Digital-control systems in grills were a novelty when they started to appear 3 years ago. Today’s systems have improved Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity and the capability to store information on a mobile app. What’s best of all is that the systems’ reliability was the focus of manufacturers’ improvement efforts.
Digital-control systems mostly are limited to charcoal grills, pellet grills and smokers, because you don’t have to control mechanical parts on those models. You use the system only to control a heating element electronically. On a gas grill, you have to control a valve that regulates how much gas that’s allowed to go to the burners. That’s why experts tell us that Char-Broil’s new Wi-Fi-enabled SmartChef Tru-Infrared Gas Grill ($799) is a notable innovation.
The SmartChef includes a food temperature probe, a firebox temperature sensor, sensors that measure the flame quality and temperature at each burner and a sensor that monitors the propane level. The grill has manual and control modes. Manual mode works the way that conventional gas grilling does: You turn the control knobs to increase the heat to your desired temperature. You can use the SmartChef’s app to get real-time data that show the cooking progress of the food that you grill.
In control mode, you use the app to set the temperature at between 350 degrees Fahrenheit and 700 degrees F. For example, you can spend the first 10–15 minutes cooking at a high temperature and then use the app to reduce the temperature automatically for a slow cook. You can use the app to program the grill to cook for a certain amount of time or until your food reaches a certain temperature. The app alerts you when your food is finished cooking. In other words, you can, say, make a salad or talk to your guests while the food cooks, and you don’t have to open the grill’s lid constantly to see whether your food is done cooking.
“What we’re trying to do is provide enough information to the user so that they can monitor the temperature without opening the lid and compromising the temperature,” says Rob Hawkins of Char-Broil.
A few manufacturers tried to accomplish this on their gas grills, but those grills weren’t able to control mechanical gas valves, and the electronic controls were difficult to use, says Max Good, who is the director of equipment reviews for AmazingRibs.com.
Previously, a few manufacturers promoted the idea that connected grills allow consumers to “set it and forget it,” or leave the grill unattended. Six experts tell us that it never is a good idea to leave a gas grill unattended while it’s in operation.
“We don’t want to encourage that behavior at all,” Hawkins says.
The SmartChef app also includes a recipe library that has step-by-step programmable instructions. In other words, if you really like pork tenderloin but you have no idea about how to grill it, the app can provide you with an easy way to learn that process.
SLOW COOKING. As many know, kamado grills are insulated charcoal cookers that allow cooking temperatures to reach as high as 700 degrees F and can operate as low and slow as you want for slow cooking. These models typically are made from ceramic or a combination of cement and crushed lava rock. We found 23 conventional ceramic or cement models (starting at $650), compared with 15 before.
In the past year, Char-Broil and Weber, which are the two largest grill manufacturers in terms of sales, introduced their first kamado grills. Weber’s Summit Charcoal Grill (starting at $1,499) is a dual-layer metal grill that cooks for hours when it has a load of charcoal. We heard of people who used it for 50 hours at 225 degrees F. The Summit includes an adjustable charcoal grate that you can move directly underneath the cooking surface to achieve high-intensity cooking.
“It’s wonderful if you want to super-sear something,” Good says. “I often wondered why Weber didn’t have something like that in the past.”
At the other end of the kamado price spectrum, Char-Broil introduced its Kamander Charcoal grill ($349) in January 2017. The Kamander has a 22-inch-diameter cooking surface, compared with the 18 inches that are typical of kamado grills. It also is one of the least expensive kamado grills that we found.
“Until recently, we hadn’t seen kamado grills that were lower than $500 or $600,” says Dan Corso of Char-Broil. “We thought there was value in bringing kamado grills to a broader audience.”
Unlike other kamado grills, the Kamander has an air-intake system at the cooking surface (waist level). Other kamado grills have air-intake dampers at the bottom of the grill, which means that you have to kneel when you adjust the dampers to control the temperature. In other words, the Kamander is the only kamado grill that allows you to control the temperature while you stand. That sounds more comfortable than kneeling on the ground.
Derrick Riches writes about barbecuing and grilling for About.com. He has covered the grilling industry since 1997.