Kamado, Ceramic, Egg Smokers And Grills: Buying Guide, Reviews, And Ratings
The kamado or ceramic grill/smoker/oven is a fast growing category with more and more choices every year. With good reason. These charcoal fueled devices are modern versions of the Japanese Kamado, an earthernware cooking urn whose original design is probably at least 3,000 years old. Indian tandoors are similar in concept.
They look a bit like an ancient burial urn or a giant egg, so it is not surprising that the most popular model is called the Big Green Egg.
Most are made of ceramics, terra cotta, cement, lava rock, and other refractory materials, the kind of stuff used to make kilns and crucibles, all extremely good insulators. If you don't drop them, they last a long time. As champion pitmaster Chris Lilly says of the Komodo Kamado says "Ask your children what color they want, because they will inherit it." Many offer a stand or table in which you can insert the device.
Some models are made of insulated steel which are lighter and less fragile, but the sides are not as good at retaining and radiating heat as the ceramics.
These are superb smokers, bread bakers, and pizza ovens because the domes absorb heat and radiate it back like a professional brick pizza oven so the pizza and bread can cook properly from above. They are also great for paella and tandoori cooking.
Easy to start in all wind and weather conditions, the insulation means that they need very little charcoal or oxygen, even infar northern winters. The thick sides retain and radiate heat very efficiently. That means less charcoal and oxygen are needed so there is not a lot of airflow out of the chimney. When meat heats up a lot of liquid evaporates from its surfaces, and the more airflow the more the meat dries out. Since ceramics have low airflow, meat remains juicier. Other smokers have thinner walls and and many leak a lot so they require more charcoal and airflow, which means that airflow out the chimney and the leaky doors carries away more moisture than the ceramics. It is not unusual for a pork shoulder to lose 30% of its weight in an offset smoker. Water loss on a ceramic is often under 20%.
Ceramics are so well insulated that some can cook as low as 150°F and the interior absorbs and radiates heat so evenly that they are very good at holding steady temps. There are no flareups, and temperature control is easy once you get the hang of it with intake dampers down low and outflow dampers on the top (wear gloves). The design of these dampers is an important differentiator between models. Some work better than others. But get a kamado started, bring it to temp, and there's no need to touch it until the meat is ready.
When you are done cooking, close the dampers, and it is easy to starve the coals and you have leftover coals for the next cook. The interior is more or less self cleaning so it does not need to be scrubbed. In fact, wire brushes can damage the surface. The only cleanup is to brush the ash out the bottom, and scrape the cooking grates.
Some of them come from the factory with a deflector plate that sits between the coals and the food for indirect cooking. Some sell it as an option. You want it. A lot of the cooking you will do with it, especially smoking, needs this plate.
Because they are kewl looking, I know you want one, but they have some drawbacks that you should consider. Most are not good at searing steaks properly.
Yes, they get hot, but remember that hot circulating air is not the same as radiant heat. It can be 80°F outside in the shade, but when the sun comes out from behind the clouds, your brow feels warmer because of the radiant heat of the sun. A great sear comes from radiant heat. For more on this, read my article on the thermodynamics of barbecue.
l also am a strong believer in the 2-zone system where you can move food from direct radiant heat to indirect convection heat. It is easy to do this on most other charcoal or gas grills. Not so easy on kamados. The round funnel shape puts the charcoal in the center. You cannot move it to one side like you can on an $89 Weber Kettle, or turn off some burners like you can on a $200 Brinkmann gas grill. You can us the deflector plate to cook indirect but then you have to add or remove it to switch from direct (radiant) to indirect (convection) or visa versa. When the unit is hot, this can be tricky.
There are two notable exceptions. Because of its oval shape, the Primo can be set up for 2-zone cooking and the Komodo Kamado has an optional insert plate that covers the coals on one side creating a 2-zone system.
Because they are expensive many of the manufacturers sell them bare bones and a lot of necessities are extra. So when shopping, make sure you are clear on exactly what is included and what is not.
Keeping the temp down can be tricky. Dennis Linkletter of Komodo Kamado showed me a trick: Fill the charcoal basket, and bury one Weber paraffin firestarter cube in the pile of charcoal and light it. It will ignite about five briquets immediately around it. They will burn slowly producing very little heat, and the combustion will spread to unlit coals slowly.
Kamados can soak up a lot of heat, and once they are hot they are very slow to cool because they hold so much heat, so if you overshoot your target temp, it takes a while to get back to where you want it. Sterling Ball of BigPoppaSmokers.com says "It's like stopping a semi. You've got to brake early."
If you need to add coals while it is cooking, on some models you need to remove the food, the cooking grates, and the deflector plate, a bit of a pain, but you may not need to add coals for most cooks. By the way, some manufacturers warn that you should not cook with logs on these babies. Do not use lighter fluid to start your charcoal in these either. It can get into the pourous interior and damage it. But you would never use a petrochemical to light your grill would you? You are always use a chimney or electric starter, right? Click here to read about how to best start a charcoal fire.
Many manufacturers recommend you use more expensive lump charcoal not briquets (click the link to read more about charcoal options and how charcoal works). Some briquets also produce more ash than lump and the ash can block airflow as it builds up over long cooks. On the other hand, some briquets, like Kingsford Competition Charcoal, produce less ash than others and there can be a lot of dust in the bags of lump that can also hamper airflow.
Some manufacturers claim they are huggable when hot. Don't you believe it. Maybe at low temps, but crank 'er up and you dasn't put your hand on the surface. Yes it is cooler than a steel grill, but most certainly not huggable. Because they are fragile you probably don't want to take them to tailgate parties. Besides, they are heavy so they are not very portable. Some have vents in the top that will let in rain, so owners fashion little covers or umbrellas for them.
Did I mention that they can be very expensive?
This design is susceptible to a very dangerous phenomenon: Flashback. Ceramics are nearly airtight except at the intake and exhaust, and the coals can get starved for oxygen at low temps or during shutdown. Open the lid, oxygen rushes in, and poof, a serious fireball. No more eyebrows. Or worse.
You should always wear fire resistant gloves, the longer the better, when opening a kamado. To prevent flashback fireballs, slowly open the top damper a bit and wait a minute. Open the lid slowly and stand to the side rather than the front of the cooker. Linkletter says "It is safest for a new user to always assume that flashback conditions are present and to use the utmost care whenever opening their cooker."
And it is a good idea to make sure the cooker is not sitting under anything flamable.
I strongly recommend these if you live in a cold climate and want to cook all winer and if you are big on smoking. If you cook a lot of steaks, I would consider a charcoal grill in addition to the kamado.
Click here to see all the kamado, ceramic, and egg style smokers and grills currently in our database.
This page was revised 3/28/2013
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