This smart grill knows when your meat is done—does it work?
Never fear undercooking your chicken again.
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As a midwestern dad, I’ve spent countless hours of my adult life standing at a grill. I’ve cooked burgers on everything from a wire refrigerator shelf laid on top of four beer cans to an app-controlled smart pellet grill/smoker.
While the vast majority of my grilling experience has been spent with the traditional charcoal kettle grill, I jumped at the chance to review one of several smart pellet grills currently on the market that uses wood pellets instead of charcoal briquettes. I tested the Rec Tec RT-340 over a summer with all manner of meals, and found it definitely has its share of strengths and weaknesses. Is a smart grill worth the upgrade? Let’s dive in.
What is a smart grill, anyway?
As with any piece of “smart” tech, a smart grill utilizes WiFi connectivity to communicate with an app on your smartphone or tablet. That allows users to not only check in on the cooking process, but also control the grill remotely.
There are several smart pellet grill manufacturers, and most have a loyal, cult-like following, but the biggest name out there is Traeger. Traeger (originally a wood pellet heat stove manufacturer) came up with this smoking/grilling technology back in 1985. They are certainly the industry leader and have a very strong position in the marketplace.
However, it appears that many other companies have caught up with and surpassed Traeger, either by price point or, in the case of Rec Tec, by their use of technology. It seems that most pellet grill companies have an offering in the smart grill market, but very few are as intuitive and precise as the Rec Tec line.
About the RT-340
I tested the RT-340, the smallest of the Rec Tec family of grills. All Rec Tec models have WiFi connectivity and an app available on both Android and iOS, so as long as you have internet access, your smart grill can be started, stopped, adjusted (within a very precise five degrees), and monitored—all from your smartphone.
I used a good meat thermometer to check the RT-340’s accuracy, and it was spot on. It not only monitors the cooking temperature, but when using the probes that are standard with this smoker/grill you can keep tabs on the internal temperature of whatever it is that you are cooking.
The app also shows a running graph of the actual temperatures compared to the temperatures that you have programmed—both the grill temperatures and internal meat temperatures.
A low-tech win for Rec Tec is their use of high quality, heavy gauge stainless steel. Only after years of use can you know for sure how they will hold up, but the little RT-340 certainly passes the touch test as compared to the Traeger and other brands commonly found at the big box stores. Even though the RT-340 is Rec Tec’s smallest offering, it still has the feel of a very sturdy, substantial cooking machine.
Precise temperature control
Rec Tec is understandably proud of their use of a Proportional Integral Derivative, or PID, controller to allow for very precise, steady temperature control (usually +/- 5 degrees). Most pellet grills are not nearly so precise, and many other brands will not allow temperature selection or control better than +/- 25 degrees.
While test driving the RT-340, I cooked everything from pizza to chicken to steak to pork shoulder. I am still definitely early in the learning process, but I have had great success with almost everything. This grill has a higher max temperature than most pellet grills, but it is still indirect heat— when it comes to getting a good sear on a steak, there is no substitute for the intense direct heat of a scorching hot charcoal grill.
Of course not everything went perfectly. One challenge that I anticipated was with my not-so-great home WiFi coverage. My router is separated from my back patio by about 40 ft. and three layers of concrete. Needless to say, by the time you reach the outer edge of my patio (where I placed the RT-340), my WiFi signal was poor to non-existent.
I also had app issues initially. When the temperature varied beyond what I had set, no alarms sounded, which totally thwarted one of the primary purposes for the smart technology: the ability to go about mowing or watching the game without worrying about what my grill was doing. If I happened to be looking at my phone, it would offer up a visual notification, but it didn’t set off an audible alarm. After digging through some forums, I found that the fix was simply to update the app to the beta version.
Finally with fully functioning alarms, I was able to set the cooking temp and the allowable variation from that temp, with the alarm sounding every 15 seconds until I reset it or the temperature settled back into range. The alarm can also sound when the probes indicate the set point is reached, letting me know we are ready for dinner.
A word of caution about pellet grills
Another “alarming” incident was something that, after a quick web search, proved to be a fairly common occurrence among all types of pellet grills. I experienced two minor explosions. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds, but there’s no better word for what happened. It was a loud noise, and the lid popped open as a small flame momentarily shot out of the grill before the lid slammed back shut. The lid is extremely heavy, so that’s no small feat.
The first explosion was caused by the fact that the blower was not blowing (it had gotten jostled and stuck in place during shipping). As a result, there was a large pile of pellets that did not have enough oxygen to do anything but smolder. This twice tripped the breaker. I (being the hard-headed individual I am) simply reset the breaker, though I would strongly advise against this approach.
It then dawned on me to take a peek under the hood, and I noticed the blower was not spinning. I gave it a nudge with a screwdriver and it took off and was blowing like a champ. Of course, all the while, the auger was pouring pellets (fuel) into the firepot, so with the blower fully functional, there was sufficient oxygen to ignite the smoldering fuel and gasses. And ignite they did!
World-class customer support
Since the grill had belched flames, I decided to call Rec Tec customer support, which lived up to its customers’ rave reviews. It was approximately 5:30 pm on a Saturday, so I called fully expecting to leave a message. To my surprise, I got a real live human who knew exactly what was going on and was able to reassure me that it is not unheard of for the blower to get jostled in shipping and temporarily freeze, and that the resulting “explosion” was a worst-case situation for a newbie such as myself.
He assured me there was no reason to think the fan would freeze again, and so far, so good. He did gently encourage me to call them if the breaker is ever tripped again.
He was right about the blower not being a problem, but I did have one more explosive incident due to the pellets not falling down the hopper to the auger (too much humidity, perhaps?). If I had had the beta version of the app installed, I would’ve had a warning that the temp was dropping, and could have intervened before this happened.
After researching, I have found that this happens across all brands. I also can’t find any examples of anyone getting injured in one of the “blow-back” incidents. The takeaway here: Download the beta app and maybe don’t ignore your breaker tripping, and you have nothing to worry about.
Do you need a smart grill?
Most smoked/grilled foods involve many hours of “low and slow” cooking. One of my favorites is an eight-pound pork shoulder cooked low and slow at 225°F until it reaches an internal temperature of approximately 205°F. This process commonly takes 12 to 14 hours.
The ability to start this grill, place your temperature probes in the pork, and simply set a temperature and walk away is amazing! The app allows you to set alarms that will alert you when there is a variation in temperature or when your probes reach the temp you have set. So you can go about your life while the grill does the tedious part of the job for you.
Now, if grilling is your excuse to sit on your deck, closely monitor your grill and drink a case of beer, a smart grill might not be for you.
If I had to choose between the Rec Tec RT-340 and a charcoal kettle grill, it would be a very difficult choice, but I think I would probably stick with my trusty old kettle grill. I know that with a lot more effort, I can do everything on the kettle that I can do on the pellet grill, and more. The pellet is better at everything except for the one thing I enjoy the most: a thick cut, medium-rare ribeye steak over white hot coals and a chunk of hardwood.
Luckily, my patio has room for both.
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