Of all the grills/smokers I own and use, one I find myself using the most is my pellet grill. Needless to say, I've tested a lot of pellets in the past 7-ish years of owning a pellet grill.
I want to preface this entire guide by stating that this is what I've personally tested and like. While the goal of this article is to make recommendations for pellets and subsequently providing a link to where to locate them, you should ALWAYS source pellets from where-ever is cheapest.
For example, whenever I need wood pellets I go to either Runnings, Home Depot, or a Walmart Supercenter. The brand I get from Runnings is Lumberjack and they're $9.99/20 lbs. Walmart tends to carry Pit Boss brand pellets (usually expensive) as well as a few non name brands for $6-8/20 lbs. Home Depot almost always has Traeger (usually expensive) and sometimes Louisiana Grills - A brand I quite like is B&B but I don't have an Academy Sports near me - You get the gist.
What makes the best pellets for smoking is based on composition of the pellet and price. Composition of the pellet has to with the types of compressed hardwood being used, and subsequently the ash build-up. Price will always vary based on the region you're from and the brand you buy.
This might be controversial to say but depending on how you're cooking, I'm willing to bet most people wouldn't be able to make a distinction between brands of pellets. For instance, most people who own a pellet grill are going to cook at higher temperatures more often for Burgers, Hot Dogs, Steak, etc. At 350+ F you won't tell a difference in flavor output. The meat doesn't have enough time to even interact with the smoke.
However, smoking meat implies lower temperatures and longer cook time. On a pellet smoker you typically have "modes" that allow for temperature swing (typically between 5 -15 degree difference) for more smoke output.
Note: This guide is more so about the brands of wood pellets I recommend as apposed to flavor profile. What I may like in my wood pellets, you may not. With that said, I'm a big fan of cherry, hickory, and pecan.
Without a doubt, Lumber Jack is my favorite brand of pellets for smoking. This is for two reasons: Cost and Quality.
Lumber Jack was founded by three loggers from Wisconsin in 2005 - Meaning, they know wood. Their goal for Lumber Jack was fill the void that existed in the wood pellet industry - quality pellets. Apart from barbecue pellets, they also produce heating, absorbent, and animal bedding pellets.
To reiterate the above, Lumber Jack is relatively accessible to me via my local Runnings (home improvement/outdoor/farming store). Regardless of the flavor of the pellet, each bag costs $9.99/20 lbs - The two most common I find there are the "Competition blend" - A mixture of my favorite woods: Cherry, Hickory, and Maple - or their 100% hickory wood pellets. Pictured above is an apple blend I picked up.
In terms of cost, I was always curious why Lumber Jack was able to drop their prices by so much at retail (Runnings). Come to find out it's because of where they're located. Lumber Jack is centrally located in the Midwest, meaning it's obviously cheaper to ship a pallet of pellets from Wisconsin to New Hampshire than it is to ship a pallet from Texas to New Hampshire.
In terms of quality, I'm mainly referring to the composition of pellet. The composition of the pellet affects both the flavor output and the amount of cleanup you have to do.
Unlike other brands, whatever hardwood is mentioned on the bag as 100% is that hardwood. You're not paying for a filler or base wood like Alder or Oak, you're getting full flavor from that specific variety - Meaning, hickory is hickory and cherry is cherry, etc.
The only varieties that use Red Oak as a base are the pellets labeled as blends - ie, the competition blend, pecan blend, apple blend, etc.
Lumber Jack is a round log plant which means they harvest actual trees and chip them up as green chips resulting in full flavor. Due to the above reasoning, they leave the bark on the primary wood in blends (so more of that woods flavor comes through) and remove the bark from the secondary wood.
For this reason, ash content in blends is lower since they have less bark than the 100% varieties (not de-barked).
On Pellet Head/BBQ forums, BBQer's Delight is one of the more popular brands. Of the brands on this list it also the only one to have what I'd consider "gimmicky" packaging. Traditionally, this type of packaging usually is indicative of a product trying to make-up for something they're lacking, however, BBQr's Delight breaks that mold.
While not much is said on their official website in regards to who owns and runs the company, BBQer's Delight is run by Candy Weaver and is based out of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
If you're not familiar with Candy, she is one of the most respected folks in BBQ; She is currently on the board of directors for the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) and has even served as President of the KCBS. As you might expect, someone this invested into barbecue knows and understands the importance of a good product.
Candy's opinion on pellets has also influenced how they're manufactured and what goes into their production. Namely, BBQer's delight uses either de-barked red or white oak as a base. A lot of resources will note this is a "bad" thing as the wood being used isn't entirely that species of hardwood. However, the point in using the oak as a base is to ensure a consistent, high BTU fuel source.
To be frank, i've never had issues with excessive ash production through the use of these pellets. My pellet smoker (Grilla Grill Silverbac) also never spikes in temperature.
Candy notes that their blends are roughly 2/3 oak and 1/3 flavor wood. Meaning if you bought their "Cherry" pellets, it would be 2/3 oak sawdust as a base and 1/3 cherry wood for flavor.
There are no chemicals/flavoring oils added to the wood to impart flavor, just 100% natural wood. The pellet machinery is also lubricated with a food-grade vegetable oil.
It's been said that B&B pellets are essentially re-branded BBQer's Delight - Maybe that's why I like them so much?
I'm not sure where this rumor stems from but I'm not one to feed into the regurgitating non-sense that is found on barbecue forums. Rather, I like to hear it straight from the horses mouth.
The following is a response to an email I sent to B&B. They responded within 24 hours and were forthcoming with information.
To highlight their response: "B&B pellets are not rebranded BBQ'ers delight products. The pellet mill uses our materials and our formula to make our pellets."
I will note, after additional digging on a thread of Candy Weaver's (Owner of BBQer's Delight) a number of folks note that BBQer's Delight is the manufacturer of the pellets themselves. However, B&B notes they supply the pellet mill with their materials. Candy doesn't outright state one way or the other, she does however note:
"B&B Champ Blend is my contest mix in one 40# bag. Candy's Contest Mix is one bag of cherry and one of pecan."CandySueQ
I'll be honest, I don't care one way or the other who makes the pellets, as long as the output is good; Which it is.
Now that the above is out of the way. On the off-chance that you have an Academy Sports store near you, you can get B&B pellets much cheaper - $9.99/20 lbs.
Again this makes sense since most Academy Sports are located in Texas and B&B charcoal is a Family owned business in Texas. Meaning shipping costs are way down. Assuming BBQer's Delight is the mill, Arkansas is also right next to Texas.
I decided to test their pellets out after watching a video by Jason over at TrendKillr Grill Craft. Overall I was pretty happy with the output.
To echo some of Jason's comments, there is minimal ash build-up, strong flavors, and I also noticed pellet useage was way-down on my Grilla Grill. My Silverbac is already fairly insulated and combined with these pellets, maintaining temperatures seemed easier - Jason notes this may be due to the the Oak base - which is something Candy noted above in terms of why they use red/white oak as the base wood.
Something my Father and I both noticed was that these pellets ignited super fast, a process that normally takes 8-10 minutes, took less than 5.
The flavor output on these from long cooks is wonderful, ash build-up is low, and the cost isn't too bad. However, I'm from New Hampshire and can't get these for the lower price. Jason notes $14/40 lbs at his local Academy Sports which is a really solid deal.
Of all the pellet brands that are touted by most resources online, CookinPellets is the most common. They're most known for being one of the only pellet brands that use only the hardwoods labeled on their product.
For example, their Perfect Mix Pellets use Hickory, Cherry, Hard Maple, and Apple - the pellets only consist of those woods and do not use an alder or oak base. They also only use heart woods (center of the log) and no bark.
Similar to BBQer's Delight, it's somewhat hard to determine who even owns the brand. However, upon doing enough digging you're able to find that Chris "Pellet Guy" Becker owns CookinPellets. Chris created CookinPellets because he wasn't able to find pellets that were 100% the hardwood listed.
Chris has an opposing view to that of Candy in that oak and alder are used because they help to cut costs for the manufacturer. Where-as Candy states that Red or White Oak are used for consistent burn and BTU output.
With that said, there is a reason BBQer's delight costs less on a per lb basis than CookinPellets. Assuming other people are right in that B&B pellets are made by the same mill, they're even more affordable.
I bought a bag of the Perfect Mix Pellets and split them with my Father to get his opinions. He remarked the same sort of downsides:
However, temperatures were stable, and you get exactly what's stated on the package.
A few reviewers have noted some quality control issues in the past; Namely foreign contaminants. However, of the times I've used these pellets I've never had these experiences. I'm unsure if this was an isolated incident as only a few reviewers had this issue.
The reason I sort of wrapped all of these into their own category has nothing to do with their quality - or to even imply they're the same quality. Simply put, Pellet grill Manufacturers want to keep your business at all points of your grills useful life. Meaning you may spend $500 - $800 on a pellet grill up-front but they also get you on the back-end through your purchase of their pellets - which is several thousands of dollars assuming a useful life of 5 years.
Whenever I go to buy pellets, if they don't have the brands I'm after like LumberJack, or a sale on a random brand (below $10/20 lbs), I opt to bite the bullet and just buy a name brand. Where I'm from, the most popular at retail are Traeger and Pit Boss. However, I have seen Louisiana Grills a few times at my local Home Depot.
Note: In almost ALL cases, these pellets cost more than the brands above at retail, that's just my experience. Where-as online these brands tend to be cheaper as they have stock available at warehouses that are in proximity to your locale - cuts down on shipping costs.
I've had mixed experiences with these brands too. A number of resources and reviews will state they had a significant amount of ash production. You can actually visually see this in the bag itself as the bags will tend to have a lot of pellet dust. It's hard to say if it's just a case of getting a "bad" bag or something along those lines as my own experiences are mixed. The issue with this situation is your auger can become clogged over time.
Of the bad reviews for these pellets that you'll find online is that they use a base wood like Alder or Oak and then treat the wood with an oil in order to output a desired flavor.
A brand that has allegedly done this is Traeger. A person even filed a class-action lawsuit against them that was dismissed. However, Traeger notes they use 100% virgin hardwood and a soybean (food-grade) oil to aid in the manufacturing process.
I'm not one to act elitist and state a brand is bad based on hearsay. I can only go based on what the brand details. Simply put, what they write on their website is either true or an outright lie.
There are patents that can be referenced on this information. For instance, Traeger's Patent implies they use a wood oil:
"The present invention relates to flavored wood pellets and a method of making flavored wood pellets. The wood pellets of this invention include wood particles, lubricant, and wood oil. Another aspect of the invention is a method that includes mixing wood particles with lubricant and wood oil, heating the mixture, and forming the mixture into pellets."
However, when watching a video from their official YouTube, the mention of "wood oil" is entirely left out. Where-as "mill-wood shavings" and "soybean oil" are mentioned (also in the patent); The same could be said for the base hardwoods: alder and oak.
Based on the information above, I'll let you be the judge so-to-speak. I'm not here to state one thing or the other, just to report what I've found on this topic as it's something a lot of people in the Pellet world discuss.
Another thing to keep in mind is that while some of these companies have their own Mill like Pit Boss and Traeger a brand like Grilla Grills does not (at least that I'm aware of).
I will still buy Traeger, Pit Boss, or insert brand name here pellets when I'm in a bind. However, this leads me to another common question:
Just because you own a Pit Boss Pellet Grill does not mean you have to use Pit Boss Brand pellets. The same goes for if you own a Traeger, Grilla Grill, Camp Chef, etc.
I remember hearing in the past that some brands offered conditional warranties if you used a different brand's pellets. This practice is illegal, and you should avoid brands with conditional warranty coverage.
These days, most pellet grill brands will state that their pellet grill is "only approved/designed for burning food-grade barbecue wood pellets."
Wood pellets used for smoking meat are compressed hardwoods that are extruded into a uniform size and consistency. These pellets are designed for both heat (BTU output) and smoke flavor.
Pellets used for smoking foodstuff are hardwoods - Hickory, Oak, Pecan, Maple, Cherry, Apple, Mesquite, as well as a few others.
Learn More: The Different Types of Wood for Smoking Meat
To note, there is no such thing as a "food-grade" pellet - at least there is no "standard" that I can find. I'm unsure of why this labeling is used, however, it might be to differentiate from pellets used for heating homes, that or it's a marketing gimmick.
With that said, there are actual standards for heating pellets. These standards look at things like ash content, density, diameter and length, durability, moisture content, and materials.
Pellets that are used to heat homes are often made of softwoods, hardwoods, even other forest materials/scrap - whatever is plentiful and able to offer sufficient BTU to heat a home. Home heating systems are also closed in that the gases and by-products are exhausted through a chimney. In a Pellet smoker, these gases directly interact with the food-stuff.
In my opinion, while you technically could use heating pellets, that puts a lot of trust into that manufacturer. I'd rather work with someone who sells "cooking" pellets or even uses a gimmicky term like "food-grade."
There are so many different opinions on wood pellets. Just to give you an idea of the amalgamation of ideas people have as to what makes the "best" pellet:
You get the gist.
A number of the manufacturers above have their own opinions on each of these points. However, most agree that you shouldn't use softwood and oil flavorings. The rest are opinions and it's hard to express without you physically testing each product to know what sort of output YOU like.
For instance, I really like Lumberjack and they use 100% hardwood pellets, that may or may not have bark, and make both single species pellets as well as blends where red oak is the base.
Just to be blunt, temper your expectations for shipping. You're taking a bag of 20-40 lb pellets, they're being put into a previously used box and then shipped and handled by several different people.
A number of reviewers and people will note that the "bag was torn" or "damaged during shipping." Why does that automatically drop their "rating"? Seems petty to me, especially when the issue isn't the company itself, rather the people fulfilling the shipment.
The next time you're at a retail location, feel free to simply touch the plastic bags that the pellets are put into, they're not the most durable. Most pellet smokers have a hopper that is 20 lbs - most pellets are sold as 20 lbs and 40 lbs.
The quantity they're sold in is for a reason; These Manufactures assume you're going to simply dump the entire bag into the hopper and have it function as storage as the plastic bags are of super poor quality.
I realize this guide is long. I hope that other Pellet Heads or even people who call us "Pellet Poopers" appreciate the depth of information provided here.
Unlike other sources online, I actually own and have used a pellet smoker for almost 7 years at this point and have burned through 10,000+ lbs of pellets.
The above are my opinions on these topics. I've attempted to be as unbiased as possible and to simply provide background information on the various brands and ideas out there on Pellets used for smoking meat. That also includes the various nuances and silly arguments people in the barbecue community get into.
To reiterate myself: Always buy whatever is cheapest and aligns with your idea of the best composition.