Connected products are a big thing now and have been for a while. We have seen everything from lightbulbs to egg trays that have some sort of internet connection and notification service. We have been very concerned about the rapid growth and relative insecurity of these products for since they hit the scene. Recently we read about a new connected product from Char-broil that caught our attention. It is a WiFi connected smoker line. We were very intrigued by this for multiple reasons and reached out to them to see if we could arrange a simple of one. Char-broil was nice enough to send us their Simple Smoker to play around with. We took it for a spin over a weekend and can give you some insight into how well they work.
The Box and Goodies -
The Simple Smoker arrived in a very large box as you might expect. As this was a direct shipment to us there was no marketing material on the outside of the box. Inside the Simple Smoker was safe and secure with multiple Styrofoam inserts to keep is secure inside the box. There was also a plastic bag to protect the nice pint job from incidental scratches. Inside the Simple Smoker were all of the remaining parts. The two baskets, one for the main meat and a second one for vegetables or side dishes, a basket hook so you do not burn your hands, a tray for drippings, the wood-ship holder, two removable half-shelves, and a temperature probe. Pretty much everything you need to get started… except the wood you will be using for flavor.
Other than removing packing material there is very little you have to set up. You do have to attach the handles on the sides, but that only takes about 5 minutes and is not any issue.
The Simple Smoker -
The Simple Smoker is a smoke-stack style device where everything sits inside a cylinder. It is 20.5"W x20.9"D x26.6"H when fully assembled and weighs 30.6 pounds. As this is an electric smoker there is a heating element that runs around the outside of the cooking chamber. The cooking chamber is a stainless steel tube with a concave end at the bottom. This end has a hole in it so all of the drippings drop down into a pan below. The chamber has a maximum temperature of 525 degrees Fahrenheit which gives it a fairly wide range of cooking options (you can cook up to a 16 pound turkey in this model).
Inside this chamber sits the cooking basket which is the same height as the cooking chamber. The two removable half-shelves we talked about earlier are used here for move the position of your food or to give you space for extra items inside the smoker. There is also a secondary basket that sits on top of the primary one (just under the smoker lid). This is used for cooking vegetables or other side items that you want to have smoked as well. Because it is outside of the main cooking chamber it is not going to get the same amount of heat meaning it will cook slower but it will still get the smoke flavor. You can also use this for items that you want to cook at a lower temperature than you would get inside the main cooking chamber.
To get the smoker flavor the Char-broil Simple Smoker used a wedge-shaped basket that slides into the front. Once you place this inside, and tell the app, the Simple Smoker heats up the wood so that it starts smoking and released the smoke into the cooking chamber. The smoke rises up through the chamber to flavor the food (yes we know this is obvious…). For some reason Char-broil made the opening on this basket very small. We can see this becoming an issue when filling it up during cooking.
As we mentioned earlier in this review there is also a drip pan to catch the juices from any meat you are cooking. There is a small drawer for this on the back of the smoker that you can put in a disposable tray (or aluminum foil) for easy clean up and disposal.
Last, but certainly not least we find all of the brains for the Simple Smoker in the pedestal. Char-broil gives you a single large button with the Char-broil logo inside of the light ring. This ring flashes in different patterns and colors to let you know what is going on. To the right of this is a small button with three dots on it (…) there is a light above this with the numbers 1, 2, 3 this is for auto-preset cooking routines. You can use these to quickly get your food going if you do not have internet, or you just want to get things going. To use this feature you simple press the button with the three dots until the desired preset comes up.
Below this button is a small button that looks like a “d”. This is for network connectivity and is also used for firmware updates etc. The button will light up when it is online and connected to your network. It will flash when it is establishing a connection.
To left of all of this fun and buttons is a small port for the temperature probe. Not much you can really say about this; it is nice and clean, has a cover to protect the port from dust.
So now that we have told you all about the build of the Simple Smoker, let’s talk about the app that goes with it.
The Char-broil App -
To get the most out of the Simple Smoker there is an App (for Android and iOS). This app uses a cloud service to connect your smoker to you from anywhere. To get things going you need to power up your Simple Smoker and then start the App. You need to have WiFi enabled and be connected to an available network. When you launch the app it is going to ask you to create a new account for use with the cloud service and then setup a new network for the Simple Smoker to use.
The app is going to check and see what the name of your connected network is and it will auto-fill that into the network setup. Char-broil will let you use a custom network and even one with a hidden SSID. It will also allow you to specify the security type you want to use or allow the app to auto detect it from the wireless access point. Once you are connected the app will let you know and also give you a tutorial of your device. The app will also let you know if there are any updates to be applied when you start it up.
The app has multiple options for cooking. You can chose some predefined cooking profiles for Turkey, Chicken, Beef and Pork or you can setup some manual options. When using the presets you can specify the approximate weight of the meat so that the application can give you a rough estimate of the time left for cooking.
Under the manual option you can only chose the chamber temp and target temperature for the meat you are cooking. There is no option to set a timer or view elapsed time that the food has been cooking. This is a pretty big short coming for the app. As it is supposed to be designed to make the cooking experience easier it would be nice to be able to indicate the weight and cook time for the manual cooking mode. Also you have no option to view the actual chamber temp, just what you set it at.
When you are inside your network you can program the smoker, start a cleaning, start chips and also edit an existing cook. Outside of your home network you can monitor a cook, edit a manual cook and… well that is about it. These are safeguards to keep someone from compromising your smoker and using it to damage your home. As an added safety feature you cannot actually start anything directly from the app. You have to manually push the start button to do that.
After talking with Charbroil they indicated that while some of the items we talked about above will be dealt with in future releases of the app, there will be no option to see the current temp of the chamber. Charbroil will be sticking with just displaying the set temperature. The thinking behind this is that the smoker is not really going to maintain a particular temp, it will fluctuate above and below the set temperature. In talking with people looking for a smoker like the Simple Smoker, this was not a problem, they just wanted to know what the temperature was. It was not that they wanted to make sure it was exactly at the temperature set. Still at least Charbroil is going to give you the option to see the elapsed time of a manual cook….
As this was the first time we used the Simple Smoker we received an extra message telling us we needed to season the chamber. This is done by rubbing the inside of the chamber down with oil (vegetable or sesame seed is good. We used bacon grease mixed with sesame oil). Once this is evenly wiped down you run the clean option on the app so that it can properly season the chamber. Doing this helps keep rust down and also adds a little flavor to the mix. The seasoning takes a little longer than the standard cleaning, so you can expect about 45 minutes for this to get done.
Once this was out of the way we set to work in cooking a few things. First was a simple set cooking profile with a Boston Butt Roast at 4 pounds. We rubbed it down with sesame oil, garlic, onion powder and pepper corns. The program set the timer at seven hours. The chamber temp was set to 225 with a meat temperature at 200. The roast was set on the center grill in the main basket and nothing else was in the smoker.
The actual cook time was a little less although this was most likely due to the outside temperature (it was 80 Fahrenheit). We also chose cherry wood for the smoke flavor and after we dropped the first container of chips the system was very good about letting us know when to add more. The roast came out very juicy and had a nice bark on the outside. The smoke flavor was even throughout the roast and it was indistinguishable from one cooked in a traditional smoker. Overall it was a good initial test of the system.
Next up was a 6-pound batch of wings that we prepped with oil and pepper. Once again we used the program built into the app. The program set things at three hours for three pounds along with a chamber temp of 525 while there was no real meat temperature. We still had to use the probe though which was a little odd. We had wings stacked on every level of the main basket and also in the secondary basket.
Once again the reality was a little different from what the program indicated. We ended up cooking for around two hours and 30 minutes for the wings to get crispy. We also did not put in any wood chips (cherry wood again) until the last hour with no refill. This gave the wings a slight smoke flavor which turned out to be a good decision. As we were cooking six pounds of wings we had to do this twice. The second batch cooked a little faster which was not surprising. The wings came out very juicy with a slight crispness on the outside. The flavor of the wings was very good and compared well to wings smoked in a traditional smoker.
Our last cooking test was with a five-pound whole chicken. Once again we rubbed it down with oil and pepper, but also dropped in cut garlic and a stick of butter in the center of the chicken. We put the chicken on the center rack of the main basket again kicked in a programed cook. The cook time was listed as one hour and 49 minutes. The chamber temp was set to 525 degrees with a meat temp of 165. Now for this one we also decided to drop some cut up red potatoes in water and butter. We wanted to see if we could cook them enough to make mashed potatoes. We wood chips throughout the cook.
Here things were a little different. The cook time was a little longer than listed as we had not hit the target temperature when the timer was up. We kicked off a manual cook with the same target temp and chamber temp to keep things going. We ended up needing an additional 40 minutes on the cook to get everything right. The chicken came out very juicy thanks to the butter in the center while the smoker got the outside skin very crisp. The cherry wood flavor was even throughout the chicken and the potatoes. The potatoes were not cooked all the way through by the time the chicken was ready, but it did not take that much longer to get them ready. Once done we were able to take the drippings that were caught in the bottom and make some very good gravy. In all it was a great meal and the Simple Smoker worked very well.
The CharBroil Simple Smoker runs at around $299 from most of the sites we saw. Shipping will set you back quite a bit as the Simple Smoker is not a small, nor light object. In looking at the competition out there (grills and smokers) the $299 for the versatility and performance is not bad at all. Even looking at propane grills and traditional wood smokers will put you in the same $250-300 range that you are with the Simple Smoker. Over all it would not be a bad investment for the retail price.
The CharBroil Simple Smoker is a very well put together product. Even thought we had reservations about using a non-traditional smoker we found that we would use the same techniques and principals to get very similar results. On top of that the ability to keep an eye on things from just about anywhere is a great benefit. We could drop food and take care of other things while the food was cooking. The notifications on when to add more chips, when you were getting close to hitting the temperature set and the timer were all part of what makes the Simple Smoker great for beginners and veterans alike.
CharBroil took the time to put in more than a few safe guards to ensure that your connected smoker will not be compromised and used to burn your house down (of course it should not be inside anyway). When you are outside of your home network you have very little control over the smoker. You can edit an existing cook (chamber temp and meat temp), but you cannot start a cook or a cleaning. Of course even if you could program a cook or cleaning form outside someone will have to push the start button on the cooker.
This is not to say that there is not a learning curve or that CharBroil does not need to tweak their app to get in line with what consumers would want to see. However, none of these are deal breakers so they should not deter you from picking one up if you are in the market. With its combination of flexibility, control and performance we are awarding the CharBroil Simple Smoker our Silver Key Award.