Editor's Note: Is this the summer you're looking to upgrade your grill? You're probably in need of a little advice. We're longtime admirers of the folks behind AmazingRibs.com, the site dedicated to unraveling the science of barbecue and grilling. Please welcome back Max Good, the only person in the world whose full-time job is testing, rating, and reviewing grills and smokers. The database he maintains includes over 500 grills and smokers, ranging in price from $30 to $50,000. When it comes to grilling and barbecue equipment, nobody knows it better.
Visit any barbecue competition, and you're guaranteed to see more than just great smoked meat—you're going to see the tech that's behind it. Most competition teams have moved beyond the old-school methods of determining the doneness of a piece of meat simply by prodding, poking, and bending it. Those methods still have their place, but they don't deliver the precision and consistency serious teams need to win. For that kind of performance, most competition barbecuers have adopted all the available tools and technology they can to get an edge over everybody else. And yet most home cooks are still smoking like it's the Dark Ages. With knuckles dragging across their decks, they stumble towards the grill while friends and family wait with bated breath, wondering what might appear when the lid goes up. The problem is, no one knows for sure.
The good news is that's all changing. It wasn't long ago that only some people had smartphones. Today, just about everyone does. Along with all the processing power, Bluetooth, and WiFi connectivity we carry around in our pockets comes the opportunity for a new era of home grilling in which the latest technology is at all of our fingertips, and companies are racing to top each other with each new product release.
Here are some of the newest technology-driven grills, smokers, thermometers, and more that we at Amazing Ribs are most excited about.
Built-In Smarter Temps: Weber Genesis II With iGrill3 Digital Thermometer
If you're looking for proof that the future of grilling involves technology, look no further than Weber's Genesis II line of gas grills, which come preconfigured with a dedicated spot for the installation of their latest iGrill3 Bluetooth-enabled digital thermometer. This isn't the first in their iGrill thermometer series—the original iGrill and the iGrill 2 have both been on the market for years, but the new iGrill3 marks the first time that Weber has designed a grill that is "iGrill ready," meaning it comes with a dock on the control panel where the device can be permanently mounted. This speaks volumes to me, because a mass-market brand as big as Weber has never before built this kind of tech right into the grill itself. The signal is clear: Weber believes better temperature-monitoring technology is the future of grilling.
The iGrill itself connects to up to four different ambient and leave-in meat probes. The ambient probes can be set near the surface of the grill grate, allowing you to accurately track the temperature inside your grill, while each meat probe can be inserted into whatever you're cooking, allowing you to keep tabs on exactly what's happening in your grill while the lid is closed, all via Weber's app. You can set alerts too, so that your phone will summon you as soon as each piece of meat reaches your desired temp. While you can't control your grill through the app, you can know exactly what's happening inside of it. This is a big step up from the more common hood-mounted temperature estimators we're all used to, which not only can't tell you the internal temp on a piece of meat, but are also wildly inaccurate when it comes to cooking temperatures: We've found that they can easily be anywhere from 50 to 100°F off from the true temp inside a closed grill.
While we haven't tested the iGrill3 yet, we were big fans of the iGrill2, the review of which you can read here.
The Next-Gen Pellet Smoker: Traeger's Timberline 850 Grill
When it comes to barbecue technology, pellet smokers have consistently led the way: Even the earliest models had thermostats that could maintain a set temperature, much like a home oven does. They do this by automatically controlling how quickly the pellets, made from compressed sawdust, are dispensed into the fire chamber, and how much oxygen is fed to the fire by an electric fan.
This kind of thermostatic control means that pellet smokers are poised, perhaps more so than any other type of grill or smoker, to quickly incorporate increasingly high-tech features. Many manufacturers have been doing just that, with the notable exception of Traeger, which is by far the leading pellet smoker brand. But now, with their new Timberline Series, Traeger has silenced any doubts about their ability to keep up.
I've tested the crap out of the Timberline smoker, and it's a winner. It is seriously well built, with rock-solid construction, heavy-duty stainless steel grates, an LED display on the front, integrated meat-probe, and WiFi connectivity, which means you can remotely control the smoker using Traeger's smartphone app.
The implications for this are huge: I can put some brisket in the smoker in the morning, drive out of state for work, and see exactly what's happening in my smoker at all times. If I think things are getting too hot, I can tell it to dial down its temperature from hundreds of miles away, or create a preset program that does this automatically: The smoker can switch to a keep-warm mode the moment my brisket hits 203°F in the center, my preferred final temp, no matter where I am. Traeger's app is also very well-thought-out and user-friendly. It currently only has a couple preset programs, but you can design and save your own and Traeger says more are forthcoming.
The size of the Timberline grills is nothing to complain about either. While you can't produce enough smoked meats for commercial use from one of them, you can more than feed a crowd. The 850, the smallest of the Timerbline series, has 850 square inches of grate space divided across three racks (hence the name), more than enough for a few briskets, a couple racks of ribs, and more.
The Ultimate Thermometer: FireBoard
FireBoard is a new thermometer loaded with a pile of features in a box the size of a cigarette pack, perfect for record-keepers and anyone else who wants as much data as they can get on their cooking sessions.
It connects with up to six temperature probes, which send real-time data to a smartphone app. You can also login to your user account from a computer. Each probe can be labeled within the app so that you can easily keep track of them all. Instead of getting confused about what "Probe 1" and "Probe 2" are, you'll know that one of them is your pork shoulder, the other is a chicken, and the third and fourth are monitoring cooking temps at different locations within the grill. And while you can't (yet—more on this below) control your grill or smoker with the FireBoard, you can monitor everything closely, and set alarms for when any of them hits an assigned internal target temp.
The app also allows you to name and date each cooking session, add notes, and save detailed graphs of cooking temperatures over time for future reference. It can even send texts or email. And while it's not exactly cheap, the current price of less than $200 makes it accessible even to a moderate BBQ enthusiast. (Wanna see something else cool? FireBoard just paired up with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant.)
Here's a little insider's tip: While you can't yet control your grill or smoker with the FireBoard, owner Ted Conrad recently told me that they're working on a temperature-controller add-on for it. The FireBoard already comes with a multipoint plug built-in that's ready to accept the accessory. Depending on how the development of that device goes, the FireBoard may grow into an even more formidable piece of grilling tech.
An Electric Smoker for Tech-y Beginners: Char-Broil's WiFi-Enabled Digital Electric Smoker
I have to start by saying that electric smokers—that is, smokers that produce smoke and heat with the help of an electric element—have some real limitations. The limited heat and lack of combustion gases from the electric element means you don't get the same level of smoke and flavor as you would with a gas or wood smoker, making them less than ideal for larger pieces of meat like brisket and whole chickens. They're better at lighter tasks like smoking jerky, nuts, and fish. That said, they're much more affordable than many of the other options out there, and I've always respected Char-Broil for their dedication to delivering features and pushing innovation even while keeping prices on the low end.
Their WiFi-enabled Digital Electric Smoker, which is in its second season, is one great example. The bottom line is it's very easy to use and has WiFi connectivity, meaning you can monitor and control your smoking session directly from your phone. It's not as feature-filled as Traeger's Timberline, for example, but then again it doesn't cost nearly as much. It's also not as intimidating as a wood burning smoker, which takes more skill to operate properly and is imbued with centuries of misguided mythology.
The one thing to watch out for (and this is true of other BlueTooth and WiFi devices) is connectivity can be a problem. Some of the more negative reviews for Char-Broil's digital electric smoker have to do with dropped connections. You may need a WiFi booster or some other game plan to ensure a good connection if you want to avoid connectivity issues where you live.
For Your Pocket: The Thermoworks ThermoPop
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This isn't exactly a new product, but I can't help but toss it onto this list. For anyone who still hasn't crossed over to the digital thermometer side and isn't ready to invest in a more serious temperature-tracking rig, the ThermoPop instant-read digital thermometer from Thermoworks is your gateway drug. At just $29, there's no real reason not to have one. And while it's not a leave-in thermometer like the probes described above, it quickly takes the temp on anything you're cooking with accuracy, far better than the poke-and-pray method some people still use. Plus, it's small enough to pop in your pocket and have on you at all times, helping to ensure you get perfectly done meats every time.