Whether you’re new to the grilling game or a seasoned pro, you’ve probably heard about wood pellets. This ingenious creation provides outdoor chefs with an alternative to charcoal and propane as a fuel source. But are wood pellets safe for grilling? Read on to learn the answer.
About Wood Pellets
Wood pellets are small cylinder-shaped chunks of compressed hardwood sawdust. As a fuel source, they’re popular due to their renewable nature and the fact that they burn cleanly and efficiently. Pellets also represent a cost-effective way to heat your home—or, in this case, to power your grill.
If you’re hoping to use wood pellets for grilling, we would recommend investing in a pellet grill or smoker. These devices are equipped with a side-facing box known as a hopper, which is used to store the pellets. When the grill is turned on, an auger mechanism feeds the pellets into the firebox, thereby keeping the fire at a consistent temperature.
It’s possible to use wood pellets in a charcoal grill or electric smoker. However, you’ll get better results with a grill that was designed to use pellets as the primary fuel source. Should you decide to go ahead and try using wood pellets on a charcoal fire, here’s an instructional video to help you get started.
A Word About Wood Pellet Production
Transforming hardwood into pellets is a multi-step process. First of all, the wood is milled, meaning it’s passed through a machine that compacts the material into a substance that resembles bread dough. This substance is then forced through holes in a press, which increases the temperature, thereby creating a sort of “glue” within the wood’s natural fibers.
Just before the pellets are packaged for sale, they’re submitted to a screening process to remove any lingering sawdust or other residue. After that, they’re packed into bags and transferred to retail outlets.
Wood Pellets vs. Food-Grade Wood Pellets
As you might have guessed, not all wood pellets are suitable for grilling. The type that’s made solely for home heating purposes should never be used for cooking. Instead of pure hardwood sawdust, these can be composed of softwoods and charcoal, in addition to other fillers that can impart a chemical flavor to cooked food.
To ensure that your pellets will be safe for cooking, look for “food-grade” wood pellets. These are made exclusively of leftover hardwood scraps, with no dangerous fillers. As such, they’ll imbue your food with natural smoke flavor and nothing else.
Be aware, however, that even food-grade wood pellets might use certain binding agents in their composition. This doesn’t necessarily make them dangerous, but it can still impart an off-putting taste. The only way to be sure that a product is additive-free is to research the brand in advance. If the label lists only “100% Pure Hardwood” or something similar, then it’s an all-natural brand.
Are Wood Pellets Safe For Grilling?
While we’re huge proponents of outdoor cooking, we should point out that grilling carries inherent risks no matter what fuel source you use. The method tends to generate a great deal of smoke, which can damage the lungs through long exposure.
Similarly, when meat is cooked quickly over high heat, as in most grilling applications, the natural fats and juices tend to drip down on the flames. The resulting flare-ups can create a breeding ground for heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are potentially hazardous chemicals that can react with human genetic material to promote the growth of certain cancers.
This risk is inherent whether you’re grilling with charcoal, propane, or wood pellets. Fortunately, the risk is also fairly low, especially if you take care to avoid flare-ups in the first place.
How To Minimize the Risk
Try to maintain a steady, even heat when cooking on the grill. Since no one enjoys eating meat that’s been charred to a cinder, this is good advice to follow in any case. Fortunately, most modern pellet grills are outfitted with convection fans that will make your job that much easier.
Marinating the meat will also cut down on HCA and PAH risks. That’s because the marinade ingredients form a natural barrier around the food, keeping the chemicals from penetrating the surface.
Finally, make sure to trim as much fat as possible before adding the meat to the grill. Less fat equals fewer flare-ups, which is why lean meats such as chicken and fish are ideal candidates for the grill. You can even forego the meat altogether and grill a hearty vegetable like eggplant instead.
Will wood pellet smoke have an adverse affect on the planet? This is certainly a concern. The good news? Wood pellets burn more cleanly and efficiently than charcoal, and they’re more environmentally sound overall. While it’s true that excess smoke leads to pollution, using a pellet grill to cook a meal or two per week shouldn’t be an issue.
Once you’ve determined that the pellets are free of fillers and binding agents, you can concentrate on flavor.
If you’ve ever used wood chips for grilling or smoking, you’ll know that they can be made using any one of several different wood types. The same is true of wood pellets, which is another reason why they’ve become so popular in recent years.
Here’s a look at some of the most popular wood types that are available for grilling.
This is one of the milder woods used for grilling and smoking, with a slight sweetness that pairs well with pork, poultry, and most vegetables. It’s also a good “starter” type if you’ve never used wood pellets before.
Even more subtle than apple, alder carries earthy undertones that complement the natural flavors of grilled foods without being overwhelming. It pairs well with just about everything except game meats, which usually require a stronger hit of smoke.
Rich and nutty with faint hints of bacon, pecan is an excellent partner for chicken and other poultry. It can hold its own with red meat as well, but we would recommend adding a dose of hickory if you’re using it to grill a hearty steak.
Ideal for barbecued chicken, cherry wood is mild and sweet. It will also impart a faint red color during cooking, especially for low-and-slow applications like smoking.
This wood carries a distinctly sweet flavor that can be overpowering in large doses. Use it to imbue salmon, pork, and chicken with warmth and richness.
Oak represents a step up on the intensity scale, with a medium-strong smoke taste that’s slightly sweet. Try blending it with apple, hickory, or cherry for a well-rounded flavor combination.
Strong and savory, hickory evokes the flavors that most people associate with good barbecue. It imparts a rich, smoky taste that brings out the best qualities in roasts and smoked meats.
The most intense wood flavor of all, mesquite can be exceptionally bitter unless it’s used sparingly. We would recommend mixing a bit of mesquite in with a milder wood when smoking a whole beef brisket.
Finally, be aware that some pellets might contain a filler wood such as oak, even if they’re labeled as cherry or hickory. This is normal, as it helps the fire to maintain a consistent, even heat. Don’t worry—you’ll still get the flavor profile you were looking for, even with the filler wood lingering in the background.
Are wood pellets safe for grilling? They certainly are, as long as you know what you’re doing. Choosing all-natural food-grade brands, selecting the flavor that works best with your designated ingredients, and maintaining a steady grill temperature will help to ensure your health and overall success.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Related article: How long do pellets last in a pellet grill?