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, upgraded in April 2019. I have changed models not because they broke or wore out, but because I love MAKs and the manufacturer sends me the latest models 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 so I can tell readers how long it will take to cook a certain piece of meat at a certain temperature.
Fit and finish. The MAK is very well thought out and extremely well built. Fit and finish are first class. Welds and seams show real craftsmanship. There are few backyard cookers built so well. Solid. Not even in Chicago winters. 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 serious thick stainless. I never put a cover over my MAKs and I have never had a single spot of rust. There are 3 inch heavy-duty polycarbonate locking casters.
At the top of the page is 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. Below is the 2 Star with all the optional extras. More about them further down the page.
Assembly took about two hours, but 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.
Digital controller. The most important feature is its digital temperature control system. For this reason this and all pellet smokers require electricity. Temperature control is at the heart of all good cooking, indoors or out, BBQ or not. Their computerized Pellet Boss controller is very reliable and accurate.
One great upgrade is that the built-in probe is no longer fixed to a mount in the corner away from the food (it is shown in photo further down the page). You can place it anywhere you want on the interior, right next to the meat, ideally. The Pellet Boss has ports for three probes so you can load 'er up with three different thickness meats 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 monitor all three meats. It is the only cooker that uses K-type thermocouple probes. 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 available for k-type probes sold by third parties.
Pellet Boss is a sealed touchpad that is easy to learn and intuitive. Just load the hopper, plug it in with the 8' 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 where the inlet vents are. It starts and shuts down rapidly.
The controller can even be programmed. You can put your Thanksgiving turkey on at 325°F, when the probe hits 155°F, it can drop the oven temp back to 160°F, let the meat rise to that temp, and hold the bird there until you're ready. Set the temp in 5°F increments, set a timer, set an alarm for a time or an internal temp of the meat, set a program so that the unit changes temp at a predetermined time or meat temp, spend some time with the family for a change. The effective cooking range is 190 to 450°F. It smokes best at lower tempeeratures.
Now this is crucial. Although this and other pellet cookers are ofen labeled grills, the term is somewhat misleading. It is really best thought of as a smoker, as 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 or most of its competitors. A $30 charcoal hibachi will do a better job of searing than this. 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 (chope, burger, whatever) in the pan. Works great.
WiFi. As a $300 option, you can buy a WiFi chip that lets you control the machine via the web through your home WiFi network. You can set, monitor, and change temperatures, create cooking sequences, turn the smoker off when the sequence is complete, and send you email or text messages when the cooker reaches set temps or times. Alas, you have to open up the controller and install the chip yourself. Nowadays many competitors ship with Bluetooth or WiFi built in. Installing it was easy, but the unit had no hole for the antenna, so I had to drill one myself. And setting it up is more complicated than on many competitors. They really need to simplify this.
As you face it, the left shelf contains the 20 pound capacity pellet hopper. On a 30°F day I got it up to 500°F. The problem with pellets is you can go through them in a hurry at high temp. Cooking ribs on a 68°F day I went through about one pound an hour for a four hour cook including warmup and cooldown. It burns about 1 pound of pellets per hour and they cost about $1 per pound plus shipping, so that's a bit more than $1 per hour at moderate temps. I have not measured it in cold temps but the 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.
Grates. The heavy duty stainless steel grates will last forever. The standard 2 Star comes with one upper grate — you can choose between half, three-quarter, or full size rack at checkout.
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 ignites the pellets and they fall into the pot and 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 inefficient burning log burning 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 helps diffuses heat very evenly. It has perforations so bare flame can reach the food if you want. If you want, there are two covers for the perforations in the heat deflector. Or you can 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).
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 chart. The twmp was set for 225F and actual temps were very close to spot on. I consider this superb performance.
Cleanup is a bit of a pain but the good news is you only have to do ash removal after about 10 to 15 hours of cooking. To do so, you need to remove the cooking grate, the diffuser plate, the 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. Put a disposable aluminum pan in there for easy cleanup. It takes many cooks to fill and it sits in its housing pretty tight so bugs can't get in. The diffuser plate can 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 fo this after about 50 hours of cooking if needed. Lately I've been using the solid 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 diffuser. If you do this, make sure to do it before you fire-up while the metal is cold.
A very cool feature. The right shelf holds a warming box that runs about 100°F cooler than the main cooking chamber. 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 the chicken breasts went on. 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. 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 warmer while I had some salmon in the main cooking chamber. I got salmon flavored smoked not-so-gouda. 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.
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.
There are a number of options for this device. There is the MAK Mobile WiFi discussed above. Of course there is a cover for the device. There are four slots for slide-in upper grates. It comes with one grate so you can order 3 more and really increase capacity (recommended). You can get a door for the front of the cart, but this does not keep rain out. It is pretty much just decorative. They sell the best rib racks in the world with 8 slab capacity. 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). You can order the solid cover for the flame zone that makes cleanup much easier then the perforated one with covers (recommended).
The coolest option is a large smoker box that sits on top of the warming box. It runs about 100°F below the temperature of the main cooking chamber. It has hooks to hang things like sausages, 5 slots for grates, warming pans, and perforated pans.
Pros. Well built in Oregon, will not rust. Doesn't need a cover. Highly accurate temperature control, and control of temp 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. Cooking range is advertised at 180 to 500°F depending on ambient temp and how much cold meat is in there. The warming box can be used for cold smoking cheese or fish.
Cons. Price. At $3,000, this device is on the high side (there is an all-stainless version for $5,000). They offer financing at $97/month. Shipping is free except to Hawaii , Alaska, and some remote areas. And, as with other pellet smokers, it just does not get hot enough to properly sear a steak. They sell optional upper grates that can get you up to 858 square inches. Get them if you ever plan to host a party. That there is no handy place to store the electical cord is another minor aggravation. On two occasions pellet dust has absorbed moisture and swelled up in the chute between the hopper and burn pot freezing the auger. This is a rare occurance, but all pellet smokers aree 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 leaks. 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.
Warranty. 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 moto, heat rod, and all metal components.
Bottomline. Remember, just because pellet cookers are often labeled as "grills" to get a great sear on a steak you must have direct exposure to infrared radiation. That means this and all the others 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 it 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.