I had been looking at wood pellet grills for quite some time before purchasing this one. They offer the best of both worlds when it comes to grilling. You get the great grilled flavor that only comes with using charcoal or wood, but you get the convenience that comes with using propane. However, even the cheapest wood pellet grills come at prices comparible to high end propane grills.
Recommend this product?
In the world of wood pellet grills, the big names are Traeger, Yoder, Louisiana Grills, Mak grills, and Memphis Grills. I looked closely at each one. Traeger is probably the most recognized brand of wood pellet grills. They also run on the cheaper end, about $699 and up. The base model is going to get you a basic wood pellet grill with a hi/me/lo setting. The problem with Traeger is that their quality has suffered greatly since moving production to China. The other four brands make excellent products, but at a price that is out the the range for many people.
Then I just happened to come across a grill that was on clearance in Amazon. It was a Sawtooth Pellet Grill. I went to the website and was very impressed with what I saw. Sawtooths are American made in Star, Idaho. They are solidly built of 16 gauge steel, and come in two models: SPG-400 and SPG-600. As you might be able to guess from the model numbers, the SPG-400 has over 400 square inches of cooking surface, and the SPG-600 has over 600. Each model comes in two packages. One package is the basic, which includes the grill with bottom shelf. The Extras package includes a grill cover, front shelf, and side shelf.
After hammering Doug, from Sawtooth, with millions of questions, I bit the bullet and purchased the base SPG-400. I am very happy that I did. I ordered the grill on a Friday, and it was at my house, ready for assembly, by the following Thursday. Assembly was certainly no harder than for most propane grills. It simply consisted of attaching the legs, bottom shelf, and some handles. It took two of us just under two hours to assemble. All parts had been packed well for protection, and the instruction manual was pretty clear. For the couple parts that were a little vague, they were easily cleared up by watching an assembly video posted on their website.
For those who are unfamiliar with wood pellet grills, they operate by feeding wood pellets into a burn pot, which heats them to varying temperatures. The lower temperatures produce lots of smoke, which is great for smoking meats, the higher temperatures produce less smoke. The user fills a pellet hopper (a large rectangular box, usually on the side of the grill) with wood pellets, and an auger feeds the pellets into the grill at whatever rate is appropriate for the setting chosen. While the dial on a Sawtooth only shows low/Smoke, medium, and high, there are multiple settings in between, for a total of 19 temperature levels. The pellet hopper is one of the two places where this grill is less than optimum. Many other grills have hoppers that hold 10 to 15 pounds of pellets or more. This is nice, as it means you can truely set it and forget it for a few hours...even at the higher temperatures. Unfortuantely, the Sawtooth pellet hopper seems to be considerably smaller. I as only able to get about an hour's worth of cooking at 350 before I had to fill the hopper again. When smoking, while it does not necessitate watching the smoker constantly, this certainly keeps the Sawtooth out of the "set it and forget it" range of grills.
The Sawtooth SPG-400 has over 440 square inches of primary grilling space. This is slightly more than the other brands of grills marketed in the 400sqin. range. Sawtooth does not offer a second rack to increase space, but a third party brand could be easily purchased. The SPG-400 comes with a tall domed lid. While this looks a little awkward, it actually allows two turkeys to be stood side by side on their ends for smoking. This also means that with adding a second rack there would still be plenty of space on each level.
However, the tall lid also leads to the second minor issue I have with the grill. The SPG-400 is not digitally controlled. The setting on the temperature dial really just controls the speed at which the wood pellets are fed into the burn pot. Different speeds produce different temperatures. Without being digitally controlled the only source for determining the temperature is the thermometer in the lid. The problem is that the thermometer is considerably higher than most of the food that will be cooking. therefore, it does not produce an accurate read of the temperature at the food level. This really is a minor problem, but one nonetheless. I say it is minor because it is a problem faced with just about every grill (of all fuel types) that is not digitally controlled, and can easily be corrected. I found, that when taking the temperature at grate level, it was consistently 20-25 degrees hotter than the thermometer read. Now I know that if the thermometer reads 350, it is really 375. Problem solved. Since the grill is not digitally controlled, it does take a little practice to determine which setting on the control knob produces what temperature, but I find that to be part of the fun of grilling. It really is very easy.
While we are on the subject of temperature, I would like to note an area where the SPG-400 shines over many other wood pellet grills. Wood pellet grills are widely praised for their ability to maintain a low smoking temperature. However, they are widely panned for not being able to reach the super hot temperatures that allow meat to be seared. This is important, since searing locks in the juices that keep meat moist. To get a proper sear, a grill has to be able to get to temperatures of 450 or higher. The SPG-400 has no problem with that goal. It takes a while, and certainly uses up some pellets, but I was easily able to get the grate temperature of my SPG-400 over 500 degrees. My steaks were most definitely seared...and absolutely delicious.
The grill grates that come with Sawtooth grills are unique. They are flat stainless steal with an interesting grid pattern cut out. This has it's pros and cons. It is great for cooking thin foods, such as asparagus, without having it fall through the cracks (a definite problem for normal grill grates), but it also prevents those famous "grill marks" from forming on your steaks. This may be an issue for some, but my son summed it up the best. "Who cares? These steaks are great!"
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the grill is made of 16 gauge steel, which helps in regulating the temperature, and reaching those high sear temperatures. This was a thicker gauge than I could find listed for any of the other brands. It comes with a 3 year warranty on the grill, and a 1 year warranty on the electronics. This is an average warranty. I found some considerably better, and others considerably worse. I haven't really had my grill long enough to truely determine the durability, but my experience with the folks at Sawtooth so far leads me to believe they will be easy, honest people to work with.
I think I have pretty much summed up my impressions on the Sawtooth SPG-400. If you want to see how much fun I have had using it so far, just visit my blog.
Update December 17, 2013: I have been using this grill for over a year now. I am still loving my grill. The SPG-400 hasn't been without it's faults, but they have been few and far between. The major beef I have with the grill is the paint. I have had the grill for slightly less than a year and a half and have had to repaint it twice. While the paint flaking off has not affected the cooking ability of the grill, it has certainly made it look older than it is. This is even with keeping a heavy duty grill cover over it. However, I am still going to give Sawtooth at least partial benefit of the doubt. I have a friend who does competition barbecues with a smoker he paid a few thousand dollars for. He has the same problem. He informs me that this is indicitive of a grill that constantly stays hot for long periods of time. I have to admit that I use my SPG-400 a lot, and often it is for smoking.
Just this fall, Sawtooth made available digital controls for their grills. I purchased and installed the digital control for my grill, which upgraded it to an SPG-450. The digital control gives me much more precise control over the temperature, which has resulted in a reduction of the amount of pellets I use. Saving money is always a good thing. For just a slight upgrade, I can purchase a meat probe that will connect to the grill controller. This will make it so the grill automatically drops to a safe temperature once the probe detects that the meat has reached the desired temperature. The only issue I have with the controller right now is that in temperatures below 40 degrees, I have to run the start cycle multiple times until the grill reaches the required 150 degrees to run continuously. Sawtooth informs me that they are actively working on a firmware fix that will rectify this issue.
Finally, it didn't take too long after purchase of the SPG-400 for me to replace the grill grates with a set of cast aluminum grates from GrillGrate.com. These grates have high grate ridges that use infrared technology (similar to the new infrared grates Charbroil offers on their grills now). These grates provide the much desired grill marks when grilling steaks and other items. I wish the folks at Sawtooth would work out a deal with this company and make these grates standard on all of their grills.
All in all, I am still absolutely loving this grill. I would still highly recommend it to anyone.
Amount Paid (US$): 580