Many pitmasters swear cooking with charcoal is the only way to create true barbecue flavor, but Char-Broil's propane-powered $800 SmartChef Tru-Infrared claims it can mimic that radiant heat deliciousness. Char-Broil is also one of the first mainstream propane grill vendors to sell a product with connected cooking features built right in.
While the propane-powered SmartChef Tru-Infrared does serve up delicious food and high-tech grilling, it's still relatively expensive. Char-Broil sells an almost identical grill without smarts for $400. You can also duplicate most of this grill's connected features with a simple timer or stopwatch. Unless you have tons of cash to burn, your money's better spent on a similar grill without all the technology.
On the surface the Char-Broil SmartChef Tru-Infrared looks like a typical propane grill. A peek under its hood, though, reveals that it's far from ordinary. The barbecue offers three main burners, all of them 25,000 BTU, which is low powered considering the burners on most grills start at 30,000. Weber's ultra high-end Summit line (starts at $2,149) sports burners rated at a blazing 48,800 BTU.
The SmartChef's burners are tucked underneath each of its porcelain-enameled cast iron grates. You adjust them via a standard set of dials on the front of the grill. No surprises here.
Under the grates, you'll find a main component in Char-Broil's "Tru-Infrared" grilling system. This thin metallic plate covers the entire grill surface and is designed to diffuse heat evenly across it. The plate is crinkled with ridges too, to catch any grease or drippings from the food and grates above. Most gas grills ship with cast iron grates, though you can buy similar add-on products for about $45 from companies like GrillGrates depending on the size of your grill.
Below the plate are wedge-shaped metal bars that sit above each of the grill's three burners, Char-Broil calls them "heat tents". They're meant to focus and channel heat from the burners as well as protect them from falling debris.
Char-Broil says the entire setup mimics the intense and uniform radiant heat supplied by a bed of burning charcoal. These high temperatures stay close to the grates too, so theoretically meat stays juicy and doesn't dry out from the hot air that swirls under the hood and wicks away moisture in a standard design. Of course one distinct characteristic of charcoal you can't replicate with metal parts is the smokey flavor it imparts to food above it.
To the right of the main cooktop is an auxiliary side burner (13,000 BTU) that lives within the grill's right side table (there's another non-heated work table on the left). The small burner is meant to tackle secondary cooking tasks like melting butter and simmering sauce.
Be advised, you'll need to plug the SmartChef into an AC outlet. The electrical hookup mainly powers the grill's smart components such as its Wi-Fi radio and internal sensors. Additionally it provides juice to ignite the grill's propane burners. The arrangement beats having to swap in fresh AA batteries periodically, a chore necessary for most propane barbecues. The tradeoff is you'll have to place the grill near an outdoor AC outlet or run an extension cord to the appliance -- a potential eyesore.
You might want to think twice If you're planning to assemble the Char-Broil SmartChef yourself. With lots of small parts and a manual that's confusing and often extremely vague, putting the grill together was a frustration-filled headache. It was certainly more of a challenge to put this appliance together than the Weber Genesis II. That cooker consists of fewer parts that fit together in a logical and orderly manner by comparison. I suggest getting lots of help and budgeting plenty of time to tackle this project. Either that or call in a pro from your local retail shop.
In addition to the radiant heating design, what makes this grill stand out are its built-in smarts. The grill links to home Wi-Fi networks for remote monitoring through Char-Broil's SmartChef mobile app (iOS and Android).
On the left side table is a big circular button surrounded by a bright LED light. The light shifts colors and flashes to communicate the SmartChef's status. Likewise there's a "tank indicator" whose image glows when propane levels run low. Owners of the Behmor Connected Coffee Brewer might find the interface familiar. Dado Labs, the outfit that designed the Behmor product's smarts also built the SmartChef's connected home technology.
The software even knows which burners are on or off, and whether any have gone out unexpectedly. If that's the case, the app instructs users to shut down everything (burners, gas) post haste. The app will alert you when the grill has cooled down enough to cover too, something I always forget to do.
Aside from tracking how much propane you have left, and perhaps the safety value of warnings when burners flame out, the Char-Broil SmartChef's connected features aren't terribly useful. What's more valuable are the pair of temperature probes that come with the SmartChef Tru-Infrared. As barbecue die-hards will tell you, to grill up right you need to control the level of heat that hits your food. Unfortunately most grills measure temperatures with a lid thermometer placed well above the grates below. Quality digital thermometers cost anywhere from $40 to $100. Not everyone will rely on a thermometer as a grilling accessory, but some people swear by them, myself included.
You'll find a pair of ports for the probes on the grill's front panel. Attaching one or both probes lets you track temperatures where is matters most: inside your meat and poultry and in real time. These readouts, as well as overall grill temperature, are displayed within the SmartChef mobile app. You can also set a target temp for each probe, say 165 degrees for chicken or 145 degrees for steak. The app also lets you create timers with custom labels for when you need to flip something.
One weakness of the SmartChef app is I had to keep the software open on my phone (a Google Pixel XL) to view the current probe temperature. If I closed then reopened the application, it took a few moments for it to show the live probe data again. Weber's iGrill app by contrast always kept me in the loop by running in the background. It even placed probe temperature info within my handset's notification area.
Char-Broil's bold claim about the SmartChef Tru-Infrared Grill's barbecue prowess is no idle boast. Food I cooked on the SmartChef was consistently flavorful and remarkably juicy. In fact I preferred food from the SmartChef to what came off of the Weber Genesis II, a standard propane grill. That was the case with burgers, pork ribs or BBQ chickens.
To see how grills perform under the intense demands of high heat output, we subject them to our burger test. The test provides a good measure of how much sheer cooking power a grill can muster. I performed three test runs grilling six 5.3-ounce burger patties each, all pressed using the same burger press. I turned all of the burners on high and allowed 10 minutes for the grill to preheat.
The patties themselves were set in a rectangular pattern (two rows of three across) with 1.5 to 2 inches spacing between them. Next I probed the front, centermost patty with one of the grill's included temperature probes. After that I placed my rectangle of burgers in the center of the grates and closed the hood. After 6 minutes I gave them a flip, continued cooking (lid closed) and recorded how long internal burger temp hits 145 degrees.
The Char-Broil SmartChef Tru-Infrared completed this test on average in 10 minutes 15 seconds. That's just a few seconds longer than the high-powered Genesis II needed (10 minutes 10 seconds). Burgers from the Char-Broil SmartChef came out distinctly moist, juicy, yet seared enough for a pleasant crust. Burgers from the Genesis II, however, tended to be drier inside and have a harder exterior that was almost scorched.
Be advised, the SmartChef produced copious amounts of smoke while I was grilling the burgers. The haze was so thick it stung my eyes and made simply flipping patties difficult. According to Char-Broil this smoke is normal, the result of grease dripping on the infrared emitter plate below. The hot plate actually vaporizes most of the grease, thus the increased smoke output. The design also minimizes flare-ups.
I roasted two whole chickens beer-can-style on the SmartChef to get a handle on how well it grills at medium heat. I also used one of the grill's probes (with the app) to stop cooking once the internal temperature hit 165 degrees. I set the left and right burner dials to the midway mark, and left the center burner off.
On average, the SmartChef roasted the birds (5 to 6 pounds) in 1 hour 35 minutes. The grill finished the first chicken in 1 hour 25 minutes while the second was done cooking in 1 hour, 44 minutes. During the first test the average temperature inside the grill box hovered around 335 degrees while during the second it floated between 310 and 315 degrees. Both chickens turned out well too, with white and dark dark meat that was tender, not overdone. The skin wasn't quite as crisp as I like, but it was still acceptable.
Using the same settings, the Weber Genesis II brought its first chicken up to temp after a marathon 3 hours 55 minutes. Even with its right and left burner dials set to their medium markings, temperatures inside the grill stayed around 250 degrees. The chicken that resulted was inedible. Turning its burner dials up a few millimeters though on its second attempt did the trick. Heat inside the grill hit 460 degrees in 30 minutes, where it stayed while the chicken was roasting. The Weber rocketed through the test in just 1 hour 11 minutes.
Low and slow is the way to go when cooking ribs. That's why we roast two full rack of pork ribs to measure a grill's low heat performance. For this test, I fired up all available burners and preheated the grill on high (for 10 min). While waiting I seasoned one rack of St. Louis-style pork spareribs (3.6 pounds) with store-bought dry rub.
Then I placed the rack across the SmartChef's wire warming tray that's suspended above the grates. Next I turned all three burner knobs down to their lowest setting and closed the lid. I cooked one rack for 3 hours and what came out was good but not superb. Slightly underdone, the meat wasn't quite tender enough. A second rack run for 3 hours 30 minutes, however, yielded very tasty results.
Falling off the bone, the meat was tender and delicious. Ribs cooked by the Weber (from the same 3-rack packs) were good too but slightly overdone and not as moist. Unfortunately, the SmartChef's technology couldn't help me much here. While the ribs were hefty, they weren't thick enough to shield the included temperature probes from the ambient heat within the grill chamber.
Another drawback is that the SmartChef gets greasy mighty quick. There's no dedicated grease tray or special bin to collect drippings on this machine as there are on other products such as the Genesis II. Any grease which isn't vaporized pools on the infrared emitter. After a few cooking sessions I had to scrape the emitter's grooves out with a claw-shaped metal cleaning tool Char-Broil supplies for this purpose. There was also a good amount of grease splatter, especially after grilling burgers, outside of the lid.
The short answer is no. Sure, the food the $800 SmartChef Tru-Infrared cooked was delicious, thanks to its unique radiant heat system. Burgers and ribs were especially juicy and tasted better than those from the $850 Weber Genesis II. That's not the whole story though. While flavor is the ultimate test for any home barbecue, smart or not, value is critical too. You can save a bundle by choosing Char-Broil's $429 Signature Tru-Infrared grill. It's essentially the same appliance as the SmartChef sans the technology, but it's close to $400 cheaper.
If the SmartChef's smarts were incredibly useful, then perhaps the price difference would make sense. As it stands, that's not the case. The best part of this Char-Broil grill's smart package are the bundled pair of temperature probes. Its other smart features are either slick gimmicks or slow on the uptake, like its app temperature data. You can pick up a simple digital thermometer for as little as $40 that performs better and even buy the smart Weber iGrill 2 for $100. This predecessor to the iGrill 3 (produced by iGrill's original owner, iDevices before the brand was sold to Weber) connects to Weber's better mobile app, works with any grill, and has a physical display in case its Bluetooth connection fails. Combine it with the Signature Tru-Infrared grill and you'll have a smart outdoor cooker for $530, hundreds less than both the SmartChef and the Weber Genesis II.