We love barbecue, in part because there are no shortcuts. The act of turning tough cuts of meat fall-apart tender after hours in smoldering wood pit yields smoky flavor, but does it have to mean babysitting the grill all day?
Following barbecue’s low-and-slow ethos is more manageable with Traeger’s newest smart grill, the Timberline 850 ($1,700), a programmable cooker that is as intuitive to use as your kitchen oven. Unlike gas or charcoal grills, or offset smokers that burn wood logs, Traeger’s hardwood pellet grills have a temperature probe inside the cooking chamber that communicates with a controller bolted onto the side. Plug that controller-brain into an outlet and it manages an internal auger’s speed, turning fast for high heat or slower for that sweet spot around 225 degrees. The Timberline 850 goes a step beyond the norm with a controller that features smartphone connectivity, allowing you to see and change temperatures without being tied to your backyard. Traeger calls it “WiFIRE”; think of it as a nanny cam for your barbecue.
To see if the WiFIRE system truly made it easier to cook real barbecue without babysitting the meat, we got our hands on a 9-pound pork shoulder. After seasoning the Timberline, we downloaded the app (free on iOS and Android) and synced our smartphone to the smoker. On a recent Saturday morning we loaded the hopper with Traeger’s cherry pellets ($19) and dropped the spice-rubbed pork on a rack. Before closing the lid we inserted a probe into the meat, plugging the other end into the controller so it could monitor the internal temperature of the food. A few turns and clicks on the controller’s wheel set the cooking temperature to 225 degrees, with a target temp for the pork at 190. After a few minutes the smoker started puffing away. Meanwhile, we went about our day: had breakfast, ran errands, hit the gym, etc., all while periodically watching the internal temp from our smartphone.
At its core the Timberline is a convection oven. But the build on this 213-pound model is different and definitely sturdier. Chunky tubular steel legs give the smoker a rock-solid feel, muscular appearance. The lid and cooker are double walled, with stainless steel separated by an air gap for better heat retention. The grill held pretty closely to the claimed 5-degree accuracy of the temperature dialed in. The lid employs weather stripping to create a seal when you close it. A stainless steel shelf out front, which is naturally where you’d like to rest food as you pull it out of the cooker, isn’t quite that deep but it’s wide enough to hold a beer. Some other nice details: a stainless steel side shelf, power cord wrap, and magnetic cutting board that attached to the hopper’s lid.
The WiFIRE app is very intuitive, offering data on two key elements away from the grill: the cooker and food’s temperatures. You can control the first, and set target alerts for the second. The controller comes loaded with features, like a Keep Warm setting. If you’re not going to be home when the meal is ready, select this function from your app and it drops the cooker down to 165 degrees until you can get to it. The Super Smoke setting carries over from other Traeger’s other models and at temps maxing at 225 degrees the cooker encourages the smoke to hang around a bit longer before exhausting, which lends more flavor. The dial on the controller is easy enough to master after a couple of times using it.
We returned hours later on Saturday afternoon to pull the pork, then wrapped it in foil (to prevent it from absorbing too much smoke) and put it back into the cooker. A couple hours after that an alert pinged our phone —target temp achieved. Time to eat.
The barbecue was ideal: crusty bark and meat that shredded up beautifully, with a pink smoke ring. Chicken parts took on a nice mahogany color before we shredded them. If we were using a traditional smoker we’d have to linger around it all day: adding charcoal, wood chips, or logs to keep a target temperature.
Traeger markets the Timberline 850 as a grill rather than a smoker, so we also tried some high heat applications like burgers, chicken, and hot dogs. Everything came out great. The lowest rack has a setting that drops the thick, stainless steel bars right over the heat source. But even then you should only expect pale grill marks, not the charred black lines a charcoal or gas grill produces. The Timberline 850 lets you cook slow and low, while giving you a good chunk of your weekend back.
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