Thursday, June 18, 2009
Review: Traeger Junior (BBQ055) Pellet Grill – Part I
The approach is interesting. Instead of using gas, which to my taste often ends up with too neutral a flavor, or charcoal, which can be messy whether you go with real hardware charcoal or briquettes, the grill uses a pellet design. Small wood pellets, which look for all the world like rabbit food, go into a hopper. (Note that they're a special type developed for cooking food and not the same ones used in furnaces to heat a building and come with different "flavors," so you can get apple or maple or some others.) A slowly-turning electric auger (yes, it has to be plugged in somewhere) feeds pellets at a controlled rate into a firebox. In the firebox is a heated rod that burns the pellets. Depending on the setting, you can go for high heat grilling, medium, or smoking. In the latter setting, the ignition rod keeps turning on and off, letting the pellets smolder and turn into a smoke source.
Even this, the smallest unit, is hefty, with a shipping weight of 76 pounds. Part of that is because of the augur motor and other electrical paraphernalia, but a good chunk is due to heavy construction and thick steel shell. This isn't the type of unit that is going to easily blow away in a wind. Assembling it is a bit fussy, and I found that the instructions were not necessarily all that helpful. But I can see that trying to find a way that will work easily could be a hassle. You have to clamp the heavy burning unit to the grill's body, so you want it low to the ground. But then you have to get the whole thing elevated to attach the legs, which is inconvenient. I had help in assembling, and you might find that useful. Not the most fun solo project.
The design is pretty clever. A large drip tray sits under the grill and conveys fat out to a spout that juts out through one end of the unit. Hanging under the spout is supposed to be a small bucket, which will catch the grease, only the bracket for the handle broke off during shipping when inside the box. So that's now on the list of things to fix. You then follow instructions to fire up the grill for the first time and then season it by letting it run on high for 45 minutes.
All that was fine, and I noticed that by the end, the thermometer read about 400 degrees. We let it cool down and then started it again, using high to grill some salmon that I had coated in a cilantro-parsley pesto. (It was variation on an idea that I had seen on Steve Raichlen's Primal Grill program, which used tuna and a more traditional pesto.) I had covered the drip tray as instructed with aluminum foil, heated the unit, used an oil-dampened wadded paper towel held by tongs to grease the grill bars, and put on the fish. And waited. And waited. Although the instructions say that the grill (which sports a supposed 19,500 BTUs) should heat in ten minutes, I had left it on longer. The grill didn't seem to get hot enough to do a good job. For example, the bars weren't leaving marks on the fish. Overall, the salmon probably took about 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time, and was maybe medium by the end of this. This was, as they suggest and as I'd have done anyway, with the cover closed.
Ultimately, it was tasty, but I was disappointed by the amount of heat. It was in the lower 70s with a bit of a breeze where we are, and the instructions note that cooking in cooler weather can take longer. So it might be that on a somewhat warmer day the grilling action would have been more responsive. Also, given the drip tray and firebox arrangement and the inability to change the height of the grate, the heat is going to be indirect, which is why I'm thinking that I'll be doing at least an additional test with smoking a brisket or turkey, and perhaps a third test with a roast at the medium setting. They sell through dealers with a list of $499, but some web research suggested a street price of $50 to $100 less. I'll hold off on a full opinion until after the smoking, but as a grill alone, I'd pass at that price.
Note - here's part II of the review. It's pretty cool as a smoker.