Wood pellet vs. charcoal vs. wood chips vs. wood chunks

by Susie | Last Updated: May 4, 2020
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Are you planning to fire up the smoker? Are you in the market for a new grill?

What type of fuel do you need?

The type of heat/smoke source you need to use when smoking depends on your equipment.

Different types of smokers work best or are made for a specific kind of wood. For example, if you own a pellet grill, you can only use specially crafted wood pellets to smoke.

In this article, I’ll discuss the different kinds of smoking heat sources you can use and the main differences between them. I’ll also recommend the best brands to buy for each category.

Charcoal and wood chunks to smoke with

Fuel types to use for smoking

Whether you’re smoking a beef brisket or chicken wings, it’s essential to use a fuel source that is compatible with your smoker but also gives you enough smoke.

When you’re deciding whether to use wood pellets, charcoal, wood chips, or wood chunks, you want a fuel source that maintains a steady temperature.

All of those fuel sources will release flavorful smoke to ensure your food is tasty!

The most popular fuel source for smoking is charcoal. It has been used for centuries to infuse food with smokiness.

But wood pellets are the new charcoal, as people are looking for ease and comfort. Pellets are so easy to smoke with; any beginner can be successful!

Then, there are those looking for specific hardwood flavors who rely on the flavor of wood chips and wood chunks of their favorite woods.

So, what should I use and what should I buy?

Wood pellets

Wood pellets are used as the fuel source for wood pellet grills, such as the famous Traeger grill.

They are made from organic matter and ground-up wood: compressed hardwood sawdust that is cut into very tiny pellets. Pellets come in all kinds of flavors.

They are exciting to use, though, because they often come as a mix – a bag full of pellets made of different types of hardwoods.

But you can also find pellets that are made of just one hardwood so that you can choose your favorite flavor.

Did you know that pellets are heavily processed in comparison to wood chips and chunks? Pellets are made by pressing dried sawdust into the pellet shape.

For this process to work, the sawdust is heated to a high temperature, and the wood’s lignins get released, which causes the sawdust to bind together.

Most Americans love using pellets. This form of fuel is very popular because pellets transform 90 percent of their energy into heat energy for your grill.

They are considered environmentally friendly because the pellets are made from renewable resources.

Here is a mixed bag of the four best hardwoods for smoking:

CookinPellets CPPM

CookinPellets CPPM

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This pack of wood pellets contains four types of the most popular hardwoods for smoking: Hickory, Cherry, Hard Maple, and Apple.

When buying pellets, always be careful of brands that add lots of filler pellets – meaning that they use other wood pellets to fill the bag, which actually changes the flavor of the pellets.

This product contains no oak or alder fillers and no added binders. The pellets are 100% hardwoods listed on the bag.

Check out the latest price here

If you are smoking with pellets – be prepared to use lots. Luckily, the grills control the speed at which the pellets burn, ensuring you have enough smoke time.

If you want to have that real wood smoke flavor, a pellet grill is a great option.

With these types of grills, you just press a button to set your preferred temperature, and you can rest at ease knowing your food won’t get scorched.

Here is another popular brand of pellets on Amazon:

Traeger Grills Signature Blend 100% All-Natural Hardwood Pellets

Traeger Grills Signature Blend 100% All-Natural Hardwood Pellets

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Traeger is one of the most well-known American manufacturers of pellet grills. They also make pellets you can use with their (or any) grill.

These pellets are made of 3 popular hardwoods: cherry, hickory, and maple, which give your food that classic smoky aroma.

You can buy them here on Amazon

Charcoal

Did you know that until not long ago, charcoal grills were the most popular among North Americans?

This is because charcoal is an excellent way to get lots of flavors when smoking. Pro smokers enjoy using charcoal for the smokiest meats.

Charcoal is usually used with offset smokers – they have separate chambers for the food and for the smoke.

Usually, the flavor from a charcoal smoker is more intense than any pellet grill. What you need to know is that a charcoal grill requires maintenance as you’re smoking.

It takes some learning to be able to use the right amount of coal to achieve a constant cooking temperature.

Charcoal can be used with many types of grills and smokers. The best charcoal will smoke for a long time and create high heat.

What’s different about using charcoal is that you are not looking for flavors and additives. Your charcoal SHOULD NOT be flavored.

There are two types of charcoal to consider:

1 Briquettes

These are compressed blocks of coal, or pressed square-shaped sawdust pieces that burn clean.

Be careful not to buy briquettes which contain anthracite or coal as binding agents.

Coal is not a great fuel source to use, it imparts an odd taste, which is not ideal for smoking. Briquettes burn for a longer time at a steadier temperature than lump charcoal.

Here’s a popular brand of briquettes on Amazon:

Kingsford Original Charcoal Briquettes

Kingsford Original Charcoal Briquettes

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These briquettes are made with 100% natural ingredients, no harsh chemicals or dangerous additives.

This is a value pack with 4 bags of all-purpose briquettes to use for any type of smoking.

Check out the latest prices and availability here

Lump charcoal

This type burns even cleaner than briquettes and produces less ash. Lump charcoal is actually larger pieces of wood that have been fired until they become charcoal.

Choose lump charcoal, which is made of hardwoods, because then you’ll get a similar flavor to smoking with actual hardwood logs.

Lumps burn for a longer time and at a higher temperature than briquettes.

Also, lumps are actually more natural than briquettes because they are real burnt wood without additives.

Here’s the #1 selling lump charcoal on Amazon:

Jealous Devil LUMP charcoal

Jealous Devil LUMP charcoal

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This lump charcoal is made from 100% hardwood pieces from South America.

It is an excellent option because it burns for 4 hours during open-air smoking or for nearly 20 hours in low-oxygen smokers.

It only produces a little ash, and you end up using about 20-40% less wood.

Check these out here on Amazon

You need to learn how to use charcoal properly when smoking. It can get a little bit messy, in comparison to the other three types of heat sources.

Charcoal burns at a high temperature, and it needs to be monitored and controlled to ensure the food doesn’t burn.

Thus, it’s recommended that amateurs start off with a wood pellet grill.

How do you store charcoal?

You need to be careful and store charcoal properly. It must be kept in a dry place, in an empty bin or large can, covered by a lid, to avoid contamination.

If your charcoal becomes damp, it will form mold and have to be thrown out as that will ruin the flavors in your smoker.

Wood chips

Wood chips are tiny wood fragments with an irregular shape. They are cut up in a roughly similar shape in a wood chipper but they are not heavily processed.

All manufacturers do is dry the wood chips to a desired moisture level. When shopping for wood chips, look for kiln-dried chips that don’t contain any mold, insects, or bark.

The higher the price, the better the quality of the chips.

You need to be aware that wood chips are the most difficult to work with, in the sense that you need to find the right flavor to pair with the type of food you are smoking.

Chips are a cheap way to smoke up your favorite foods.

However, you need to know that wood chips are not a real heat source, you use them in combination with another heat source such as gas, for example.

The role of the wood chips is to provide smoke flavor.

One of the bestsellers on Amazon is this bag of cherry wood chips:

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Usually, wood chips are great for low smoking. Wood chips burn at a much faster rate than pellets, for example.

They should be used when smoking with a low fire that lets them smolder. They will give you low to moderate smoke in comparison to the other fuel types.

If you want an easy, fuss-free smoking experience, pick up a bag of hickory chips like the Oklahoma Joe’s Hickory Wood Smoker Chips, 2-Pound Bag at $11.

These are all-natural wood chips from hickory trees.

Hickory is actually one of the most frequently used smoking woods because people love that bacony, earthy taste it imparts to the food.

Wood chunks

Wood chunks are larger pieces of wood, about 2 inches or less, used for smoking when you need smoke for an extended period of time.

Wood chunks are an inexpensive way to fire up the smoker. They can be used with gas grills, charcoal grills, and smoker boxes.

Wood chunks are sold in all kinds of hardwood flavors, the most popular still being alder, mesquite, apple, and cherry.

Chunks are made of hardwood logs that are split up into small 2-4-inch pieces. The best chunks are kiln-dried.

The drying process kills any insects or mold on the wood and ensures easy lighting of the wood chunks.

Here is a bag of alder wood chunks from Amazon:

Camerons Products Smoking Wood Chunks- (Alder) Kiln Dried

Camerons Products Smoking Wood Chunks- (Alder) Kiln Dried

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This 5-pound bag of chunks is ideal if you are looking for a light, delicate smoke flavor for your meat.

Some people prefer to soak their wood chips prior to use so that they last longer, but not all brands of wood chips actually require soaking!

Check them out here on Amazon

Another great option to try is this kiln-dried bag of chunks that don’t need soaking:

Wood Fire Grilling co. Hickory Wood Chunks for Smoking Bark-Free, Kiln Dried BBQ Blocks

Wood Fire Grilling co. Hickory Wood Chunks for Smoking Bark-Free, Kiln Dried BBQ Blocks

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These wood chunks are raw hickory wood, stripped of bark and kiln-dried. These will give your meat that great hickory flavor.

These chunks do not require any soaking prior to use and can be placed on top of coals or on the smoker.

Check them out here

Now that you know more about the smoke fuel options available, it’s time to choose what works best for your smoker!

Here are some situations in which it’s best to use one type of fuel:

Whether you are preparing to smoke for the entire family or just looking for a quick smoke in the backyard, it’s important to choose the right type of fuel.

Not all smokers are the same, and as you’ve learned, some kinds of fuel are better suited for smoking than others.

Remember that if you are a beginner, go for the most straightforward option, which is wood pellets.

If you are looking for that old-school grilling experience, experiment with a charcoal grill. If you are looking for specific flavors, try wood chips and wood chunks.

But most importantly, have fun!