The robots may be coming for our jobs, but are they coming for our barbecues as well?
I spent the bank holiday weekend with Char-Broil’s Digital Electric Smoker to find out whether they are the next big thing, or tomorrow’s WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment).
The Char-Broil Digital Electric Smoker is essentially an electric oven. A heating element at the bottom provides the heat and a box of wood chippings provides the smoke. I used about half a pack of Bar-Be-Quick Whisky Smoking Chips. Filled to the top the box would probably take a whole 400g pack. If this becomes your regular smoker you’re going to get through quite lot. The upside of this is that you can properly pair your smoke with what ever you are cooking. Get yourself a selection and start experimenting.
To protect the heating element from dripping fat there is a metal drip tray and a water bowl to provide some humidity. Vents allow air to enter and smoke to exit at the top. That’s it really.
To put it through it’s paces I decided to cook a rack of short ribs. These are the meatier ribs cut from the breast of the pig rather than the less meaty babybacks. I got ours delivered from Turner and George.
There is something a bit weird about planning a barbecue then standing in the sun reading an instruction booklet. The smoker comes with two, one rather more serious guide and a quick start booklet that guides you through the set up and suggests a few simple recipes. The smoker has fairly simple controls and a small screen to display the temperatures. The first task was to run the pre-heating programme which takes 45 minutes, so as it started to heat up I went inside to sort out the meat.
The first task with any rack of ribs is to remove the tough membrane from the bone side. This is best done with a blunt knife and some kitchen roll to help you hold on to the slippery membrane. With this removed the ribs were covered in American mustard and an off the shelf dry rub we’d brought back from a holiday in the States. You can easily make your own dry rubs or buy them pre-made from suppliers like Angus and Oink.
With that done the smoker had reached temperature and it was time to put in the ribs. The smoker can either cook in timer or temperature probe mode. I pushed the integrated temperature probe into the thickest part of the meat and set the target temperature to 88 degrees Celsius. I then set the smoker to 107 degrees, as the instruction manual suggested. In temperature probe mode the smoker will cook until the internal temperature is reached, then drop the smoker temperature down to 49 degrees while beeping to tell you the food is ready. The timer mode simply cooks until the time runs out.
You can set the temperature as low as 38 degrees so we’re already thinking about making some jerky in there in the future.
My plan was to do the classic 3-2-1, three hours smoking, two hours wrapped in foil with some added butter and one final hour of regular saucing.
The advantage of a digital smoker I that you get truly set and forget. While the instructions tell you to never leave the smoker un-attended, it also says to not use it while drinking so I’m not sure how religiously they are expecting people to follow the guidance.
This was where the first problem became apparent. Although the instructions recommend not using an extension lead, unless you have an outside plug you’re going to have to have an extension lead out the window to plug the smoker in. The dream of setting the smoker going, popping to the pub for a few hours and coming back just in time to eat relies on you living in an area where you can leave a window a jar when you’re not in the house.
We popped to the shops and dropped into the pub for a swift half on the way back (it was a hot day and our shopping bags were oh so heavy).
While I was lucky with the weather I was also aware that if it did start raining everything would get ruined. Without a covered BBQ area with electricity I’d have to unplug it, then very carefully carry a hot oven into the house and wait for it to stop raining. It is well insulated and has some small wheels, but it would be a two person job to carry it across a gravel path or lawn.
How were the ribs? Thanks to the temperature probe they were cooked perfectly, not so soft they fell apart and not too tough. But they weren’t particularly smokey and lacked the classic smoke ring. I think next time I use it I’ll add substantially more wood chips. The guide book recommends the level you’ll need for each cook length, but adding more can’t hurt.
The Char-Broil Digital Electric Smoker certainly works then. Is it worth the £330 price tag? It really depends what you want from a smoker. Char-Broil is one of the leading American barbecue brands and when I was using it I was constantly thinking how the whole idea of electric smoker really fits in to an American lifestyle.
Unless you want to create an impromptu kitchen island like we have, you really need a garage to store this thing in. I’d even be nervous leaving it in the shed in case it got damp. The little wheels will only really help if you have a flat hard surface to drag it across like a concrete driveway.
I imagine these also sell well in America to people who simply want to eat barbecue food and don’t want the fuss. For people who think of barbecue food as simply food. I’m not sure how many people are in this demographic in the UK. The sort of people who spend over £300 on a barbecue in the UK are doing it as part of a lifestyle, not simply because they want to eat brisket every day and need the most efficient way to cook it.
Barbecue is about getting up at 5am to get your smoker going. It’s about learning to control your fire and where the hot spots are on your grill. It’s about working hard to create an amazing meal and sharing it with your friends. Going electric just takes away all the fun.
But enough with us being barbecue snobs. The Char-Broil Digital Electric Smoker may not be right for us, but it’s perfect for people who simply want some fuss-free barbecue food. It really takes all the guesswork and unpredictability out of low and slow cooking, and if that helps people take the first steps into cooking barbecue, who are we to complain?
The Char-Broil Digital Electric Smoker has a RRP of £369.99 and seems to be available for £332 from various online outlets. Char-Broil gave us the smoker for this review.
Review by Pit editors