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Weber-Stephen Products Smokey Smokey Mountain Cooker Charcoal Smoker
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WSM Cooker - The Cadillac of Chimney Style Water Smokers?
Jul 8, 2007 (Updated Jul 13, 2007)
Review by o626
Rated a Very Helpful Review
I got turned on to back yard stovepipe water smokers over 25 years ago while living in the Southwest. Working and playing with a group of accomplished cooks and outdoor enthusiasts, I was introduced to the delicious joys of smoked meat at home. For many years I've used a couple of Brinkman "Cookin' Cajun" water smokers to smoke briskets, spare ribs, back ribs, chickens, Cornish hens, turkeys, fish, numerous varieties of sausages, you name it.
Recommend this product?
I was perfectly contented with the inexpensive ($40-$60) Cookin' Cajun, which I knew and understood well, and on which I've produced many darn fine meals, although I've been a "Weber Man" when it came to grilling for nearly 30 years. A 22.5" Weber charcoal kettle (ca. 1981, an upgrade from my original 18.5" Weber) and a Weber Genesis LP gas grill (ca. 1989) occupy hallowed spaces on my patio, along with the Smokey Joe in the garage for travel grilling. So, when my latest iteration of Cookin' Cajun (10+ years old) began to get a little long in the tooth, I decided to break down and ask the bride for a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker (WSM) for my recent birthday.
For the sake of brevity, and to stay "on topic", I'll eschew discussion of the many methods, dry rubs, sauces and other accoutrements I've employed in water smoking meats over the years and concentrate on water smoking theology as employed in the WSM Cooker.
STOVEPIPE WATER SMOKERS 101
A stovepipe style water smoker is designed to cook meats at low temperature (~200 deg. F) over long periods of time. The water smoker will consist of a fire pan at the bottom of the stack to contain charcoal and wood chunks (hickory, mesquite and apple wood are my favorites, depending on the type of meat).
Above the firebox in a removable, cylindrical center enclosure will be a water pan, which performs 3 critical functions. First it boils off steam, keeping the meat moist. Second, it helps moderate the temperature within the smoker - water can only get so hot before it boils. Third, it keeps grease that drips off the meat from falling in to the charcoal fire, eliminating flare-ups and easing clean-up. Above the water pan in the center cylinder will be one or (typically - and as found in the WSM) two grill racks for the meat, one just above the water pan, the second at the top of the center cylinder. This is all topped off by a dome shaped lid, which will often contain a rudimentary thermometer (thermometer not included in the WSM).
The charcoal fire heats the water and atmosphere within the smoker to just above the boiling point. Air inlet to the smoker is restricted, keeping the fire banked low. The smoke and heat rise through the cylinder by convection, smoking and cooking the meat before being vented through the lid.
THE WSM COOKER IN ACTION - Differences From the Rest of the Pack (The Good and Bad)
The WSM is built like, well, a Weber grill. That is to say solidly, with high quality materials. It is by far the heaviest duty commercial, stovepipe style water smoker I've ever seen. I reached to pick up the box when it was delivered (from Amazon), expecting the light gauge construction of the Cookin' Cajun with which I have been long familiar, and almost dropped the WSM. The WSM was almost unexpectedly heavy. It's a Weber though, so I should have known.
Assembly was a breeze. Six bolts/nuts/washers affix the three legs to the lower bowl. Eight more bolts hold the four brackets that accommodate the water pan and grill racks on the inside of the center cylinder. (First minor quibble - Why weren't lockwashers provided for the bolts?) Pop the charcoal rack, fire ring, water pan, side firebox access door and grill racks in place, top with the lid, and voila! You're ready to smoke.
Besides the heavy-duty construction, the biggest difference between the WSM and lesser smokers is a highly efficient firebox design that starts the charcoal quickly and keeps it lit and burning hot. The charcoal sits on an open grate as with a Weber kettle grill, with a removable ring that has large vent holes in the sides to contain the charcoal vertically. Again like the Weber charcoal kettle, there are 3 adjustable vents in the bottom bowl of the fire pan stack.
The center cylinder with water pan and grill racks is tight fitting and has a very convenient removable door through which the fire, wood and water pan fill can be monitored. The side door is a handy idea, and absolutely essential in the WSM, as the center cylinder has no handles on it, making it very difficult to remove from the fire pan base when hot.
Unlike many other smokers, the top lid is actually quite tight fitting, but has an adjustable vent on one side of the handle.
The design of the fire pan is a strength, and a weakness of the WSM. The highly efficient airflow (as compared to other, cheap-o smokers like the Cookin' Cajun) keeps the fire burning strong throughout. Ash falls away in to the bottom of the lower bowl, eliminating the choking effect on airflow around the remaining charcoal on the firebox grate. This produces a far hotter fire than that to which I've become accustomed in a water smoker. I realize now that I'm going to need to be more pro-active in closing (partially, NOT all the way) the bottom vents in order to restrict airflow and manage internal cooker temperature.
Another huge advantage of the WSM is its full-size, 18.5 diameter cooking grates and 19 center cylinder diameter. This size is virtually cavernous compared to my old smokers, providing a far larger capacity. Two full racks of spare ribs will fit with reasonable comfort on each cooking grate. Similarly, the largest 12-14 pound beef briskets or a large tom turkey are no problem for the WSM. Great job here by Weber, although the 18.5 diameter grates represent a standard size for their smaller charcoal kettles.
The conspicuous absence of a thermometer in the dome lid is a real design flaw as far as I'm concerned. A built-in thermometer would at least let you know how hot or cool you're cooking, giving you a clue as to your needs for lower vent management. Yes, one could put an oven thermometer on the top grill rack, but that takes valuable grill space and checking the temp would require removing the lid, something the accomplished smoker tries mightily to avoid.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
This is an excellent quality product that has many attractive features. You can smoke mountains of meat for a big crowd with its cavernous capacity. The firebox design is outstanding, making the fire easy to start and maintain, albeit at a too-high temperature initially, based on my past experiences. The side access door to the fire box and water pan is an essential add-on that works well. I used some red paint to mark a "closed" position stake on the combo handle/latch for the door. (Why didn't Weber think of this?) A good quality cover for the WSM is included with the product although at a $200 retail price tag, one should reasonably expect this.
The water pan capacity is noticeably smaller than my old Cookin' Cajun, which is a design defect IMO. There is plenty of space to have designed a higher capacity water pan. I also miss handles on the sides of the center cylinder, which would make the heavy WSM center section easier to handle. And the absence of a built-in thermometer is unconscionable in a top-of-the-line product, especially for a cooking process that by its very design and nature is reliant on tight temperature management and control for successful outcomes.
I'm an experienced water smoker and have already adapted to my new WSM, which I like very much. But a novice smoker is set up for some initial disappointments by oversights in the design of this product. Those who are less intuitive or adventurous back yard cooks might be disappointed to the point of abandoning their WSM, or relegating it to infrequent use. For a sturdy smoker that should last through a lifetime of great, smoked meats, that is a real shame, and the design flaws noted here are shortcomings of the WSM overall.
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Amount Paid (US$): 199
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