Sometimes size does matter. Sometimes! Whilst it would be ideal to have lots of space to fill with BBQ’s and the likes, for most space is precious and so we need to be careful with the equipment we choose.
But what if you also need a lot of capacity to cook a lot of food at the same time for larger parties and gatherings, and you still only have a small space to play with? Well, Masterbuilt may have the answer for you with their Digital Charcoal Smoker unit. It’s capacity is big, it really can hold a lot of food however it’s footprint is relatively small. The cabinet style design means it’s taller rather than wider meaning it can fit nearly into a smaller corner and take up far less space that other units with the same capacity. It’s a rugged looking unit with it’s handles and glass front and one that immediately catches the eye. But does it cook well?
We have been cooking on this unit since the late summer of 2021 so have managed to run a fair few cooks through it now giving us a nice rounded opinion which we will share below. Let’s start with some of the technical specs of the Masterbuilt digital charcoal.
The name ‘digital’ gives you a hint that this unit is controlled by a electric control panel and fan unit, so yes it needs to be located near a power source. You need to plug this unit into a mains socket or a power unit with a 3 pin socket. There is also the ability to connect the control panel to Bluetooth or WiFi via the Masterbuilt app, so being near a WiFi connection will give further benefits and functions with the unit.
The smoker runs on either lumpwood charcoal or briquettes and has a hopper size of just over 7kg. This gives a claimed continuous burn time of up to 13hrs.
Total cooks space across the 4 racks in the BBQ sits at 8500sq cm (1320sq inches). That’s a lot. Masterbuilt claims this is enough space for 20 chickens, 16 pork shoulders, 8 racks of ribs (that’s laid flat on the grates, we are sure you could do far more in rib racks) or 4 turkeys.
Unit height is 126cm, Width is 74cm and depth is 67cm. Sitting on swivel casters, 2 of which lock for easy movement and then also keeping in place.
Temperature range from 105-204c. With the fan assist the unit will heat to 204C in 17 minutes and 205c in 20 minutes. Water pan for added moisture in the cooking chamber
One food temperature probe included with the option to use up to probes 4 at the same time.
As always we threw a number of cooks at this grill across a few different temp ranges to see how it got on and give a nice and balanced initial overview.
The unit arrived to us boxed up and so a build was required, luckily Dad was around to lend a hand with this one. It took the pair of us a good 90 minutes to put this one together with few issues really, apart from dropping the off screw in the long grass. The instructions are pretty comprehensive, just make sure you wire up the switches for the electrical bit the correct way round. We were also supplied with a cover which comes at an extra cost, due to the unconventional cabinet style shape you are probably best to go with a Masterbuilt cover for this unit. They are nice and weighty with a drawstring fastener and you can pick them up for around £45.
The unit is pretty easy to move around thanks to the four wheels, two of which have locking castors to keep it in place when needed. There is a rugged looking handle on each side of the cabinet that helps with getting it where you need. The same rugged handles feature on the main cabinet door and also the firebox door too. They have a rubberised black handle meaning then remain cool to the touch when the unit is running. Each door also has a locking clasp to ensure a tight fit, this is meant to stop leaks although in practice we did still find some smoke escaping, but not enough to be of concern.
At the very bottom of the front panel is the electric control unit. There is a basic blue digital display that shows the units internal temperature, your set temperature to cook at, a timer should you need it and then it will cycle through the probe temperatures if you have them attached. They are also the buttons to connect the grill to Bluetooth and wifi, button for setting the temps, buttons for the timer and a jog wheel for selecting the desired temperature too. All pretty straightforward, and when connected to the Masterbuilt app it shows you all the info you need too.
The app allows you to connect the grill, browse an every growing list of recipes, set temperatures up and down, set timers and also look at the probe temperatures if you have them connected. If you are new to connected grills then all these features are pretty much the norm these days. Enables you to set the grill going and walk away knowing you can check on the grills progress wherever you may find yourself that has an internet connection. If you aren’t venturing far afield then you can stay connected via Bluetooth too.
Around the back of the grill there is a small vent hole cut into the pressed metal shell, but around the front is where this grill stands out a little as it has a pretty much full-sized glass front, allowing your or your hungry family and friends to look in at what BBQ delights await them. Quite unique to have and means you can check on meat colours and bark formation without needing to open the door and allow any heat to escape. The phrase “If you’re looking you aint cookin” really does not apply on this unit, firstly you can see through the glass and secondly you can check temps on your app. I say you can see through the glass, that is if you clean it after each cook, we found as you would rightly expect that it gets a bit difficult to see through with a few hours smoke build up. But I will say this, it cleans up easier than my indoor oven door does.
Once the catch is flicked and the glass fronted door is open you are really met with just how much space this unit offers. There are 4 shelves in total that all come included with the unit, and each shelve can be placed on its hanger that can clip into the side wall of the unit in multiple positions and heights, eight in total. This means you can have larger items in and remove shelves, or small items in and have it fully loaded with all 4 shelves. The racks themselves are pretty sturdy, we have seen units in the past when under load the shelves suffer, but these took some fair weight in some of our cooks and did not bend out of shape. Under the lowest rack there is a hanger that holds a water pan to keep that nice moist air running round the unit. The pan isn’t particularly big so you may find it needs a top up during higher temperature cooks. Top tip always fill with hot water to the unit doesn’t use more energy and fuel just to heat the water.
Then under this is a diffuser that can be set to different positions depending on the heat you are aiming to cook at, and a big angled drip pan to catch all the juices running down from what you are cooking. On the side of the unit there is a handy rubber probe inlet that feeds into the main cabinet, this means there is no need to feed wires in through the door hinges risking pinch damage. Then down to the lower access door to which houses the firebox. This door is also held with a latch but inside has a layer of metal gauze style gasket to keep all that heat in. Behind this sits the ash pan to collect all the spent coals and ash, easily removable but must always be done with heavy duty heat resistant gloves, it gets very hot. And the internal charcoal basket gets even hotter still.
The charcoal basket has a lighter holder, we used the standard wax coil tumbleweeds and then piled the coals above, around and filled the basket. There is a removable insert which creates an almost snack method effect as the fuel burns around it. We have also seen people add wood chunks into this centre section although we didn’t try this. We ran cooks with both lumpwood and briquettes and found the latter to give a longer burn time as you would expect. The temptation here is to load the basket right up, but do so, then add wood chunks on top and you may not be able to get the basket back into its drawer.
We preferred wood chunks on the bottom then coals on top no higher than the basket rim. Light your starter in its holder through the mesh basket and slide it carefully back into place and shut the door. Next to the unit you find the fan tower which guides the flow of air down onto your fuel source and keeps the unit at your desired temperature. None of us like spending ages reading a manual but this units has a few quirks that mean it’s worth a scan, and to keep to hand for reference. There are a few ways to light the grill and set up the diffuser depending on the heat range you are looking to cook at, so check these beforehand to keep temps in line with where you want them, light it or set it up differently could see you waiting longer to hit temps, or wondering why the temps are creeping past what you have the grill set to. Worth a read.
The construction of the unit is generally good, the price point means this grill sits in the lower mid section of today’s prices. And as such the cabinet is not insulated at all, and it’s a lot of flat metal to react to the weather you are cooking in. So as such, the unit clearly has to work harder on colder days meaning your burn times may be reduced. In exceptionally cold weather or high winds you may consider wanting to protect the unit by using it in some form of shelter or gazebo. Most of our cooks have been on finer weather days and so the unit did not struggle.
So exactly what have we cooked? We decided to go in big for cook number 1 with this Masterbuilt unit and it really was all or nothing. It was a risk but one we felt we had to take.
2 briskets and 2 pork shoulders. For this because of the height on the pork shoulders we removes one rack, then had a brisket on each of the lower two racks then the two pork shoulders on the remaining top rack. This was going to be a long 10-12 hour cook low and slow in the 107-135c (225-275f) regions depending on the stage of the cook. Deflector set, water pan filled, firebox loaded with Kamado Joe Big Block lumpwood (since this cook masterbuilt have also brought out their own line of charcoal sized specifically for their units), smoking wood in, tumbleweed lit, temps set on the control panel, so now time to walk away and let the unit do it’s thing.
To start the heat ran a little over the set 107c temp but only by 10c so was still well within my range so I didn’t intervene, and sure enough the temps settled in withing 40 mins and it ran as expected right through until my first check at 6hrs. At this point I wanted to check the briskets and swap them on the shelves, made easy as the shelves slide out (as long as you have somewhere to put them, drop the higher one down and put the one that was out back in it’s place.
With me? On checking over both briskets and shoulders the cooks were pretty even, one section on the lower brisket was darkening a little sooner but no issues I also checked the fuel and all was well but was over half way round the snake at 6hr in. I shut all the doors and let them smoker run for another 2hrs. After the checks so additional oxygen had obviously got in and after the initial recovery from the lower temps of letting the heat out, again the until climbed to 15c over for a short time before dropping back down, again this small increase was no issue. At the 8hr mark the pork shoulders and briskets were both ready to wrap, with the briskets being a little further on than the pork. This could be position in the cabinet or purely just down to the meats themselves being different, sadly I wouldn’t know unless I ran the exact same cook the opposite way round.
On checking the fuel again, I decided a top up was needed as the cook was going to run for at least another 2-4hrs, so some unlit lumpwood back in to start burning back on itself, no more wood at this point as the meats were all wrapped. Slowly over the next few hours each of the briskets first, then each of the pork shoulders got done. As each one was ready they were put in the cooler ready to be served. If I had one complaint of this whole first cook it would be the mess on the drip pan I had to clean up. Maybe it could be foiled for easy clean up, lesson learnt. A solid first cook, all the meats got nice colour and flavour, cooks was easy with no messing around needed, the Masterbuilt just ticked along and did it’s thing and did it well.
Cook number 2 we went for a capacity test with small items so this time it was wings. I ordered in 5kg of 3 joint wings thinking that was a good test for the Masterbuilt. I was wrong, 5kg didn’t even touch the sides as you will see from the pictures. I am confident this unit could have handled 20kg+ across the 4 shelves. The wings would be more tightly packed in, but I think the unit could handle it. And that’s exactly what this unit offers, a huge opportunity for capacity if you need it whilst taking up less floor space due to the vertical cabinet design.
For this cook it was a dry water pan and a higher temperature as we needed to crisp up the skin on those wings. Wran at 135c for 45 mins to lay down some nice smoke flavours then when the wings has started to colour up we raised the temperature to 175c and watched the skins start to bubble up. Within 25 mins we spotted that we needed a shelf rotation to even the cook up across the shelves, again this could be because we different rubs on the wings so some may have darkened sooner due to the sugar content. It only took another 10 minutes at the higher heat and they were ready to come off and again we were pleased with the results.
The higher heat cook showed that there are some areas across the grills that get hotter than others, but this is marginal and the same can be said of most grills. Whilst we misjudged the capacity, 5kg of these wings was more than enough to keep us happy. The smokey flavour was definitely present and the skins crisped up well from the higher heat finish. When cleaning down the unit after this higher heat cook we did notice the mesh fire basket had twisted slightly from the heat. Whilst we were surprised it really has no effect on the running of the unit, it still fits fine, it just has a small twist. Whether this would increase over time we don’t know as of yet, but in all the subsequent cooks it hasn’t got any worse. Just a small note on our experience, again, not an issue at all but wanted to write it in.
Cook 3 was just a benchmark cook for us, ribs. We always get a good picture and feeling for how a grill runs when we throw some ribs on one. And these were two nice big racks of thick meaty spares at that. To go with the ribs we ran some sides of buttered corn and a big tray of mac n cheese too just to see how the Materbuilt handles more than just the big meats. Another cook run on lumpwood charcoal and this time with some maple wood chunks for smoke. We knew this was around a 5hr cook at the 120c mark, adding in the mac n cheese and corn for the last hour. This grill isn’t really about the full on high heat cooks, more about the low n slow to hot and fast ranges, not the sear stage. So this was the last of the test cooks before the review was written.
As expected this cook ticked along exactly as had expected and the results on the ribs were as good as most. The smoke levels from the unit vary during the cook depending on how much wood you have added, how much the fan is assisting the cook and blowing on the fuel source. On of the things we did note is that when the smoke is in full flow there are some small gaps on the main glass door where smoke escapes, not an issue apart from if you like to keep your grills clean, this will be another area that needs a scrub up after the cook. We also learnt you can’t bring the temperature on the unit down on this unit with the controller in the same way you can with other Masterbuilt units. At the end of the cook your fuel will continue to burn until it is spent, so only add the fuel you need for the cook so as not to waste any.
In its time on test the Masterbuilt digital charcoal smoker ran without issue, the build was relatively simple, the unit offers a massive amount of cook space for its footprint. The build quality is good enough for the price range, were this unit to be fully insulated etc you would expect to pay a minimum of twice as much if not more. Yes, the temperature range means you won’t be searing like a traditional BBQ, but the clue is in the name, ‘smoker’.
The unit has an RRP of £499, and that’s a lot of cooking space for the money, meaning if capacity is what you need then this should be on your consideration list. You will definitely get a longer run time for overnight cooks without top ups using briquettes rather than lumpwood but fuel choice is down to your preference. There are a few leaks in the doors where smoke escapes, the temps did run a touch over on occasion, there are a few hot spots and yes, the fire basket did twist a little. But does any of this matter? In our opinion, not really. The results from the cooks, the flavours it gives, ease of use, the capacity, the digital controller, being able to run the unit via the app. All of these things really do stack up to making the Masterbuilt a solid product to consider if you are in the market for this type of smoker.
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Advert. Paid promotion. Full disclosure. This review was paid for by Masterbuilt to cover the cost of ingredients, content creation and my own time. But I am still entitled and have given my full and honest opinion on the grill above