Though plenty of rib and brisket enthusiasts convert their grills into makeshift smokers—we’ve made do with an indirect fire, a pan of water, and soaked wood chips—proper lower-temperature smoking is best achieved with a designated appliance. Giant truck-towed smokers can run as much as $5,000, so we shopped for more affordable alternatives and came home with a trio of significantly cheaper (between $60 and $750) “bullet” models: smaller, cylindrical-shaped vessels, about the size of a kettle grill, that feature a large cooking surface atop a charcoal pan.
Other than introducing wood to the fire, smoking is all about holding the heat at a low, steady temperature for a long time—a full day, in some cases—a process that not only bathes the meat in smoke flavor, but also helps tenderize it by breaking down its tough connective tissue. The appeal of a smoker over a rigged kettle grill is its promise of prolonged, steady heat retention. Smokers typically have the advantage of a larger fuel capacity (for a longer-burning fire), a water reservoir (to absorb and retain heat and produce moister results), and more vents (to control the air flow and temperature within a smaller, more precise range). According to manufacturers, these features keep the ambient temperature in the necessary 225- to 250-degree range for up to 24 hours with little tending of the fire.
We settled for a 12-hour temperature test, recording the temperature of each model every hour while smoking turkey breasts, ribs, brisket, and pork shoulder. Design flaws in one model immediately became apparent. This smoker had neither air vents to control temperature nor an ash grate for its charcoal pan, so that burnt charcoal bits continually smothered the fire. Even with constant tending, its temperature plunged below 200 degrees after only three hours. Furthermore, the charcoal pan was accessible only by removing the 17-inch cooking grates and water pan first—an awkward and potentially hazardous maneuver. One other gripe: Its imprecise thermometer read “hot,” “cool,” and “ideal,” instead of exact temperatures.
Meanwhile, two others hovered comfortably in the 250-degree range from start to finish. One not only boasted exceptionally precise temperature control, but due to the excellent heat retention of its ceramic construction and vents that opened all the way, it was able to reach temperatures as high as 700 to 800 degrees, allowing it to double as a grill and brick oven. However, it came up short on the basics: The single, 18-inch grate was cramped. It also lacked a water reservoir, so that meats turned out drier across the board. In the end, a mid-priced competitor smoked out the competition. It included twin 18.5-inch grates, which provided ample room for four pork butts, two whole turkeys, or four rib racks; a water pan; and a multitude of vents for excellent temperature control. Our only complaint? A lack of handles made transport and cleanup difficult.
The nonslip grip and narrow, straight blade let testers remove the smallest bones with precision and complete comfort. Perfectly balanced with enough flexibility to maneuver around tight joints. The low price was a bonus.
Hefty in weight, this knife was a solid performer when removing poultry bones, and the handle was easy to grip, even when covered in chicken fat. Piercing silver skin was a challenge since the tip wasn’t sharp enough and the long narrow blade produced slightly jagged cuts.
|Recommended with Reservations|
The sharp tip performed well when removing silver skin, but it was too flexible when maneuvering around poultry joints, leaving testers feeling a lack of control. The heavy handle was slightly unbalanced and became slippery once covered in poultry fat.
Designed to replicate a samurai blade, this expensive knife was a disappointment. It struggled to pierce the silver skin, although long cuts were smooth and even. Minimal flexibility and extreme curve got in the way when maneuvering around joints. The smooth handle was hard to grip and slippery.
The large, cumbersome handle reminded testers of an outdoors knife for fishing and hunting. The blade was too wide to maneuver around joints and it struggled to pierce silver skin. Unlike other knives, this boning knife could only slice in one direction, making intricate cuts around joints difficult.
The blade was so flexible it led to erratic cuttings; testers said the knife was hard to control. The blade was not sturdy enough to maneuver around joints and the lightweight handle felt flimsy and unbalanced.
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