It's not rocket science...yet.
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pellet grill article cover image with smoked meats
Illustration by Meredith Digital Design

How many times have you heard "It's not rocket science" when it comes to barbequing or a particular recipe.  I take this comment personally, being an aerospace engineer and Traeger BBQ instructor, but I am here to tell you that technology is changing the way people are cooking in the backyard. Who would have ever thought that when you start up your grill sometimes you have to wait for the controller to download a software update?

Pellet grills simultaneously makes barbequing easier and improves the taste.  How do I know?  I won a barbeque world championship with one. Pellet grills and other technological improvements like the Thermapen and mobile phone applications have made it easier than ever to make great barbeque.   

What Is a Pellet Grill?

Traeger Ironwood 855 pellet grill loaded up with smoked meats
Credit: Courtesy of Traeger

Joe Traeger first developed pellet grills in 1985 and patented them in 1986. The pellets are made from compressed sawdust of various types of wood. Pellet grills burn more cleanly than wood or charcoal grills.  The resulting smoke contains finer particles giving it a blue smoke as compared to the white smoke one typically sees.  This blue smoke is desirable as it is almost invisible and produces a subtler, less bitter, smoky flavor.  Some of the new pellet grills have Super Smoke capability at low temps adapting well to a low and slow approach.  I love to use my Traeger pellet grills to cook the large meats like brisket and pork butts overnight using the Super Smoke feature while I get six or more hours of sleep. That didn't happen when I cooked with more traditional grill set-ups.

Pellet grills, quite frankly, are making it more fun to cook. The technology freed me from the burden of maintaining the fire and desired cooking temperature. I'm no longer "feeding the monster" with wood every 20-30 minutes like I would have to with traditional offset style barbeque smokers. With a pellet grill, I can smoke, grill, bake, and griddle-sear with just one piece of equipment. This allows backyard cooks and competitors alike the flexibility to cook more often, create new recipes, and experiment with more varied cuts of meat.  

For these reasons, it is no surprise that when the first pellet grill patents expired in 2006, a pellet grill technology race followed with a surge of companies releasing their own version using the same design principles along with new bells and whistles. There are at least a dozen companies making them now, including Cuisinart.

Thermapens and Phone Apps

Traeger pellet grill mobile phone application screen in action
Credit: Courtesy of Traeger

The instant-read Thermapen, like pellet grills, has had a similar surge in popularity.  It is so well known that it is like the Kleenex or Xerox of instant-read thermometers. Compared to the old school methods of color and feel, the Thermapen took the guesswork out of determining when your meat is done, resulting in a more consistent and better end product. Now probes to monitor meat temperature are commonly built into pellet grills. 

Mobile phone applications are also barbeque game-changers. You can check the temperature of the meat you are cooking, set an alarm if the meat gets too hot, and control the grill temperature and cooking times. You can do this from your couch inside the house, at the gym, or at the grocery store while you're shopping for that last ingredient you need.  

People transitioning from gas grilling and new to barbecuing are more likely than competition cooks to use the mobile phone apps and remote controls. Competitive cookers went through the wireless temperature thermometers phase about 10 years ago, but we have fallen back in love with our Thermapens. The term "set it and forget it" I believe is misleading. Even with pellet grills one needs to monitor the cook for the best results. 

Pellet Grill in Action

Whether I'm competing or cooking in my backyard, I love using a pellet grill to make smoked chorizo queso, reverse seared tri-tips, and the other meat Texas is known for, dinosaur beef ribs. My nickname by some at Traeger is "The Queso Master" as I love the kiss of smoke flavor from a cooking it in a Dutch oven on the pellet grill, especially for my BBQ classes. For tri-tips, I leave a cast iron griddle directly on the grates at high temperatures like 450–500 degrees F (200–260 degrees C) for 15 minutes and "reverse sear" at the end of the cook for 3–4 minutes per side to get a really nice black crust. Beef Ribs are so rich in fat and flavor. I love to smoke them overnight like a brisket on my pellet grill for a dark smoky bark.

close up of texas barbeque beef ribs on a cutting board
Credit: Doug Scheiding

Try Doug's recipe for Texas BBQ Beef Ribs.

Beef short ribs, or "dino ribs" as they are called, are the new hot item in Texas and one of my favorite things to smoke right now. Beef short ribs are from the short plate before the 10th rib and have more meat than back or finger ribs. The famous Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas popularized beef ribs in response to Aaron Franklin's "Best Brisket on the Planet" designation. Each one can weigh 1 to 2 pounds. They are rich in flavor and a lot of times better than brisket. Yes I said it. —DougScheidingofRogueCookers

The Future of Barbeque

Possible new future grill advancements include the addition of cameras, thermal imaging, built in scales for measuring the meat weight before and during the cook to determine when your barbeque is "done" due to amount of water loss, and potential meat recognition for automatic cook programming. You see this technology in some of the new so-called "smart ovens."

I predict you will see even greater penetration of pellet grills into backyards, so get ready to get yours if you don't have one yet. Embrace the technology.  I think that once you get one you won't go back. In closing, it isn't "rocket science" just yet, but it just may be in the near future.