If you are just getting started in the pellet grilling world, you’re in good company! The popularity of pellet grills is exploding, and more and more people are getting into the world of bbq and smoking than ever before. This post is going to walk you through the basics, and list the 25 essential recipes you should make as a pellet grill rookie.
The First 25 Cooks on your Pellet Grill
If you want to inch your way towards becoming a bbq beast, a pellet grill is a great way to learn. You get almost all of the benefits of a stick burner but without the hassle of 1. starting a fire 2. maintaining the fire 3. constantly trying to maintain the right temperature.
Ignore the haters
(Who seem to mostly hang out in the smoking/barbecue groups that aren’t pellet-grill focused.)
There are some that call pellet grills the “Easy-Bake Ovens” of the BBQ world, but most of them also have stickers with cartoon characters peeing on things stuck to the back of their truck windows, so I’m okay letting them tend their fires from their throne way up high on the grill-king mountain and making fantastic food with 1/4 of the effort.
I don’t know if they are jealous of all that free time you now have since you aren’t spending it all tending a fire, or if they just need an outlet to vent that “other people like the thing I like” rage, but either way – ignore it.
I loved my Easy-Bake Oven then, and I REALLY love my new, grown-up smokey version now.
(Mostly kidding. I love a LOT of bbq and smoking groups, just ignore any trolling you might get for cooking with pellets.)
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First things first, when you are done putting together your grill – READ THE DIRECTIONS. Yes, even you, “I don’t need instructions” guy. The manufacturer knows what they are talking about in most cases, so read about their burn-in process and actually DO IT.
Learn the fundamentals
When you are getting to know your new grill, it is important to learn some of the fundamentals and cement them in your brain right off the bat. The thing to keep in mind anytime you are cooking with fire is DON’T LET THE FIRE GO OUT OR GO CRAZY.
Rule #1 – Thou Shall Check the Pellet Box Hourly
Things are easier with a pellet grill, but you still have to pay attention. The biggest mistake that newbies make, myself included, is to let the hopper run out of pellets, or have the fire go out because the grill stopped feeding pellets due to funneling (the thing where your pellets disappear and make a hole to nowhere, and the rest of the pellets cling to the side of the pellet box like they are going to be fed into the fire – which, they are).
How do you learn this rule?
Cook some stuff that’s going to take a number of hours. Learn important lessons like, “The hotter you cook, the more fuel you use.” and other things that seem like they’d be common sense, but get missed by a LOT of people when they are getting started.
That’s why cooks #1-5 on the list are all cooks that take between 4-10ish hours. No overnight stuff yet. This is the minor leagues, after all.
Rule #2 – Thou shalt always cook to TEMPERATURE and never according to time
Just as important as maintaining the fire in the quest for great barbecue is having and USING a good instant-read thermometer. I don’t recommend hitting the bargain bin for this tool, and I also don’t recommend using the one that is probably built into your grill. They are notoriously inaccurate.
My favorite thermometer brand, of all the brands I’ve tried, has been the Thermoworks brand. Their Thermapens, in particular, are top-of-the-line, and my grill game increased substantially when I got a WIFI thermometer with alarms.
The next 5 cooks are going to have you using that thermometer a LOT, and relying on it to tell you when your food is done. Get it. Use it. Love it.
See all my favorite ThermoWorks tools here!
Rule #3 – Thou shall learn to love the long low-and-slow cook
One of the magic parts of pellet grilling is how you can take some smoke and time and totally transform a piece of meat. The next few recipes are going to be an investment. Not only in time and attention, but also in some cases in $$$ too. But once you have success making these classic recipes, you can parlay them into so many more dishes.
The overnight cook
This is a thing that I usually caution against if your grill is anywhere near your house. While these grills are very safe to use, you are still working with live fire, and ish happens. An uncontrolled fire in your grill that is a foot away from your house would be very very bad. That happening while you are sleeping could be catastrophic.
I do cook overnight occasionally, and my grill is near my house, and here’s how I do it while keeping safety in mind.
- I get up every 1 1/2 hours to check, physically
Yeah, it is a pain, but I set my timer on my phone every 90 minutes and I check pellets and make sure nothing is going crazy. I guess getting 7 kinds through their baby years trained me for this. It isn’t something I do regularly because I really love my sleep, but I can do it and still function the next day if I need to, so #winning.
- I use a wireless thermometer with a high/low alarm
This is not optional for me if I’m going to be smoking something for a long time, partially unattended. The high low alarm should alert you if the fire goes out or if it flames up, so you’ve got a layer of protection there on either side of the spectrum.
Alternatives to the overnight cook
When you are doing things like pulled pork or brisket, it is hard to avoid not cooking while you are sleeping. These big cuts of meat can take 12-16 hours, depending on a variety of factors, and if you are trying to serve something for dinner and we figure in resting time, it can be pretty complicated.
There’s also the whole “no two pieces of meat” cook the same, either. Two 12 pound briskets can be “done” at wildly different times, and the same goes for pork butts too. For me, that means I either need to make sure the family is well-fed and VERY patient, as far as when the main event is ready, or if I’m making it for a big party I do it the day before.
Break out the Instant Pot or Slow Cooker
You can also use some tricks like utilizing your pressure cooker for pork and beef roasts (not so much on the brisket, though). One of my favorite tricks for pulled pork is to smoke it for the better part of a day on the pellet grill, and then throw it in the crockpot at bedtime with some beer or hard cider and barbecue sauce. Let it cook on low heat overnight, and in the morning you’re likely going to wake up to a tender, shreddable pork roast. You can shred it and use it for pulled pork sandwiches, pulled pork enchiladas, or some good old-fashioned carnitas.
Rule #4 – Thou shant forget about the sides
By now we have taken you through most of the most popular grilling recipes there are. Classics like pulled pork and barbecue beef. Steaks, burgers, wings, tri-tip, prime rib. You’re basically a grill master now.
One of the wonderful things about pellet grills is how versatile they are. You don’t have to stop at main dishes, since you’re basically running a big, outdoor, wood-fired convection oven.
Rule #5 – Thou shall not neglect the rubs and sauces
Rubs and sauces are a very important part of how your final dishes are going to turn out. You don’t want to rely on them too heavily (they can’t turn a choice cut into a Wagyu steak, unfortunately), but don’t discount how much of an impact they can have.
To find your favorites, make sure to expand outside of whatever is available in your local grocery store. Independent small businesses selling rubs and sauces are exploding, and some of my favorites are not found anywhere near me at a brick-and-mortar store.
I am a member of the Grill Master’s Club, and have been for over a year now. It is a great way to get your hands on new rubs, sauces, and wood chips (helpful if you have a stick burner smoker or a smoke tube. I don’t, so use them for kindling.)
Lesson 1 - KEEP THE FIRE GOING
Pellet grills can run out of pellets or can have pellet "funneling" that causes the fuel to stop making it to the fire, and then the fire can go out. This is a major pain, as not only can it potentially ruin your cook, you also need to go through the startup process again.
Lesson 2 - COOK TO TEMP
A good thermometer is a requirement if you want good bbq. Get one (or a few), use it, love it.
Lesson 3 - STRATEGIES FOR LONG COOKS
Low and slow and LONG cooks can be tricky! Master different methods for avoiding the overnight cook, or get your safety measures in place and babysit a brisket overnight. Your choice!
Lesson 4 - SIDE DISHES FOR DAYS
Pellet grills aren’t only for meat and mains! You can make a ton of delicious sides on the grill too. Learn how to make some of these and you’ll never have a boring store-bought side again.
Lesson 5 - RUBS AND SAUCES
Even the best rubs and sauces can’t turn bad barbecue into good, but BAD rubs and sauces can 100% ruin a perfectly smoked piece of meat. Find your favorites, and use them wisely.