Meat, fire and smoke, are all essential to good barbecue. Together they can combine to conjure food that's outrageously delicious and addictive. Doing that consistently takes a lot of knowledge and practice. That said, I know of one product that makes the process much easier, and that's a backyard cooker called the Traeger Timberline 850.
An electric grill that burns wood for heat, the Timberline adds phenomenal flavor to everything it cooks, whether it's chicken, burgers, fish, ribs or huge slabs of pork and beef. We've had one at the CNET Smart Home since we reviewed it last year, and I cook on during the workday whenever I get a chance. Everything I've asked this grill to handle it brought to new heights. Seriously, words can't do this grill justice when it comes to the results.
You might think that fact would make me happy. Alas, it certainly does not. Here's why.
Pellet cookers typically cost more than gas grills, but Traeger takes things to another level. Priced at a steep $1,700, it's almost comically expensive. You can buy comparable wood pellet smokers for a fraction of the price. The $499 Camp Chef SmokePro DLX and $599 Z Grills ZPG-700D are just a few compelling alternatives.
On top of that, Traeger grills, like other wood-fired cookers, are designed to burn proprietary wood pellets, so you'll need to factor in the extra cash that you'll spend on those, too. You can pick up 20 pound bags for about $19 at big box retailers like Home Depot.
Another way to go is to source pellets from a third-party supplier. CookingPellets is a popular choice on Amazon. They sell 40-pound bags of its "perfect mix" wood pellet blend for $37.
In both cases that works out to slightly more than $1 per pound. The smoker burns 1 to 3 pounds of pellets per hour. Traeger says that means each 20 pound bag provides between 6 to 20 hours of cook time (at high or low heat).
Let's compare that to a 20-pound tank of liquid propane. Where I live, one 20-pound (4.7 gallon) tank costs about $24. That should give a basic two-burner grill (30,000 BTU) about 7.2 hours of continuous grill time (high heat). Most grilling jobs, however, are quick and dirty and are completed in 30 minutes or so. It's not uncommon for me to go months between tank refills.
A smoker's strength, on the other hand, is slow cooking at low temperatures. Elapsed times for one cooking session often span multiple hours a pop, at least. Think 8 hours for St. Louis cut pork ribs, and 12 to 15 hours for beef brisket. That's a lot of fuel -- and money.
It's a serious pain to clean
Cleaning a propane grill isn't what I'd call fun, but I'd much rather clean one of those than a wood smoker like the Timberline. With pellet grills, dealing with food grease is just the start. All that wood smoke circulating within its main cavity creates a sticky residue. Called creosote, it's a combination of wood tars and other organic compounds that lend smoked food its distinctive flavor. Ridding smokers of creosote makes for a very messy job.
Watch this: Here's how to clean your grill safely
It's cantankerous as hell
One reason for the Timberline 850's exorbitant price is its integrated smarts. The machine can connect to your home's Wi-Fi network. It also comes with its own temperature probe. That, combined with the Traeger app, allows you to monitor food during a cookout. The app has a large library of recipes. More than mere reference material, these recipes can act as cooking programs the grill will automatically run.
Despite the Timberline's sophistication, it still needs a human hand from time to time. During long smoking sessions, pellets can get stuck to the sides of the pellet hopper. That can cause the grill's fire to sputter. This, in turn, can cause the Timberline to feed an excess of unburned pellets into its firebox.
That can result in a dangerous situation that Traeger calls "over-firing." Over-firing, or combustion of too many wood pellets at once, is a house fire risk. There's even been one report of a Traeger pellet grill exploding as a result.
But dammit, the food is so good
Even after listing all the Traeger Timberline 850's issues, I still struggle with one thing. The barbecue I cooked in it was absolutely fabulous. I'm no pitmaster (far from it), but I felt like one when I used the Traeger. The people who came back for seconds helped me believe it, too. And sure, a lot of that was due to a few killer brisket and pork rib recipes. To the folks at amazingribs.com, I am in your debt.
So where do I go from here? I'm certainly not about to shell out $1,700 for this high-end Traeger pellet grill, no matter how sublime my experience. Nor do I find the thought of spending big bucks on a $700 Vision Kamado or Big Green Egg (which costs $1,000 and up depending on the model you choose) appealing.
Settling for close-ish cooking performance for a whole lot less with the $379 Charbroil Kamander or the $329 Weber Smokey Mountain sounds more reasonable to me. And hey, maybe with practice, I'll get better at grilling up delicious feasts without thousands of dollars of hardware at my disposal. That's probably a charcoal pipe dream, but I admit, a pleasant one.