Pellet smokers are a popular choice in many households because of how easy they are to use. But if you’re in a pinch, can you use a pellet smoker without pellets?
In this TheGrillingDad.com guide, we’ll discuss:
- Whether or not you can use a pellet smoker without pellets
- What to do when you run out of pellets
- And much more!
Jump to Section
Can You Use a Pellet Smoker Without Pellets?
Pellet smokers are a great way to enjoy tasty smoked meats year-round. But do you always need to use wood pellets with a pellet smoker?
A pellet smoker cannot function without pellets. Pellets are the primary fuel source in a pellet smoker, and without them, you will be unable to light your pellet smoker or bring it to the proper temperature. A pellet smoker that runs out of pellets will cool down rapidly.
Therefore we recommend always having plenty of pellets on hand. Read on to learn more about pellet smokers and how they work!
How Do Pellet Smokers Work?
Pellet smokers are just like other smokers, except they use pellets for fuel rather than propane or charcoal. These pellets are loaded into a bin on the side or back of the smoker called a hopper.
When you turn on the grill, an electric rod ignites the pellets which are in the fire pot. To get pellets from the hopper to the fire pot, there is a rod, run by electricity, called an auger.
Related >> Do Pellet Smokers Need a Water Pan?
The temperature in a pellet smoker is controlled both by the number of pellets that are fed into the fire pot as well as by the amount of air that is allowed in the grill. Unlike their charcoal and propane counterparts, pellet smokers are much easier to control and allow you to select a precise temperature for smoking.
If you’re wanting a more in-depth guide, check out our post on how pellet grills work.
Because pellet smokers take a lot of the guesswork out of smoking, they are a favorite among beginners. Plus, for those who still want a charcoal taste, you can purchase charcoal pellets for your wood pellet smoker.
What Happens When You Run Out of Pellets?
Unfortunately, when a pellet smoker runs out of pellets, it will turn off and start to cool down as soon as there are no longer any more pellets in the fire pot.
Because there is an auger between the hopper and the firepot, just because your hopper is empty doesn’t mean you are out of pellets quite yet. If you notice the hopper is getting low, simply add in some more pellets.
If you don’t have any more on hand, then it’s a good idea to make a quick trip to the store to purchase some. If you don’t buy some before the auger empties, the pellet smoker will burn what remains in the firepot before eventually shutting down.
When this happens, it is best to move your food into a warm oven inside until you can get the smoker back up to temperature. Leaving your food in your smoker as it cools down could cause bacteria to form and the meat not to cook properly when you do start your pellet smoker back up.
What is Tunneling in a Pellet Smoker?
Sometimes, your grill might start to cool down, but you open the hopper and see that there are still pellets…so what is going on? Well, it’s possible that your pellet smoker is experiencing a phenomenon known as tunneling.
Tunneling is when the pellets enter the auger at an uneven rate leaving a void in your hopper. Your auger continues to move, meaning the firepot isn’t being fed since your auger is only moving air. This can cause the flame to extinguish and the pellet grill to cool down.
The good news is, you can avoid tunneling by using your hand or a spoon to frequently mix the pellets in the hopper, pressing down lightly.
If your pellet grill has already tunneled and gone off, however, it is a good idea to move the food inside to a warm oven and check to ensure this is truly the case. The last thing you want to do is assume tunneling is the problem when you could be facing a myriad of other issues.
If you check the firepot (once the grill is cool or with a heatproof glove) and it is empty, then tunneling is likely the culprit. Start your pellet smoker again, following the startup sequence. As long as it rises to temperature like normal, you are good to go!
If you disassemble your grill to find the firepot full of pellets, then tunneling is not the problem, and you need to do a further investigation before using your pellet grill again.
Can Pellet Smokers Use Propane?
If you are mid-smoke and run out of pellets, you may be wondering if something else, like propane, will suffice. Sadly, there is no way to use propane with a pellet smoker.
A pellet smoker is only designed for use with hardwood pellets and to be plugged into an electrical outlet.
Can Pellet Smokers Use Charcoal?
It is never suggested to use lump charcoal or brick charcoal with your pellet smoker. Doing so could damage the internal parts of the smoker. Never place lit charcoal in the base of your pellet smoker, as this could cause a fire or an explosion.
If you still want that signature charcoal taste but own a pellet smoker, then you should buy charcoal hardwood pellets that are approved for use with your pellet smoker.
On the flip side, you can use wood pellets with your charcoal grill.
Do Wood Pellets Go Bad?
One reason you might be in danger of running out of pellets is that you don’t keep any on hand. But you’re scared to have a stock of pellets because they might go bad.
The good news is, as long as you store your wood pellets properly, they have an extremely long shelf life of years or longer. Wood pellets should be stored inside (not in a pellet smoker) and in a dry container off of the ground.
If your wood pellets are exposed to water or moisture, they will degrade in quality quickly. You can tell if a wood pellet had gone bad by picking it up. The pellet should feel dry and firm in your hand. If you pick up a pellet and it falls apart, feels wet, or turns to mush, then it is bad and should not be put in your pellet smoker.
What Happens if You Run a Pellet Smoker Without Pellets?
If you have read all of this but still would like to try to run your pellet smoker without pellets, you are free to do so. Just know that a pellet smoker won’t turn on without pellets as it will have no fuel to light.
If your pellet smoker is already on when it runs out of pellets, it will begin the shutdown process, and you will be unable to continue cooking. If you don’t notice this happens, you may come back hours later to find your dinner cold and half cooked.
Therefore, we recommend always having pellets on hand if you plan to own a pellet smoker, this way, you will never have to find out what happens when you try to run it without pellets!