Up in Smoke
Back in Stock: The Best Tailgate Smoker You Can Buy
Thanks to a patent that gave it a two-decade headstart, Traeger Grills dominates a growing corner of the outdoor cooking market known as wood-pellet grilling. The Utah-based company’s grills operate by filling a hopper with a few pounds of wood pellets. An auger that looks like an oversized wine-bottle opener pushes these pellets into a firing chamber based on the selected temperature, input into a small digital interface on the grill (or in some cases, on a smartphone). In other words, it is a modern, simplified take on smoke-based cooking — one that does not require the user manually gauge internal temperatures, fiddle with air ducts, add, subtract and rake wood to and fro.
Its newest offering is a niche of this niche — a portable tailgate-sized smoker. Traeger’s brand new Ranger grill is one of only a few in its small-but-growing category, and it promises sufficiently lengthy cook time capabilities, easy-to-use tech and plenty of pink smoke rings.
The Good: From a cooking performance perspective, the Ranger does its job remarkably well. Everything I smoked on it came out moist, smokey and tasted more or less exactly how you dream smoked food will taste. The grill comes to temperature much more quickly than I expected, reaching 425 degrees in less than 15 minutes (significantly faster than you’ll be able to light and prep charcoal or wood logs). The pellets, for their part, are more economical than charcoal or wood and at worst on-par with propane (more on this later).
The drip tray and porcelain-coated grates are easy to remove and clean as well, which is wholly necessary with the amount of grease long cook times will generate. The Ranger’s hopper size is also conducive to longer cook times — even more so than Traeger’s even more compact model, the Scout Pellet Grill. Lastly, it only took 20 or so minutes from unboxing to pumping out smoke, which, for someone routinely impatient with long setup times, was wonderful.
Who It’s For: The Ranger buyer is two things. One, a smoke seeker who wants to opt out of the incredibly high skill and know-how required to get into traditional smoking practices. And two, someone in need of mobility and stow-ability. Its weight and size mean it slides into the back of a truck bed or trunk with relative ease — but its cooking space isn’t so small to be overly prohibitive in its ability to cook for a fair number of folks. If you want to grill only steaks and other super high heat endeavors, look elsewhere. Not because it can’t sear — it can — but because a charcoal grill will reach high grate-level temperatures (upward of 700 degrees with the right fuel and air flow) and probably come quite a bit cheaper at this size (just make sure the grates are cast iron).
What to Watch Out For: As alluded to, the Ranger will sear just fine. You can get up to the mid-400s and feel pretty comfortable about it. A grate-level temperature of above 350 is a minimum requirement for searing, so about 100 degrees above that will turn out properly charred meats and veggies. The catch? It will take an extra minute or two to achieve a beautiful maillard crust, resulting in meat a half level up on the doneness scale (medium instead of medium rare, medium well instead of medium, etc.). It performs just fine for searing every once in a while but this is not the main reason to buy one.
Considering what it can do, the Ranger is mobile and compact. But it isn’t something you’d want to carry very far from your vehicle. At only 60 pounds, it wouldn’t be too troublesome if it weren’t as wide and tall, but, admittedly, that’s the trade you make for a cooking appliance that can crank out more than a few burgers at a time. A power cord that doesn’t have any home or way to prevent it from dangling around while moving is also a bit frustrating and potentially harmful to the product’s longevity.
Alternatives: In the realm of compact wood pellet grilling, the Ranger’s primary competition comes from Green Mountain Grill’s Davy Crockett model, which has an identical price-tag ($399), foldable legs and supports app-controlled temperature adjustment. At first glance, the Green Mountain Grill seems the better option, but I don’t see being able to alter the grill’s temperature via app all that useful when it’s connected via wifi, which means you and your phone have to be on the same wifi connection. In other words, you’re right next to the grill anyway. It’s worth noting, too, that the Davy Crockett grill is about 10 pounds heavier and its hopper holds one less pound of pellets, resulting in one to three hours less cook time (depending on the temperature level). Its total cooking space is slightly larger, though.
Competition can be found within Traeger’s own catalog as well — as the aforementioned Scout Pellet Grill is $100 more affordable, 15 pounds lighter and is probably the better option for folks with more precious space and less people to cook for.
As mentioned previously, if you’re only in for a grill for charring and crusty goodness, go with a proper charcoal grill. They’re tailored for that type of cooking, whereas the Ranger is capable but not exclusively built for it.
Review: I received the Ranger to review about a month and some change before its release. In testing, I prepared pork butts, pork shoulders, whole chickens (beer can, to be exact), ribeyes and bacon.
To my mind, the grill’s cooking performance is unquestionable. I’ve smoked meats on a proper smoker, an offset smoker and more rigged up indirect heat grills-turned-smokers than I can count, and I feel comfortable in saying the Ranger is truly excellent for its ease of use. Where traditional meat smoking requires near-constant manual regulation of some combination of temperature, fuel level and air flow, the Ranger (and the rest of Traeger’s catalog) requires only a few button presses at the start of a smoke and pouring some pellets into a hopper.
It may not reach the peak smoke flavors of the professional pitmaster, but I found it more than adequate for home smoking.
One pre-conception I had about wood pellet grills prior to using this one was relatively poor fuel efficiency — that is to say, I thought $19 for a 20-pound bag of wood pellets was a load of garbage. But, as it turns out, it’s not. On the smoke setting, I burned about one pound every three hours, which comes to almost $1 per hour of cook time, and 60 hours of cook time per bag. That’s a lot.
Charcoal, though preferred for searing and charring, burns much more quickly — even when it burns low. Lump coal, too, will have trouble reaching that level of cook time per pound, and it’s likely to be identically-priced or more. Even propane gas is less efficient — costing roughly $30 for a full tank and another $20 or so to refill it. Most tanks only cook for about 20 hours on the lowest setting.
The economics of grill fuels aside, the Ranger isn’t perfect. My biggest complaint is the awkwardness with which you move it from place to place — the power cord is loose and lacks any place to keep it out of harm’s way; if the hopper has pellets in it, they will spill if held by the handle. To be fair, though, the grill isn’t advertised as something to hike into the woods with.
Verdict: At the end of the day, I believe Traeger’s Ranger to be the best value travel smoker the non-pro smoker can buy. It edges out Green Mountain Grills by way of better used materials, an extra year of warranty, 10 fewer pounds of total weight, a bigger fuel chamber and an understanding that perhaps not everything needs wifi capabilities (though many of Traeger’s other grills do). If you’re in the market for a smoker to occasionally take with you, the Ranger’s about as good as they come.