasting, and baking. But with many models now capable of reaching 500°F or better, high-heat grilling is also a possibility. However, it’s still indirect cooking. If you want a true do-it-all pellet grill that gives you the ability to cook over an open flame, you’ll need to get one with a direct grilling option.

Flavor

One of the biggest complaints about gas grills is that they don’t produce the same flavor as charcoal grills or wood smokers, both of which use fuel that infuses food with a rich layer of smokiness. By contrast, gas grills are fueled by flavorless gas that contributes no taste to food. Of course, you can use wood chips or pellets on a gas grill to add some smoke, but it’s not quite as effective as cooking on a smoker. The flip side, of course, is that many people don’t like smoky food, making a gas grill the perfect choice.

Pellet grills are often referred to as pellet smokers because they infuse food with smoke. Like a traditional smoker, they burn real wood—hardwood pellets rather than splits or chunks. Both the heat source and a flavor enhancer, the smoldering pellets give food the unmistakable taste that is authentic wood fire flavor. Available in a variety of woods, they can be mixed and matched to complement your food’s natural flavor.

Selection

If you’re shopping for a gas grill, it’s pretty easy to find one that fits your lifestyle and needs. There are almost limitless options in terms of size, construction, and price. Whether you want an inexpensive portable grill, a three-burner to feed the family, or a high-end built-in for an outdoor kitchen, there’s a gas grill for you. And it doesn’t matter if you want stainless steel or painted steel or whether your budget is $75 or $7500, there will almost certainly be several different options to choose from.

Although pellet grills have exploded in popularity the past few years, they’re still a new and growing category. While more pellet grills are introduced each year, the number of models pale compared to gas grills. There are a number of different brands to choose from and a variety of sizes and price points, but the available options in each sub-category might be limited. For instance, currently there aren’t many stainless steel pellet grills to choose from, and very few under $1,000. And there’s really only one brand offering built-in models. However, as the pellet grill category continues to grow, it will diversify, leading to more choices for customers.

Affordability

gas grills are affordable in that there are many affordable gas grill options. For those on a limited budget, it’s possible to buy a serviceable three-burner gas grill on sale for $125 or a $50 tabletop gas grill. They may not be the best grills, and might have to replaced in two years, but they are an attractive option for people who simply want to grill burgers and dogs throughout the summer without spending a fortune. Even if you want to step up in quality, you can get a high-quality stainless steel three-burner grill like the Broil King Signet 320 for under $400 or Broil King Baron S420 for under $500.

On average, pellet grills cost more than gas grills. The technology that makes pellet grills so great—the automated digital controller, the high-tech sensors and probes—add to the final cost. There are still affordable pellet grills available, just not below $300—and at that price, it’ll likely be a very small pellet grill like the Traeger PTG+. Realistically, you should probably expect to pay over $500-$700 for a decent small- to mid-sized pellet grill and more for advanced models and larger units.

Appearance

Everyone is familiar with the familiar gas grill design. Compared to charcoal grills and smokers, they tend to have a sleek appearance—the grill head atop a cart or cabinet base. It’s become the standard for backyard cooking and entertaining. There are a variety of finishes and colors to choose from, with models available in powder-coated steel, porcelain-coated steel, and stainless steel, not to mention built-in models that can be installed in an outdoor kitchen or entertaining area.

Created as an alternative to a traditional offset smoker, pellet grills were initially designed to look like smokers—made almost exclusively of powder-coated steel, they featured barrel-shaped bodies and smokestacks. While some brands like Memphis and FireCraft have updated that look, giving their grills an updated appearance, many pellet grills still have the rustic design and down-home appeal of traditional smokers. Likewise, most pellet grills are still made of powder-coated steel. There are only a handful of brands making stainless steel pellet grills, and even fewer that offer built-in options for an outdoor kitchen.

Bells and Whistles

Traditionally, gas grills have offered few bells and whistles, usually side burners and rotisseries. More recently, though, brands like Napoleon and Broil King have started offering options like internal grill lights and illuminated knobs on higher-end models. Although there are currently only a couple brands with integrated Bluetooth or WiFi features for monitoring and/or controlling your grill remotely, they are features that are sure to be included on a growing number of grills in the coming year.

Because pellet grills are inherently tech products—they use an algorithm-run digital controller to automatically maintain a precise temperature—they are a natural fit for advanced features. Many pellet grills offer integrated meat probes that allow you to monitor the temp on the LCD display, and some can even be programmed to put the grill into a hold temperature when the food is done cooking. And, more so than other types of grills, pellet grills are ahead of the curve in offering WiFi-enabled models, with several available (including the etire Memphis Grills lineup and the Traeger Timberline) and more already being planned for future release.