Pit Boss by Dansons, makers of the popular Louisiana Grills, has moved quickly into the growing pellet smoker arena dominated by Traeger. Danson's strategy to create a likeness of Traeger at a much lower price apparently worked. Pit Boss offers four respectable smokers that look and act a lot like Traegers at well below Traeger prices. Although overall construction appears pretty good, we all know you don't get something for nothing and the warranties may be indicative: Pit Boss one year, Traeger three years. Given the price difference, however, it's not useful to make apples to apples comparisons. For those who want a pellet smoker, but don't have a budget for Traeger, Pit Boss is a good option. That said, don't pay MSRP. Discounts are to be had on the entire PB line.
New to the pellet smoker BBQ revolution? Wanna know why they are worth the extra cost? Click here to get a better understanding of how they work.
Pit Boss offers a Small 340, Medium 440 Deluxe, Large 820 and 820 Deluxe. The numbers indicate total cooking surface including warming racks. All are 16 gauge black powder coated steel with porcelain coated cast iron grates, coated steel rod secondary removable cooking racks, and coated wire lower shelves. A handle attached to the wood pellet hopper on the left enables you to easily lift Pit Boss and roll it around on two large steel wheels on the right. A handy bracket to wrap up the electric cord is also located on the hopper (shown below).
A screen covers the top of the hopper. Meant as a safety feature to prevent fingers from getting injured in the auger chute below, it also prevents one from easily leveling the pellets as they get sucked into the auger. We removed the screen and vowed to keep digits out of harms way. All models have an older style digital thermostatic dial controller with an LED display for set temp and actual temp. The controller has a couple undesirable quirks we'll address shortly.
Pit Boss sent us their largest, top of the line 820 Deluxe model to test. Deluxe models have an attractive copper colored lid, neat stainless steel removable serving tray that also functions like a side shelf and built-in bottle opener. Standard models use a typical flame diffuser over the firepot and a flat drip pan right beneath the grates that is angled to divert drippings into a grease bucket hanging from the right side.
Deluxe models have a unique arched drip plate, (above), which is found on many Louisiana smokers. Attempting to create a hot sear zone, a small plate is used to slide over openings in the larger arched plate to open or close direct exposure to the flaming firepot. The idea of exposing foods to the fire pot is used by several brands of pellet smokers. Generally it doesn't work well because the firepot flame is just too small to do much searing. Pit Boss is no exception. We placed a flight of chicken wings over the open slider, flipping occasionally while taking care not to move them from their original positions. As expected, only the few wings directly over the flame were seared,(below). The slider design dictates the absence of a flame diffuser over the firepot and one is not included with Deluxe models.
On the up side Pit Boss is capable of hitting high temps of about 500°. Many pellet smoker owners are discovering GrillGrates amp up their temps and provide real searing power. GrillGrates are an extruded aluminum cook surface that can set right on top of a pellet smoker cooking grate. They store and radiate heat. The manufacturer claims they can goose temps by an additional 150° on pellet smokers. Click here to learn more.
Although the Pit Boss cook surface ran a bit hotter on the left side, it was reasonably even. With cooking temp set at 225° we measured temps at 240° left – 220° right. The difference increased exponentially as set temp went higher. At the "High" maximum position on the controller dial we monitored actual temps at 520 left – 475 right. Controllers respond to a thermostat inside the oven and increase or decrease pellet feeds to the firepot to maintain set temperatures. Your indoor kitchen oven works the same way with a controller that turns gas burners or electric elements on and off as needed. And while some sophisticated controllers are very good at keeping temps within a tight tolerance, it is not unusual to see some temp swings as the unit cycles on and off. The Pit Boss controller has wide temp swings that allow it to go way below and above your set temp. Although everything we cooked on Pit Boss came out with good smoke flavor and good smoke rings, we noticed a slight tendency to overcook the surface of meats on the cooking grate side. This led us to flip meats once or twice while cooking. We speculate this may be caused by the soaring temps PB's controller allows before cutting off the pellet feed.
Strangely, whenever you switch cooking temp, the auger runs continuously for four minutes before trying to adjust to the new set temp. This isn't so bad if you're going from low to high, but problematic in the opposite direction. We were slow smoking ribs when interrupted just as they passed the bend test and were ready to be sauced. Forgetting the controllers odd four minute drill, we turned the temp down from 225° to the lowest "Smoke" setting to hold them briefly. Luckily we returned within a few minutes to rescue the ribs. The continuous pellet feed had goosed temps to 400°! A serious flaw that should be corrected.
A positive Pit Boss attribute we observed, but couldn't explain or verify was that everything we cooked seemed to come out remarkably moist and juicy. The only apparent unique features we saw were the arched drip plate and lack of flame diffuser. Our science advisor, Dr. Greg Blonder, doubted the arched plate was a factor, but observed, "The odd firepot arrangement might cause a circulating airflow pattern, which could affect the humidity bubble around meat".
Chin scratching ensued, but no definitive answer was found. Possibly we were just lucky shoppers with a string of juicy meat purchases. The high heat temp swings mentioned above made the results even more baffling. One of our first tests was pork butts. Coming off the smoker, the bottoms were charred a bit and stuck to the grates, but pulling them apart the meat was surprisingly tender and moist. An injected turkey smoked beautifully and was so juicy it gushed deliciousness all over the side of our smoker and deck, and left a river of gravy streaming into the drip bucket on the side.
The first 820 Deluxe Pit Boss sent was defective. It made a loud clanging sound and visibly shook with each clang. It quickly became obvious that something was wrong with the auger. Pit Boss took it back and sent another that worked fine. The exact reason for the clanging was never adequately explained. Recognizing the popularity of Pit Boss and lack of substantive complaints by owners, we give them the benefit of the doubt and are willing to accept this problem was an anomaly. We could not find any other account of a similar issue with Pit Boss, and indeed, the vast majority of buyers seem pleased.
Packaging was good inside and out. All parts were secured to prevent damage and we liked the colorful graphics on the hopper and under the hood that explained how a pellet smoker works for a first time user. When the 820 was almost fully assembled, we noticed an unused bag of washers that were not mentioned in the assembly instructions except in the parts list. After being on hold with customer service for ten minutes, we were advised to unscrew everything and refasten all parts adding the washers to the screw and lock nut assemblies.
Here's the conundrum pellet smoker manufacturers have been facing all along – people who own them love the ease of use and excellent results, and have no remorse for paying a few hundred bucks more than the cost of their neighbor's grill. But for many, pellet smokers are overpriced foreign objects, although that's changing as the pellet smoker industry slowly infiltrates the country, one backyard at a time. So we love finding a decent pellet smoker at a low price like Pit Boss. But remember – don't pay the MSRP posted below. At list price we give the 820D an AmazingRibs.com Best Value Bronze Medal. At around $500 it jumps to Silver. List price on the standard 820 is about a hundred bucks less than Deluxe.
One Year Limited Warranty does not include paint, burn pot, flame deflector, grill cover and gaskets.
Cooked On It
We have hands-on experience testing this product. We have also gathered info from the manufacturer, owners and other reliable sources.
Pit Boss Grills is owned by Dansons, the same company that makes the popular Louisiana Pellet Smokers. They are headquartered in Alberta, Canada with US distribution in Minnesota. Along with Traeger, Louisiana was one of the early entrants to the pellet smoker market. They produce a wide variety of pellet smokers, accessories and are getting into the kamado business as well.
The Pit Boss line was developed to offer a decent, affordable pellet smoker to major retail chains that competes with Trager at a lower price. Dansons claims Pit Boss has catapulted past all competitors except Traeger, and sales have surpassed their Louisiana Grills.