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Weber Smokey Joe - opinions?

As spring approaches, my thoughts are turning to outdoor grilling... currently I have a gas bbq on my wooden roof deck, but I'm thinking it might be nice to be able to do some charcoal grilling on the weekends. Nothing fancy, a few lamb chops, red mullet if I can find it, small cuts of meat generally.

I've done some research, and I think the Smokey Joe ( http://www.weber.com/grills/default.a... ) fits my criteria (small-ish footprint, classic design, somewhat portable, good quality, under $100) but I have a couple of minor questions and am hoping some of you hounds out there might be able to answer them. When it comes to charcoal bbq I'm a total novice, so please excuse any mangling I may do of terminology etc!

The Smokey Joe comes in two models, gold & silver. From what I can tell, the gold model is 2 inches deeper than the silver, and does not include an exterior ash catcher - I'm assuming this means the gold's ash catcher is inside, and this is what accounts for the extra depth? I'm thinking there must be a reason for the two different configurations to be offered, but I can't for the life of me imagine what it is. So that's question #1 - is one configuration preferable over the other?

Secondly, the fact that this bbq is called 'Smokey' implies that it can be used for, um, smoking. I don't actually plan on doing any smoking, my main use will be grilling meats and the effect I want to achieve is that nice chargrilled flavour that you just don't get with gas. So am I in fact off base in thinking this is the right grill for me? Is there something more basic I could be using?

My last question relates to lighting the charcoal (and I'm thinking I'll be using hardwood charcoal). I've seen threads here on CH strongly recommending the use of a chimney device over something like lighter fluid, but wouldn't that be overkill for a small bbq like the Smokey Joe? And does anyone have any experience with the 'odorless, non-toxic' lighter cubes that Weber advertises on its site?

Any and all advice is greatly appreciated...

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  1. I have the SJ Gold, and it does not have an ashcatcher anywhere, but it DOES have the bail-style handle. It is also too small to do any serious smoking. I use it when I want to grill a few burgers, dogs, or a chicken, but that's about it. I use either a full size Weber kettle or my offset smoker for bigger loads or longer cooks.

    1. Given the smallish diameter I think you'd have a hard time with low and indirect cooking (smoking).

      I'm also not convinced that charcoal creates any flavors that gas doesn't. Unless, you're adding smoke. Heat is heat, no?

      A chimney costs about 15 bucks. Get one and use it. Since the end result is lit charcoal, there's no issue of overkill. You can chimney as much or as little as you want. Unless the Smokey is really easy to light without lighter fluid. I would check out the forums at: http://virtualweberbullet.com/

      1. I don't know about the physical size distinctions, but performance-wise, they should be very similar. I'd opt for whichever one is cheaper.

        I HIGHLY recommend getting the starter chimey. They can be had for $10-15 and are well worth it (I've got three). You can have a raging inferno in a few minutes. I don't use the parrafin cubes, just a couple pieces of newspaper crumbled up.

        Smoke-wise, you will probably get a bit of smoke flavor by throwing soaked wood chips on the hot coals. But if you're cooking steaks or burgers, I've found I can't really tell the difference above the spices and the char. Nothing like what you'd get from a low-and-slow bbq cooker like the Weber Smokey Mountain, which makes a rich, deep smoke ring in pork ribs and beef brisket.

        The Smokey Joe should do just fine for burgers, hotdogs, steaks, corn, etc. It's a great deal

        2 Replies
        1. re: monkeyrotica

          I've had a SJ for about 15 years. They last forever. I don't use my chimney for the SJ, but the sawdust/parafin sticks. A full chimney seems like too much charcoal for on cook in the SJ.

          Agreed that its too small to use as a smoker. I will pile the charcoal on one side when doing a pork tenderloin. Sear on the hot side then move to the other to finish.

          All around a nice little cooker.

          1. re: chileheadmike

            Remember that you don't have to fill a chimney starter full of charcoal - it works just as well when it's only half-full. In other words, no matter what grill you end up buying, I very strongly suggest using a chimney starter.

        2. I see no reason why the smaller SJ would not serve your grilling purpose - but as others have said, for a long, slow smoke, you just won't have room for indirect cooking.

          However, as you may do with your gas grill, even when grilling whatever, you can infuse natural smoke by simply putting on the cover. The juices from the meat dripping on the coals will create their own lovely smoke for some great flavor.

          As to the chimney starter, I know they come in 2 sizes. One is maybe 6 in across, the other 8? You definitely do not need the larger one. Before someone made millions on these things, we used to use coffee cans (when they were actually metal) with holes punched around the sides for air circulation - once filled, tip up on one side, also for bottom circulation. They worked like a champ.

          Caution on thinking you will use hardwood charcoal for everything. It burns EXTREMELY hot and fast, suitable for steaks and such where you are looking for a fast, hot sear followed by a short overall cooking time. Keep in mind that using the lid and closing the vents, top and bottom, will cut off air, thereby allowing you to regulate/lower the heat. This may take a bit of practice so start with less expensive cuts of meat.

          For more delicate grill needs, ie, fish, chicken, vegetables, you should also keep a bag of briquettes on hand. The briquettes don't burn as hot, but last longer.

          5 Replies
          1. re: CocoaNut

            I disagree on the briquettes versus hardwood comment. The "hot and fast" can be very true... but usually when using cheap charcoal. Buy some good quality LUMP charcoal and your experience will be far, far, far different. Do some research on charcoal and ask around at local hardware stores for what they carry. This site is like no other and can be referenced as the ultimate authority on charcoal:

            www.nakedwhiz.com/lump.htm

            Remember that briquettes are essentially made from the waste product leftover from making REAL hardwood charcoal.

            1. re: HaagenDazs

              There just happens to be a recent thread on this on my home board (Ontario) - it's actually what got me started thinking about taking the plunge into charcoal grilling in the first place:

              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/589484

              1. re: HaagenDazs

                While I can wholeheartedly appreciate your comment on quality lump hardwood, even it burns hotter and faster than briquettes - although as I stated, it can be somewhat regulated with the lid and venting. As I've used hardwood for 8 - 10 years, at one time or another, I've probably bought about every brand availble to this area - the good, the bad and the ugly. The cheap ones have had everything from rocks and concrete to inconsistent "lump" sizes (slivers to whole limbs, all in one bag).

                There is a time and place for most any product and ultimately it becomes a matter of personal preference - to which we are all entitled. I only offered this caution as the OP mentioned red mullet and I would hate for it to be incenerated with no warning.

                1. re: CocoaNut

                  Haha, yes, incinerated red mullet would be a disaster! Thanks CocoaNut, I do appreciate the input.

                  1. re: dxs

                    Don't be scared by the charcoal briquette brigade. For instance, I've smoked dozens of pork shoulders over hardwood charcoal and it burned neither hot nor fast...

            2. Wow, less than 60 minutes since I posted and already some great info - thank you to all who have responded so far!

              Perhaps I'm romanticizing the charcoal vs gas cooking experience? It seems to me that meat grilled over coal tastes better, but that could just be an illusion - just as fresh fish seems to taste better when eaten by the sea. Plus you can add wood chips for flavour, and I've seen some people throw stalks of fresh herbs directly on the coals. Just seems that there are more options with charcoal.

              19 Replies
              1. re: dxs

                Wood vs. gas? That depends on what's important to you, ease or quality? Wood yields better taste, while gas is more convenient. You won't hear anybody say that gas is better, only that it's easier. The best you can say about gas is that, with a smoker box, you can get *almost as good as* wood.

                1. re: dxs

                  Grilling over hardwood charcoal does taste better and, yes, you can smoke if you soak woodchips and put a relatively small number of coals to the side. This grill is small. The real kettle grill is much better. Try cooking fish on low heat with smoke from wood chips.

                  BTW, I use gas now most of the time because it's so much easier and less smoky.

                  1. re: dxs

                    One thing, don't be put off by charcoal. Temps are not as easily regulated as with gas to be sure, but it's not that big of a deal. That lid can work wonders for heat control as well as flare-ups (initially, have a spray water bottle at hand).

                    That said, if you are comfortable w/your gas grill have you created wood smoke with chips in an aluminum foil tray. And when cooking/grilling fish, have you ever used one of the wood planks which come in cedar and alder (my preference). I've only used them when cooking gulf snapper, but they certainly add a flavor quality over and above oven cooking the same fish. The plank (you must soak it and then oil the cooking surface to prevent sticking), used on top of the grill rack, will protect the fish from direct heat, will generate a bit of smoke and will impart some of the oils from the wood into the fish itself. A bit expensive, they can be reused (after washing w/baking soda OR vinegar and hot water) a couple of times minimum and when thoroughly soaked, they will take direct heat for the length of time to cook fish. Just thought I'd throw that out fwiw.

                    1. re: CocoaNut

                      Thanks for the pointers! I haven't tried the techniques you mention, although I've seen them done - my gas grill is so dilapidated at this point (it was never very good quality to begin with) that I don't really like to fiddle with it too much for fear it will collapse :) . I use it for quick grilling mostly. The electric starter (that button you push to generate a spark?) stopped working years ago, so lighting the thing is a nightmare (I've lost some hair occasionally, let's just put it that way!)

                      I'm really looking forward now to learning the ins and outs of cooking with charcoal, thank you all again for weighing in.

                      1. re: dxs

                        I can highly recommend Steven Raichlen's "How to Grill" book. Clear, easy to read instructions, and lots of illustrations, clear cut recipes, etc. One of the best starter books you can buy.

                    2. re: dxs

                      Charcoal tastes better. The food cooked over it, that is. Besides, if you're weekend grilling, there's something more satisfying about taking the time to work with hot coals.

                      Oh, and I'm from Toronto. I picked up a Weber chimney starter for about $20, Canadian funds. It was at Ontario Gas BBQ. But I imagine a Canadian Tire or Home Depot would carrry one, without having to go to Concord. A good brand of lumb charcoal is the Maple Leaf brand, which you can pick up at Rona. They make a natural briquette, which is also ok (I find it burns fast). But the Royal Oak, in a blue bag, which you can surprisingly find at many corner stores works just fine. I'd just stay away from the Kingsford.

                      1. re: grandgourmand

                        Royal Oak Lump Charcoal makes Big Green Egg Charcoal. Not sure if you're referring to that or the R.O. briquettes...

                        1. re: HaagenDazs

                          It does? I guess that's good? I don't know much about it other than it's available at the corner store near my place. I've used it quite a bit with no real complaints.

                          1. re: grandgourmand

                            Not a bad thing, I suppose. The Big Green Egg charcoal usually is a bit more expensive, so just an FYI to you and anyone else who may be familiar with the BGE charcoal.

                        2. re: grandgourmand

                          Thanks very much for the local recommendations! I may just plan a field trip to OGB in April once they start extending their hours - it's still a little chilly in these parts for outdoor grilling (as you know) so there's no rush :)

                          1. re: dxs

                            I've been using my Weber Smokey Mountain (different game than the smokey joe) a fair bit, despite the cold weather. Mostly because it's a new toy. Not sure if I'll be out there next year in February. But if it's just a crisp day, with no wind, I don't mind firing it up.

                          2. re: grandgourmand

                            Does the charcoal impart a different flavor than other fuel?

                            1. re: tommy

                              I believe the scientific term is 'charcoal goodness'.

                              1. re: grandgourmand

                                Hmm. That's what I thought.

                                Smoke from wood will impart flavor, if given enough time (usually a much longer time than it takes to cook a burger or steak). I don't think charcoal imparts any flavor, though. It gets good and hot, that's for sure.

                                1. re: tommy

                                  I should have added "IMO" next to my statement then. But I am so hesitant to use web acronyms. However, I do believe if you put a steak cooked over lump charcoal vs, a steak cooked over gas, the lump charcoal would taste better.

                                  I did a quick scan of your blog. And I see you've been bitten by the WSM bug. It's better than heroin.

                                  1. re: tommy

                                    You do realize that charcoal is essentially wood, don't you?

                                    1. re: HaagenDazs

                                      Yeah, essentially. But without the smoke.

                                      1. re: tommy

                                        I was hoping you'd say that. There is smoke, that's my point. That's where the flavor comes from and it's why people use it.

                                        You can claim that you "don't think charcoal imparts any flavor" but that just tells me you're not really experienced in grilling. There is absolutely 110% without a doubt a difference in flavor.

                                        1. re: HaagenDazs

                                          Glad I could help to make your day that much more bright.

                                          I assume you're referring to lump charcoal. I don't think the smoke that comes from lump charcoal imparts any flavor to high heating grilling (if you want smoke you would add wood chunks), and there is essentially no smoke from charcoal briquettes.

                                          I'm looking forward to doing a blind taste test, however. I hope the results of that test are as positive as yours were.