BBQ wood pellet grills have gotten more press lately. They're a type of barbecue that uses compressed wood pellets (often flavored) as the source of cooking fuel. How do these new grills compare to the traditional charcoal barbecue when it comes to convenience and ease of use, cost, and most importantly, taste?
A charcoal barbecue takes time to get to where you can actually start grilling. From the time you set up the charcoal and light it, until the time you're ready to cook, can easily take 20 to 30 minutes (although there's stuff you can do to speed things up a bit). Plus charcoal is messy although it is readily available and there are different varieties of grilling charcoal.
With a pellet grill, the pellets are typically fed into the grill via an auger or some other type of mechanism (note: this means you need access to electricity in order to operate this mechanism... so if your power is out, the pellet BBQ isn't going to be an alternate way to cook dinner). When you turn on the grill the pellets are ignited and you just have to wait for the BBQ to heat up before you start cooking - it's fast and easy! BBQ wood pellets far less messy to use than charcoal, but they can be hard to find sometimes and supply / variety may be limited.
Note that you can't use the same type of pellets used in home heating systems for your barbecue! BBQ pellets are pure wood with no fillers, while the type used for heating can have both fillers and chemicals. BBQ wood pellets are flavored with various types (or blends) of wood so it's easy to get the smoky taste you want - where with a charcoal BBQ, you'd have to add the wood (and soak it first to get the smoke).
Charcoal briquettes are fairly affordable since they last a long time.
Lump charcoal burns much more quickly and the cost can really add up,
especially if you grill a lot. On the good side, you can buy a decent
charcoal barbecue relatively inexpensively. One example is the popular (and
excellent!) Weber One Touch
The cost of wood pellets can also add up - they burn fairly quickly, especially at higher temperatures. Good quality pellets are necessary too (and usually a bit more expensive) so that you don't jam up your BBQ. Pellet grills are pretty expensive and aren't carried in a lot of places either. The other question you'd want to consider is what would happen if a part broke or the manufacturer of the pellet grill went out of business - can you still get parts or service?
are better at smoking than at direct grilling.
They do exceptionally well at 'low and slow' cooking but not all
that great when searing meat. However, most people report that the
food cooked on pellet grills is delicious and tender if done right.
Hardwood pellets reputedly give a better 'wood' taste than charcoal grills (naturally!). Some people have complained that the 'smoke' taste with a pellet grill is too mild for their taste, having become accustomed to smoking on a charcoal grill.
The charcoal barbecue cooks up food with that delicious taste that most people associate with grilled food. It's hard to beat! For searing and direct grilling, like steaks and burgers, hot dogs, and chicken, the charcoal BBQ can get you that nice sear. Great smoky flavors can be done too, if not as conveniently or easily as using a wood pellet grill, but with a stronger smoky flavor (if you really want a great BBQ for both direct grilling and for 'low and slow' smoking, check out the Big Green Egg).
Of course, if you really want to use pellets, you can use them in a charcoal BBQ, too.
Have a few extra minutes? Check this out: The Wall Street Journal published an article on pellet grills. This article addresses whether it's healthier to grill on a wood pellet BBQ, and also does a 'taste test' on food cooked on both the wood pellet vs. a regular charcoal grill.
BBQ wood pellet grills are becoming more mainstream. They are basically faster and easier to use, but in terms of cost and taste as compared to a charcoal grill, it's up for debate which one is better (obviously we love our charcoal BBQ!). More BBQ tips here.