Straight to the Point
If you're looking for a pellet smoker that offers excellent performance at a reasonable price point, we recommend the Weber SmokeFire EX4. You can read about more of our recommendations below—including models from Traeger, Yoder, and Camp Chef.
Barbecue enthusiasm seems to be growing every year, and many backyard cooks, no longer content with grilling burgers and chicken, are venturing into the mysterious—and myth-laden—realm of smoking. We’ve long been advocates for pellet smokers, and it seems that this equipment is finally coming of age—with brands like Traeger being a household name and grilling giant Weber having broken into the pellet smoker scene.
What is a Pellet Smoker?
Of all the different smoker designs available, pellet smokers are the easiest to use because they're thermostatically controlled, like your kitchen stove. You just select a cooking temperature, and a controller maintains it by feeding wood pellets to a fire pot as needed to maintain your set temp—set it and forget it. You can throw a brisket in a pellet smoker, set it for 225°F (105°C), go to bed, and sleep like a baby, knowing you'll wake up to delicious smoked meat.
It's true that even the entry-level models of pellet smokers are a bit pricey. But I've never met an unhappy pellet smoker owner, even if they paid a few hundred bucks more than the cost of their neighbor's grill. And manufacturers are rising to meet increased consumer demand, with more selections, more features, and more competitive pricing. While many folks struggle trying to get cheap offset and bullet smokers to work, with a pellet smoker, it's easy to make the best smoked ribs, brisket, and pulled pork in the neighborhood.
Where Did Pellet Smokers Come From?
In 1982, Oregon's Traeger Heating introduced a home heating system that burned wood pellets made from compressed sawdust, a by-product of local lumber milling. Since demand for these furnaces and wood pellets dropped off after winter, Traeger came up with a grill that would burn pellets and keep the business afloat over the summer months.
They had the field to themselves for a few years, but the idea was too good to go un-imitated, and soon competitors began popping up. In the early days, most pellet smoker controllers had only three settings—low, medium, high (LMH)—and there was no temperature probe in the oven to create a feedback loop. So, whether you were smoking a few slabs of ribs on a scorching summer day or six pork butts during a blizzard, the controller only knew pellet-feed on and off times for its standard settings. It had no information on the actual temperature inside the cooking chamber.
Today, all serious players in the pellet smoker market have switched to digital thermostatic controllers that dictate pellet-feed commands based on a temperature sensor inside the cooking box. Just like with the oven in your kitchen, you set the desired cooking temperature, and the heating system kicks on and off to maintain that set point. An LED display shows your set temp, and most models allow you to toggle between set temp and actual temp readings from the internal thermostat. Actual temperatures will fluctuate a bit as the controller switches on and off to hover around your set temp, but many sophisticated touch-pad controllers can maintain tighter tolerances than your indoor oven. Some pellet controllers also have integrated probes that let you monitor the internal temperature of whatever you're smoking. Wireless remote control and monitoring from your smartphone or tablet are also increasingly common.
Using accurate digital thermometers to monitor cooking and internal meat temperatures is essential to being all that you can be in the backyard. Unlike the heat estimators built into the lids of most grills and smokers, modern pellet smoker LED displays will give you the real story of what's happening in your smoker. Of course, if your smoker doesn't come with a dual-display system that monitors both cooking and meat temps, you'll still need an accurate digital meat thermometer.
Is It a Smoker or a Grill?
Manufacturers advertise this piece of equipment as both a smoker and a grill, but it's best to think of it as a superb indirect-heat convection smoker, not a grill. Most models just don't do as good a job of searing a steak as a charcoal grill or even a gas grill with a sear burner can. You'll sear steaks better on a $20 hibachi than on most pellet smokers.
To solve this problem, several companies have come up with alternative ways to expose food to the flame by allowing you to use the small area directly above the fuel pot. It's still not as good as a charcoal or sear burner, but better than the designs that are strictly indirect. Another option is to put a griddle (or GrillGrates) on the pellet smoker when it's cranked to high heat, get it blistering-hot, add just a little oil to prevent sticking, and sear by conduction on the metal. It should take only two to three minutes per side. This is a good technique for reverse-seared meats: you start them indirect, low and slow on the cooking grate, with a little smoke, and then sear the surface with direct contact to the hot metal griddle to create a delicious brown crust. It's not as good as searing directly over hot coals or gas, but it's a good compromise.
The Criteria: What to Look for in a Great Pellet Smoker
Since pellet smokers are generally easy to use and most are thermostatically controlled, you can start shopping for one based on size and budget. We do recommend choosing a pellet smoker that utilizes digital thermostatic controllers, because while it’s possible to use a digital meat thermometer, if the whole point of buying a pellet smoker is to have a device that regularly turns out excellent meat, you might as well buy one that can competently do the job. So, above all, look for a pellet smoker that has displays for both cooking temperature and meat temperature.
So which pellet smokers and grills are worth your hard-earned dough? We’ve put 21 through the paces in our grilling, searing, baking, smoking, and long-smoke tests—these are the ones that passed muster.
Also available at Traeger.
One tester noted that “the control panel on this grill seems like it belongs on a spaceship on its way to explore distant and smoky new worlds,” which should help justify the Timberline’s high price point. We found this grill to be easy to navigate and that it overall provided an “intuitive and non-complicated user experience.”
But how does it perform once you’re strapped in and ready for liftoff? Very well, according to our tests. The Timberline delivers consistent temperatures while grilling or searing, yielding a “moderate smoke flavor that permeates through the meat,” one tester noted. Temperatures remained consistent between 200-225°F, and moderate smoke output meant that chicken wings emerged with a robust—but not overpowering—smoky taste. Following an 11-hour long smoke test, pork butt had an evenly dark bark with a smoke ring reaching a quarter of an inch into the meat—results unparalleled by any other model we tested.
Price at time of testing: $3,500.
- Cooking area: 880 square inches (about 43 burgers)
- Warranty: 10 years
Yoder is known for heavy-duty competition smokers, and the thick, 10-gauge-steel cooking chamber on this model is durable and great for heat retention. It comes with a sophisticated proprietary digital controller, which a tester praised as “really easy to navigate.” Yoder states that it designed the board from scratch around a general-purpose microcontroller chip and wrote its own code from the ground up in an attempt to provide superior flexibility, efficiency, and accuracy. The Variable Displacement Damper is another unique feature, allowing for left-to-right adjustment along the lower smoke box. Positioned fully to the left, it’s ideal for use with a tool like GrillGrates for optimal searing.
During our grilling tests, the Yoder S640 produced a high volume of smoke. Testers noted that there’s a hot spot directly over the firepot, but that’s to be expected. Long smoke tests revealed a 3/8-inch smoke ring on our pork butt, with a consistent, medium-dark bark. One tester said: “This was the Goldilocks choice for pellet grills in the long-smoke test: not too much or too little smoke flavor—just right all around.”
Price at time of testing: $2,400.
- Cooking area: 640 square inches (about 31 burgers)
- Warranty: 10 years
Weber SmokeFire EX4
Also available at Weber.
The Weber name has long been synonymous with backyard cooking, and the SmokeFire EX4 upholds the brand’s integrity. This grill smoked its way through our tests with ease, delivering consistent results and boasting a snazzy “smoke boost” feature for extra flavor.
The SmokeFire EX4 heated to a whopping 826°F after our grill and sear test—conducted at a more reasonable 624°F—though one tester reported “little to no smoke flavor” in the resulting steaks. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you’ll be using your SmokeFire to cook for people who prefer their smoke on the mild side. Grill marks and charring were evident on the chicken wings during our smoke test, and the meat carried a “balanced, medium-smoky flavor.”
As evidenced through our tests, the SmokeFire’s sweet spot is long smoking and we found it to deliver accurate, consistent temperatures throughout the duration of a nearly 10-hour smoke—on par with Yoder and Traeger models. The SmokeFire edged out the competition when it came to nuance, however, with testers agreeing that the pork butt from this grill was “one of the favorites out of all the pellet grills tested.”
Price at time of publish: $1,100.
- Cooking area: 672 square inches (about 33 burgers)
- Warranty: 10 years
Traeger Pro 780
“What really stands out are the features like WiFIRE capability, the digital control panel, and cooking consistency,” said one tester, who recommends dropping the additional $300 if you’re torn between the Traeger Pro 780 and the Pro 34.
High-tech features aside, the Pro 780 performs like a pro when it came to performance. “Highest marks, best smoke flavor, came out perfect,” a tester noted, presumably between bites of steak. During the long smoke tested, it produced a desirable 1/4-inch smoke ring on our pork butt, though it smoke flavor was fainter than other models.
Price at time of publish: $1,000.
Continue to 5 of 7 below.
- Cooking area: 780 square inches (about 38 burgers)
- Warranty: 3 years
Traeger Tailgater 20
Also available at Traeger.
Calling this one “a standout at any tailgate,” one tester said the Traeger Tailgater 20 can “more than hold its own against larger, more expensive pellet grills.” And it’s certainly hard to argue with the portability, which is aided by a pair of smooth-rolling wheels and easy-to-fold legs.
The Tailgater 20 is a likely crowd-pleaser thanks to the mild smoke flavor it imparts during both grilling and smoking—ensuring that even smoke flavor-averse guests will reach for another chicken wing—and if you want to use it for a long smoke, you totally can. Our tester noted that the Tailgater 20 produced a smoked pork butt with the second-least amount of smoke flavor (either edging out or falling short of the Traeger 780, depending on how you feel about smoked meat intensity), and reported an admirable 1/4-inch smoke ring with a consistent bark on the exterior of the pork.
While this probably isn’t a competition grill, it’s a great candidate for anyone looking to dabble in smoking or entertaining with frequency.
Price at time of publish: $530.
- Cooking area: 300 square inches (about 12 burgers)
- Warranty: 3 years
Camp Chef SmokePro SG 24
While the SmokePro didn’t wow our testers, they agreed that it’s a solid place for beginner grillers and smokers. “Its functionality, ease of use, and lower price point make this an attractive buy for anyone looking to take their beginner grilling up a notch,” said one tester.
Our grilling and searing test with the SmokePro turned out moderately charred meat with caramelized edges and very little smoke. During the chicken wing smoking test, the SmokePro produced light smoke that delivered a surprising amount of flavor in comparison to the light color of the finished wings. It performed well in the long smoke test too, comparably to the Traeger Tailgater.
Price at time of publish: $600.
- Cooking area: 811 square inches (about 40 burgers)
- Warranty: 3 years
Traeger Ironwood 885
Also available at Home Depot.
This pellet smoker comes with a high price tag and mixed performance reviews from our testers. One tested called it “overpriced for what you get,” but appreciated the even heating and lack of hot spots during grilling. That said, the steaks pulled off the Ironwood lacked char and had a “mild smoke flavor, as if you were trying to reverse sear.”
For the smoke test, our tested used Ironwood's “super smoke” setting, which reportedly had little effect. The resulting chicken wings did, however, have a nice hint of smoke “even though the wings looked as if they were baked in the oven.”
The long smoke test produced a pork butt that was more similar to roasted pork rather than smoked. Though the meat was juicy, it contained very little smoke flavor—which made sense give that the Ironwood burned slowly through its supply of pellets and produced little to no smoke.
While the Ironwood 885 didn’t dazzle, our testers appreciated the grill’s easy set-up thanks to clear instructions, a user-friendly control panel, and fuss-free disassembly for cleaning. They also liked the fact that the Ironwood was quick to reach temperature.
Price at time of publish: $1,600.
- Cooking area: 885 square inches (about 45 burgers)
- Warranty: 3 years
Which pellet grills are made in the USA?
Of this list, the Yoder YS640 is the only one made in the United States.
Is a pellet smoker worth it?
Though they’re pricey even at entry level, pellet smokers are worth the investment if you want to smoke your own meat and aren’t worried about high-level grilling capability. That said, for ultimate versatility, a pellet grill is a great option because it can be used as a smoker, but you’ll also have a real-deal grill to work with.