At the time of this writing in summer of 2020 I am working on my third pellet smoker from MAK Grills. In the past I have had a MAK 1 Star General and a MAK 2 Star General. I got my first in June 2012. I now have the latest model 2-Star General that MAK upgraded in April 2019. I have changed models not because they broke or wore out, but because I love MAKs and the manufacturer sent me the latest model to test. The old ones were all donated to fire departments nearby (we never sell test units). I use my MAK for testing most of my smoking recipes because it is so good at maintaining a temperature. I need this kind of consistency so I can tell readers how long it will take to cook a certain piece of meat at a precise temperature.
Fit and finish
The MAK is very well thought out and extremely well built. Fit and finish are first class, and the welds and seams show real craftsmanship. There are few backyard cookers built so well. Not even in Chicago winters challenge its ability to maintain steady temps. This is clearly not a cheap unit built overseas to drive down price, as are so many others reviewed on this website. All parts are over-engineered, built to last, and assembled in Oregon. Many parts are made from high grade heavy duty 16 gauge marine grade 304 stainless steel, and the rest are 14 and 16 gauge powder coated aluminum. Rivets are stainless. Cooking racks are seriously thick stainless. I do not put a cover over my MAKs and I have never had a single spot of rust. Even the wheels are 3 inch heavy-duty polycarbonate locking casters.
At the top of this page you see the basic MAK 2-Star General. At 60" wide, 49" high, 25" deep, weighing in at about 235 pounds, there is a 429 square inch cooking area on the bottom rack (19.5″ deep x 22″ wide) and the cooking chamber is a spacious 14" tall, more than enough for a large turkey. There are slots for 4 more grates increasing capacity to a whopping 1,716 square inches! The hood is a roll top, so it doesn't need extra clearance behind the unit as with some other cookers. The back half of the hood has three layers of heavy metal for insulation. The front half has 16 gauge 304 stainless. The hopper under the left shelf (as you face the machine) has a 20 pound capacity.
A very cool feature. The right shelf holds a warming box. It can keep one dish warm until the others are done cooking. For example, I put some raw minced potatoes in a perforated pan on the grill about an hour before putting on some chicken breasts. I thought they'd finish about the same time, but the potatoes were well done before the meat. So when they were done, I moved them to the warmer, and they held there until serving time. At the time of this writing, no other pellet burner offers this warming box, which is mighty handy. Another great feature of the warming box is that it gets low enough for cold smoking or cheese. But don't make the mistake I made. I smoked some cheese in the warming box while I had some salmon in the main cooking chamber. I ended up with salmon flavored smoked not-so-gouda cheese. And be very careful about cold smoking. You absolutely must know what you are doing because the risk of food borne illness goes up rapidly as temperatures go down. Read this before you even think about cold smoking.
Assembly took me about two hours, but that's because I am very slow and deliberate. The only tools needed were two hex wrenches which they supplied (actually they include a whole hex wrench kit). Many nuts are welded onto the body, so you only need to twist in the stainless screws. Minimal fumbling, minimal knuckle busting. I only needed my wife's help for about a minute. The website has several good videos on assembly, setup, and troubleshooting.
Lift out the primary cooking grate and there is a complicated assembly designed to distribute heat evenly. At the bottom is the burn cup. Pellets are pushed into the cup by an auger from the pellet hopper under the left side shelf. The igniter rod is like the coil on an electric stove top. It glows very hot and as pellets fall into the burn pot, the hot rod ignites them and they burn. The Pellet Boss determines how many pellets to feed and also blows air in to control temperature. The burn is extremely efficient producing a delicate blue smoke and very little ash. Some people, particularly Texans, occasionally complain that the flavor is more subtle than they like. They are used to the heavy smoke flavor of logs burning inefficiently in pits. I like to say the flavor is more like a string quartet, while log burners are more like a brass band. One can amp up the smoke intensity by placing a small log on top of the burn pot, but to do this you need to lift out the guts of the machine. I often put meats on the top shelf because there is a bit more smoke up there.
Above the burn pot is a funnel shaped insert called the FlameZone, and directly over the burn pot is a small metal plate to spread out the flame. Above the FlameZone and just below the grates is a sloped heavy duty stainless steel heat deflector plate that diffuses heat very evenly. It has perforations so that bare flame can reach the food if you want. Or, if you don't want flames on the food, there are two covers for the perforations in the heat deflector. You can also buy a solid stainless plate with no perfs. With the heat deflector holes covered (or with the solid plate) you essentially have a large convection oven and there is no need to turn the food. They clearly have worked hard to defeat hot spots (see bread test below).
Now this is crucial
Although this and other pellet cookers are often labeled grills, the term is somewhat misleading. It is really best thought of as a smoker and a roasting oven. For searing meat, you need one of two types of energy: Conduction energy or direct infrared radiant energy. You can get IR over flame or glowing coals or glowing heating elements. That is not easy on this device and on most pellet cookers for that matter. A $30 charcoal hibachi will do a better job of searing than a pellet cooker. But there is a workaround. You can smoke-roast your steak with the convection airflow in the unit until it is almost done, take it out for a few minutes, put a frying pan or griddle in there, crank up the heat and then sear the steak (chop, burger, whatever) in the pan. Works great.
Pellet Boss digital controller
The MAK's most important feature is its digital temperature control system. Thermostatic controls are why all pellet smokers require electricity. Temperature control is at the heart of all good cooking, indoors or out, BBQ or not, and it's what makes pellet cookers so easy to cook on. MAK's computerized Pellet Boss controller is very reliable and accurate. It has a lot of built-in capabilities such as setting up sequences, alarms, multiple users, and more. But the process is controlled by punching two buttons and four arrows on the front of the controller, tedious procedure that makes much of the convenience more difficult to harness. That said, turning the cooker on and off and raising and lowering temp is a snap.
One great upgrade with the latest model 2-Star is that the built-in temperature probe is no longer fixed to a mount in the corner away from the food (see the photo further down the page). You can now place the cooker temperature probe anywhere you want in the interior, right next to the meat, ideally. The Pellet Boss also has ports for three meat probes so you can load 'er up with three different meats of various thickness with three different target temps, say a beef brisket (203°F target), precooked ham (140°F target), and a turkey breast (160°F target), and then monitor all three meats at once. MAK is the only cooker that uses K-type thermocouple probes. Here is the one they include:
K-type are the probes used in many professional science labs and a huge variety of them are available if you want more than the one that ships with the unit. Here is what the K-type probe jack looks like:
And here are some examples of the many configurations are available for K-type probes sold by third parties.
The Pellet Boss controller is a sealed touchpad that's easy to learn and intuitive to operate. Just load the hopper, plug it in with the 8 foot cord, press the on switch, select a temperature, and the unit ignites itself. The thermostat is highly accurate and fluctuates less than my GE oven in the kitchen. Heat distribution is very even all across the cooking surface, although it is a bit hotter at the edges near the inlet vents. It starts and shuts down rapidly.
The controller can even be programmed. You can put your Thanksgiving turkey on at 325°F, and set the controller so that when the meat probe hits 155°F, the cooker drops the oven temp back to 160°F and when the meat rises to that temp, it will hold the bird there until you're ready for the feast. You can set the temp in 5°F increments, set a timer, set an alarm for a specified time or a specified internal temp of the meat, or set a program so that the unit changes temp at a predetermined time or meat temp. This all allows spend some time with the family for a change, especially at Thanksgiving. The effective cooking temperature range is 190° to 450°F. On a 30°F day in Chicago, I got the 2-Star up to 500°F. As with all pellet smokers, it makes more smoke at lower temperatures.
I also tested heat distribution top to bottom putting 4 probes plugged into my FireBoard thermometer system in different locations on four shelves. Below is the time and temperature graph. The temp was set for 225°F and as you can see the actual temps were very close to spot on. All thermostatically controlled cookers, even indoor ovens, fluctuate, making a wave that goes above and below the target but averages at the target. On some devices the swing can be quite large. I consider this to be superb performance.
The problem with pellets is you can go through them in a hurry at high temps. Cooking ribs on a 68°F day I went through about one pound an hour for a four hour cook including warmup and cooldown. Pellets cost about $1 per pound plus shipping, so that's a fuel cost of just over $1 per hour at moderate temps. I have not measured the fuel use in cold temps, but this machine works like a charm in all weather conditions right through winter in the Chicago suburbs. The MAK also has a hatch to remove your pellets so you can switch wood types when you switch meats. Want alder for salmon and hickory for pulled pork? No problemo.
The optional WiFi setup is so 1999 and a real pain
As a $300 option, you can buy a WiFi chip that lets you connect the machine to the web through your home WiFi network. You can then access its controls via a browser on your phone, tablet, or computer from anywhere in the world. You can set, monitor, and change temperatures, create cooking sequences, turn the smoker off when the sequence is complete, and it will send you email or text messages when the cooker reaches set temps or times. Alas, you have to install the chip yourself and there is no app yet. Nowadays many competitors ship with Bluetooth and/or WiFi built in and an intuitive app to make setup and control easy. With Bluetooth, you can control the cooker when you are in remote locations that have no internet connectivity.
This is, sadly, one aspect of this machine I hated. Because it is an option and non-essential, I will not allow it to impact my final score. I really don't need to control my smoker from my phone or computer, although once it is set up it is nice to check on it.
To set up the WiFi, MAK ships you a microchip with delicate, easy to bend pins. To install it you must remove the side panel and hopper cover by removing nine screws. BE CAREFUL!!! The side panel has a wire attached to it and if you don’t have a solid grip, it can fall and yank the wire out and bend the connectors. If you follow the instructions, installing the chip is fairly easy. It can go in only one way. If you try to install it upside down, a mistake that is easy to make, you will bend the pins.
Once it is installed, you need to connect the antenna to the bottom of the Pellet Boss. There is supposed to be a hole drilled for it with a plastic plug, but I was unable to remove the plug, so I just drilled a 1/4” hole and the problem was solved. Then you need to reattach the wire connected to the side panel and screw in the side panel, all nine screws. Again, BE CAREFUL not to drop the panel.
To set up communication with your WiFi network and the website that allows you to control the cooker, first you must sit on the ground to see the display properly because the controller sits so low. Then you push a button and push push push the button to scroll through many options to find the place to enter your network name and password (a.k.a. SSID or Service Set Identifier). Entering the info is a real pain. To enter a letter or number you must scroll through much of the entire alphabet, all the single digits, and the symbols. One. At. A. Time. My network name (SSID) contains 9 letters, numbers, and symbols, and my password has 8 characters (gahead, try and guess what it is). That meant I had to push a button on the Pellet Boss many, many, many times for all 17 entries.
When I went to my computer and attempted to enter the Grill ID number which I got from a screen on the Pellet Boss, it did not recognize the ID. After several tries, I realized that the low res dot matrix display was showing me an “S” not a “5” in the Grill ID. Arrrgh. So I went back to the website, entered the correct ID and it still failed to recognize it. That’s because when I paused between the SSID and password, IT FORGOT MY 9 DIGIT SSID! So, on a 90°F day, I had to sit on the ground and do it again! And then enter the password. By the time I got the darn thing up and running, it had taken more than an hour.
On most other WiFi or Bluetooth pellet smokers, the chips are built in and all you need to do is launch an app on your phone, key in the machine's unique ID number, SSID, and password, and you are up and running in minutes.
Sooooo, once I got it up and running, I did find the dashboard on my browser on my desktop and iPhone (in landscape mode) to be intuitive. I especially like the graphs and wish I could export the data to Excel or .csv file. I would also like the ability to label the probes, especially if I save the chart and come back to it later. Was Probe 1 the pork butt or the brisket? Labels would help.
In this graph generated by the web connected software, you can see that the top line (Temp) is the temp in the main cooking chamber using the built-in probe. Pretty darn rock solid at 225°F until 9:53 a.m. At that time, I turned up the Temp to 325°F and the MAK hit that mark in 8 minutes and held it rock solid again. At 10:51 I cranked it up to the highest setting. In 35 minutes it leveled off at 600°F. Not to shabby! The two lower lines are K-probes that I put in the optional side mounted smoker box (see below for details on the smoker box). The bottom line, Probe 1, was a probe mounted to the top shelf of the smoker box. The middle line, Probe 2, was a probe mounted to the grate in the bottom of the smoker box. The bottom of the box started at 100°F and hit 200°F while the top started at 80°F and peaked at 89°F. Keep in mind that air temp was about 75°F at the time. I think if I wanted to make serious use of this smoker box I would wrap it in thermal blankets to maintain consistent temps throughout it.
Sadly, I must report that after I finally got the WiFi up and running and ran the tests, the next day the browser would not connect. So I went outside and the Web connect had switched off. Turns out that on some versions of the firmware this is normal. Turn off Pellet Boss and WifI turns off and must be manually turned on again. So I turned it on and set the temperature. Still could not connect. So I logged out and tried to login again and the website did not recognize me. I know I was using the correct password because my browser memorized it and I keep a database of passwords. So I reset the pw and I got in. When I did I was surprised to see that the dashboard did not show the temperature I had set the boss to. Later, during the cook, I lifted the lid to rearrange the shelves, put in a drip pan, and put some cherry tomatoes on for smoking, and the Boss started beeping ans it switched off web connect! At this stage I cannot recommend you buy the $300 WiFi option.
Cleanup is a bit of a pain but the good news is you only have to remove ash after about 10 to 15 hours of cooking. To do so, you need to remove the cooking grate, the diffuser plate (FlameZone), and the cover over the burn pot, to empty the cup of ash and vacuum out the interior. But MAK's heavy stainless steel firepot can be easily removed to dump ash, and additional accumulation can be swept directly into the 2 quart slide-out internal grease drawer. Tip: put a disposable aluminum pan in grease drawer for easy cleanup. It takes many cooks to fill and it sits in its housing pretty tight so bugs can't get in. The FlameZone diffuser plate can also get pretty dirty from grease, juices, and sauce. The good news is that it carbonizes fairly well. But getting it off requires elbow grease. I use a paint scraper, wire brush, and occasionally break out a small steamer. I do this after about 50 hours of cooking if needed. Lately I've been using the solid FlameZone diffuser plate without the perferations and I've been covering it with heavy duty foil. This works very well but you have to be careful not to block the airflow around the edges of the FlameZone diffuser. If you do this, make sure to do it before you fire-up, of course, while the metal is cold.
Oh by the way
The unit ships with a 20 pound bag of pellets, a bottle of their very good BBQ sauce, and a bottle of rub. It also comes with 4 stainless steel tool hooks. The manual is very helpful and the website has a number of good videos to help with assembly, setup, and cooking.
There are several options for this device. Below is the 2-Star shown with all the optional extras.
First, there is the MAK Mobile WiFi discussed above. Of course, there is an optional cover. There are four slots for slide-in upper grates, and while it comes with one grate, you can order 3 more to really increase your cooking capacity (recommended). You can get a door for the front of the cart, but this does not keep the cart dry. Rain easily enters from the rear, so the door is pretty much just decorative. MAK sells the best rib racks in the world with 8 slab capacity (recommended). There is a shelf you can attach to the front (recommended). You can order more probes (recommended). They sell 2 sizes of hard anodized aluminum griddles (recommended if you don't already have a griddle or several frying pans). And you can order the solid FlameZone diffuser that makes cleanup much easier than using the perforated one with covers.
The coolest option is a large smoker box that sits on top of the built-in warming box. The smoker has hooks to hang things like sausages, 5 slots for grates, warming pans, and perforated pans. It is constructed of thin powder coated aluminum. See the chart above for how it performs. The bimetal dial thermometer mounted near the top was off about 63°F at one point. I recommend removing it and using the hole to insert digital K-probes.
Pros. Extremely well built in Oregon. Will not rust. Doesn't need a cover. Highly accurate temperature control, which is the most important thing in good cooking. Versatile programmable controller with lots of bells and whistles. Large capacity pellet hopper. Easy to change wood types. 14" overhead cooking space, enough for turkeys. They sell optional upper grates that can get you up to 858 square inches (get them if you ever plan to host a party). Cooking temperature range is advertised at 180 to 500°F depending on ambient temp and how much cold meat is in there. The built-in warming box can be used for cold smoking cheese or fish. As with all cookers, the warranty is complicated with legalese, but theirs is very good. There is a lifetime warranty on the igniter, a 3 year warranty on the circuit board, auger motor, fan motor, igniter, and all metal components.
Cons. Price. At $3,000, this device is on the high side (there is an all-stainless version for $5,000). But MAK does offer financing at $97/month, and shipping is free except to Hawaii, Alaska, and some remote areas. As with other pellet smokers, this unit just does not get hot enough to properly sear a steak. Another minor aggravation is that there is no handy place to store the electical cord. On two occasions, pellet dust has absorbed moisture and swelled up in the chute between the hopper and burn pot, jamming the auger. This is a rare occurance, but all pellet smokers are susceptible to this. Clearing it out on the MAK is no picnic. It means quite a bit of work.
I have a minor quibble with the rubber cover for the handle. I have never been able to slide it on properly without cutting a slit through the back. I am also disappointed that even with the new single piece side panels and door for the cart, it still lets moisture into the car. If you put a pan in there it will fill with water, and you should never store pellets in there unless they are in a waterproof tub.
And then there is the pain in the butt to set up the WiFI.
Remember. Even though pellet cookers are often labeled as "grills" only the Weber SmokeFire can properly sear steaks right out of the box. To get a great sear, you must have direct exposure to infrared radiation or direct contact with conduction energy in, say, a hot pan. This means that this and all the other pellet "grills" are really smokers and even though they can produce a lot of hot convection air, they cannot sear like charcoal. Still, I have had a LOT of iron on my deck, and the MAK 2-Star is one of the best smokers I've ever used.
Click here for more about pellet smokers in general.
Cooked On It
We have hands-on experience testing this product. We have also gathered info from the manufacturer, owners and other reliable sources.
MAK Grills makes four very impressive residential pellet smokers and one large commercial smoker. They are Meatheads favorite pellet smokers and earned our AmazingRibs.com Best Value Gold Award. MAK took the pellet world by storm and quickly developed a reputation as a best in class producer largely due to their sophisticated "Pellet Boss" controller. The Pellet Boss is easy to learn, intuitive and highly accurate. It also has some useful added features like three independent meat probe inputs and wireless capability. Furthermore construction is solid, durable and effectively holds even, set temps.
In 2016 MAK introduced their FlashFire igniters on all new models, (left). FlashFire is said to be impervious to moisture and corrosion. MAK claims it will be good for 90,000 on/off cycles providing many years of dependable startups. Standard igniters are prone to failure. Although FlashFire costs a bit more, if they last as long as MAK states, they are well worth the additional expense. A retrofit kit may be purchased to upgrade pre-2016 models.
MAK Grills is a family owned business that grew from MAK Metals, an Oregon company engaged in precision metal fabrication since around 1990. They have about 70 distributers, mostly in the northwest.