Some settings can be confusing–like the “smoke” setting on a pellet grill. Is it just for adding some extra smoke? Can you cook on it?
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Can You Cook on the Smoke Setting of a Pellet Grill?
When you go to use your pellet grill for the first time, you will likely notice that the dial has a smoke or “S” setting. But what is this setting for?
While you can use the smoke setting for smoking your food, it isn’t recommended because this setting uses a temperature that’s low enough to put your meat into the Danger Zone and the temperature fluctuates drastically with this setting.
Keep in mind, no matter what temperature you select, you’ll always be burning real wood pellets and smoking your food.
What is the Smoke Setting on a Pellet Grill?
The smoke setting on a pellet grill is the lowest temperature the grill can function at. The exact temperature of your smoke setting will vary depending on your grill model.
Here are the typical ranges by brand:
- Traeger: 160°-180°F
- PitBoss: 180°-225°F
- Z Grills: 158°-194°F
- Camp Chef: 160°F for “low smoke” and 225°F for “high smoke”
The reason temperatures fluctuate so much on this setting is because the auger will oscillate between 15 and 65 seconds intervals (some models have different times).
As an example, the auger feeds pellets in the firepot for 15 seconds and then stops to give them time to smolder. After 65 seconds, it’ll feed some more pellets.
And on older Traeger models, you had to prime the auger and start it on the smoke setting before you could set your temp. Avoiding this step could lead to your pellet grill blowing up.
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Why Are Most Smoke Settings a Range of Temperatures?
While pellet grills are extremely efficient at heating themselves up and holding a specified temperature, this becomes more difficult with very low temperatures. This is because the temperature in a pellet grill depends on a lot of variables, and these variables make bigger changes at the high and low ends of the temperature spectrum.
The reason the smoke setting is always specified as a range is that no pellet grill company can guarantee what the exact temperature of your grill will be when the fire pot is burning this low. They specify a range so that you don’t think you’re cooking your food at a hotter temperature than you really are.
Smoke Setting vs. the 180-Degree Setting
The biggest difference between the smoke setting and just setting it to 180° is the rate at which pellets are fed into the firepot.
As we just covered, the smoke setting will have the auger going on and off pretty frequently, which causes temperature variance between 160-180°F whereas setting it to 180°F will hold that temp without the big swings.
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Should You Use the Smoke Setting to Smoke on a Pellet Grill?
The smoke setting, as we mentioned above, is highly variable. This means that while you technically can use it to smoke your dinner, you probably shouldn’t.
The first problem is that the temperature in this setting can experience swings of up to 40°F. This means it will be difficult to estimate how long your meat will take to cook. Not to mention that it might cook unevenly due to the temperature of the grill changing.
Secondly, while we love low and slow cooking, cooking things too low and too slow also allows bacteria to grow. According to the FDA, the danger zone for meat is between 40°F and 140°F. In this range, bacteria can multiply rapidly on meat within 2 hours.
While all of the smoke settings are above 140°F, some of them are barely above it (158°F), and because temperature swings of ±5°F are normal with temperature probes on pellet grills, this smoke setting just gets a little too close to comfort. So while it can be great for the very end or very beginning of a smoke session, we don’t recommend using it to try to cook your whole meal.
And think about it, if your temp is 160-180, your meat can’t get higher than that, so you’ll never reach that melt-in-your-mouth tenderness if you’re smoking a brisket.
And if you just want more smoke, you could consider using a smoke tube in your pellet grill.
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What is the Smoke Setting for?
Since we’ve deduced that smoking on the “smoke” setting is less than ideal for cooking, why do pellet grills have it?
In most pellet grills, the “smoke” setting is part of the startup sequence. It is used to get the smoke going and to preheat the grill before the really high temperatures are used. Check your owner’s manual to see if this applies to you.
The “smoke” setting is also recommended for pellet grill shutdown, especially when you are going from a really high temperature to the off setting. In these cases, there are probably a lot of pellets in the firepot, and the “smoke” setting is a good way to burn them off before completely shutting down the grill. You will also want to read your manual’s shutdown process to see whether or not there are additional actions you need to perform to shut down your grill.
In our house, we also use the smoke setting as a bit of a warming setting. Smoking is not an exact art, and although we calculate in advance how long it will take a cut of meat to cook, sometimes it goes slower, and other times it goes faster. When the meat cooks too quickly, and we still have, say, 30 minutes before dinner, the smoke setting is a good way to keep the meat warm for just a few minutes while we wait for guests to arrive (plus it’ll get that extra smoke flavor!)
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How Long Can You Leave the “Smoke” Setting on?
The “smoke” setting on your pellet grill is a temperature setting, this means you can leave it on for hours, just as you would any other setting on your pellet grill.
The only difference is that the “smoke” setting doesn’t have an established temperature but rather a range, so it will be difficult to plan out how long to smoke on your smoke setting.
What’s the Lowest Temperature You Can Smoke At?
When it comes to smoking and food safety, the lowest temperature you should use is 180°F. The reason is that anything lower than that won’t get you past that 140° danger zone fast enough and you could end up with food poisoning.
While some pellet grills do have a setting as low as 180°F, some have the lowest temperature on the dial at 225°F before switching to just the “smoke” setting.
Can You Control Smoke on a Pellet Grill?
One misconception about pellet grills is that if you don’t use the “smoke” setting, there won’t be enough smoke to cook your food. This is far from the truth.
Pellet grills produce smoke as part of their normal operation of burning pellets. The amount of smoke produced changes based on how many pellets are being burned, as well as how much air is allowed into the grill. These variables are controlled when you choose the temperature on your pellet grill.
Therefore, whether or not you choose the smoke setting, your pellet grill will produce smoke. You don’t really control how much smoke your pellet grill produces, but if you want it to produce more, you should turn the temperature down. If you want less smoke, crank the temperature up.
Want more smoke? Read our guide on getting more smoke from your pellet grill.