How To Use Wood Pellets in a Charcoal Grill: Holy Smoke

Do you like the idea of using wood pellets to flavor your grilled meats, but you aren’t quite ready to invest in a full-blown pellet smoker? You’re in luck–you can use your charcoal grill in the meantime. While the technique is markedly different, you should be pleased with the results. Read on to learn how to use wood pellets in a charcoal grill for optimum smoke flavor.

About Wood Pellets

Designed to be a fuel source for pellet grills, wood pellets are small bullet-shaped pieces of compressed hardwood. They’re actually made from wood shavings and sawdust, which are subjected to a high-heat process that binds them together into neat, compact cylinders.

What’s great about wood pellets is the variety of flavor that they provide. While charcoal contributes a satisfying smoky taste, hardwood allows grillers to experiment with an array of flavors, running the spectrum from mild to intense. For more information on the types of wood available, see Flavor Profiles, below.

It’s important to note that the wood pellets used for grilling are not the same as the ones that are sold as a home heating fuel. Heating pellets are exposed to more chemicals during the manufacturing process, which makes them a no-go for cooking purposes. When buying wood pellets, always check the labeling to make sure that the brand is designed for outdoor cooking and not for indoor pellet stoves.

Benefits of Grilling With Wood Pellets

Using wood pellets delivers a strong hit of flavor, but that’s not the only reason why they’re so popular. There’s an elemental satisfaction that comes from burning wood to cook our food–after all, the practice dates back to our earliest days as a species. While charcoal is essentially wood that’s been deprived of oxygen until only the carbon remains, it doesn’t carry the same positive connotations that pure hardwood does.

If you want to use wood for cooking, though, regular logs aren’t the ideal choice. For one thing, they usually contain traces of dirt, which makes for a less appealing fire. Logs that are ringed with bark don’t burn as cleanly, either. This method also makes it difficult to maintain a consistent temperature for cooking, which is why pellets began to emerge as a popular option in the first place.

Unlike charcoal, which can create a great deal of ash, pellets leave behind relatively little residue. Better still, cooking with wood pellets instead of lump charcoal may actually save you money in the long run–although the initial expense of the pellet grill may take a while to recoup. If you learn how to use wood pellets in a charcoal grill, you can sidestep this issue.

Pellets also represent a more environmentally sound choice, at least when stacked up against charcoal. Because they’re made from the byproducts of processed wood, they’re a repurposed material, giving them an edge from an ecological standpoint. However, it’s important to stress that you should only choose pellets that are free of chemicals or additives.

Flavor Profiles

Let’s take a look at the types of wood pellets that are most widely available for barbecuing purposes. The mild woods are listed at the top, while the ones at the bottom pack the greatest punch in the flavor department.

Apple

One of the mildest woods available, apple is a great pick for chicken breasts and pork chops. The wood doesn’t stand up as well to stronger meats like beef or lamb.

Alder

This is a great multi-purpose wood, suitable for everything from vegetables to steaks. It doesn’t impart a particular flavor of its own–just a good hit of clean smoke.

Cherry

Another mild-flavored choice that delivers a well-rounded sweetness to beef and pork. Be aware that the wood can give the cooked food a reddish hue, making it unsuitable for most grilled seafood.

Pecan

A rich, nutty wood with a hint of spice. If you ever use your charcoal grill to make homemade cornbread, try adding a handful of pecan wood pellets to the fire next time.

Maple

Maple’s natural sweetness makes it a good partner for poultry, particularly turkey. While you probably aren’t in the habit of roasting whole birds on a charcoal-fired unit, turkey tenderloins and cutlets are excellent on the grill. Try pairing a maple-smoked turkey tenderloin with homemade cranberry sauce and grill-roasted red potatoes.

Oak

If you’d like to kick the intensity up a notch, give oak pellets a try. Oak-grilled beef tenderloin has been a menu staple for years, but we think the wood gives a nice complexity to firm white-fleshed fish as well.

Hickory

This is probably the most sought-after flavor in the grilling community, but be forewarned that the wood can impart a bitter aftertaste if it’s used in large quantities. This isn’t something you need to worry about if you’re burning wood pellets on a charcoal grill, but if pellets are your main fuel source, you might want to pair hickory with apple or alder wood to offset the intensity. Try using hickory the next time you make smoked pork butt.

Mesquite

The granddaddy of smoke flavor, mesquite is not for the faint of heart. The taste can be overwhelming, so use it sparingly with hearty cuts like beef brisket. This is another one that works well when it’s paired with milder woods.

Read our comparison between Hickory and Mesquite here.

Wood Pellets vs. Wood Chips

Why not just use wood chips instead of pellets? While wood chips are certainly an option, pellets carry their own set of advantages.

Wood chips are just what they sound like–actual pieces of hardwood that have been subjected to a wood chipper so they’re small and irregularly shaped. Unlike pellets, which contribute a steady stream of smoke, chips combust more quickly. This provides shorter, more intense bursts of flavor.

Because wood chips burn faster than pellets, you’ll probably go through more of them as you cook. This gives pellets the edge when it comes to convenience, not to mention cost-effectiveness. Wood pellets also burn hotter and at a steadier rate, making it easier to control the temperature of the cooking fire.

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Planning Ahead

When you cook with a pellet grill, the fuel is stored inside a hopper attached to the side of the unit. The auger system feeds the pellets into the firebox at a pace that’s dependent on the set temperature. Because charcoal-fired units aren’t equipped with a digital control panel, you’ll have to feed the pellets into the fire manually.

So, how many wood pellets will you need? I’ve found that 1/2 cup every 45 minutes or so is usually all that’s needed. However, you should consider this a guideline and not an ironclad rule. If you prefer to use more smoke, plan on about 1 cup per hour. On the other hand, you can also cut down on this amount to reduce the amount of smoke flavor that you’re getting.

Also, consider what you’re planning to grill. A couple of burgers will only take 10-15 minutes to cook, so you won’t need to stock up on a ton of pellets beforehand. A whole packer brisket, meanwhile, will require several hours of cooking time, so make sure you have a generous supply of pellets before you fire up the grill.

How To Use Wood Pellets in a Charcoal Grill

1. Start the fire.

Remove the grilling grate. Tuck a few sheets of crumpled newspaper into the bottom of a chimney starter, then fill the starter to the brim with your charcoal-pellet blend. It’s also fine to use fewer coals if you’re only cooking a small batch of food.

Set the chimney starter in the base of the grill and use a match or stick lighter to ignite the newspaper. Make sure the newspaper ignites the coals in turn, then wait about 15 minutes.

When the coals are coated with light gray ash, it’s time to transfer them to the grill. Be sure to wear a set of heatproof gloves as you carefully dump the hot coals from the chimney starter into the cooking chamber. Depending on the type of grilling you’ll be doing, you can arrange the coals to create both indirect and direct heat cooking zones.

Replace the grilling grate and allow it to heat up for 5-10 minutes. Adjust the vents to create the cooking temperature you’re going for.

You can read our article on how to start a charcoal grill without lighter fluid.

2. Fire up the pellets.

Once the grill has achieved the desired temperature, it’s time to add the wood pellets. Try to scatter them in an even layer across the coals, so that they burn at the same rate. Replace the grilling grate and wait for the pellets to ignite.

As we mentioned, add about 1/2 cup of pellets. This should give you roughly 45 minutes of smoke flavor, so don’t wait too long before proceeding to the next step. As you grow more comfortable with this process, you can adjust the pellet quantity as you like.

3. Start cooking.

When the pellets have ignited, lightly oil the grilling grates and cook your ingredients as you normally would. For cooking applications lasting longer than half an hour, add more pellets as needed.

Although 1/2 cup of pellets can provide you with 45 minutes of smoke, we would advise adding more pellets every 30 minutes or so. This will ensure that the new pellets have a chance to catch fire before the old ones have burned out completely.

About Pellet Tube Smokers

Some experts swear by these nifty inventions, which are designed to impart a more powerful and robust smoke flavor. Pellet tube smokers are just what they sound like–small tubes that are filled with pellets and set on top of a charcoal fire. Because the pellets are packed so closely together, they deliver a broad plume of smoke that rises to envelop the food as it cooks.

Pellet tube smokers are inexpensive and easy to come by. If you want to experiment with using wood pellets in a charcoal grill on a regular basis, go ahead and give them a try.

Here’s a cool video demonstration that should give you some idea of how pellet tube smokers work.

How To Use Wood Pellets in a Smoker Box

As an alternative, you can add the wood pellets to the smoker box attachment of your charcoal grill. Not all grills are outfitted with these, but if you have one, this is a cool technique that gives you more control over the temperature of the wood pellets as they burn.

Start with high-quality wood pellets in the flavor of your choice. Fill the smoker box until it’s about three-quarters full, then close the lid. After you’ve transferred the lit coals to the cooking chamber, place the smoker box directly on top of the fire. Replace the grilling grate.

Wait for 5-10 minutes, or until you see thin plumes of white smoke streaming from the holes in the smoker box. At this point, adjust the heating vents until you’ve achieved the temperature you want. Prepare your ingredients as you normally would.

Can You Substitute Wood Pellets for Charcoal?

Not if you’re using a charcoal grill. These units were designed to use charcoal as the primary fuel source. If you were to add the same amount of pellets and attempt to use them without charcoal, they would burn out too quickly to cook the food with any efficiency. When you use wood pellets in a charcoal grill, remember that they’re there to complement the fuel, not replace it.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to use wood pellets in a charcoal grill is simple. It’s not all that different from grilling with charcoal itself–all you need to do is remember to replenish the wood pellets every 30 minutes or so. For shorter cooking applications, you won’t even have to go this far. Just throw a handful of pellets on the hot coals and enjoy all that mouthwatering smoke flavor.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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