Two days until spring. As the younger folk say, “I’m not even kidding.”
Yesterday we spent some time with a single-purpose device – the Char-Griller Super Pro. It grills, very well in fact, but that is all it does. And if you are anything but a complete rookie here, you will know that grilling is not cooking barbeque.
Let’s pause for a moment and repeat that: Grilling is not cooking barbeque.
So – with that mantra firmly centered in our minds we are going to hit the other end of the spectrum and visit the evil opposite (as it were) of the Super Pro with the Louisiana Grills Country Smoker CS-680. This is a pure barbeque machine, a wood-fired pellet-feed smoker that will cook giant cuts of meat for hours and hours with low heat and deep penetrating smoke. It’s a serious chunk of iron, and a big investment both in time (when you cook) and money (when you buy one). And like any good investment it will pay dividends over and over again with food that will make you the envy of the neighbourhood. Is it the right investment for you? Keep reading and find out!
At A Glance: Lousiana Grills CS-680
Quality – EXCELLENT
Ease Of Use – VERY GOOD
Flexibility – FAIR
Value – EXCELLENT
The Nuts And Bolts
This thing is a tank. Period. It’s heavy and solid and the welds are first rate. The lid for the pellet hopper is double-walled, the hopper is strong enough to sit on (not that you ever would) the electronics are sealed, and the fan and firebox are seriously heavy-duty. You are going to have this smoker for a long time.
The pellet delivery system is a paddle-wheel instead of the auger-type system that you see on other pellet-feed smokers. The paddles are semi-rigid rubber, so that they can flex enough to clear a pellet jam on their own. There is a trade-off in out-of-the-box performance because of this, however. See the Super Important Thing in the “ease of use” section for more details.
All Louisiana Grills are made in Canada and come almost completely assembled. There is nothing bolted together, the entire unit is welded at the factory. You only need to put the wheels and levelers on when you get it home. Because of this, you are not going to go pick this up and get it home in the trunk or the back of your SUV. A pickup truck or van is definitely required here. Luckily, most retailers who sell high-end products like this are also going to offer delivery, often for free. Be sure to ask.
Ease Of Use
Everyone’s first smoker should probably be a pellet-feed machine. Why? Because it’s easy is why. You let the machine handle the tending of the fire, freeing you to worry about the food. You have enough on your plate when you are starting out with rubs and brines and cuts and times and the last thing you need is to be fiddling with dampers and logs for hour after hour. Better, you can actually get the wood you need in pellet form, whereas in many areas it is rather difficult – if not impossible – to source the kinds of hardwoods you need as logs for smoking.
To light the fire you simply fill the hopper with whatever pellets you want to cook with, plug the smoker into a 110V outlet, and push the “start” button. There is an igniter in the firepot that comes to life, the machine starts tossing pellets in, and 7 minutes later you have a smoky hardwood fire. Easy as pie. Heck, easier – pie can be hard! You set the rate of pellet feed and voila! Constant temperature throughout even the longest cooks. The only thing you may have to worry about is refilling the hopper if your cook lasts longer than six or seven hours. A hopper extender is available for those extra-long overnight cooks.
Lousiana Grills also come with a “prime” button that lets you force a few more pellets into the fire without affecting the other settings. This lets you boost the fire when you open the lid for mopping or turning or any other attention you need to give your food so that you don’t lose any temperature or smoke. It’s a nice touch.
Cleaning is a snap – the entire heat shield comes out of the machine for cleanup of drippings, and there is almost no ash at all because the pellets burn so efficiently.
One Super Important Thing: The paddle-wheel design of the feeder means that you never ever get a pellet jam. This is a good thing. Cleaning a jam out of an auger is a wretched job. However, it means that instead of the firebox being at the centre of the smoke pit (as in a Traeger grill, for instance) it is at one end. This means on a larger grill like the CS-680 you get a temperature differential from one end to the other. The end of the smoker away from the firebox is always 50 degrees F hotter. As long as you are aware of this, it’s not an issue. You can either use it to your advantage – smoke a pork butt at one end at 225 and stuffed jalapenos at the other end at 275 – or you can use this handy arrangement of fire-rated bricks around the firepot and have the exact same temperature throughout the pit. Forewarned is forearmed.
Like the Super Pro I reviewed yesterday, this is a machine that does one thing really well. It smokes. The pellet-feed control will give you enough control over the fire that you can do anything from a super-low 120 degree smoke (for cold smoking things like fish, vegetables, and cheese) to a positively toasty 400 or 500 degrees for quick-smoking steaks or chops. Generally you will be working in the 225 – 275 degree range for “go to” items like butts, ribs, briskets, and birds. The number of things you can try are virtually endless.
Because this unit has a tonne of space inside, you can smoke a couple of pork butts, three or four dozen chicken wings, and fifty stuffed jalapenos all at once. With the CS-680 you are pretty much never going to run out of room. Even two full “new york” pork shoulders are going to fit in here without crowding. If you are smoking, you aren’t going to run into too many things you can’t do with the CS-680.
Louisiana Grills are not cheap – most retailers sell this model for about 1400 dollars (CDN). You are paying for North American construction, quality metal and welds, and world-class ease of use. If you plan on smoking a lot, or doing any sort of large scale cooking, you are going to get every penny of your money’s worth out of this machine. If you only use it a couple of times a season, however, you might look to spend your money on something with more flexibility like a Big Green Egg. But for long-duration (eight, ten, twelve, even twenty-four or more) cooking and maximum capacity, no hybrid is going to give you the same bang for the buck that you get here. You get what you pay for here.
When All Is Said And Done
Nothing beats the flavour, texture, and outright joy of traditional smoked barbeque. If you want to start working with big chunks of meat that take extra long times to cook properly, a pellet-feed smoker is the only way to go. If you are going to spend the money, make sure you get the best.