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July/August 2010

Smokers

Though plenty of rib and brisket enthusiasts convert their grills into makeshift smokers, proper lower-temperature smoking is best achieved with a designated appliance. Right?

Update: April 2016

Weber has tweaked the name of our winning smoker, without changing the product. The Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker - 18 ½-Inch is now called the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker Smoker 18", although its size has not changed. Weber representatives say that this change was intended to simplify the product name.

How We Tested

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

$33.31*

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.