When our ancestors managed to tame fire, it not only provided them with heat, protection, and light but also changed the way we cook food forever.
Today, although we are thousands of years away from that primordial flame, some things have not changed at all. Cooking on an open fire still has the magical power to bring us together and transform ordinary food into a delicious meal.
Fast forward to today and we now have different options when it comes to cooking, grilling, and smoking food. Two of the most popular forms of smoking are pellet grills and stick burners.
So let’s compare which is better – pellet grills or stick burners?
First let me clarify what pellet grills and stick burners are.
Stick Burning vs Pellet Grill Overview
Stick burning is a traditional way to barbecue and smoke food by lighting a fire and throwing sticks or logs into the fire to create heat and smoke.
Typically stick burning involves more care with how much smoke and heat is being created so this form of cooking is more labor-intensive.
Pellet grills are a modern take on stick burning where wood pellets are automatically fed into a firepot that burns the wood pellets to create heat and smoke.
Unlike stick burning, pellet grills have temperature settings that determine how often the pellets are fed into the fire. Some pellets grills even have WiFi which allows for the settings to be changed wherever you are which makes this form of cooking simple and easy to do.
Now that we know what stick burning and pellet grills are, let’s compare these cooking methods across the following categories to determine which is the best method to use:
- Ease of use
- Grill mobility
- Smoke flavor
- Grill size price
- Achieving and maintaining cooking temperatures
Pellet Grills vs Stick Burners: Which is easier to use?
Cooking on a pellet grill is a set-it-and-forget-it type of cooking. Simply turn on the pellet grill, fill the hopper with pellets, set the grill to the desired temperature, and the pellet grill will take care of the rest.
Most modern pellet grills have some Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity option, and you don’t even need to be around your pellet grill if you need to change the temperature during cooking.
On the other hand, using a stick burner is usually described as babysitting because it demands more patience and attention. When stick burning, you will be actively participating in the process of smoking since you have to check on the grill periodically, add wood (or charcoal) and keep your food from burning.
Picking up fire management techniques and dealing with both fire and smoke can be difficult, especially for beginners, which is why stick burner’s learning curve is steeper compared to pellet grills.
Pellet grills are easier to use than stick burners so if you’re new to smoking food then pellet grills are a better choice.
Unlike charcoal or propane grills, pellet grills need electricity in order to work. If you plan on cooking with a pellet grill while camping or tailgating then you need to plan ahead and bring a power source. So pellet grills are not very mobile since there always needs to be an electrical outlet or power source for these grills.
On the other hand, stick burners can be used anywhere as long as you have charcoal or wood. Just place the grill in a location that is safe to start a fire and allows for smoke to blow away and you’re all set!
Stick burners are more mobile than pellet grills and can be used almost anywhere.
One of the drawbacks of cooking on a pellet grill is the amount of smoke they generate. Generally, pellet grills do not produce as much smoke as stick burners. The lack of smoke may create a less intense smoky flavor and bark on the meat.
Conversely, fire prepared from wood (or coal) brings with it one bonus – by burning it, the wood will give the meat and vegetables their characteristic aroma. Most authentic and smoky barbecue flavor comes from stick burners because they have a more pronounced smoke profile.
Stick burners will produce a stronger smoke flavor over pellet grills.
Grill size price
Pellet grills are one of the newest ways of grilling and smoking food which means it’s also one of the more expensive methods. Typically an entry level pellet grill will cost anywhere from $400 to $700 while the more deluxe versions can range upwards of $1,500 or $2,000. So the convenience of pellet grills comes with a price.
On the other hand, stick burners are some of the cheapest grills on the market. After all, a stick burning grill is typically just a metal container that has a grill grate and a location for the fire. Entry level stick burning smokers range in price from $100 to $400 whereas the premium versions can reach thousands of dollars for a variety of fancy features.
Stick burning smokers are usually used in competition barbeque which is where the price of these competition grills can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000.
So for most home chefs, the stick burning grill will be cheaper for the same size grill compared to a pellet grill.
Achieving and maintaining cooking temperature
Generally, pellet grills only need 10 to 15 minutes in order to reach the desired cooking temperature. Once the pellet grill reaches the desired cooking temperature, the auger will periodically feed in wood pellets from the hopper to automatically maintain temperature. This is what makes smoking food on a pellet grill so easy.
On the other hand, stick burners will take a much longer time to start a fire and get up to temperature. First you need to start the fire and heat the pit. Next you’ll need to wait until the grill comes up to temperature which can take up to 1 hour. Once the grill reaches cooking temperature, you need to add wood so that the grill produces the right amount of smoke.
Throughout the entire process of cooking on a stick burner, the fire and smoke need to be maintained.
So pellet grills are much easier when it comes to achieving and maintaining cooking temperature.
Both pellet grill and stick burner have their advantages and disadvantages. The most significant difference between these two is the actual time and work they require during the cook.
If you enjoy tending a cook, spending time by the fire, and playing with it then a stick burner is the way to go.
If you’re new to smoking and prefer to set it and forget it then pellet grills are the better option.
So when deciding between a pellet grill and stick burning smoker, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- How much time do you want to dedicate to the overall cooking process?
- How much money do you want to spend?
- Do you want to take the grill camping or tailgating?
Personally, I have and use a pellet grill but I have noticed the difference between food smoked on a pellet grill and a stick burner. However, I prefer the convenience of firing up the pellet grill in 15 minutes, placing a brisket on the grill, filling the hopper with pellets, and coming back to the grill after 8 or 10 hours to slow-cooked brisket with a great bark.
Pellet grills and stick burners are both great options for cooking and smoking food. Just select the option that fits your lifestyle the best and you can always get both types of grills if you can’t decide!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can wood chips be used in the pellet grill?
A: Pellet grills are designed to burn only wood pellets. So wood chips would get stuck if placed in the hopper. However, wood chips can be added to a smoker box which can be placed inside of the pellet grill. However, if you want to create more smoke in a pellet grill then check out these 5 tips for getting more smoke on a pellet grill.