Kamado, Ceramic, Egg Smokers And Grills: Buying Guide, Reviews, And Ratings
The kamado or ceramic grill/smoker/oven is a fast growing category with more and more choices every year. With good reason.
These charcoal fueled devices are modern versions of the Japanese kamado, an earthernware cooking urn whose original design is probably at least 3,000 years old. Indian tandoors are similar in concept.
They look a bit like an ancient burial urn or a giant egg, so it is not surprising that the most popular model is called the Big Green Egg.
Most are made of ceramics, terra cotta, cement, lava rock, and other refractory materials, the kind of stuff used to make kilns and crucibles, all extremely good insulators. If you don't drop them, they last a long time. As champion pitmaster Chris Lilly says of the Komodo Kamado says "Ask your children what color they want, because they will inherit it." Many offer a stand or table in which you can insert the device.
Some models are made of insulated steel which are lighter and less fragile, but the sides are not as good at retaining and radiating heat as the ceramics.
These are superb smokers and roasters. They are unmatched as backyard pizza and bread ovens because the sides and domes absorb heat and radiate it back like a professional brick oven so the pizza and bread can cook properly from above. They are also ideal for paella and tandoori cooking.
Easy to start in all wind and weather conditions, the insulation means that they need very little charcoal or oxygen, even in far northern winters. The thick sides retain and radiate heat very efficiently. That means less charcoal and oxygen are needed so there is not a lot of airflow out of the chimney. When meat heats up a lot of liquid evaporates from its surfaces, and the more airflow the more the meat dries out. Since ceramics have low airflow, meat remains juicier. Other smokers have thinner walls and many leak a lot so they require more charcoal and airflow, which means that airflow out the chimney and the leaky doors carries away more moisture than the ceramics. It is not unusual for a pork shoulder to lose 30% of its weight in an offset smoker. Water loss on a ceramic is often under 20%.
Ceramics are so well insulated that some can cook as low as 150°F and the interior absorbs and radiates heat so evenly that they are very good at holding steady temps. There are no flareups, and temperature control is easy once you get the hang of it with intake dampers down low and outflow dampers on the top (wear gloves). The design of these dampers is an important differentiator between models. Some work better than others. But get a kamado started, bring it to temp, and there's no need to touch it until the meat is ready.
When you are done cooking, close the dampers, and it is easy to starve the coals and you have leftover coals for the next cook. The interior is more or less self cleaning so it does not need to be scrubbed. In fact, wire brushes can damage the surface. The only cleanup is to brush the ash out the bottom, and scrape the cooking grates.
Some of them come from the factory with a deflector plate that sits between the coals and the food for indirect cooking. Some sell it as an option. You need it. A lot of the cooking you will do with it, especially smoking, needs this plate.
Because they are kewl looking, I know you want one, but they have some drawbacks that you should consider.
Now a warning to Egg-heads, the common nickname for the devoted loving fanatical owners of Big Green Eggs: This criticism is not a swipe at your manhood or your good taste. Look above to see how much I love this type of cooker. So please try to read my criticism with some objectivity before you call me a hater and an idiot. Keep in mind I have cooked on scores of devices and there is much I love about kamados and eggs.
I am a strong believer in the 2-zone system where you can move food from very hot direct radiant infrared heat to mild indirect convection heat. This is rapid tempeerature control and temperature control is the secret to all cooking. Please click the link to see why 2-zones are so important.
It is easy to do 2-zone setups on most other charcoal grills. Not so easy on round kamados. The round funnel shape puts the charcoal in the center. On an $89 Weber Kettle, for example, you can push coals to one side and cook hot with direct infrared heat on one side, and in an instant, move the food to a much cooler side where it cooks with convection heat and is unlikely to burn.
Yes you can use the deflector plate to cook indirect on a round kamado, but then you have to remove it to switch to direct or visa versa. When the unit is hot, this maneuver can be tricky and it is not as quick and easy as sliding a steak from side to side as you can on a conventional grill.
Because of this design limitation, round kamados make it trickier than other grills for searing steaks properly while keeping the center even color edge to edge. Egg-heads, please click this link to see what a perfect sear is before you argue with me.
Yes, round kamados get hot, but remember that hot circulating air is not the same as radiant infrared heat. A great sear comes from direct radiant infrared heat not from convection heat. For more on this, read my article on the thermodynamics of barbecue.
There are two notable exceptions. Because of its oval shape, the Primo can be set up for 2-zone cooking and the Komodo Kamado has an optional insert plate that covers the coals on one side creating a 2-zone system.
Another thing to keep in mind before you buy: Because they are expensive many manufacturers sell kamados bare bones. A lot of the necessary tools, like the deflector plate for indirect cooking, cost extra on some models. So when shopping, make sure you are clear on exactly what is included and what is not.
Keeping the temp down on these babies can also be tricky. Dennis Linkletter of Komodo Kamado showed me a trick: Fill the charcoal basket, and bury one Weber paraffin firestarter cube in the pile of charcoal and light it. It will ignite about five briquets immediately around it. They will burn slowly producing very little heat, and the combustion will spread to unlit coals slowly.
Kamados can soak up a lot of heat, and once they are hot they are very slow to cool because they hold so much heat, so if you overshoot your target temp, it takes a while to get back to where you want it. Sterling Ball of BigPoppaSmokers.com says "It's like stopping a semi. You've got to brake early."
If you need to add coals while it is cooking, on some models you need to remove the food, the cooking grates, and the deflector plate, a bit of a pain, but you may not need to add coals for most cooks. By the way, some manufacturers warn that you should not cook with logs on these babies. Do not use lighter fluid to start your charcoal in these either. It can get into the porous interior and damage it. But you would never use a petrochemical to light your grill would you? You are always use a chimney or electric starter, right? Click here to read about how to best start a charcoal fire.
Some kamado manufacturers recommend you use more expensive lump charcoal not briquets (click the link to read more about charcoal options and how charcoal works). It may be a coincidence, but some kamado manufacturers also sell private label lump charcoal so they just might have a conflict of interest.
Some manufacturers argue that briquets produce more ash than lump and the ash can block airflow as it builds up over long cooks. On the other hand, there can be a lot of dust in the bags of lump that can also hamper airflow. Some briquets, like Kingsford Competition Charcoal, produce less ash than others.
Some manufacturers claim their cookers are huggable when hot. Don't you believe it. Maybe at low temps, but crank 'em up and you dasn't put your hand on the surface. Yes it is cooler than a steel grill, but most certainly not huggable.
Because they are fragile you probably don't want to take them to tailgate parties. Besides, they are pretty darn heavy so they are not very portable.
Some have vents in the top that will let in rain, so owners fashion little covers or umbrellas for them.
Did I mention that the ceramic models can be very expensive?
This design is susceptible to a very dangerous phenomenon: Flashback. Kamados are nearly airtight except at the intake and exhaust, and the coals can get starved for oxygen at low temps or during shutdown. Open the lid, oxygen rushes in, and poof, a serious fireball. No more eyebrows. Or worse.
You should always wear fire resistant gloves, the longer the better, when opening a kamado. To prevent flashback fireballs, slowly open the top damper a bit and wait a minute. Open the lid slowly and stand to the side rather than the front. Linkletter says "It is safest for a new user to always assume that flashback conditions are present and to use the utmost care whenever opening their cooker."
I consider round kamados to be smokers and ovens and darn good ones, especially if you live in a cold climate and want to cook all winter. If you cook a lot of steaks or other dishes that require 2-zone cooking, and many of my recipes do, then budget for a charcoal grill in addition to the kamado. If you want one that does it all, consider the oval shaped Primo.
Click here to see all the kamado, ceramic, and egg style smokers and grills currently in our database.
This page was revised 11/20/2013
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