The Smokenator

smokenator-grillI think it’s fair to say that the kettle-style charcoal grill is something of an icon in the grilling world. Not only is it a classic symbol of charcoal grilling, it’s easily one of the most affordable, and maybe more importantly versatile style of grill on the market. I’ll go out on a limb and say for the money it’s the best thing going. While many manufacturers have their own take on this design, Weber is probably the maker that most of us associate with the concept.

Kettle grill users know that not only can they crank out great burgers, steaks, and whatever else they want to throw over the fire, they also know that when set-up correctly their grill can work as a passable smoker. Sure it will likely never be as good as a dedicated smoker, but then again it’s probably better at smoking than a smoker is at grilling. But I digress…

We were recently contacted about testing a product called the Smokenator. This is a fairly simple device that aims to make the Weber kettle from an acceptable smoking device, into a much better smoking device. Naturally we were happy to give it a go and share our thoughts. The sample we were provided was their Smokenator 1000, I’ll be dropping the 1000 during the review, which is designed for the 22 inch kettle, but they do offer other models for the various kettle sizes. (Note we were also sent a sample of their Hovergrill product, but since it was not integral to the operation of the Smokenator we opted to review in a separate post which can be seen later this week.)

IMG_20160627_085523801First things first, the Smokenator is a simple design. It is basically some sheet metal that has been cut and molded to interface with the various surfaces of the Weber kettle. Also there are 3 holes in the top, 2 smaller round holes for access to the fuel and 1 larger rectangular shaped hole for the water pan. The included water pan holds roughly two cups of liquid.

Installation is super easy, just remove your cooking grate and place the Smokenator on the side of the kettle. You should be able to see how it interfaces with the tabs that hold the grate in place and the lower charcoal grate and make adjustments if needed. There is no anchoring or permanent modification of the kettle required. This is a huge benefit in my opinion because some, if not most, of us don’t have the luxury of taking several cooking devices on our tailgates.

The first test is purely to get a handle on how the Smokenator performs with an empty cooker and to see how easily we can manage the temps, or in other words a dry run.. This test was conducted by filling the Smokenator with 50 unlit briquets of standard Kingsford Original (Blue Bag) and 15 lit briquets of the same. Also used was 1 semi large chunk of pecan wood. The water pan was filled 2 cups of hot water (~165 degrees F), and 2 temp probes were placed in the cooker. One was on the cooking grate and one on the lower charcoal grate. You can see a narrative of the this test here, Smokenator Data – Sheet1.

A quick word about this type of cooking if you aren’t too familiar with it. There are many variables involved with maintaining a lower temperature like you’d use for BBQ cooking. The outside temp, wind, sun, precipitation will all affect the cooker temp. Also if you build too big of a fire in the form of too many lit coals you won’t be able to keep a low temp. Practice, practice, practice before you commit a lot of money in food costs and really get a feel for cooker temp otherwise you will be sorry. Even between my tests the environmental conditions were different enough to produce noticeable differences in cooker performance.IMG_20160628_123413119

My dry run showed a couple things, by hour 4 the fuel supply was considerably spent. This is likely due to the fact that I measured my temps at the grate levels and not at the dome. The dome temps are 10-20 degrees higher than the upper food grate per the Smokenator manual so my grate temps which were above the target mark in the Smokenator manual were much higher than the temps by which they based their calculations. If you’re cooking bigger food items you’ll want to refuel at hour 4 if using the Smokenator in the standard fashion. Possibly even sooner if the outside conditions require you to burn hotter.
While we’re on temperatures, notice the lower (charcoal) grate temp was much less than the upper (food) grate temp. If you’re planning on packing the cooker full of food you need to adjust for that bottom grate being much lower in temp. Also of note the fact that the temperature is lower on the bottom grate is a great sign that the Smokenator design really does make for a true indirect cooker. If you’ve ever tried indirect with charcoal before without some sort of holder you know sometimes keeping the coals where you want them can be tricky.

IMG_20160708_113813893The next test was to try a short cook to see how the cooker responds with food in the chamber. The first of which was a simple naked fatty. If you’re unfamiliar I’ll save you the risky Google and tell you what it is. A Fatty is a term BBQ for a smoked roll of ground meat, and the naked adjective means that it is cooked without anything more than some rub on the outside. I will disclose that the weather played some tricks on me with this one as a light drizzle began falling about and hour and a half into the cook. As I mentioned earlier weather is one of those variables that will really mess with your cooker temp. To compensate for the loss I made the decision to open the vents and try to shelter the cooker from the elements as much as I could without posing a fire hazard. This did help but the breeze, lack of sun, and rain really made this a much more difficult cook. I also believe the fatty might have still been a little frozen which made the internal temp just sit still for a long time.

Because this 2nd test was so full of variables that worked against the Smokenator I opted to conduct a 3rd test cook that would hopefully no
t have the same conditions as cook 2. Thankfully aside from a quick yet heavy downpour the 3rd cook was perfect. The 3rd cook featured not only another naked fatty, but also a bacon cheeseburger fatty made with a bacon weave and ground chuck.IMG_20160708_120626541

One thing that became pretty apparent with each cook was that the Smokenator requires some periodic attention to function at peak performance. As you replenish the water take the time to stir the coals using the included rod. You’ll knock the ash off the coals and keep them exposed to the air for better combustion. It’s also a good idea to consider adding more fuel if you expect to be cooking for longer. I wouldn’t do this every time but maybe every other water refill.

Thinking outside of the instruction manual another thing you could do would be to remove the water pan and either use it on top of the grate or use a different container altogether. What this accomplishes is that you’ll have more room for fuel in the Smokenator and, if you chose a larger water container, less frequent filling. You could alternatively omit a water pan entirely, but this comes with the downside of reducing humidity in the cooker as well as foregoing the benefits that the water lend to temperature control. I think I’ll likely tinker with things over time, but as long as the person doing the cooking knows what is what it shouldn’t pose an issue.

I’ll cut to the chase. Is the Smokenator “Tailgating Approved”? Yes it is. While it’s not the only way to go about the task, it absolutely allows you to easily, and maybe more importantly, temporarily modify your Weber kettle into a suitable smoker. Does it have some limitations? Sure, but if you know them you can easily work with or around them. The model 1000 we tested for the 22″ kettle comes in right around $70, but other options are available for some of the other kettle sizes.  For more info on the 1000 or the others you can visit Smokenator.com

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