Transitioning From a Pellet Grill

Grilling at Family Barbecue | Lone Star Grillz

Two things have happened over the past five years that has increased the popularity of craft barbecue.  The first was the rise of the pellet grill.  The second was the worldwide pandemic they called COVID.  As much as it pains me to utter them words it’s the reality of the increased in popularity of small batch craft barbecue.   

The first pellet grill was developed in the mid 1980’s but it was still pretty much unheard of until the early 2000’s.  In the early 2000’s pellet grills were available at small specialty stores and were still unknown to most people.  Sometime around 2013 to 2014 the phenomenon of the pellet grill had gained momentum and were the buzz in the barbecue community.  By 2015 there were multiple pellet grill manufactures and barbecue enthusiast all over the world started to share their barbecue creations on social media.  

Pellet grills took the art of fire management out of the equation.  Most of the pellet grills that burst onto the scene lacked quality construction and were readily available in big box stores.  Because of their availability, Average Joes, Dads and Weekend Warriors started to produce quality barbecue on these pellet grills in suburban neighborhoods across the U.S.  

This phenomenon led people to start perfecting the art of craft barbecue such as wrapping briskets, ribs and pork butts, cooking to temperature rather that time, and experimenting with different seasonings, sauces and rubs.  We would be negligent if we didn’t mention the great debates of fat side up vs fat side down and foil vs butcher paper.  Regardless of what side you are on, this created conversations in the workplace, at backyard gatherings and online forums.  

As 2019 ended barbecue in general continued to increase in popularity and was completely mainstream at this point.  By this time many of the high-end grill manufactures added quality constructed pellet grills to their lineup of offset smokers, vertical smokers, and live fire cookers.  

As we entered 2020 the rumor of the COVID-19 virus started to swirl, and a worldwide pandemic was on the horizon.  Suddenly most of America was hit with a two-week stay at home order to “slow the curve”. This two-week order turned into nearly two years of people being home and the school systems being turn into remote learning centers.  

Travel came to an end, restaurants and gyms were forced to shut their doors and some people were given the option to work from home.  The entertainment industry was brought to a halt and most people found themselves at home looking for new hobbies.  Many of these people had pellet grills on their patios and cooking for their family daily, naturally took shape.  As I previously mentioned pellet grills took the art of fire management out of the equation and people were perfecting their cooking process.  Ultimately this led to barbecue enthusiast wanting to challenge themselves and the natural progression of craft barbecue started to take shape.  Many people added ceramic grills/smokers, offset cookers, and open fire cooking vessels to their patios.  So, if this was you, or you are considering moving to another style of cooker, what does this transition look like?

If you are still reading this, I’m guessing you have been cooking on a pellet grill for some time and considering transitioning to a new style of barbecue.  All you need to do is apply your preferred cooking process to this new style of cookers.  The only additional skill needed is fire management and to be honest the only way to learn that is to play with your cooker.  We have outlined a few tips below to assist you in the transition from a pellet grill to other style of cookers.

The LSG El Patron

LSG El Patron | Lone Star Grillz

The LSG El Patron is our most versatile cooking in our lineup of grills and smokers.  The LSG El Patron is controlled very similar to a ceramic cooker.  Fire management on these cookers are primarily controlled by air flow.  The more air allowed to flow through the cooking chamber the hotter your fire will be. For low and slow barbecue open the bottom air intake slightly and the top exhaust even less.  This will allow minimal air into the cooking chamber and create a smoldering effect for an extended period, resulting in low and slow style of barbecue.  On these type of cookers generally adjust the lower air intake for larger temperature swing such as the 50 degree and 100-degree increments and the upper exhaust port for smaller temperature changes such as five-, ten-, and fifteen-degree temperature swings.  

For baking and braising temperatures, open the intake about halfway and use the top vent to dial in your desired cooking temperature.  Lastly direct heat searing temperatures can be achieved with increased airflow and running the pit in nearly the wide-open position.  As previously mentioned, the LSG El Patron is extremely versatile and indirect cooking can easily be achieved by offsetting the food on the opposite side of the coal bed.

Lastly let’s talk about the fatal “flare ups.”  “Flare ups” are the one thing people seem to struggle with when cooking directly over an open fire.  “Flare-ups” are caused when fat renders from the food and drips onto a hot coalbed or open flame. The easiest way to mitigate a “flare up” is to place a disposable tin foil pan between the food and the fire.  The pan will catch the renderings and prevent them from dripping on the heat source.

LSG Off-Set Smoker

24" x 36" Offset Smoker | Lone Star Grillz

The off-set smoker is an entirely different beast and some of the best barbecue ever produced has come from burning hardwood logs in an offset smoker.  There are many factors to consider when it comes to fire management in an offset smoker.  

The first step to proper fire management when cooking on an offset smoker is selecting the proper fuel source.  Properly seasoned hardwood is the first step to achieving a clean burning fire.  Personally, I prefer naturally seasoned hardwood from trees that have been down for at least twelve months.  Once these trees have been down for twelve months, I like to cut them into logs between 12” and 14” in length before splitting them.  I prefer to season my split logs for at least an additional six to twelve months to insure they are properly seasoned before burning.  You can expedite the seasoning process of a freshly downed tree buy cutting the logs, splitting them, and stacking them in a warm dry place.   Split logs from a freshly downed tree can be seasoned and ready for use between ten and fourteen months depending on the size of the splits and environmental conditions.  

Many people don’t harvest their own fuel source and buy it by the cord from a local farmer.  So how do you know if your fuel source is properly seasoned and ready for use?  The easiest way to determine if your wood is properly seasoned is to burn some logs and listen to the fire.  If you happen to hear a hissing sound (much like air leaking from a tire) coming from the burning log, it’s a sign there’s too much moisture in the logs and it may not produce a clean burning fire.  

The next step to producing a clean burning fire is using properly sized logs in your firebox.   Our cleanest burning fires have come from properly seasoned wood splits between two and four inches in diameter.  It’s not conducive to measure your splits when preparing your fuel sources, so generally, I try to make my splits around the same length and diameter of my forearm.  This provides some consistency when stacking and burning your fuel. 

The last step and often the most difficult to control related to fire management is air flow and maintaining a healthy coal bed.  Keep in mind if the previous two steps are done properly it will help achieve proper cooking temperatures and help in maintaining a healthy coal bed.  So, you might be asking, “how should I run my off-set smoker?”  We can’t really tell you precisely how much airflow you should be given the pit because there’s so many factors such as elevation, humidity, temperature, and wind.  The goal is to have a clean consistent burning fire.  Smoldering splits are bad and a sign of a dirty fire.  This is caused by 1) burning piece of wood that’s not properly seasoned or 2) not enough air flow. 

The best advice we can give you is to watch your fire.  To achieve a clean burning fire the flames should be between two- and four-inches off the logs.  This will create a consistent burn, temperature, and air flow.   Next watch the smokestack and temperature gauge.  The ideal fire will produce a thin smoke with a light blue tint.  When this is achieved just know you are about to indulge in some the best barbecue you have ever had.  

Proper air flow and maintaining and healthy coalbed is vital to burning a clean fire.  The LSG Fire Management Basket can help maintain a healthy coalbed and allows for proper airflow to fuel the fire.  The LSG Fire Management Basket is not needed but can greatly increase the efficiency of our pits due to human error.  There is no better way to get good at fire management other than burning logs, watching the fire, and playing with airflow.  

So, if you find yourself transitioning from a pellet grill to another style of cooker take a few days to play with airflow and watch how the changes in airflow effect the fire and smoke coming out of the stack.  Once this is properly achieved apply the same great cooking methods you have grown to love on your pellet grill to your new barbecue and enjoy the journey.