By Christie Vanover | Published July 5, 2022 | Last Updated August 10, 2022

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Follow this Grill Smoke U lesson to learn all about wood pellets, including what they are, the different types and how to cook with them.

Thanks to the invention of the pellet grill, creating mouthwatering barbecue in your backyard is easier than ever. Pellet grills allow you to get the flavor of real, all natural wood smoke without the hassle of having to manage a fire.  

Disclosure: I am a paid ambassador for Cowboy Charcoal.

Wood pellets burning in a pellet grill fire pot.

What are wood pellets

Wood pellets that are used for barbecue are compressed mini cylinders of wood that are used to create smoke and sometimes heat for smoking and grilling food.

The pellets are made by milling wood into a softer, pliable substance that can be extruded into the familiar pellet shape.

A small pile of wood pellets on a counter.

Are wood pellets safe to cook with

When choosing pellets for cooking, it’s important to select a bag that is identified as being for barbecue, because wood pellets are also made for pellet stoves.

The difference is that barbecue wood pellets are made of hardwoods; whereas pellet stove wood pellets may be made of softwoods and likely include fillers.

Softwood pellets will produce heat like hardwood pellets, but their smoke is bitter and not ideal for cooking. Depending on the fillers used to produce heating pellets, they may even be toxic.

I always cook with Cowboy Charcoal wood pellets, because all of the varieties are made with 100% all natural hardwoods. They never include chemical binders or oil additives, which some companies use to produce different flavor profiles. And they’re made in the U.S.A.

A bag of Cowboy wood pellets spilling out on a counter.

Which wood flavor to choose

When it comes to flavor matching your woods to your food, cooking with wood pellets is the same as cooking with wood.

As a rule of thumb, hickory wood goes great with just about everything. It’s a little more bold, so big proteins like beef and pork hold up well to the smoke.

For more delicate proteins like fish and poultry, I like to use apple wood. Because apple wood is a more mild option, I also use it when smoking vegetables or foods like cheeses or simple syrups.

Mesquite wood, in my opinion, can come off bitter, so if I use it, I prefer to mix it with the apple wood to create my own custom blend.

Cowboy All Natural Hardwood Barbeque Pellets come in a variety of wood and flavor combos

bag of Cowboy Charcoal and Hickory wood pellets.

Get the flavor of charcoal with wood pellets

One complaint I used to hear from people who transitioned to pellet grills from charcoal grills is that they miss the flavor of charcoal. There’s just something authentically American about that aroma and flavor element.

Fortunately, Cowboy Charcoal has you covered. They carry both a hickory and apple wood blend of pellets that includes their all natural hardwood charcoal mixed right in.

The pellets look different than most pellets, because the charcoal makes them black. I cook with this line of their pellets most often, because I love the taste of charcoal grilled food. But I also like the convenience of cooking on a pellet grill.

In full disclosure, I have run into issues with a couple of grills when using charcoal pellets, because the sensors weren’t engineered for the dark-colored fuel or wood + charcoal compound. In both cases, I made the manufacturer’s aware of the issues, and they promised to do more testing to make their grills more universal.

How to use wood pellets

Wood pellets are probably the easiest type of barbecue fuel to use. Most often, you’re going to use it in a pellet grill.

To use them, simply open the bag and pour it straight into the pellet grill hopper.

Wood pellets in a pellet grill hopper

Follow your grill manufacturer’s instructions to start your grill and set it to your desired temperature. Some grills will require you to start the grill at a lower setting, which will allow the pellets to slowly feed into the fire pot.

Wood pellets loading into a fire pot.

Once inside the fire pot, a small electric heat source will ignite the pellets. As they burn, they will heat the entire area of the grill.

Once the grill is cooking at a temperature above 250F degrees, the amount of smoke you’ll get will be reduced, because the grill will be burning through the pellets faster. Some pellet grills offer enhanced smoke features to produce more smoke at higher temps.

As your food cooks, an internal thermometer will tell the grill when more pellets need to be fed through the auger.

If the grill starts to cool down due to wind, cold weather or frequent lid opening, more pellets will be released. If the grill reaches a higher temp, the auger will pause until the temperature stabilizes.

fire burning in pellet grill fire pot.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that wood pellets only provide smoke. They are made of wood, so they do catch fire, which is great for burgers and steaks.

When cooking on a pellet grill, it’s important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

GCG Pro Pitmaster Tips

  • Keep the pellet grill deflector in place while the grill is running
  • Empty the fire pot after every cook
  • Vacuum out ash residue after every few cooks
  • Every time you open the pellet grill, the grill will feed more pellets to adjust for the cooler air

How to use wood pellets in a charcoal or gas grill

Wood pellets can be used in all sorts of different grills, because they’re not just for creating heat. They’re also ideal for creating smoke.

On a gas or charcoal grill, you can use a pellet tube. You simply fill the tube with your favorite pellets and ignite the pellets using a propane torch. If you don’t have a torch, you can also use a long-handled lighter, but it will take a bit longer for the pellets to ignite.

A foil pouch full of wood pellets smoking on a gas grill.

Another option is to place pellets in a foil pouch. Then, pierce a few holes in the foil to allow the smoke to release.

Once lit, the pellets will roll steady smoke to add flavor to any meal you cook on your gas or charcoal grill.

You can also use the pellet tube or foil pouch for cold smoking. This is where you add smoke to foods like cheeses or salts without cooking them.

How long does a bag of wood pellets last

Most bags weigh about 20 pounds and will last one to three cooks, but several factors determine how long a bag of pellets will last.

If you have a larger pellet grill, it’s going to take more pellets to heat the entire surface area of the grill. Therefore, more pellets will feed through the auger throughout the cook.

If you’re cooking at a higher temperature, the grill will also require more fuel to maintain that hotter temp.

If you’re cooking in a smaller grill or smoking meats at lower temperatures, your grill will require less fuel. However, when grilling slow and low, your cook time will be a lot longer than hot and fast cooks.

To be on the safe side, always have an extra bag of pellets on standby.

How to store wood pellets

Wood pellets can whip out some fierce barbecue, but they’re actually quite fragile. They’re shipped in plastic bags to lock out moisture. It’s important that you keep them dry after they’re opened.

If any water is introduced to the pellets, they will dissolve, and moist pellets can jam an auger.

You can store a 20-pound bag of pellets in a 5-gallon bucket with a lid. Be sure to mark the lid, so you know which flavor is in which bucket. And if you’re feeling creative, mix a few different types of wood pellets in a bucket to create your own signature blend.

How to get even more smoke from a pellet grill

One of the biggest complaints I hear from pellet grill users is that pellet grill smoke is mild compared to cooking with charcoal or lump charcoal. Even if you use the Cowboy pellets that have charcoal mixed in, it still won’t be quite the same.

One way to add more smoke flavor is to fill a smoke tube or foil pouch with more pellets or wood chips and place it on the grate. If the heat of the grill is high enough, the chips or pellets will ignite.

If you’re cooking at a lower temperature, I recommend using a pellet tube and igniting it with a torch.

Don’t add wood chips to the hopper, because they could get stuck.

Where to buy wood pellets

Cowboy Barbeque Wood Pellets are available in select stores across the U.S. like ACE Hardware and Tractor Supply Company. 

You can also order them online at Wal-Mart.

Click here to find a store near you.

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