Thursday, July 25, 2013

Smokers and Grills and Eggs, Oh MY!

It's baffling.  Walking into a mega-store that sells outdoor cookers can be super intimidating.  So many styles, so much to consider, so much money to spend, where do you start?  The answer is inevitably up to you, of course, but I've cooked on them all and owned most of them so I can provide you with some facts.  In the end, I'll tell you what I bought and why I bought it, but your mileage may certainly vary.  Here are the most popular pits (in no particular given order) and some notes on each:


GenesisThe Propane Grill: The ubiquitous propane grill is, far and away, America's favorite.  Why?  Convenience, plain and simple.  Push a button, FIRE!  It doesn't get any better than that.  These grills have come a long way in the last ten years.  Hotter burners allow for better searing, "flavor plates" or bars can be seasoned to add more flavor, and the addition of external burners to cook your eggs on is a nice touch.  Still, it's propane.  Propane isn't wood or charcoal.  It's next to impossible to smoke anything or to slow cook anything in there.  Sure, you can use indirect heat to cook something slower than you ordinarily would, but I dare you to try to cook a whole turkey in one of these.
The Charcoal Grill: Every house should have one.  They're cheap, Easy to run, and they're incredibly versatile.  Granted, you have to deal with ash and cleanup when you're done, but these little buggars come in an infinite array of shapes and sizes and you won't have to transport a heavy grill and your propane tanks to the ballgame when you want to tailgate.  There's no better grill when it comes to building flavor on burgers, steaks, and hotdogs; not to mention ears of corn, whole "Beer Can Chickens" and other foods.  The only thing I don't like about them is that its not terribly easy to add more fuel when you need it.  Adding more charcoal or wood means taking everything OFF the grill first and that ain't always easy.  Some charcoal grills have such fuel doors to make that easier.  When/if you purchase one of these, make sure it is as easy to dump/clean the ash as it is to load up with charcoal or wood.  Keeping them clean is essential if you don't want them to rust away.

The Big Green Egg:  You've seen these, right? They're growing exponentially in popularity.  They do one thing very, very well.  They can hold a low temperature (200 to 300 degrees) while using a very small supply of fuel, for hours and hours and hours.  Any experienced BBQ chef would KILL for such a device.  For the cost of a fistful of charcoal and a few sticks of wood, this super-insulated ceramic vessel will sit there and smoke at 225 for all the live long day.  There are only two problems; capacity and cost.  For the money you'll drop on one of these, you could easily afford a commercial steel smoker with 5x the capacity.  Take a good look at this picture.  The dome shape of the lid and the thick ceramic insulation make for a very limited capacity.  I don't know about you, but I frequently cook more than one chicken at a time.  Hell, I couldn't fit a single whole brisket in there without it lopping over the sides.  No thanks.

The Offset Smoker:  Have a good look at this beast.  It looks like a steam locomotive, doesn't it?  It looks like two grills welded together and that's exactly what it is.  The main chamber with the smoke stack is the cooking chamber.  This functions as a huge charcoal grill, if you like, but it's much more than that.  The main cooking chamber will hold your food, while the heat and smoke come from the smaller "firebox" chamber there off to the right.  This allows you to control your fuel, heat, and temperature, without losing heat in the cooking chamber or messing with your food until it's done.  This can be used as a smoker, grill, outdoor oven, etc, and it's loaded with capacity.  It's not without it's negatives though.  For example, the heat that flows from the firebox, through the cooking chamber, and ultimately out the smoke stack keeps one end of the cooking chamber hotter than the other.  This is a tough challenge to overcome if you demand uniform cooking (and most of us do).  More on this one in a bit.

Pellet Smokers: This little marvel of technology solves the problem of having to monitor the fuel and temperature of the cooking chamber.  A computer monitors the temperature and turns a screw-type auger that dumps pellets onto the fire when the heat gets low.  All you need to do is to dump pellets into the hopper, set the temperature, and walk away.  For the most part, this is true.  It can be hard to find pellets to buy, and the pellets just don't produce the same quantity of smoke that natural wood does.  You can't turn this into a charcoal grill either, although some high-end models do allow that.  High end models also allow an infinite temperature setting, rather than a "High, Medium, Low" type of setting.  Expect to pay over $1,000 for a really good Pellet Smoker.

The Bullet:  Isn't it cute?  So named for it's unique shape, a bullet smoker solves the capacity problem by allowing multiple vertically stacked shelves, taking advantage of heat's natural tendency to rise.  Your coals go in the bottom and the smoke and heat rise through the chambers, cooking the food, and out the top.  I like these.  They can be a bit meticulous and cumbersome to deal with though. The door is small, to prevent heat from leaking out, so you need small hands to add coals or to take temperatures.  It's also difficult to extract food from various shelves unless everything finishes cooking at the same time.  Lots of various parts mean lots of things to scrape and clean.  These are easily the cheapest smokers on the market though, and they do a great job and last quite a long time for what you pay for them.

So, what did I buy?  This is the Yoder Smokers "Wichita" smoker.  It was built from 1/4" steel pipe, and everything is welded at the seems so smoke and heat won't leak out.  A removable steel baffle inside the cooking chamber diffuses the heat from the firebox to minimize hot-spots and to even the temperature.  A charcoal grate can be placed in the bottom after removing the baffle to turn the beast into a massive grill.  It's made in America (Kansas) and it has a lifetime guarantee.  Now, I realize that the average consumer doesn't want/need 600+ pounds of wood burning welded steel on their back deck, but it's so much better than the cheap offset smokers that you can get at Walmart for $149.  Avoid those like the plague.  You'll be lucky if it lasts more than one summer, and you'll burn a big 20lb bag of charcoal every 4 hours trying to keep the cooking chamber at 225 degrees.  A good welded steel smoker should hold heat at a constant temperature for a couple of hours at a time, without additional fuel.




If you're serious about getting the "last grill you'll ever need for the rest of your life," you'll need to budget around $1500 for one.  For that you can get:
  • A Stainless Steel Weber Genesis propane grill AND a Webber charcoal kettle (and have plenty of money left over to buy the meat for your first party)
  • A large "Big Green Egg" and a cart to set it in (they're heavy) so you can cook one chicken or a pork shoulder
  • 8 Bullet smokers
  • A welded steel 800lb monster with the capacity to cook from one hot dog to 8 pork shoulders and 4 chickens simultaneously.

If you're ready to "up your game" and jump to a full sized offset smoker, I recommend Yoder Smokers.


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