Cooking over charcoal will always be better than using natural gas. The smell alone is worth waiting 15 minutes for the coals to turn ashy gray. My trusty kettle-style grill works fine, but I’ve had to change my grilling setup as my taste turned toward barbecue smoking nine-pound pork shoulders for hours, and away from fast-searing burgers and hot dogs. It’s not hard to turn a Weber into a smoker, but on longer cooks, getting consistent temperatures over hours requires a lot of attention. Real barbecue is never fast, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be easier. Weber’s new Summit charcoal grill is designed with smokers in mind, but it doesn’t stray too far from its grilling roots, making it one of the few cookers that make everyone happy.
I put the Summit grilling center ($2,300; weber.com) together over the Labor Day weekend in about an hour. The grill includes an ignition burner, fueled by a 14.1- or 16.4-ounce propane camping canister, which lights the charcoal; a 2x2-foot stainless steel side table at a comfortable 33-inch-tall working height; a wire basket drawer; and a charcoal tub. The Summit also comes without the side table ($1,700). Thick steel framing makes up the base with heavy-duty swiveling casters. The trickiest part of putting it together was fitting the two wires from the igniter to the burner — they’re tucked underneath the side table.
All the trimmings aside, the Summit’s kettle design is what makes this cooker a multitasker. The lid’s vent swivels, like normal, but also hinges open completely to help reach hotter cooking temperatures faster. Vents below work like a traditional Weber but with a new icon for smoking that cranks them open to feed oxygen to the fire. Barbecuing means holding meat at a low temperature for hours, and the built-in thermometer has a color-coded smoking zone, from 220 to roughly 275 degrees, which is right in the low and slow wheelhouse. The dome top is about two inches taller than a standard charcoal Weber, to help with convection but also to smuggle another layer of food underneath if you use an elevated rack on top of the 452-square-inch primary grate. A beefy spring-assisted hinge does all the lifting when you open the lid, which is built using two walls of steel separated by a one-inch air gap to help insulate the cooking chamber. This is a considerable upgrade from the single layer of steel.
Inside the kettle’s lower bowl are two series of tabs that support the charcoal grate at either four inches below the food, for hot and fast grilling, or 10 inches below, for indirect roasting and barbecuing. Where my original kettle had one level for the heat that required you to bank coals on one side for indirect cooking, the Summit allows for more flexibility.
Before tossing on a steak and vegetables, I needed a few minutes for the direct grilling setup. After piling a mound of charcoal on the grate in the high position, over the burner that sticks into the side of the lower bowl, I turned the dial and listened for that familiar click. A mechanical spark ignites the burner’s gas, creating 10,000 Btus, which is enough to get the coals hot and powdery gray in about 12 minutes. Add about another 10 minutes to that, with the lid closed, to get the grate up to searing temperatures, and I was cooking in less than a half hour — even gas grilling acolytes have to admit that’s pretty fast. The hinged cooking grate is part of Weber’s removable insert system, which lets you swap out the center for different plates like a griddle, vertical chicken roaster, or pizza stone.
Like most charcoal grills, you can set the Summit up for indirect cooking of larger cuts like a whole chicken, turkey, prime rib — the sort of cuts that take longer than 20 minutes. This time the charcoal is split between the two included stainless steel baskets that, once ignited by the propane, you push to the outer edges of the grate to clear a space in the middle. Place the food in between the baskets, which admittedly reduces the amount of real estate you can cook with, and let it go to work.
But the biggest strides the Summit makes are in smoking, which uses the lowest set of charcoal grate tabs and the included hinged diffuser plate. This heavy stainless steel disk moderates the temperatures of quick-burning charcoal covered with wood chips or chunks and pushes the smoke to the walls of the kettle, forcing the perfume around your food instead of straight up. Because the plate is hinged, you could also use it during indirect cooking to make the most out of the cooking surface. With the vents properly adjusted, the right amount of charcoal — figure on about 90 briquettes over an eight-hour cook, under about four wood chunks to properly cook and smoke a seven-pound pork shoulder, the Summit can keep consistent temperatures for about 10 hours.
Barbecue purists will say the real thing uses only wood for the heat and smoke, and you can in the Summit using the ignition system. The system isn’t cheap — you could get a Weber’s kettle and Smokey Mountain for less — but neither will multitask as well as the Summit.