Famous for charcoal and gas grills, Weber has entered the pellet smoker/grill fray with a splash
Weber SmokeFire Pellet Grills will be introduced early 2020 in more than 25 countries. The barbecue world has been abuzz with rumors of Weber's entry into the pellet smoker game, so when they invited us for a first look and a chance to cook on one at Weber Headquarters in Palatine, IL, in mid November 2019, we jumped at the opportunity. We'll be doing a more in-depth series of tests when the first batch of production models arrive, hopefully in January 2020. Meanwhile, here's what we know after spending a hands-on afternoon with SmokeFire.
At long last, a pellet grill that really knows how to grill!
We have long objected to pellet smokers calling themselves grills when they cannot generate enough infrared energy to properly sear a steak. We have stubbornly and accurately referred to them as smokers, not grills. If you love smoked turkey, ribs, brisket and salmon, it doesn't get any easier than cooking on a pellet smoker. But, until now, there were far better ways of searing steaks. Click here to read about pellet smokers.
SmokeFire is the first pellet smoker that we have tested that can properly sear a steak. Here is what we consider a properly seared steak. And we have tested almost all of them. Check out the reviews in our extensive database here.
First, some crucial physics about grilling. It doesn’t matter how hot the air gets in a grill. Hot air does not deliver enough energy to properly brown the surface of a steak. That can only be done by hot metal, like a cast iron pan, or by infrared radiation, like glowing coals or a flame. We define a properly seared steak as dark brown all across the surface, not just a few grill marks imparted by the hot metal of the grates. Click here for more on temperature and energy and what is needed to sear a steak
Some pellet smokers run hotter than others and some are designed to expose a section of the cooking surface to direct flame from the firepot to create a small sear zone. But that sear zone just never seems to properly sear a steak, and certainly no more than one, due to its small size.
Our hands-on time with SmokeFire was limited, so we decided to explore its searing performance by searing some steaks. To say we were not disappointed is an understatement: we were impressed.
Let's start with a few questions for current pellet smoker owners. When you crank your pellet smoker all the way and throw on some steaks, does it look like this when you lift the hood to flip them?
Or this when you take them off?
Or this when ready to dine?
The answers are No, No and No. Pellet smokers generate all their heat and smoke in a small beercan sized cup, aka firepot, so they just can't generate intense, infrared radiant heat across the entire cook surface to create that even brown crust of deliciousness. Click here to learn why brown is beautiful. There was a definite hot spot in the center of the model we used, and the right side was hotter than the left, as shown in our flaming steak flipping photo. So it appears from this one test, that one can’t sear perfectly across the entire surface, but four of the eight steaks we cooked were excellent. If we had had more time, we suspect that moving the steaks into and out of the hot infrared zone near the center would have produced eight excellent sears. In other words, SmokeFire's high temperature range is better than other pellet smokers and even better than most gas grills. In fact, when Meathead lifted the lid, he complained that the heat coming out the front was burning his tummy, and he felt the hood handle was rather hot. Perhaps I was giddy from the high temps, but neither issue bothered me. When it comes to searing, BRING ON THE HEAT!
At lower temps for smoking and roasting, we suspect that the heat will be more even left to right and front to back because of Weber’s heat distribution system. To be sure, we will have to wait until we get our hands on a unit for extensive testing.
How do they do it?
Most pellet smokers have a flat rectangular deflector plate that rests directly under the cooking grates and over the firepot: it is slightly tilted to divert grease into a bucket or tray. This design disperses the heat more evenly and catches drips. Weber, on the other hand, employs a variation on the “flavorizer bars” used in their gas grills.
The open spaces between the bars allow more exposure to heat and direct flame from the firepot below, which is located smack dab in the center of the lower grill body. The central location of the firepot also promotes even heat throughout the cooker. The thermometer probe is centrally located as well.
The flavorizer bars are stainless steel while the large tent in the middle is enameled steel. Weber claims the enameled tent allows grease to roll off better than the stainless and drop down to channels on each side of the firepot, where it is then diverted to a combo grease/ash pan that slides out from the lower front.
A flame deflector goes over the firepot and under the enamel coated tent to distribute heat and smoke and minimize fly ash.
Failure to remove ash periodically is a major reason for pellet smoker problems. On most other models, you have to remove greasy grates and drip pans to clear out ash from the firepot and smoker bottom. A few manufacturers have addressed this pain point with ash removal systems. Weber's ash removal scheme is particularly interesting. The bottom of the firepot is perforated. Note the tiny igniter which Weber describes it as a, "diesel igniter that is efficient and heats up in 18 seconds." We'll find out when we do complete test.
Ash drops down into the slide out, stainless steel grease/ash drawer when pellets are mostly consumed.
The goal is to capture 70% of the ash in the drawer and the rest on the floor of the firebox. We observed sporadic, tiny red embers falling from the drawer onto the floor, remnants of expired pellets that refused to die after falling from the firepot. Although they were few and far between, we strongly recommend using a grill mat under the grill if it is on a deck or anything flammable. Click here for a nice one available on Amazon.
Pellet hopper and auger
The 22 pound pellet hopper is located at the back rather than off to one side as on most pellet smokers. This allows SmokeFire to use a short, eight inch auger to feed the firepot located at the center of the grill. The short auger is meant to reduce pellet jams and enhance system efficiency. The auger motor runs on DC current rather than AC which is said to enable superior performance.
In this picture, you’ll notice some interesting features inside the hopper, down where pellets funnel into the auger feed. At the top, is a laser light sensor that detects when the pellet level drops to about two pounds, which triggers a low fuel warning on the control panel and/or the Weber Connect app. More on Weber Connect below. Also, a metal piece at the bottom slides out to open a pellet drain chute for emptying the hopper so you can change pellet types.
Note the pitch of the auger. This photo is level. The auger actually points upward. The inclined auger moves pellets a short distance from the rear hopper, then drops them down a pellet slide chute into the firepot.
The chute is a safety feature. Many pellet smokers have auger feeds in close proximity to the firepot. Smoke and heat can travel up from the firepot through the pellet feed auger tube and into the pellet hopper, where it can ignite pellets in the hopper. Although rare, this troublesome issue known as "burn back" can occur.
SmokeFire goes a step further to eliminate burn back. When finished cooking, you select “shut down mode” and the grill switches to a shut down process before powering off. At one point in this process the auger goes in reverse, pulling pellets back into the hopper to insure all fresh fuel is stored safely away.
Digital control and Weber Connect
SmokeFire has a proprietary, PID control system that we'll explore further when we test a production model in early 2020. Weber claims they went to great lengths to eliminate cryptic codes and make operation user-friendly.
SmokeFire has ports for four temperature probes for monitoring meat and/or air temperature, but it ships with only one probe. Additional probes can be purchased. Click here to learn the importance of digital thermometers.
Digitally controlled pellet smokers are well suited for remote control and monitoring from a smartphone, and this feature is gaining popularity. Weber developed their "Weber Connect" app with June, a Silicon Valley tech company that produces a countertop smart oven that controls, monitors, and guides cooks through a variety of recipes. Weber Connect was unavailable at the time of this writing but is scheduled to roll out with SmokeFire in early 2020. A company press release states, "Weber Connect powered by JuneOS offers step-by-step guidance on everything from setup and meal-prep to smart tips and custom food doneness alerts, even providing an 'ETA' on when food will be done based on food temperature readings and integrated grill measurement systems, from your smartphone." You can connect with either Bluetooth or WiFi. We're told they don't expect it to work with smart home controllers like Alexa and Siri on the initial roll out, but they aim to have that capability in early 2020.
The pre-production models we saw have a temperature range of 200° to 600°F. Weber hopes to add a "SmokeBoost" feature by the roll out in January that will extend the low temperature range. "At launch to the consumer, or close thereafter, we will have the SmokeBoost mode which allows the grill to operate between 165-200F to have the fuel smolder more to allow smoke to adhere more to the food surface," Weber says, "Keep in mind that this is a mode that the consumer would need to enter via the controller menu and/or the phone."
If these features aren't ready for the first roll out, buyers will be able to update their grills over the air via the app.
SmokeFire's body is enamel coated steel with double walled sides. There is no chimney, instead SmokeFire has exhaust vents that run across the back from left to right. The cooking grates are plated steel. The main cooking grate surface is 18 inches x 24 inches.
A handy side shelf is adjacent to the controller on the right. The four sturdy legs roll on rather smallish casters. A handle on the left side helps when moving the grill. Larger wheels on the two right legs would be an improvement.
SmokeFire Grills are manufactured in Huntley, Illinois, using globally sourced component parts. The electrical components, cooking grates, pellet slide, firepot, heat baffle, pellet grate, and controller bezel have a three year warranty. The cook box and all other components have a five year warranty.
Conclusion for now
We will reserve final judgement until after our full test procedure is complete. However, SmokeFire feels like a game changer. We've tested many pellet smokers that claim searing capability, but none knocked our socks off like SmokeFire. Other standout features are the ease of cleanup and the short auger. If the control system, Weber Connect, and other features live up to our initial impressions, Weber may have a hit on their hands with what promises to be an all-in-one outdoor cooker. While it's not the least expensive pellet smoker available, the actual selling price will undercut Traeger's popular Ironwood models. We listed the MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price) below at $1,150, but Webers always sell for MAP (Minimum Advertised Price), which will be $999. A larger, 36 inch model will be available with a MAP of $1,200. The 36 incher has a main cook surface of 18 inches x 36 inches for a total of 648 square inches.
Although SmokeFire will not ship until 2020, you can pre-order starting Cyber Monday, December 2 on Amazon, Weber, and Lowe's websites. Weber says some type of stocking stuffer card or certificate will be issued with pre-orders.
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Cooked On It
We have hands-on experience testing this product. We have also gathered info from the manufacturer, owners and other reliable sources.
Weber-Stephen is one of the oldest and most respected manufacturers of BBQ equipment and related accessories in the world. Weber grills and smokers cook beautifully and have great features that are clever, effective and easy to use. As popularity and demand for BBQ gear grows worldwide, Weber continues to earn their long standing reputation for quality, durability and outstanding customer service and support, (7 days a week from 7am to 9pm CST), in an increasingly competitive environment. Even in this crowded marketplace, many consumers are still willing to pay more for the Weber name and they are rarely disappointed. They make a variety of cookers and smokers. Their iconic black charcoal kettles are known throughout the world. Indeed Weber is expanding globally.
Weber-Stephen was family owned since it was founded in 1952 by George Stephen. At the end of 2010 the Stephen family sold a majority stake to Chicago investment group BDT Capital Partners. In 2012, Weber settled a class action suit out of court regarding their use of the phrase, "Made in USA". Weber previously qualified the "Made in USA" statement by specifying their products are assembled in the USA with some components that are sourced globally. Here is an excerpt from Weber's statement "Weber believes that because all Weber grills and the disputed accessories are designed and engineered in the USA, and all grills save for one line [Spirit]* are manufactured and assembled in the USA using component parts primarily made in the USA, it did nothing wrong and therefore has valid defenses to plaintiff's claims. The court has not held a trial or ruled in favor of either party on any disputed issues. Weber and the plaintiff have agreed to settle the matter to avoid the costs of continued litigation." As a result of this suit, Weber can no longer claim to be made in America.
Things change, but we believe Weber's commitment to quality and innovation has not.
The biggest barrier for many folks is price. Webers are not cheap, but when you consider that they last decades, the price is easy to justify. Many some cheap grills fall apart after three years or so.
Our main complaint: All Webers have the obligatory bi-metal dial thermometer in the hood that gives you a ballpark reading of what the temperature is high above the meat. Since we cook on the grates, though, it's always better to bring your own digital thermometer and place a probe there. It would be nice if they would go digital in the digital age and it appears with their acquisition of iGrill digital thermometers, this is begining to change.