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Best Pellets For Smoking: 8 Tantalizing Flavor Pairings & How to Choose

By Daniel Cdebaca

March 29, 2024

Your pellet grill is sitting in the backyard right at this very moment, begging for your attention.

Whether you’re a seasoned pellet grill operator, or a newbie just learning the ropes… Your pellet grilled creations are only as good as the pellets you use.

It’s this exact curiosity that brings you here today… And why you’re searching for the best pellets for smoking.

Blogs, forums, and different videos will all have a differing opinion on this topic.

We, too, have our own perspective to share. But unlike some of the other sites you’ve stumbled upon… Our perspective is based on years of experience.

best pellets for smoking with 4 types

We’ve tapped into the knowledge of Ethan Fullenkamp, an avid BBQ pitmaster and pellet grill enthusiast. (He fires up his Rec-teq at least 3 times a week!)

Over the years, Ethan has tried just about every type of pellet, brand of pellet, and flavor combination you could possibly think up.

So in this article, we’re going to condense years and years of BBQ experience into a simple, easy-to-digest guide for your pellet smoking needs.

By the end, you’ll have a clear idea of what to look for in a wood pellet brand, ideal pairing suggestions, and much more.

Let’s begin.

Quicklinks:

A Brief Introduction to Flavor Profiles & Pairings

If you’ve perused the wood pellet shelf at your local Walmart or online at Amazon… You may have felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of pellet types available.

There’s hickory, apple mesquite… And let’s not even get into the competition blends.

So what type of wood pellet should you be using?

Well, let’s talk about that.

Hickory Pellets

close up of best hickory pellets for smoking

As Ethan will tell you, “Hickory is a really midwest flavor, because there’s a lot of hickory trees out there.”

But you don’t have to be from Iowa or Illinois to enjoy some delicious BBQ smoked with hickory wood.

In fact, in our eyes, hickory makes one of the best all around pellets for smoking.

“Hickory is a nice base wood that goes well with anything, you’re not going to go wrong with hickory. Many times, it will go particularly well with nice, sweet barbecue flavors. In my opinion, hickory is the all-purpose barbecue flavor”, Ethan continues.

If you don’t like to fuss with flavor profiles, and prefer to run on autopilot… Hickory pellets are your ticket to pellet-smoked heaven.

Hickory pairs beautifully with beef, chicken, pork, fish, or even veggies. So no matter what you’re planning to smoke up… You can’t go wrong here.

Apple Wood Pellets

best pellets for smoking pork ribs

Apple wood smoked bacon is known the world over for its delectable (and addictive!) smoky flavor.

It makes sense. We all know how well apple pairs with pork in general… So of course, the wood flavor from apple wood is also a natural pairing.

As Ethan put it, “For me, apple wood goes best with pork products. It’s a much sweeter meat, and that apple wood gives it a nice, fruity flavor.”

You could really go all-in on that apple / pork combination if you want. In the past, Ethan has made “warm apple pie” ribs with apple wood pellets, pork ribs, brown sugar, cinnamon… The works.

And if you’re a fan of throwing more unique flavors into the mix… Apple wood pairs beautifully with wood from nut trees, such as pecan or walnut.

You know what else apple pellets are an amazing contender for?

Cheese.

“Apple wood is the most popular choice for smoking cheese, but it also depends on the type. If I’m doing a gouda or something like that, I find myself using apple wood”, Ethan continues.

Apple smoked cheddar is always a hit as well… And is probably one of the best pellets for smoking cheese out there!

There’s a lot to love about apple wood, but what if you want something more bold?

Mesquite Pellets

mesquite hardwood pellets in a plastic bag

Moving over to mesquite… This is where some flavor polarization kicks in.

It’s like licorice. You either love it, or hate it.

“Mesquite is a very bold flavor that you’ll see a lot in the Tennessee area, Memphis in particular is known for mesquite BBQ. It’s a strong flavor, if you love mesquite, you’re going to love it because you get kicked in the mouth with flavor. If not, the flavor will just be too much for you”, Ethan explains.

So if you’ve never tried mesquite pellets before… We suggest purchasing a small bag, just to give it a go. If you end up not being a fan, it’s no great loss!

As for pairings, “I like to use mesquite with pork and chicken. Chicken in particular is mild in flavor, and can absorb a lot more smoke flavor from the mesquite”, Ethan continues.

Whether it’s chicken, turkey, or pork… All three are fair game for a delicious pairing with mesquite.

Pecan Wood

natural hardwood pecan wood pellets in a hopper

Pecan pellets are another popular choice for smoking meat. It’s got a lovely, nutty flavor that pairs well with other types of pellets.

“Pecan is a nice nut wood, I personally like to pair it with cherry wood, or another type of fruit wood. Pecan wood is great with pork, chicken, and fish”, Ethan suggests.

Some pecan smoked salmon is sounding pretty good right about now… What do you think?

Ethan does mention that pecan wood can pair nicely with beef sometimes as well… The choice just depends on what you’re feeling at that moment.

If you’re looking to add a nutty flavor to your smoked dishes… Pecan is a versatile choice.

A Place for Every Wood Pellet To Call Home

Store and smoke up all your favorite hardwood pellets in style with a custom outdoor kitchen setup.

Alder Wood Pellets

close up of alder wood pellets

Alder wood isn’t as common as some of the other pellets we’ve discussed so far… But it has its uses!

As Ethan will tell you, “Alder has an all-around, mild flavor that can be paired with just about anything.”

Most commonly, you’ll see it paired with fish and chicken. In fact… Some will go as far as to say these are the best pellets for smoking salmon.

It’s really as simple as that! If you’re looking for a mild smoke flavor, alder is a good choice to keep in the rotation.

Cherry Wood

best pellets for smoking with an outdoor kitchen

Like alder, cherry is another “universal” flavor, you could say.

“Cherry wood pairs well with pork, chicken, or fish. It also pairs well with nutty flavors. Cherry brings some nice, good flavors that aren’t too strong, but you can definitely notice they’re there”, Ethan shares.

The fruity flavor of cherry can work wonderfully with just about any protein you’d like to smoke.

…And that includes cheese. (If you consider it a protein, that is!)

For Ethan, cherry wood and cream cheese are a match made in pellet smoked heaven.

“Cherry smoked cream cheese with a little cherry puree on top makes a great cracker dip”, Ethan continues.

Stow that recipe idea away for your next BBQ party!

Maple Wood

close up of maple wood pellets

Unsurprisingly, “Maple wood is a pellet you’ll find most often used in the northern states”, Ethan shares.

Where the maple syrup flows… So do the maple wood pellets.

What are they good for?

As Ethan reveals, “Maple goes really well with fish, first and foremost. It also pairs nicely with pork or chicken, even beef.”

And since maple has that sugary-sweet flavor profile… Pairing it with a savory BBQ rub on your protein will grant you that addictive, sweet and savory flavor combination we all crave.

If you’re a New Englander, you’ll also know how well maple smoke blends with cheese.

Cheddar in particular is a striking match… With the sharp, tangy flavor of cheddar being tamed by the smoky, yet sweet notes of maple wood.

But if you’re after the best flavor pellets for smoking brisket or other cuts of beef… You’ll find it in our final wood pellet selection.

Post Oak Wood Pellets

close up of smoked brisket on a pellet grill

What are the best pellets for smoking beef?

In Ethan’s opinion… It’s post oak, hands down.

“Post oak is a very Texas flavor, where it’s beef, beef, and more beef. Post oak is a Texan staple, and it’s the flavor that sets it apart from other types of barbecue”, he explains.

And when you’ve had your first taste of post oak, you’ll never forget the uniqueness of its flavor.

It’s got a bold, strong flavor… Which is why Texas BBQ doesn’t need to be gussied up much to be known the world over.

“The motto of Texas BBQ is ‘salt, pepper, smoke’. Post oak provides that really nice smoke flavor, the salt and pepper are doing their thing for the crust, and all in all, it just makes great BBQ”, Ethan continues.

So whether you’re smoking a brisket, ribs, tri-tip… Post oak is the #1 choice for beef.

Now that you’ve got a solid footing on pellet flavors… Let’s go shopping.

Give Your Pellet Smoker the Treatment it Deserves

The outdoor kitchen treatment, that is. Design the perfect home for your pellet smoker with our free online tool.

Best Pellets for Smoking: What to Look for

Large bags of wood pellets on pallets outside

Alright, we’re back at the store shelf. All manner of colorful labels are screaming out to you with various claims… But this time, we’re not going to get overwhelmed.

There’s a few key words to pay attention to, and you can forget the rest.

“Right off the bat, a red flag for me is if the bag just says ‘all-natural pellets’. If it just says that, it’s a marketing ploy”, Ethan says.

Why?

Well, that’s because the term “all-natural” or “natural” doesn’t really mean much of anything. According to the USDA’s definition, a product can be labeled natural if it contains, “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.”

Even “minimal processing” is ambiguous, and can be twisted to mean just about anything.

So all-natural isn’t the keyword to look for. What can you look for?

It’s about What’s Not There...

Well, there’s actually 3 things. A high-quality wood pellet brand will advertise what they don’t include.

As Ethan put it, “I want to see no binders, no fillers, and no artificial flavors.”

Many low-quality brands will put in cheap binders or fillers like sawdust to stretch their product… But you lose out on pure, hardwood smoke flavor.

Not good.

Artificial flavors will be caught by the “all-natural” term, however… There are natural flavors that you still wouldn’t want added to your wood pellets.

Take cherry oil, for example. This is a flavor that is possible to naturally produce, and add to your wood pellets.

But that cherry oil doesn’t translate to authentic, cherry smoked flavor. Those volatile oils just get burned right off in your pellet grill… And you’re left with the subpar flavor of a subpar pellet.

And once you’ve confirmed that your wood pellets haven’t been tampered with… What’s left?

And if You See This, You’re Golden

wood pellets in plastic bags

We’ve covered the negative, what about the affirmative?

You want to feel 100% confident that your food-grade wood pellets are high quality and safe to use.

Luckily, the golden nugget is simple to identify.

“When I’m shopping for pellets, what I’m looking for is 100% hardwood”, Ethan explains.

That’s it.

100% hardwood pellets tell you that there is nothing in that package aside from pure, clean natural hardwood.

You can compare this to something like 100% grass-fed & finished beef. This term verifies that the beef you’re buying ate only grass for its entire lifespan… So you know you’re getting a pure product that wasn’t fed grains or anything else.

It’s the same concept with 100% hardwood pellets. They took the tree… And turned it into pellets.

Simple as that.

Surely, now you’re wondering… What is the best brand wood pellets for smoking?

Let’s discuss.

What are the Best Wood Pellets Money Can Buy?

With brands like Weber, Louisiana Grills, Camp Chef, and Traeger dominating the store shelves… You’re probably wondering where they stack up.

Would you be surprised to know we only mention one of them?

We’ll Start with the Bad News...

best all around pellets for smoking in coyote pellet grill

Just to be clear… We’re not in the business of bashing different wood pellet brands.

It’s just that over the years, Ethan has figured out what his favorite (and least favorite) brands are.

With that said, let’s get his take on some of the least favorites.

For Ethan, Pit Boss pellets rank at just about the bottom of the list.

While it’s true that they’re exceptionally affordable… There’s no mention of “no fillers” or “ no binders” on the bag, which causes us to question the quality.

As a result, our experience has shown us that Pit Boss doesn’t tend to bring the best in terms of flavor.

“If you still want cheap, but still better than Pit Boss, Bear Mountain and Traeger make a decent pellet. I would question the quality of some of their pellets, but many people like them”, Ethan continues.

Out of the two, Bear Mountain advertises no fillers, no flavorings, and no additives… So for us, we’d lean toward Bear Mountain over Traeger pellets.

That said… In our minds, what are the best smoker pellets money can buy?

And Wrap with the Best Quality Pellets for Smoking

When it comes to the best brand of pellets for smoking… Ethan has several recommendations for you.

Namely, Knotty Wood, Kona Wood, Jealous Devil, and Lumberjack.

These brands all are made with 100% hardwood, with no fillers, binders, additives or flavors. They’re clean, pure hardwood pellets. Plain and simple.

The only thing really of note here is that some of the brands will include the bark from the tree… And others won’t.

For example, Jealous Devil does not include the bark, and Knotty Wood does.

Does it really matter?

Well, “I like the bark. I feel like that’s where a lot of the flavor comes from, but it does burn faster”, Ethan comments.

So it’s a trade-off.

Wood pellets with bark will give you even more of a punch of flavor… But they won’t be long for the world.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference. Try each of the brands we’ve mentioned… And you’ll figure out where your tastes lie.

Alright, so let’s go for a quick recap.

You know what type of wood to pair with your protein… You know what high quality pellet brands to look out for…

And there’s only one thing left to explore.

Enjoy Pellet-Smoked Favorites in Style

u shaped outdoor kitchen with pellet grill under covered patio

So your pellet smoker is packed to the gills with grilling pellets… And you’re ready to get the perfect smoke ring on your first post oak-smoked brisket. (Or stunning sear on a mesquite-kissed chicken breast!)

But wait.

Have you thought about the best way to enjoy your smoking setup?

If not… It’s high time to give this some consideration.

Firing up your pellet grill is always a pleasant experience. But what if you could make it even more exciting and convenient?

We’ve got a suggestion for you.

Plop that pellet grill of yours into a beautiful, functional, and practical outdoor kitchen setup.

This gives you a few significant upgrades you may not have thought of previously.

For one, an outdoor kitchen will afford you a ton of counter space for prepping and serving. You don’t have to run in and out of the house for things… And you have a stable surface for getting your proteins ready.

Additionally, an outdoor kitchen has a ton of storage potential. You’re going to need a place to store your new wood pellets, after all!

But an outdoor kitchen opens you up to far more than an optimized pellet smoking experience.

It also gives you a chance to incorporate other cooking appliances. Perhaps you’ve been eyeing a charcoal grill, gas grill, or even a pizza oven. Whatever it is… You can turn your backyard into a full-service kitchen experience.

And that’s just chipping off the tip of the iceberg.

If you’d like to learn a little more about what an outdoor kitchen can do for you… Check out our Learning Hub. And for fun, why not spin up a quick design using our free online design tool?

Have fun… And we’ll catch you on the flip.

Need Help With Your Plans?

Talk to one of our expert designers and they will guide you from planning to installation. Schedule a call today.

FAQ

When it comes to the best pellets for smoking pork… There are a few varieties of wood that play well with the sweet, succulent flavor of pork. Apple wood pellets are a go-to choice for most pitmasters. However, cherry wood, hickory, and pecan are all excellent pellet flavors to combine with pork.

If you want your pellet-smoked creations to really pack a punch… Mesquite and post oak pellets are the top choice for bold flavor. If you’re after the most smoke flavor possible in your BBQ… You can’t steer wrong with mesquite or post oak.

When it comes to the best pellet brand for smoking… There are several companies that make top-notch hardwood pellets. Knotty Wood, Jealous Devil, Lumberjack, and Kona Wood are all high-quality choices for your smoker. These brands use 100% hardwood with no fillers, additives, or binders.

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