Let’s face it: smart grills are expensive. Most brands of pellet grill will run you $1,000 or more. Weber’s WiFi-equipped gas barbecues are about the same. That’s why it’s important to think about what kind of cooking you plan to do and how often you want to do it while shopping. If you’re a casual griller who cooks burgers on holiday weekends or the occasional steak, a smart grill may be overkill. If you cook outdoors all the time and want to expand your skills into low-and-slow barbecuing, you’re probably in the right place.
The real benefit of a smart grill is that you can keep an eye on your food without having to stand next to it all the time. Most models allow you to monitor the temperature and provide some degree of cooking guidance. There is convenience for both beginners and experienced cooks, especially for things that take several hours to complete. However, if you’re happy with a Weber Kettle or Big Green Egg, there are ways to get smart grilling features without making an expensive purchase.
Smart grill alternatives
You can get the basic function of a smart grill for $100 or less. All you really need to monitor the temperature at close range is an RF thermometer with meat probes. I prefer the ThermoWorks Smoke line for its accuracy and ease of use. The most affordable option is $99 and comes with one food probe and one ambient temperature probe. For $169 you can upgrade to the Smoke X2 with two longer-range probes and the Smoke X4 with four probes for $199. All of these allow you to monitor things from the inside and they offer the option of both high and low set temperature alarms for audible alerts. ThermoWorks also sells an additional accessory that can add Wi-Fi to the base-level Smoke model, allowing you to send stats to your phone.
Of course, those devices only monitor the temperature. They do nothing to help you adjust the heat levels. ThermoWorks has built Billows for this. It is a temperature control fan that eliminates the need to manually open/close the vents on a smoker or grill that burns charcoal or wood. You’ll need a ThermoWorks controller to use it, like the $239 Signals four-probe unit. Signals is more expensive than the Smoke models, but it has Wi-Fi built in, so it works right with your phone.
If both Wi-Fi and step-by-step guidance are your thing, the Weber Connect Smart Grilling Hub is a great option. This adds almost every smart feature to any grill. Not only does Weber’s app provide food preparation tips, it also walks you through the entire process — from turning over to packing and resting. Timers let you know when the next step is coming and the hardware/software combination can even estimate when cooking will be complete. The latter comes in handy when smoking brisket, for example, which can last 8-12 hours. The Hub can accommodate up to four probes, allowing you to monitor multiple foods and grill temperatures through its simple built-in interface.
When it comes to smart grills, the backyard stoves that burn wood pellets are some of the most popular models. Basically, a heating element in the bottom of the grill ignites compressed wood that is fed to the brazier via an auger. A fan powered by a controller on the grill controls the size of the flame and the overall temperature. Of course, this all happens automatically as soon as you set the temperature. Plus, WiFi-enabled pellet grills let you monitor and adjust temperatures from your phone, so you can stay indoors and entertain your guests.
An important advantage of pellet grills is their versatility. Most of them can handle low-and-slow cooking at as little as 180 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as high-temperature searing of 600 degrees or higher. This gives you the ability to cook everything from brisket, ribs and pork knuckles to burgers, pizzas and steaks. Some even have a slide that lets you sear over the firebox flame.
There are more affordable smart pellet grills on the market, but for the mix of hardware and software performance, Traeger and Weber are solid choices. Traeger offers more options as it has a variety of models, all of which come with Wi-Fi, starting at $900. The company’s completely redesigned Timberline series is basically an outdoor kitchen. It accommodates a variety of accessories to expand its capabilities and there is a built-in induction burner on the side for making sauces, hotplates and searing. The Traeger app gives you access to a huge library of recipes, all of which can be sent to the grill so you don’t have to enter the settings. You also get step-by-step instructions, timers, food probe temperature and the ability to activate special modes. All this is in addition to remote grill temperature monitoring and control.
With Weber’s SmokeFire grill, you get the connectivity and convenience that many pellet grills offer. There is only one model, but it is available in two sizes to suit your needs. Weber Connect is a handy culinary companion that not only powers the grill, but also provides guided details for each step in the process. The main advantage of this software is the estimated turnaround times, which let you know when your food will be ready. It is very helpful when you have a hungry crowd asking how the pulled pork sandwiches come. During my testing, I was also impressed with the smoky flavor the SmokeFire gave the food. The Weber pellet grill doesn’t have a solid plate covering the brazier like some Traeger models, so smoke moves around the cooking chamber differently.
Smart options aren’t limited to pellet grills, though. If you don’t feel the need for lower temperature cooking, a propane or natural gas model may be a better option. In 2021, Weber brought its smart Connect grilling platform to its gas grills, with three and four burner configurations, some of which also have a side burner for extra cooking space. As with the SmokeFire, Weber Connect not only allows you to monitor both food and grill temperatures from the comfort of your seat, it can also guide you through the process and give you time updates. You’ll still need to manually adjust the burners, but Weber’s app can warn you when you’re low on fuel (propane models).
Other types of smart grills
Both pellet and gas grills have their advantages, but some people prefer the tried and true taste of charcoal when cooking outdoors. While purchasing one of the aforementioned accessories will likely achieve what you’re looking for for a kettle or kamado-style grill you already own, there are some clever charcoal grills that offer a degree of connectivity for your cooks.
The Masterbuilt Gravity Series makes really tasty food and the gravity fed hopper ensures that fuel management is minimal. It works well as both a smoker and a hot sear, and it gives you the ability to watch things from your phone. The only downside is that it can be difficult to light if you start at the bottom with used briquettes. I found it best to ditch the hopper and start with fresh charcoal each time, moving previously burnt fuel that is still usable further up the pile.
Another charcoal solution with remote monitoring is a Spark Grill. The minimally designed units rely on one large piece of charcoal called Briqs, which heats the grills to between 250 and 900 degrees. This temperature range gives Spark Grills more versatility than your kettle. You set the temperature with a simple rotary knob and that’s it, the grills are ready in about 10 minutes. And as long as you stay within Bluetooth range, you can monitor grill temperatures from your phone.
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