Pellet smoker enthusiasts love to spout, “Set-it-forget-it.” They maintain that pellet smokers and grills are so easy you can toss in the food, punch in your preferences, and then walk away.
Unlike charcoal grills that require messing with vents to maintain heat, pellets supposedly do this all independently. But how true is the claim? We went to the experts to find the answer.
- Quality pellet smokers maintain heat well.
- Quality pellet smokers work a lot like a convection oven.
- Pellet smokers and convection ovens cycle within a zone, not an exact temperature.
- User errors can impact pellet smokers’ ability to maintain heat.
Do Pellet Smokers Maintain Their Temperature?
“Set-it-forget-it,” that’s that pellet smoker claim. According to Meathead, that’s pretty accurate, telling folks to think of pellet smokers and grills as an indirect heat convection smoker with precision temperature control.
However, this idea of “precision” is sometimes misunderstood. Yes, high-quality pellet smokers will maintain their heat.
But what is considered accurate doesn’t mean that if you set it at 350 degrees, it will always be exactly 350 degrees.
The pellet smoker will cycle, and the fluctuation of that cycle depends on the brand of the grill.
The temperature fluctuation comes as a shock to some users, who then view it as a fault. But the cycling of temperature in a pellet smoker is only a fault if it is erratic or outside a zone of acceptability. Nor is anyone going to find better temperature control in their kitchen because that’s not how ovens work.
How Pellet Smokers & Grills Cycle Temperatures Like An Oven?
Meathead is spot on when he compares a pellet smoker to a convection oven. However, some people are unaware that their kitchen oven doesn’t maintain consistent heat even after being warmed up.
Kitchen oven temperatures cycle, and it is considered standard heat maintenance to move up to 30 degrees in either direction of the set temperature.
As GE Appliances tells their customers, Gas and electric ovens will cycle on and off throughout the cycle to maintain the set temperature.
As the oven gets too warm or hot, it switches on and off to keep itself in the zone. GE explains that how we cook is based on this natural swing, and recipes take this into consideration.
Pellet smokers operate similarly, adjusting the feed of the pellets to counteract getting too warm or cool. As a result, a good quality pellet smoker will cycle in the same range as a good kitchen oven.
In fact, Traeger tells their customers, "Your grill should fluctuate no more than ±15°F". Thus, Traeger’s range is up there with an elite kitchen oven.
But just as quality varies widely in convection ovens, not every pellet smoker is made to Traeger’s standards.
Some cheaper models operate on three settings: low, medium, and high. The margin of swing for such general categories is huge; thus, they will not maintain heat anything close to the precision of a convection oven.
Another clue that a pellet smoker has poor heat maintenance is a lack of internal temperature probes. If the appliance doesn’t know what’s actually happening inside the unit, it can’t adjust as needed. Outdoor weather conditions impact pellet smokers, and if it is working on a preprogrammed formula rather than reality, things will go wrong.
However, as GE Appliances and Traeger point out, other factors outside the manufacturer’s control can impact how well the oven or smoker maintains heat. These factors mostly boil down to the user.
4 Reasons For Temperature Swings In Pellet Smokers & Grills
Pellet smokers operate on an average temperature setting, just like convection ovens. However, there are reasons even a good quality pellet smoker will experience temperature swings that are outside the manufacturer’s zone. This happens with convection ovens too, and they are almost always due to the user.
1. Opening The Lid Impacts Pellet Smoker Temperature
Frequently opening the lid is one of the biggest reasons pellet smokers struggle to maintain their heat and have erratic temperature swings. You let out a major chunk of heat each time the lid is opened, creating a significant temperature drop.
Think of being a child and having your parent yell, “You’re letting all the cold air out,” when standing at the fridge with the door wide open.
This causes a fridge to lose its chill and require more electricity to regain the correct temperature. It’s precisely the same principle with a smoker: the more the lid is off, the more heat is lost, and the more pellets are used.
If you want more assurance, consider probes that talk to an app on your phone, so you can monitor your smoker without opening the lid frequently.
2. Pellet Quality Impacts Pellet Smoker Temperature
The quality of your pellets will impact the smoker’s ability to maintain heat.
Some of this has to do with consistency. An evenly mixed pellet will burn at a predictable and steady rate.
But a mixed grade produces mixed results. It’s like you are wearing a sweater with one sleeve made of merino wool, the other out of thin cotton, the back is fleece, and the front is mesh.
Old pellets are another issue. Even good-quality pellets will burn unevenly if they’ve aged into a dull, crumbly state. Good pellets should “snap” when broken and have a healthy sheen.
3. Burn Pot Impacts Pellet Smoker Temperature
Pellet smokers distribute heat pretty evenly, but the area over the burn pot will be warmer. The fan and, consequently, the air circulation also impact where the “hot spots” in a particular smoker.
Again, this is a lot like a convection oven, and how food sitting near the heating element or in certain corners gets more heat than in the rest of the oven.
To figure out where your pellet smoker’s hot spots are, use various temperature probes spread throughout and check their readings over an extended period of use.
4. The Weather Impacts Pellet Smoker Temperature
Pellet smokers are similar to heating a house: the colder it is, the more fuel is required to maintain the heat.
Just as some furnaces and heaters can’t cope after the temperature drops below a certain number, so is the case with some smokers.
To fix this, there are insulated covers for pellet smokers. They are essentially a giant blanket for your appliance.
Quality pellet smokers maintain heat as well as a convection oven. However, like a convection oven, pellet smokers work in a zone, not an exact temperature. To maintain heat the best and keep fuel costs low, avoid user errors such as opening the lid too frequently.
Here we have a list of the best vertical pellet smokers on the market. Happy smoking!