Pellet smokers and grills are quickly growing in popularity since they are easy to use, convenient, and require far less clean-up after use than wood smokers. However, they function differently than wood smokers, and you should understand the technology before using one. One of the most important things to know is the role the pellets play and what to do if you run out of them while using the smoker.
One cannot use a pellet smoker without pellets. The pellets are the primary source of fuel for the fire. Without pellets, the pellet smoker will not produce heat or smoke for cooking food. While the risk of an electrical fire is possible, it is relatively low.
This article will look at how pellets impact the smoking and grilling process, including the flavor they impart to your food. It will also look at how a pellet smoker or pellet grill works and what happens if your pellets run out while you use the grill.
Note: most links in this article are Amazon.com Affiliate links, see Affiliate Disclosure, thank you.
How Do Pellet Smokers Work?
To use a pellet smoker, you first need to pour the pellets into the storage container, also known as the hopper. A motorized electric auger then feeds these pellets into the cooking chamber. Once the pellets ignite, the cooking chamber is heated.
A pellet grill also utilizes air, brought in from intake fans, and smoke to lend food flavor. The smoke and the heat rise into the main chamber, where food is kept, and help kickstart the smoking and grilling process.
One of the most significant advantages of pellet smokers is that they allow for precise temperature control. This option is not usually available when using gas or wood grills, and users are forced to remain at the smoker to ensure that the food is cooking correctly.
Check out our article How Does a Pellet Smoker Work and How Is It Different From Others
Will a Pellet Grill Work Without Pellets?
You cannot use your pellet smoker without pellets. So, if your pellet grill shows a low pellet notification, the first thing you need to do is check whether this alert is accurate. While it is possible that you have, indeed, run low on pellets, there is also a good chance that you are experiencing the effects of tunneling.
What Is Tunneling In a Pellet Smoker?
Tunneling is the term for when the pellets are used at an uneven rate in the hopper, creating a funnel-shaped void. In such a situation, your grill is feeding the pellets in the middle of the hopper into the cooking chamber. However, the pellets on the sides are left in place, creating a void in the middle.
If you notice this happening, you can remedy the situation by stirring the pellets in the hopper using a spoon. However, if tunneling is a frequent problem, it is a sign that you need to check on your hopper. There is a chance that it could be damaged, there may be a collection of sawdust, or a blockage may exist. If none of the reasons are the cause, you should contact the manufacturer of your grill.
What If You Run Out of Pellets?
Not all ‘low pellet’ notifications are a result of tunneling. There is also a possibility that you have actually run out of pellets in your smoker. If not handled, this can lead to a significant drop in temperature and possibly even a fire.
As your pellet smoker works by igniting the pellets, it’s possible that without them, something else may catch fire. Just because you run out of pellets does not mean that the auger will stop working. In this case, unless you turn the smoker off, it will continue to try to ignite the wood, which could lead to an electrical fire.
Similarly, if the temperature begins to drop, chances are the box is low on pellets. However, if you simply add more (which you should never do to the hot firebox), you run the risk of overloading the auger and causing a fire. In many cases, there will be some pellets left near the base, and they can catch fire if not removed properly.
If you check the hopper and discover there are few or no pellets left, don’t panic. It’s easy to get your grill back working.
- First, you need to check the temperature of the grill. If this is still stable and at the number you are looking for, all you need to do is refill the hopper and continue smoking.
- If the temperature has started to drop, you will first need to remove the food from the grill and place it in an oven or other warm place. This will keep the food warm while you work to get your smoker up and running again.
- After this, wait until your grill cools. It needs to be cool enough so you can remove the baffle, drip tray, and grate and make sure the firepot is clear of pellets.
- Start your grill and set it to the start setting. Keep an eye on the pellets to ensure no tunneling is present and that your pellet grill’s auger fully primes with pellets.
- Once the auger fills with pellets, turn off your grill once more. Replace the baffle, tray, and grate, before turning the grill back on again so you can continue using the smoker as normal.
Click here for our Traeger Pellet Grill Reviews
How Long Do Pellets Last?
If you are new to pellet smokers, always monitor the grill during the first few cooks. It’s essential to get a solid idea of how long your pellets last before leaving them unattended. And even then, it is recommended to check on the grill frequently to ensure everything is running as it should.
Several factors affect how long your pellets will last. These include:
- How hot a fire you’re using
- The brand of pellets you use
- Whether or not your smoker is adequately insulated
- What the weather outside is
- How you store your pellets
However, there are a few rules of thumb you can follow. In general, if you will be using your smoker at a high heat, you should go through about four pounds of pellets per hour of cooking time. For slow cooking, you can expect that amount to be half – that is, two pounds of pellet per hour in the grill.
Additionally, you can expect pellets from higher quality brands to last longer and burn slower. Another factor that causes slower pellet burning is grill insulation – grills and smokers with thermal covers will conserve far more heat than those without.
If the weather outside is cold, you can expect to run through more pellets than expected when using your grill. This is because the pellets will have to work harder in order to produce heat. Similarly, weather and temperature play a key role in determining how long pellets last in storage.
If you store your pellets in a dry, ventilated space, they will last longer than if you store them in a humid space. While pellets can last for up to six months if stored properly in high humidity, this timespan reduces to three months at best.
What Are Pellets Made Of?
Pellets are exclusively made from wood, usually hardwood. They are an easy fuel to use and produce very little ash, making clean-up easy. Additionally, you don’t have to pay constant attention to the air to fuel ratio when you use pellets as you would when using wood chips and chunks – they offer great flavor regardless.
Check out our article All About Wood Pellets
What Flavors Do Pellets Offer?
The flavor the pellets impart to your food depends on the type of wood used to make them. Some popular pellet types include hickory, maple, apple, and pecan. You can also buy blended pellets that incorporate several different flavor profiles.
If you’re looking to boost the flavor that your pellets impart, there are a number of different techniques you can try. These include:
- Try varying the pellets you use. This includes experimenting with pellet brands, as well as wood types.
- Ensure your meat is as cold as possible. Colder meat tends to absorb smoke better, offering a more smoky flavor once it is done cooking.
Another great option is to try a smoker tube or smoke tray. These inexpensive accessories are used alongside your pellet smoker, and all you need to do is fill one with pellets, light one end on fire, and leave the tube alongside your food on the grill.
The tube provides additional smoke during the smoking process, so you have food bursting with flavor once done. If you’re wondering which one to try, we recommend the A-MAZE-N Oval Expanding Pellet Tube Smoker or the A-MAZE-N Pellet Tray Smoker.
Are Pellets Required?
Pellets serve as the source of fuel in a pellet smoker. If you try to run your pellet smoker without pellets, you will not produce heat. Additionally, it is pellets that impart flavor to your food – no pellets, no smoky flavor. Finally, there is a possibility of electrical fire from attempting to run your smoker without pellets.
Before you use a pellet smoker, make sure you have enough pellets on hand. This means carrying extras, just in case your grill requires more pellets than expected. Additionally, make sure that, if you do run out of pellets, you refill your smoker before continuing to cook.
Check out our article Can I use wood pellets in a charcoal grill?