Smoker Pellets Vs. Wood Chips: BBQ Showdown

Smoker pellets and wood chips are two of the most accessible and popular options for smoking food. They are two relatively modern twists on the use of smoke to preserve and flavor foods. In both cases, the basic principle remains the same—fire is applied to the fuel and smoke is produced; however, there are a couple of important differences between these two hardwood products. Let’s take a look at how they compare to each other.

How do smoker pellets and wood chips differ?

Both smoking pellets and wood chips can be made from any type of hardwood, one important difference has to do with the amount of processing that they undergo. Smoker pellets are made from compressed hardwood sawdust. The sawdust is dried so that its moisture level is consistent and then it is pressed so that it acquires the pellet shape. During the pressing process, the sawdust is heated up. Because of the heat, the wood’s lignins are released and this is what binds the sawdust together. When the pellets are extruded they are still hot and soft. As they cool, they harden. The manufacturer will determine how dense the pellets are as well as their diameter and length. These are all factors in how well the pellets function when it comes to smoking meat.

Wood chips require much less processing. Wood chips are small fragments of wood that are irregular in shape and that typically average out at about an inch or two in diameter. The wood is dried to get its moisture level down to a specific range. Having some amount of moisture is important since wood that is too dry will not produce much smoke or provide much flavor. Once properly dried, the wood is chipped in a wood chipper before being packaged for sale.

What does each do best?

Smoking pellets are known for their slow rate of burning. They burn more slowly than wood chips while also delivering higher temperatures. Wood chips burn up quickly and will only provide adequate amounts of smoke if the fire is kept low so that they smolder. They are good at putting out moderate smoke without much of an effect on cooking temperature.

What are the negatives of each?

Both burn quickly and put out much less smoke when compared to wood chunks and sawdust. Neither smoker pellets nor wood chips are ideal for foods with long cooking times. In both cases, you will need to constantly add more to the fire for the food to be adequately smoked. Note that some brands of smoker pellets include binders similar to those included in charcoal briquets. These binders can produce unpleasant flavors in food. Because wood chips burn up quickly, they can give food a bitter taste if their burning is not controlled.

Which is more expensive?

Smoker pellets are generally less expensive per pound when compared to wood chips; however, they are typically sold in larger quantities. The result is that your initial outlay will usually be higher if you are buying smoker pellets, though you are likely to get more for your money.

When should you use smoker pellets and when should you use wood chips?

Use smoker pellets when grilling items with moderate cooking times like chicken or turkey breasts. These items will need a higher heat and more smoke for relatively short periods. Use wood chips for items that do not require high heat and that have short cooking times like fish.