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Wood has always been a classic, tried and true fuel source for outdoor cooking and to produce smoke that will flavor your meat perfectly. For a long time, hardwood logs were the only option when it came to using wood when smoking or grilling. But, in today’s BBQ world, using wood can mean a variety of different methods, shapes, and sizes.
Now, one of the great options available for wood-based fuel sources is wood pellets. A newer fuel source to the barbecue game, wood pellets are a versatile way to achieve a great smoky flavor in your outdoor cooking. In this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into exactly what wood pellets are and how to use them to cook great tasting BBQ with that delicious, smoky flavor you are looking for.
What Exactly Are Wood Pellets?
Wood pellets are made from a combination of hardwood shavings and sawdust. This is pressurized, compressed down, and held together through the use of the wood’s lignin, an all-natural binding agent. It’s made into long, pencil-thick rods that are broken into smaller pieces. Most wood pellet pieces will be about a half-inch long.
During the compression of the wood shaving and sawdust mixture, most of the air and moisture is removed. Also, this mixture means you won’t be burning any bark, dirt, etc that you would find on raw wood logs. This results in an extremely efficient and clean-burning fuel source. Pellets used for smoking are also food-grade. Therefore, they do not contain any adhesives or chemicals. They also don’t contain softwoods, like pine or spruce, that have a high amount of sap that can adversely affect the taste of your meat.
Most wood pellets are made up of mainly oak, a very stable burning wood. This is then blended with another hardwood or fruitwood to impart the flavor through the smoke.
Using Wood Pellets For Smoking
Pellets are a very versatile fuel and flavor source that has been growing in popularity in the outdoor cooking world. The use of wood pellets, whether by themselves or in combination with another fuel source, does have some great advantages. Some of these include:
- Very clean burning since it contains no bark or scrap wood
- They produce less than 1% of ash, making for easier cleanup
- Low moisture
- High BTU
- Much lower carbon dioxide production
- More energy efficient compared to other fuel sources
- Costs less per energy unit than most other types of fuel
- Easier to maintain consistent temperatures
Wood pellets can also be used in a variety of different ways. One way is in a pellet smoker or grill. These smokers have been quickly growing in popularity in the outdoor cooking world, specifically in barbecue competitions. You may be familiar with them or have seen one being used.
Pellet smokers use the pellets as the main fuel source for both heat and flavor. With these smokers, wood pellets are poured into a box on the side known as a “hopper”. From this hopper, the pellets are automatically fed at a controlled rate by an auger into a small burn pot or hot box. This is where the pellets are ignited and produce heat and flavorful smoke.
Source: Traeger Grills
One of the best things about pellet smokers is that they can be regulated with a thermostat, so it is very easy to maintain a constant temperature without having to constantly monitor your heat source.
You don’t necessarily need a pellet smoker to take advantage of wood pellets. What you might not know is that wood pellets can also be used in a charcoal smoker or grill to add a more enhanced smoke flavor. And it’s very easy to do.
Once your coals are totally covered in white ash and to a hot, even temperature, add your wood pellets to the coals. You want to use enough of the pellets to create a thin layer over your charcoal. As soon as the pellets ignite and start smoking, you are ready to start cooking your meat.
Flavor Profiles Of Wood Pellets
As mentioned above, wood pellets are available in a variety of mixtures of oak with other hardwoods or fruitwoods. Each of these will impart a very different flavor profile on meats. Also, using one type of wood pellet while smoking one type of meat will taste different than with another type of meat.
Wood pellets for outdoor cooking can be found in several different flavors. Each variation has a different flavor intensity it imparts. Also, each flavor pairs well with some meats more than others. To decide which type of wood pellet you should use for your smoking, it is best to use the type of meat you are cooking as your starting point. Then decide how intense of a flavor you want to pair with that meat.
Here is a breakdown of the most common variations of wood pellets:
- Mesquite – Often a favorite of Texas-style barbecue purists, this is going to be the strongest flavor. Mesquite produces an intense aroma and a more savory, spicy flavor. This type of wood pairs well with beef and other strong-flavored meats.
- Hickory – This is also going to be a richer, stronger flavor but not as strong as mesquite. This savory flavor pairs well with many different types of meat.
- Pecan – Pecan wood has a fairly robust flavor that is smoother compared to mesquite and hickory. It does pair well with chicken and pork.
- Maple – This wood flavor has a milder, smooth flavor that many outdoor cookers also pair with pork.
- Oak – Post Oak wood is a medium flavored, very versatile when it comes to what meats pair well with it. It is also a very stable-burning wood. That is why most types of wood pellets you can buy are mainly Oak mixed in with another variation/flavor of wood.
- Apple – Out of the fruit woods, Apple will provide a stronger, sweet flavor. This wood pairs well with pork and chicken.
- Cherry – A milder fruitwood, Cherry will also give you a slightly sweet flavor. This wood also pairs very well with pork and chicken. Because of its milder intensity, some pitmasters use it for beef and lamb as well.
Some brands of wood pellets, like the selection from B & B Charcoal, also have blends of several different types of wood flavors. For example, the Championship Blend from B & B Charcoal is a blend of Pecan, Cherry, and Oak.
This results in a deliciously smooth, savory flavor with a sweet undertone that pairs well with many types of meat.
There are also specialty variations, like Jack Daniel’s Pellets. These wood pellets are made from the mellowing charcoal from the Jack Daniel’s distillery. Producing a rich, smooth taste that works well with chicken and pork.Source: B & B Charcoal
Deciding which flavor of wood pellets will work for you comes down to your flavor preference and experimentation. Get creative and try several different flavor variations with different meats, different rubs, etc to find out what you like best.
Wrapping It All Up
Wood pellets are increasingly becoming a favorite option of fuel sources for many outdoor cookers. From the backyard barbecuers to the champion pitmasters. It is a very clean, efficient, and versatile way to impart that great smoky flavor from natural wood. Cooking with wood pellets also means easier-to-maintain temperatures, which is critical to successful low and slow cooking sessions.
Both pellet smokers and charcoal smokers and grills provide an opportunity to experiment with different flavor variations of wood pellets to achieve desired results. From strong, spicy flavors to smooth, sweet flavors and everything in between.
One this is certain when it comes to cooking with wood pellets. To cook competition-worthy barbecue you want to be sure you are using a quality brand of pellets. Using cheap pellets can quickly ruin the flavor of your meat and wreak havoc on your smoker or grill. That’s why many champion Pitmasters and Grillmasters, like Mark Lambert and Shawn Roppolo, recommend the high-quality wood pellets from B & B Charcoal.
Do you want to learn more insider information like this, as well as proven techniques and competition barbecue secrets? Get the inside scoop from Mark Lambert, Shawna Roppolo, and more Champion Pitmasters and Grillmasters here in the BBQ Champs Academy online barbecue cooking classes. Our easy-to-follow, step-by-step classes are all in high definition video and packed with everything you need to know to start cooking like the pros. Check out the All-Access pass now to get the full inside look!