Review: Weber Summit Charcoal Grill
Jeff the Weber grill rep arrived, huffing and puffing at the top of the steps as he introduced himself. His wife Jill looked on worriedly from the door, beyond which lay their big, white delivery van.
“I don’t think it’ll fit,” Jill said. “That grill’s big.” This was an understatement. Once we hauled it up the stairs and shimmied it through the front door, I had to pop a sliding glass door out of its track to get the grill out to the back deck.
Weber Summit Charcoal Grill
Weber’s Summit is a high-end grill that does a great job smoking, searing, and even baking. If grilling is a lifestyle choice and you’re thinking of kamado grills like the Big Green Egg, consider the Summit.
Like others in this category, it’s very pricey. Also like others in the category, adding fuel in the middle of a long smoke is surprisingly difficult. The $600 option for a connected side table is ridiculous.
Behold! The Weber Summit Charcoal is a $1,700 behemoth that looks like Weber’s classic kettle grill on steroids. It comes with a circular cooking grate with a monster 452 square inches of grilling space, and is looking to push its way into a category dominated by legions of devoted fans and a mountain of grill lingo.
I’d set up delivery to coincide with a vacation trip to Oregon, stopping at my cousin-in-law’s butcher shop in Portland for a cooler full of good meat. There was a lot to cook.
“If you can catch it, you can cook it in there,” Jeff proclaimed before climbing back into his van. I realized that I could easily cook a party’s worth of food on the Summit.
The outer diameter of the lid, however, is almost two inches wider than its inner diameter, indicating that this isn’t just a larger version of Weber’s classic. Instead, the Summit is a direct relation of kamado grills—large, insulated egg-shaped cookers praised for their ability to grill, smoke, and even be used as an oven. The kamado is a category with a lineage likely stretching back thousands of years to Indian tandoors, kiln-like Chinese rice cookers, and insulated Japanese grills. It now has legions of loyalists, even fanatics, who make me want to put an asterisk after every sentence in a story like this to keep the comment section from attaining biblical lengths.
The best-known brand in the United States is the Big Green Egg, but there are several others like Bubba Keg, Primo, and Kamado Joe. The main differences between traditional kamados and the Summit are insulation material and fuel placement. A typical kamado uses ceramics or clay to insulate its exterior walls, turning it into something of a grill/thermos with impressive heat-retaining abilities. The Summit’s insulation is air, and it works very well. In kamados, the coals are poured directly into the bottom of the grill, a space known as the “fire box,” while the Summit has a “fuel grate” that can sit on two different levels allowing cooler smoking toward the bottom and direct grilling heat up above. Kamados rely on accessories to achieve that two-level effect; They all have scads of accessories. Weber’s marketing gurus, who are likely looking to pull people faithful to their well-respected gas and charcoal grills into this different—and expensive—category, try to distance themselves from the kamados, because Weber’s design doesn’t use clay or ceramic.
Fire it Up
I threw some lump charcoal (the kind that looks like a carbonized hunk of a tree, not a Kingsford briquette) on the fuel grate positioned at the bottom of the grill, got it cooking, added some cherry hardwood chips for smoke and put on some Greek herb and feta sausages for what’s called a “hot smoke.” (It’s a mystery why simple recipes for cooking sausage aren’t more of a thing. They should be done low and slow—sear the outside briefly at the beginning or end of cooking—and they should be checked for doneness with a thermometer. Forever and ever. Amen.) I chopped up a head of red cabbage, tossed it in a foil pan, and put that on the grill grate while the sausage cooked, resulting in a tasty spur-of-the-moment smoked slaw. Within 45 minutes of starting the grill, we sat down for lunch. My wife Elisabeth and her friend Ruthie are not big meat eaters, and both took half of a good-sized link.
Ten minutes later, they each went back for the other half.
The following day, I cooked chicken thighs over lump charcoal with soaked wood chips, a style of smoking you could do on a traditional kettle grill. To make it happen, I moved the fuel grate up a level within the grill, bringing the coals much closer to the chicken and, in doing so, swapped cooking methods from hot smoking to grilling. Instead of pouring the charcoal right on the grate—which you can do—I poured it into “Char-Baskets” [sic]. These roughly trapezoidal containers that come with the grill can be moved around on the fuel grate, allowing for close-proximity direct grilling. The baskets allowed me to grill the chicken, crisping the skin over glowing coals, before moving the pieces away from the coal baskets and finishing them in the gentle heat of the closed grill.
The baskets are clever, especially if you’re grilling for two and don’t want to get a larger pile of coals going on the cooking grate. Far as I can tell, they’re also not an option on other kamados. Also clever is Weber’s use of a nozzle connected to a camping-style propane bottle situated next to the grill, creating a little flamethrower to light the charcoal. While it didn’t always light on the first or third try (the grill comes with a long metal matchstick holder for when it really gives up the ghost), it significantly streamlined the whole process of grilling a Tuesday dinner and kept it from becoming a multi-hour event.
By this time, I’d done some simple smoking and both direct and indirect grilling, but it was time to try some more involved recipes. I’d contacted grill guru Steven Raichlen, who recommended a few from his handsome new cookbook, “Project Smoke” and I started with a very forgiving six-to-eight hour pork shoulder recipe.
(Side note: There are a surprising number of un-handsome, un-helpful books littering this category. I’m looking at you, “Big Green Egg Cookbook.” Raichlen’s is good and written for with several types of grill in mind, but if you’re looking for a thorough understanding of how kamados work, my favorite is the excellent “Hot Coals” written by Dutchmen Jeroen Hazebroek and Leonard Elenbaas.)
I set up lump charcoal on the lower level (thanks again, gas light!), brought the overall temperature up to about 105 degrees Celsius/225 degrees Fahrenheit, added chunks of pecan wood that had soaked in a vinegar solution, set a heat diffuser plate above the coals to cut down on the radiant heat, put the cooking grate on, added the pork shoulder, and walked away.
The impressive thing? If I didn’t want to check in on it like a helicopter parent, I didn’t have to. You shouldn’t anyway, since as with a kitchen oven, opening the door spills heat out and it take time to come back up to temp. Once I’d used the lid damper to regulate the heat, a modest amount of charcoal and chunks of pecan wood kept cooking for hours, a well-known kamado trait. A few times, I paused to flip in some more charcoal and wood, but adding fuel tended to be more of a perceived need than an actual one.
With experience, I learned how much lump charcoal to add from the beginning, but eventually I needed to refill in the middle of cooking and here, the Summit lost points; Adding more fuel or smoking wood is a pain in the butt. To do it, you have to open one trapdoor in the grill grate, then another in the heat diffuser plate below it which exposes the embers. Flipping the food grate open is easy. Reaching through that opening to open the diffuser plate is not; a finger-sized opening in the latter is too tiny Weber tongs or the finger of a Weber grill glove into. I ended up using the corner of a long-handled spatula. With both levels open, feeding the fire feels like a two-layer game of Operation over hot coals. The more I did it, the more I became convinced that the easiest way to do it was to simply pull off the whole cooking grate with the food on it, followed by the diffuser plate, set them down… somewhere, then add and rearrange the coals and put everything back into place. In the Summit’s defense, refilling other styles of kamado grills is just as difficult. It also has a clever hinged metal bowl at the very bottom of the unit that makes clearing out the ashes more convenient than most kamados.
Still, the more I used the Summit, the more I liked it and the better I got at cooking with it.
That pork shoulder, shredded and soaked with a cider vinegar sauce, topped with that slaw I’d made, and set atop toasted, buttery sesame buns, had me plotting my second sandwich two bites into my first. In the following days, I also turned pork belly into bacon. I made Raichlen’s cherry-glazed baby back pork ribs. I got the top fuel grate screaming hot and threw a steak on there and gave it a ripping sear. I grilled zucchini. I started to understand that I could cook almost anything on there and why some folks like making things like pizza, bread and even desserts on a kamado.
The Summit is certainly an excellent new addition to the kamado category. For now, at least, you’ll have to make peace with the 452 square-inch cooking grate size, because that’s the only size Weber makes. By comparison, the Big Green Egg comes in seven sizes and the second-largest, the XLarge, is also 452 square inches.
Did I mention these things are pricey? While you can nab a basic Weber kettle grill for about $100, the Weber Summit costs $1,700. A similar setup for a Big Green Egg XLarge will run about $1,500 and won’t come with the gas lighter or the grill baskets. Weber charges $2,300 for its “Grilling Center,” which is the same grill with a built-on side table/cart. While a side table is a necessity, $600 for Weber’s is a stainless steel cash grab on wheels.
Nevertheless, I quickly got to understand how the fanatics get fanatic about this kind of grill: they’re pretty fantastic.
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