I love to barbecue. For me, there’s no meat or vegetable that can’t be improved by cooking it over real wood, and as Winter creeps into Spring, it is one of the things I look forward to the most. But not this year. Not because my love of cooking caveman style has in any way abated, but because I have discovered that “barbecue season” is a myth. Ever since I received the Simple Smoker with SmartChef™ Technology from Char-Broil, I’ve been cooking outdoors every weekend regardless of the weather.
There are two parts to setting up the Simple Smoker: assembling and preparing the smoker itself and setting up the app. Assembly was simple as nearly everything arrives already put together. All I needed to do was screw on a couple handles to the outside, insert the disposable aluminum tray into the drip tray, and plug it in. Configuring the app, however, was a different story. While I can control the smoker from my Nexus 5x phone, I never was able to do the initial setup with it. It simply would not connect via the smoker’s built-in WiFi. Using my son’s LG G4, however, I was able to connect to the smoker and set it up on my home wireless network. Once that was done, the app worked flawlessly on both his phone and my own. I’m not sure if this is a limitation of the Nexus 5x or the smoker.
After setting up the connection, the first step is to season the smoker. Be sure to take in the gleaming beauty of the inner chamber now because it will never look this good again. Spray the inside with cooking oil and start the seasoning. When it’s done, you should have an even brown coating over the inside surfaces. Resist the urge to clean it off. Just like grandma’s old cast iron skillet, the smoker cooks better the more it’s used.
Up First: Ribs
One of the holy trinity of barbecue alongside brisket and pulled pork, ribs are probably my favorite smoked meat. While many people will argue what sauce goes best with ribs, for me the only way to eat them is with a dry rub. The recipe included in the app was simple to follow and even explained how to remove the membrane from the back of the ribs. After applying some McCormick’s Grill Master Cowboy Rub dry rub, I sprayed the cooking tray with olive oil and loaded it up. Ribs are a meat that is well suited for a strong smoky flavor, so I added some hickory chips to the chip basket and hit the start button.
First, let me say that the ribs turned out absolutely delicious. They had a great smoky flavor and were the perfect tenderness. Had everything gone perfectly, it would have been the simplest and best rack of ribs I’ve ever made.
Unfortunately, as with most new technology, there is a learning curve. The first roadblock I ran into came about an hour into the cooking. I was checking the app to see how things were progressing when I was greeted by this message:
I tried reconnecting, closing and reopening the app, and unplugging the smoker and plugging it back in. That last step was my mistake. As it turns out, the progress of the cook is stored in the smoker, and unplugging it resets the cook. What I should have done is press the network button on the smoker to try to reconnect. Once I moved the smoker a few feet, I never had any more issues with connectivity, but for this meal, it was too late. I restarted the cook, but the timer was no longer useful as a guide, and I had to just use the temperature as a guide, which given the source of my next problem, was a better solution anyway.
My second problem was getting the chips to start smoking. Quick science review, there are three things that are required for combustion: heat, fuel, and oxygen. The fuel was definitely not an issue as I was using wood chips specifically designed for this smoker, and there was plenty of wind to the chips to get them going. Alas, my problem was heat. Remember at the beginning when I said that I can now cook out in all kinds of weather? The caveat to that statement is that the Simple Smoker uses electricity to heat up the chip basket in order to start them smoking. When you’re cooking in freezing temperatures with the wind blowing, it’s not easy for the smoker to get hot enough to ignite the chips. Combine that with the fact that I was cooking at around 6,000 ft. where the oxygen is just over 80% that of at sea level, and you have a recipe for failed combustion. Thankfully, there’s nothing that says the chips have to be ignited using the smoker. A quick 3-second burst from the plumber’s blowtorch and I was ready to go. If you don’t have a torch, a basic grill lighter should work just fine, but it’s not often you’re greeted with the opportunity to buy a propane torch. I highly recommend taking it.
All in all, on a scale of 1-10, I would rate my first experience cooking ribs as:
- Results: 10
- Ease of Cooking: 8
- Set It and Forget It: 5
Wings for the Big Game
My second experiment occurred during the Super Bowl because when it comes to football food, nothing beats Buffalo wings.
Again, the recipe was simple to follow, and coating the wings themselves with oil resulted in a beautiful, crispy outside with a great smoke flavor. I used cherry for the wings as it is a milder flavor than the hickory, but even then, they came out a bit smokier than you might be used to for Buffalo wings. I may leave out the smoke altogether next time and just use the smoker itself. Being a much milder day than when I made the ribs, the Simple Smoker had no problem firing up the chips and rolling a nice plume of smoke just a few minutes into the cook. Being chicken, and different sizes of chicken, you can’t really go by the thermometer probe to gauge doneness, so cook the wings to the time on the recipe, then do spot checks of the thicker pieces to be sure everything is completely done. This makes it a bit tougher to “set it and forget it”, but it’s better than salmonella.
This second effort was also an opportunity for me to use the self-cleaning function of the smoker. Just like your oven in your kitchen, the idea behind the self-cleaning is to heat the smoker to a very high temperature and turn all the crud in the bottom into crispy black crud that you can brush off. It didn’t quite turn it into powder like my oven does, but it did make it much easier to remove. Char-Broil recommends running the clean after every use, but my guess is you can likely get by doing it much less frequently. Also, don’t forget about the drip tray and let it overflow. Depending on what you’re cooking, you may want to use a clean insert so that you can collect the drippings when you’re finished for use in making gravy or other sauces.
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- Results: 9 (a bit smoky)
- Ease of Cooking: 9
- Set It and Forget It: 7
Brisket (with Vegetables)
The clear winner of the 2016 Simple Smoker Smoke-off. Using the same dry rub as the ribs, this hunk of beef was pure bliss. Again, the included recipe was simple to follow, and unlike the ribs and the wings, being able to use the temperature probe and not having it fail midway made this the simplest cook so far. The simplicity of this brisket can be seen by the length of this section. Add rub, insert probe, push button. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
- Results: 10
- Ease of Cooking: 10
- Set It and Forget It: 10
I broke this one up into two sections because the vegetables were pure experimentation on my part. The Char-Broil app does not have any recipes for how to smoke veggies, so I simply cut a bunch up and tossed them into the top basket half-way through the brisket. After two hours, I would describe them as “thinking about maybe starting to get a little soft”. They had a great flavor, and if you like your vegetables a bit raw they were perfect, but in the future I would start them at the same time as the meat or possibly even before. As it was, I just brought them in and tossed them in the skillet for a few minutes and they were good to go. Smoking vegetables definitely deserves further experimentation.
Two Whole Chickens
Picking up a rotisserie chicken at the local grocery store is our family’s version of grabbing fast food when nobody wants to cook after a long day. With two teenage boys, we have now progressed to picking up two whole chickens, so when it came time to try the recipe in the Simple Smoker app that called for a single chicken, I figured I would need to make some adjustments. I followed the recipe for prepping the chickens, rubbing them down with a little bit of oil and then adding some Stubb’s Chicken Spice Rub seasoning. The recipe called for placing a single chicken on the shelf halfway up the rack, so with two of them, I put one in the bottom and then the other as they instructed. I assumed the lower one would cook faster, so I placed the probe in it, figuring I could remove the one that finished first and let the other continue to cook while the first one was resting.
Once again, it was a very hands off experience. When the food reached the optimal temperature, this time just a few minutes off of the estimated time (it was a much warmer day), I checked it for cold spots and, satisfied it was finished, decided to check the other one. I was pleasantly surprised to see that both of them finished at nearly the same time. The higher chicken was only a few degrees off of being complete, and by the time I got the first one into the house and the photos of it taken for this article, the second was done. Thankfully, I took these photos before I tried to cut it up as I have yet to master the art of piecing a chicken into recognizable parts, usually ending up with a couple of legs, some wing-looking things, and a pile of miscellaneous meat pieces that everyone just picks from like a Thanksgiving turkey.
- Results: 9
- Ease of Cooking: 9
- Set It and Forget It: 9
The Simple Smoker with SmartChef™ Technology from Char-Broil is an easy to use outdoor smoker whose smart controls make it simple to program and monitor your food from the comfort of your living room. While initial setup can be tricky, and it’s important to be sure you have it in range of your WiFi access point to receive ample signal, once it’s up and running, cooking is a breeze and the results are fantastic. As a BBQ purist who only uses fluid-free charcoal lit with a chimney, I was reluctant to think that a cooker that plugs into the wall could ever compare to my Weber. Now, however, I see it as a perfect companion, using the open flame for burgers, kabobs, and chops, and the smoker for those items that are best served being cooked slowly, relegating the kitchen oven to banana bread and reheating pizza.
All images by Randy Slavey. I received a Simple Smoker from Char-Broil for review purposes. All opinions are my own.