Cooking barbecue right takes a wood-fueled fire with dutiful temperature control and lots of time. Mastering all that requires practice and experience. Many products promise to flatten the learning curve. One of the latest is the $238 SmartFire. This grill add-on tends the fire, monitors pit status, and keeps an eye on the meat as it smokes.
A plastic box about the size of a deck of playing cards, the SmartFire doesn't take up much space. You attach it to your cooker's air intake vent -- from there, the SmartFire employs its one moving part, a motorized fan, to stoke or cool burning coals.
But while this device is handy, it does have some flaws. The initial set-up process is tricky. And while its temperature probes are waterproof, the main SmartFire unit isn't. Still, the SmartFire does keep a tight rein on grill heat levels. It also comes with three meat probes, instead of the typical one that you find inside other kits such as the $219 Flame Boss 400 and $278 Egg Genius. So, definitely consider the SmartFire if you're looking for an effective gadget to barbecue with less worry and stress.
There are many pieces that make up the SmartFire system. And what you ultimately get depends on the specific kit you order. All of them center around the same main Controller unit. This square-shaped device consists of a small fan, plus four ports for connecting wired temperature probes (one for the pit, three for meat).
Along with the four cable winders that help store the probes, you'll also get an adapter that enables you to link the SmartFire to your specific grill. In my case, I chose to try the SmartFire on two popular cookers: the Big Green Egg and the Weber Classic Kettle. Everything fits in a compact carrying case, which is also included.
On one end of the Controller is an open cylinder. It interfaces with a metal adapter that you attach to your grill's air intake vent. The physical shape and size of the adapter varies on its intended use.
For instance, the Big Green Egg adapter is a square plate fitted to a metal pipe.
The plate slides into the slot for the vent door. You'll have to remove the door and bend the right edge of the adapter to match the curved wall of your Egg. For a snug fit, the kit comes with a metal clip as well. You attach the clip to the plate's top left corner, before slipping the plate into the vent door slot.
Attaching the SmartFire to the classic Weber Kettle is a little more involved. While you don't need to do any metal bending, the Weber adapter has a lot more parts. Worse, the kit lacks printed instructions or a detailed manual. I was able to find installation guidelines on the SmartFire website. That said, they are vague.
For instance, one of the steps requires you to remove one of the Weber's leaf-style air vents. This "One-Touch Cleaning System" comes factory installed. And while Weber sells it as a replacement part, the company doesn't explain how to remove the old apparatus. Thankfully, I was able to track down the precise method for our brand new test kettle.
Sorting out how the adapter parts went together took some thought as well. I pieced the design together by looking at SmartFire product photos. Even so, it took longer than I expected.
A pair of large, threaded nuts fits a Cake Tin Adapter to a cylindrical Universal Adaptor. The Cake Tin connects to the Weber's now empty leaf section, courtesy of another pair standard washers and a wing nut.
The Control unit then goes on the other end of the Universal adapter. The two remaining leaf fins remain in the closed position. This lets the Controller's fan drive air flow to the Weber's lit charcoal briquettes. A higher fan speed ramps pit temperatures higher. Slow or no fan speed does the opposite.
No matter what brand of grill you use, the SmartFire's basic operation remains the same. You clip the pit thermometer to your grill gate. Provided your barbecue coals are lit, the Controller reads temperatures at grill level. It will then work to hit a heat level you determine, as long as it falls within the range of 150 to 350 Fahrenheit (65 to 175 Celsius). The SmartFire strives to keep grill temperatures there too, so you can cook low and slow for hours on end.
To communicate with phones, tablets, and the cloud, the SmartFire has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. However, I ran into problems linking my handset, a Pixel 3XL running Android 10, to the SmartFire app. The app's setup procedure failed over repeated attempts. I was only successful when I manually linked to the Controller's Wi-Fi hotspot via Android OS settings. I had no issues with an iPhone 6S (OS 12.4.1).
When it was operational, the SmartFire worked well. That was the case whether I used the device to cook on the Weber Kettle, or the Big Green Egg. To see how the device handles a low and slow cook, I punched in a target temp of 225 degrees (F). After charcoal ignition, the SmartFire needed 30 minutes to hit the mark. This was the case on both cookers.
Just for fun, I threw three racks of baby back pork ribs on the grill. Two of those went on the Weber since it's 22-inch cooktop has more space. They were all done 7 hours later. Surprisingly, the temperatures in the Weber were the most stable. It had many temperature swings, but they were comparatively slight and short lived. The Egg though had a few large swells in its timeline. One even rose to a peak of 375 degrees (F).
I also ran both grills at a higher temperature of 325 degrees (F), perfect for roasting chicken drumsticks. This time around it was the Big Green Egg that had a flatter heat curve. Temperatures barely fluctuated beyond 1 or 2 degrees. The SmartFire kept a tight grip on the Weber Kettle's heat here too. Temperatures within the charcoal cooker wobbled slightly more, with small swings of 2 to 3 degrees.
One drawback to the SmartFire is its far from weatherproof. While its probes can handle exposure to water, the main Controller unit can't. Too much moisture can cause the device's sensitive electronics to malfunction.
On a positive note, you can run the SmartFire off of a USB battery pack. Just make sure it has a 10,000-mAh capacity.
Buying a gizmo like the $238 SmartFire only makes sense if you really love barbecuing at home. That's especially true if you can't stand the fear of ruining an expensive hunk of meat. And for those who've already invested in a pricey Big Green Egg, dropping a few hundred more shouldn't blow the budget.
If you own a $109 Weber Kettle, or are thinking of grabbing one, consider picking up a SmartFire kit, too. Yes, at $254 for the Weber-specific Controller kit, it costs more than double what the grill alone does. Even so, a tricked-out Big Green Egg or Kamado Joe can easily set you back over $1,000. At a combined cost of $364, a SmartFire-equipped Weber Kettle hits similar high marks.
Of course if saving money is your goal, skip the SmartFire entirely. Weber Kettles smoke meat low and slow just fine if you know how. All it takes is a little practice.