Recipes, Rants & Reviews: Pellet smoker's features win this griller's heart, and stomach

Photo by Scott Noble Great grilling... This Camp Chef Magnum Pellet Griller works as a smoker as well as a direct-flame griller, and it gets a substantial four ribs out of five in my review.

Well, I went and did it. My old gas/charcoal grill I bought in a pinch about four years ago finally bit the dust, and I ponied up for a replacement. While I was considering different types of grills and leaning toward going back to the venerable Weber Kettle, somebody shared an interesting video on my social media timeline that changed the direction I was sailing. The video was a very entertaining piece from Camp Chef, a company the specializes in outdoor cooking implements. They carry flat tops, twin burners (large and portable), pizza ovens, cast iron pots and pans, accessories, and of course, pellet grills.

The video was hosted by a gregarious fella in a toga known as the “Grill God,” and I must say, his pitch was all that and a bag of chips. He broke down the features of the grill and the food, obviously, looked delicious, but I had my sights elsewhere. Of course, I had thought about a pellet grill after sampling Bloody Mary Smoked Chicken my buddy, Ron, had prepared on his, but my heart has always belonged to Weber. Well, until that danged Grill God reared his head on my timeline.

There are some incredible units out there being offered by Traeger, Yoder, and Louisiana Grills to name a few, but that shiny 570 square inch cooking surface spoke to me. After a ton of research and every attempt to stay at or under budget, I found a Camp Chef model, I could pony up the $599 for without swallowing too hard. The Magnum wasn’t showing on Camp Chef’s site, but I was seeing it in different web searches. It intrigued me. You see, the model I was considering is called the Woodwind. It is the same size as the Magnum, but it is adorned with a stainless steel lid, comes with or without the optional sear box, which can reach temperatures of up to 900 degrees. That is a Ruth’s Chris league of a feature, kids. The price tag for the Woodwind without the sear box was $699/$999 with, and until I found my Magnum, they were identical in price.

After comparing the two, I decided on the Magnum due to the fact it is equipped with two electronic meat probes, as opposed to one on the Woodwind, and I can add the sear box later if I choose to do so. Granted, the stainless model has four wheels, but I’m not needing to cart my grill more than a foot or two every now and again. Additionally, I have a compulsive personality, and lid-lifting to check the food is something I have fought for years. The Magnum also has a window, so my self-control is intact. So in essence, I gave up two wheels, stainless steel and found the Magnum for $100 less, which again, opened up the possibility of a sear box down the road.

My unit arrived a day early, and since I had not gone to the store, I checked the freezer for a test run. Luckily, Ron had harvested a deer last year and had it processed by an incredible meat shop in the area. Lucky for me, he had dropped off a few pounds at my place. The shop in question ground the meat and added some farm-raised animal fat. Not sure if it was pork or beef, but it definitely did the trick, so I set to making some burgers.

I combined the ground venison with a pound of grass-fed beef and formed the patties. When I make burgers, I break the meat apart into a bowl, and once there is a nice layer, I sprinkle in a seasoning blend. and then another layer of meat and so on. After that, I form patties in roughly the third-pound persuasion. When I seasoned this time around, I used McCormick’s Grill Mates. They make a really nice Worcestershire Pub Burger Blend I stumbled across one day at the store, so it has become my go-to burger seasoning for now. I preheated the grill to 400 degrees, dropped the patties on and let them smoke for a bit.

The nice thing about this grill is, if you want to smoke, go ahead and smoke, if you want to flame grill, then all you have to do is pull a knob on the left side of the cooking cylinder, and you go from smoker to grill in about a second. I smoked the patties for about 20 minutes and then opened the grill to the direct-flame mode. After about 7 or 8 minutes, I flipped the burgers and let them cook for a few minutes more. Admittedly, I did have to lift the lid and check the grill marks on the underside of the burgers once or twice in the interim, but then again, I was cooking burgers, not smoking a 15-hour brisket, so sue me. Once the grill marks were there, I slid the knob to the right and let the patties smoke for about 15 more minutes. What ensued were juicy, smoky, and downright flavorful burgers. Not one to pat myself on the back since I’m obviously modest and these grills are dummy-proof, but those hamburgers were delightful.

The next day, I tried a couple of whole chickens. Usually, I’ll cook them beer-can style, but I wanted to get an idea of this machine’s capabilities, so I used a BBQ rub on one and a dusting of Goya Sazon on the other and just plopped them breast-up on the grate. I inserted the meat probes as prescribed, and after the allotted time per recipe, I had delicious and juicy smoked chicken on my hands…well, all over my hands and shirt and face. Yeah, it was that good.

Gluttony and kidding aside, I can tell you, I’m not disappointed with my venture into the world of the pellet grill. I can put food on the grill, and if I need to walk the dog, I can come back 20 minutes later and know nothing is burning. It is kind of like an air-to-air missile, “fire and forget,” which is comforting for someone with an attention span of a Jack Russell Terrier like myself.

As far as the features, which sold me, the easy-empty ash-catch is nice because one doesn’t need to pull the grill apart to vacuum the ash can. The Camp Chef line boasts an external ash-catch that removes with a simple twist of the wrist. In reality, these grills do not produce a ton of ash, and you may have to empty the thing after every dozen or so uses, if not more. Besides, I have to disassemble the innards so I can clean the drip tray as it is, so reaching inside with a shop vac would not be a big deal were the catch not available. By the way, the best method to clean the drip tray is to use a pressure washer. No muss, no fuss.

The other amenity that sold me was the ability to empty the pellet hopper in case you wanted to use a different smoke flavor mid-stream. That’s all well and good if hickory is a must or applewood is a must, but for the home cook, you really don’t need the feature all that much. I’ve decided to stick with a premium blend of pellets from here on out. Good smoke is good smoke, and I’m not worried about impressing someone with the piquant flavor of the applewood smoke shining through. The grill gives a great flavor no matter what, and the smoke ring in the meat is pretty consistent either way. With this type of grill, you can be as particular or non-particular as you want because they get the job done no matter what.

The last item that got me was the direct/indirect flame mode. Like I said earlier, all you need do to switch from indirect heat/smoke-to-flame grill is pull a knob to the left and you have wood-fired grilling at your disposal. Like any direct-flame grill, you need to figure out what spots are hotter or cooler than others, and once you have mastered that, it is a snap. My buddy, Steve Boatman out in Oklahoma, has a Pit Boss pellet grill, and he says that feature is pretty handy on his as well. I kind of trust Steve, since we served together, and he’s never steered me wrong. Well, there was the one time in Korea, but that is another story.

Well, there it is. I still love a Weber kettle, but I suppose my laziness, or maybe my newfound grasp of technology has sold me. If you’re going for a change and consider a pellet smoker/grill, I’d say the Camp Chef Magnum is worth your dime. There are similar sized grills or other brands out there that are more bare bones, so if you want to go a few bucks less, just give it a web search, and you will find what you’re looking for. From what I can tell, they all get the job done right. Bottom line, I’m sold on pellet grills and my Magnum in particular. Since I have yet to go for the 12-to-15-hour smoke job on it, I’ll give it a healthy and smoky four ribs out of five. That’s all for now, Mercer County; I’ll see you when I see you.