If you want to understand wood pellets a bit better, you’ve come to the right place. Wood pellets can be used as fuel for pellet grills or substitute for wood chunks in propane smokers. They are a versatile source of heat and flavor. But like lump charcoal, there are no best wood pellets for everyone.
In this article, I’ll list my top 5 best wood pellets for smoking first.
Then I’ll talk about how they are made, different types of wood pellets, and the flavor they impart. I’ll also touch on a common issue about wood pellets and the solution for it.
By the end of this article, you will have all the necessary information to pick the right pellets for you.
In A Hurry? These Are The Top 5 Best Wood Pellets For Smoking
- CookinPellets 40PM Perfect Mix Smoking Pellets
- BBQr’s Delight Smoking Wood Pellets
- Traeger Grills PEL331 Signature Blend 100% All-Natural Hardwood Pellets
- Lumberjack Apple Blend BBQ Smoker Pellets
- Rec Tec Ultimate Blend BBQ Grilling Pellets
Notice: The links above will direct you to either Amazon, BBQ Guys or Home Depot for more details and the latest information on the products.
The 5 Best Wood Pellets For Smoking – Wood Composition, Flavor, Ash, and Heat
How well pellets perform depends on four criteria: wood composition, flavor, ash, and heat. The most important is the wood composition. Different woods have their own distinctive attributes. They also combust differently. Therefore, that will affect the resulting flavor, ash content, and heat output. I will review each pellet based on these four criteria so please keep that in mind as you go through this section.
CookinPellets 40PM Perfect Mix Smoking Pellets
The first entry is the Perfect Mix from CookinPellets. This pellet is a mixture of 4 hardwoods: hickory, apple, cherry, and maple. It has no oak or alder as filler.
This blend produces a nice balanced flavor because of apple, cherry, and maple. The sweet fruitwoods offset the strong and intense flavor of hickory. This flavor profile is suitable for most people’s palates and taste buds.
Having no oak as base wood, the Perfect Mix doesn’t burn hot even though it has hickory. Hickory does generate more heat than oak. But the amount in the Perfect Mix isn’t significant enough to produce higher BTUs. The pellets also create more ash than other brands because of the fruitwoods.
That being said, the Perfect Mix is still great pellets for smoking with its even flavor profile. It’s available in 40lbs bag. You can also purchase the 3lbs bag for sampling before any commitment.
Besides the Perfect Mix, CookinPellets also has 3 other pellets:
- Black Cherry – 100% black cherry. No fillers.
- Hickory – same as above but 100% Hickory
- Apple Mash – mix of apple and maple. Sweet smoke.
The Perfect Mix is the most popular. Next is Hickory, followed by Black Cherry and Apple Mash.
Wood Composition – 100% hickory, apple, cherry, and maple. All heartwood. No bark and sapwood.
Flavor – neutral and balanced. Good for most palates.
Ash – more ash.
Heat – medium.
- Nice and even flavor for most palates
- 40lbs bag which will last for a while
- Able to purchase 3lbs bag for sampling
- More ash than other brands
- Produces less heat
BBQr’s Delight Smoking Wood Pellets
BBQr’s Delight is known for their 100% flavor wood pellets. This Super Smoker Variety Pack contains 1lb bags of the most popular wood flavors plus a special one.
- Apple and hickory are popular among the consumers
- Cherry and pecan are common in the professional competition circle
- Mesquite is for grillers who like a strong and earthy flavor
- The special flavor is Jack Daniels’ whiskey flavor. The pellets are made from mellowing charcoal that is soaked in JD whiskey for weeks. The charcoal is then blended with oak to make this whiskey flavor pellets. Great for pork and beef.
These are 100% flavor wood pellets with no added fillers. The great thing about this Variety Pack is that you have different wood flavors to experiment with at a reasonable price. If you like a certain flavor or combination of flavors, you can buy more of those. The bag is also resealable and plastic so it’s good for storage and protecting the pellets from air moisture.
The downside of the Variety Pack is the maximum 10 uses per bag (as stated by BBQr’s Delight). You might not burn enough of the pellets to form an opinion about the flavor and performance before they run out.
BBQr’s Delight also makes 20lbs bag of blended pellets. They are a mixture of 70% oak and 30% flavor wood. 20lbs is magic number. Not too big that if you don’t like them, you feel like wasting money on unused pellets. Not too small that you have enough pellets to burn through.
Wood Composition – apple, hickory, cherry, pecan, and mesquite. 100% all-natural flavor hardwood.
Flavor – depending on the wood.
Ash – depending on the wood.
Heat – depending on the wood.
- Many flavors to experiment with before commiting
- Resealable plastic bag to protect pellets from moisture
- Only maximum 10 uses per bag.
Traeger Grills PEL331 Signature Blend 100% All-Natural Hardwood Pellets
Traeger is the company that started it all. When you talk about pellet grilling, you have to talk about Traeger. They manufacture some of the best pellet grills on the market. Traeger also has other accessories that go with their grills, making the whole cooking experience complete. Pellets are obviously one.
The Signature Blend is one of Traeger’s most popular. It is a combination of hickory, maple, and cherrywood. Because of maple and cherry, the Signature Blend errs on the sweeter side of flavor. Similar to the Perfect Mix from CookinPellets, it produces a good all-around and mild flavor profile, which is suitable for most palates.
Nevertheless, the Signature Blend burns faster with less heat and more ash than other oak-based pellets. Another drawback is its thin plastic bag which can easily get punctured during handling and shipping. The bag isn’t resealable either, making it hard to close and store.
Despite its shortcomings, this pellet blend is still a decent product from a pioneer of the pellet grill industry.
Wood Composition – hickory, maple, and cherry. Natural hardwoods.
Flavor – good all-around and mild. Suitable for most people.
Ash – more ash.
Heat – medium. Less than oak-based pellets.
- Good all-around and mild smoke flavor
- Decent pellets from a veteran pellet grill company
- Available in 20lbs bag
- Burn fast
- Low heat output
- More ash
- Thin plastic bag can get punctured easily
Lumberjack Apple Blend BBQ Smoker Pellets
“The best quality BBQ pellets in the industry”. That’s what Lumberjack has to say about their pellets.
The company believes in using sawdust only from actual trees rather than leftovers from lumber mills. Sawdust from wood scraps might touch the floor and carry chemicals, such as antifreeze, and dirt with it. Therefore, Lumberjack chooses not to use it. All of their trees come from the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
They also believe in including the bark in their pellets, especially for the flavor wood. The reason is to enhance the flavor from burning the bark. Lumberjack prides themselves on selling the strongest flavor pellets on the market.
With that said, they do remove the bark from their base wood, which is exclusively red oak, in their blended pellets. This is to reduce the ash content as well as let the full aroma of the flavor wood to shine through. Lumberjack blended pellets also have the highest percentage of flavor wood than other brands (40%).
The company has a wide variety of pellets to choose from. The most readily available online is the Apple Blend. It is made from 100% real wood with zero adulterants. Composed of 60% red oak and 40% apple, the pellets produce a sweet smoke that is great for pork and cheese. The smoke is actually intensified than other brands because of the extra bark from applewood. Another positive thing is the pellets’ smaller size. This will reduce frequent auger jams in your pellet grill.
However, there are two minuses about this Apple Blend. First is a higher amount of ash. Second is uneven heat output. They are all due to that additional applewood bark. Though it’s a good compromise for quality smoke and delicious food.
All in all, if you don’t mind the extra ash and inconsistent burn, the Lumberjack Apple Blend is an excellent choice from a transparent and honest company. Available in both 20lbs and 40lbs bag.
Wood Composition – red oak and apple. 100% real wood. Bark included
Flavor – sweet. Good for pork and cheese.
Ash – more ash because of bark.
Heat – medium to high. Uneven due to bark.
- Made from 100% real tree with no contaminants
- Extra bark for more intense flavor
- Transparent and honest company
- Available in both 20lbs and 40lbs bag
- More ash
- Uneven heat output
Rec Tec Ultimate Blend BBQ Grilling Pellets
Like Traeger, Rec Tec is another great pellet grill manufacturer that makes their own pellets. The company only has the Ultimate Blend which is a mixture of white oak, red oak, and hickory.
With all that oak, the pellets generate ample amount of BTUs with very little ash. You can burn the Ultimate Blend in the hopper for heat while lighting other fruitwood pellets in a tube for smoke.
Speaking of smoke, the combination of oak and hickory produces that classic American BBQ flavor. If you low n slow your meat long enough with this blend, the smoke will form a shiny and deep mahogany bark on the outside. Now, this blend isn’t for you if you want a sweet and fruity smoke.
One downside of the Ultimate Blend is that it is only available in 40lbs bag. Great if you like the pellets. A hassle to get rid of if you don’t dig them at all.
To conclude, the Ultimate Blend is a solid purchase. It can be used as fuel or flavor pellets, depending on what you’re after.
Wood Composition – white oak, red oak, and hickory. 100% hardwood.
Flavor – classic American BBQ. Just good ol’ oak and hickory.
Ash – little ash.
Heat – high.
- Little ash
- High amount of heat output
- Can be used as fuel pellets
- Also can be used for flavor if you’re after that classic American BBQ
- Only available in 40lbs bag
- No sweet and fruity smoke
How Do They Make Smoking Wood Pellets?
Smoker or BBQ pellets are an alternative source of energy. They are made from compacted hardwood sawdust. Unlike charcoal briquettes, the pellets contain no additives or chemical fillers. They burn clean and produce little ash.
The process of making them starts with manufacturers collecting sawdust, logging scraps, and sometimes whole logs from lumber mills.
The logs might still have the bark, sapwood, and heartwood in them. The combination of these three components creates a mixture of flavor in the final pellets. Quality manufacturers would only use heartwood while others include the bark (I’ll get to the “bark vs bark-free” debate later on).
Sapwood has higher moisture content than heartwood, therefore it is more vulnerable to decay and fungi. Heartwood, on the other hand, is less damp and less susceptible to disease and rot. It is also stronger as the fibers are bound together. The best smoker pellets would have more heartwood than sapwood or no sapwood at all.
Now, all these materials come from different places, therefore they have different sizes and moisture levels. To ensure consistency, manufacturers would grind them down to sawdust and drying it all together in massive drum dryers thereafter.
Once the drying process is finished, the resulting sawdust is compressed through a stainless steel extrusion machine, lubricated with food-grade oil. The pressure during the compression heats up the lignin, one of the essential organic compounds in wood, and softens it as a result.
Lignin, along with cellulose and hemicellulose, is responsible for the construction of a tree at the cellular level. When burned, lignin is actually what provides our food with smoke and flavor.
After coming out of the extrusion machine, the pellets are still hot and brittle. The next step is to air cool them. This is when the lignin hardens and acts as a natural binder that holds the wood pellets together. Once cooled, manufacturers chop these long pellets into smaller pieces (about half an inch in length). They’re then bagged and ready for shipping.
Having no artificial glues or adhesives, pellets will turn back into sawdust if soaked in water. They generally have a long shelf life. However, humidity in the air can damage them so it’s best to store the pellets in tightly-sealed bins.
Smoker or BBQ pellets are a great source of heat and flavor. People mainly use them as fuel for their pellet smoker/grill. You can also burn these pellets in gas, kamado, and electric grills for smoke/flavor.
Different Types Of Smoker Wood Pellets
There are three types of BBQ wood pellets.
The first kind is blended pellets. These use oak or alder, depending on your location, as base wood or filler (it doesn’t mean oak and alder are inferior to other woods). If you’re on the east coast, companies use oak whereas alder for the west coast.
The pellets are then mixed with a portion of actual flavor wood. Generally, the mix is around 20% (up to 40% by some manufacturers) of the flavor wood with the rest is filler.
Flavor wood means any wood releasing its distinctive and natural flavor when combusted. Cherry has cherry flavor while hickory has its own. Certain flavors are stronger while some are milder than others.
The way to tell if the pellets are blended is to check the label. If it doesn’t say 100% of any flavor wood, then they are blended. Though some brands do specify the type of pellets on their packaging.
Now, the main reason why manufacturers blend flavor wood with oak or alder is to create steady performance in their pellets. Different woods burn at different rates and British Thermal Units (BTUs). In other words, you might have to burn more of one kind of wood to achieve the same heat output as you do with others. Also, some woods like peach or apple don’t make good pellets on their own.
By mixing oak or alder, every blended pellets will burn at the same rate and BTU, which results in a consistent cooking experience. Oak and alder also have mild smoke which allows other woods’ flavor to come through. They generate less ash as well.
100% Flavor Wood Pellets
The next type is 100% flavor wood pellets. No filler or base wood. Just the flavor wood indicated. For example, 100% pecan pellets are made only from pecan wood and nothing else.
The advantage of this type is that you get more flavor from your chosen wood. There is no oak or alder lingering in the background. Some grillers swear by these pellets while some can’t really tell the flavor difference between them and the blended ones.
The first disadvantage is that they produce more ash than the blends. They are also harder and can cause your pellet grill’s auger to jam more often. Lastly, they cost more than the blends and the third kind of BBQ wood pellets, which are the oil flavored ones.
Oil Flavored Pellets
These pellets still use oak or alder as base wood. But instead of adding real flavor wood, manufacturers choose oils that imitate the flavor of any specific wood. Say, mesquite flavored pellets. There is no mesquite wood but mesquite flavored oil infused in those pellets.
You still get the flavor from them along with the extra heat from 100% oak or alder filler (compared to only 60% to 80% in blended pellets).
Heating Pellets Vs Smoker Pellets
There is another type of wood pellets besides those three mentioned above. It is wood pellets for home heaters or stoves. Although they are made the same way and look identical to smoker pellets, they are not safe to cook with.
Heating pellets are made from softwood or a blend of softwood and hardwood. When burned, softwood, such as pine or spruce, could ruin the flavor of your meat with its high sap content. Some manufacturers also use plywood or lumber scraps, which are coated with varnish and preservatives, to make their pellets. These are toxic and could make you sick.
Some grillers say it is OK to use heating pellets for cooking. In addition to that, you can purchase them at a fraction of the cost of their BBQ counterparts. But resist the temptation and don’t take a chance. Heating and BBQ pellets are not the same.
Flavor Profile From BBQ Pellets
Most wood pellets for smoking are blended so the flavor profile will be mainly flavor wood with a hint of oak or alder. If you want a single wood flavor, get 100% flavor wood pellets instead.
BBQ pellets combust completely after igniting due to having no additives or chemicals. In the pellet smoker, they burn more efficiently at high temperatures, in order to produce higher BTUs, so they generate less smoke. At low temperatures, the pellets smolder and put out more smoke.
They also burn clean. As a result, their smoke is more delicate and gentle rather than strong and intense like wood (although pellets are made from wood). Your food will have a light smoky flavor profile when cooked with these pellets.
That being said, to enhance the depth of flavor, some grillers recommend using 100% flavor wood pellets in a smoker tube like the A-maze-n, while burning the blends (mixed with oak or alder) for heat in the pellet grill’s hopper. This can be done in both a regular and portable pellet grill.
Speaking of flavor wood, there is a wide variety of them to choose from. Each has its own unique smoke and aroma. Is one superior and better than others? Which ones produce the best pellet flavors?
What Are The Best Wood Pellet Flavors For Smoking?
It’s hard to give a straight answer to this question. It really depends on one person’s taste buds and preferences.
The truth is that most people like the flavor of whatever wood available in their area. These species of wood are usually plentiful and cheap locally. Hickory, mesquite, and oak are quite common in Texas while maple and alder are everywhere in the Pacific Northwest.
It’s also necessary to say that defining the exact flavor of any specific wood isn’t easy. It takes years of experience. In addition to that, the amount of bark, how “green” the wood is, and loads of other factors are also important to consider when describing the flavor of the wood.
Nevertheless, certain wood flavor works very well with certain types of meat. There are many kinds of wood to experiment with but these five species are the most widely available and popular across the US.
- Apple – seafood, pork, poultry
- Cherry – poultry, pork ribs, beef
- Oak – everything
- Hickory – mostly beef, sometimes chicken and pork
- Mesquite – steaks
Depending on what you’re cooking, you can stick to one flavor by burning 100% wood pellets of said flavor. Or mixing flavors by burning different types of pellets together. Whatever you do, your options are unlimited.
Why Pellet Grill Companies Want You To Use Their Own Pellets?
Before the reviews of the best wood pellets for smoking, I’d like to mention one common misconception about them. That is whether or not you have to use your pellet grill’s branded pellets with it.
You don’t necessarily have to. Some pellet grill companies do say that doing so will void the warranty. But how can they tell if you’ve been using other people’s pellets in their grill?
That said, there are many reasons why pellet grill companies want you to use their pellets. The main one is that other pellets might be of low quality which can cause temperature swings in the grill. That will result in inconsistent and poor customer experience.
There are certain quality standards in smoking pellets that guarantee the grill to perform properly. Pellet grill companies make pellets that meet those standards. With other pellets, it is out of their control.
Now, what makes other pellets low quality? The answer is bark.
Bark is the outermost layer of a tree. It absorbs anything that can harm the tree. Those include airborne gases and chemical air pollutant particles. When burned, these contaminants produce short bursts of flare-up and spark. That means the bark burns at different rates and generates different BTUs than heartwood. Bark also creates more ash. Excessive ash chokes the fire and causes the temperatures to fluctuate.
While it is true that bark gives more flavor to your meat, it is only necessary if you burn it in an offset smoker. For pellet grills, stay away from pellets that still contain bark.
In conclusion, you do have the option of using other branded pellets in your pellet grill as long as they are high-quality and bark-free.
You probably know more about BBQ pellets by now. To recap, they are made from wood sawdust bound together by its own organic compound – lignin. There are three types of pellets. The most common one is the blends, followed by the 100% flavor wood and oil flavored pellets.
Heating pellets are not the same as smoking pellets. They aren’t safe to cook with under any circumstances. You should only cook with high-quality and bark-free pellets (Lumberjack is an exception). This is to ensure your pellet grill performs properly.
Food coming out of a pellet grill are often under-smoked due to the full combustion of the pellets. Depending on your preferences, you can intensify the smoke by burning 100% flavor wood pellets in a smoker tube. You can stick to one flavor or mix and match to come up with your own blend. The sky’s the limit here.
That’s the end of this article. Please feel free to share it with your friends and family. That will help spread the word.
Happy smoking, y’all!