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Grill Marks: Top-Rated Barbecue Grills & Smokers

Charcoal · Gas · Electric

A new gas grill allows you to use a mobile app to control mechanical gas valves. Meanwhile, the range of digital grill thermometers has been extended.


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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.

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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.


Feel the Heat

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Digital thermometers use a probe to monitor the temperature of your meat and your grill, and they use Bluetooth connectivity to send alerts and updates to a remote hand-held monitor or to a mobile app that’s available for Apple iOS or Google Android devices. We found 28 digital thermometers (starting at $20), compared with 12 before (starting at $40). Today’s digital thermometers typically also have a 40-foot range, compared with 25 feet before. A distance of 15 feet makes a big difference when it means that the Bluetooth signal can reach from your grill to your kitchen.

In general, we found that digital thermometers provide you with a more accurate reading than do conventional analog thermometers, which typically are mounted near the top of a grill’s hood. The problem with those hood-mounted thermometers is that no one cooks near the top of the grill’s hood. You cook on the grates, which is where a digital-thermometer probe measures grill temperature.

“Digital thermometers are way more accurate, and you want something that accurately measures the grill and the meat temperatures,” says Max Good of AmazingRibs.com. “You don’t want to pull your steaks off and have them all gray and dry and find that you’ve wasted meat.”

In 2016, Fireboard introduced its Extreme BBQ Edition thermometer system ($249), which monitors the cooking temperatures of as many as six items. Other digital thermometers measure two or three items. Fireboard’s new model also uses Wi-Fi to upload cooking information to a dedicated app, so you can review your previous cookouts to compare cooking times    and smoker performance and perfect your technique. We found that the system is useful and easy to use.

Digital thermometers typically are made by nongrill manufacturers, but that’s starting to change. Weber-Stephen Products bought iDevices’ iGrill brand, which was one of the first Bluetooth-enabled grilling-thermometer technologies, in February 2016. In January 2017, Weber launched its Genesis II gas grill line (starting at $599), which includes a front-mounted docking station for the iGrill 3 thermometer (sold separately for $99). The iGrill 3 sends alerts, food-temperature readings and propane-level reports to an app. Experts tell us that they expect to see iGrill docking ports that are included on more Weber grills in the next 3 years. Representatives at Weber wouldn’t tell us the company’s plans.

“Right now, we’re focused on the launch of Genesis II,” says Melissa Enos of Weber. “[iGrill 3] reinforces Weber’s commitment to this type of connected grilling and our passion for making grilling as fun and seamless as possible.”