There is something mystical about buying and trying a new meat smoker; a new device to smoke meat, a new technique to improve cooking results. What do you suppose was the genesis of slow cooking?
Do you suppose cavemen (cavewomen, cavepeople?) sat around the fire and said, “Hey, let’s smoke this brontosaurus leg low and slow”, or might it have been more like two guys sitting around the fire, falling asleep, neglecting the meat they had thrown over the fire, and waking up the next morning to a culinary delight?
Who’s to say – not me. All I can do is grunt and say, me like meat! Argh Argh Argh.
This past week was the inauguration of my new meat smoker, the Masterbuilt 560. This is part of Masterbuilt’s Gravity line, which simply means the fuel (charcoal) is gravity fed to the fire box.
Update July 2020 – Be aware that customer service from Masterbuilt is painfully slow at best, and feels more like virtually non-existent, so if you have issues you will be largely on your own. I would recommend AGAINST buying any Masterbuilt products based on my experience, as a result of poor product quality and horrible customer support.
This is a new form of smoking for me, as I have been accustomed to an all manual, closely watched, stick (wood) smoker, where you hover over the smoker for the duration of the smoke, carefully feeding it wood and monitoring temperatures throughout the cooking cycle.
The 560 is not that. At about a $500 price tag (Walmart), this is on the lower end of smokers – not cheap, but clearly a general purpose, affordable charcoal smoker. For budgetary purposes, add in another $40 – $60 for a cover if your smoker is going to be out in the weather, and another $50 – $100 for a decent meat thermometer (will explain further on).
Once built, I burned it in once to get rid of the factory hoohaa, and then subsequently applied cooking oil throughout the insides to season it – like you would with a cast iron skillet, which I will end up doing a number of times.
While the 560 uses a charcoal fuel source, it needs electricity for it to run its control unit, which runs the internal fan, safety switches on the hoppers, and monitors and controls cooking temperature, cooking time and meat temperature. Throughout my limited (2 smokes) cooking experience so far, this thing hasn’t varied more than 2-3 degrees +/- from the set temperature. Having said that, if the control unit fails (mine did) you are left with a boat anchor. There are safety switches on the hoppers (a good thing), but I have read where people are having issues with poor quality switches, again making your ability to use this smoker dependent on on all electronics working flawlessly.
So far, I have smoked two racks of ribs (came out great) and as we speak am smoking about a 2-3-pound eye of the round. Truth be told, this is as much an experiment as anything, as I have never smoked an eye before.
From a little advance research, there seem to be two basic ways of cooking an eye. First is simply to smoke it at about 225 degrees cooking temperature to about 125 degrees internal temp, tent it while it cools, and slice thinly (like roast beef). The second approach (my choice for this cook) is to smoke it at about 225 degrees cooking temperature to about 160 degrees internal temp, wrap it, and then continue smoking (really cooking since it is wrapped) at about 300 degrees cooking temperature to about a 210-degree internal temp. All in, this cooking process will take about 5-6 hours, not including cooling down time.
The idea behind this second approach is to smoke it more like a brisket, albeit an eye is much leaner than a brisket or a chuck roast. So we’ll see! I did not brine this meat as some would do, but just rubbed it with sea salt and cracked pepper.
While we wait for my own results, here are a few thoughts on this Masterbuilt 560 smoker…
- This thing is EASY! Oh my goodness, load charcoal, light it, set your temperature, and budda bing! The built-in electric fan gets the temperature up to speed fast and then keeps it at the set temperature.
- There is plenty of real estate inside the smoker (560 sq. inches), with 3 tray positions. I smoked two racks of ribs the other day on the bottom shelf with room to spare, and could have used the second and third levels if I had needed them.
- This smoker has the ability to both smoke and grill – although as of yet I have not grilled or seared anything. However, the grates are such that you can turn them over for either purpose (searing or smoking). And this smoker gets up to whatever smoking or grilling temperature you want fast!
- Loading the charcoal in the hopper (from the top) is easy peasy… no fuss, no muss.
- The hardware (and the all-around general build) seems to be decent quality.
- The control unit seems pretty intuitive to operate, for setting up time and temperature and monitoring internal cooking temperature.
- There is a built-in grease pan – good idea.
- The ash pan that gathers the ashes from the burnt charcoal is easy to empty. Keep a metal bucket handy to dump them in case they are still hot.
COULD BE IMPROVED
- Customer support is horrible from Mastercraft. If you don’t have issues, this will never be a concern for you. If you do have issues (there are a lot of electronic gotchas on this unit), you will be in trouble. First off, you cannot call Mastercraft – there is no support line. Second, when you submit a request they automatically email they will respond to your issue within 5 business days (this has not been my experience – more like 8 business days). And third, if you do need a part, the parts will get to you within 7-10 business days. So if you have an issue, AND you know what the issue is (which is unlikely), and it requires parts, realistically you are looking at being without a smoker for at least 3 weeks to a month, very possibly longer.
- The unit came well packaged in a box, but building the damn thing was no prize. I will admit to being mechanically challenged, so while some report building this in 1-2 hours, my experience was not that.
- The control unit has Bluetooth and WIFI capabilities, but I was not overly impressed. I was able to use the Bluetooth capability and their Masterbuilt app on my phone, but it really has limited use. Knowing that this thing would hold the cooking temperature, I really wanted a way to remotely monitor the internal cooking temperature, which it does not seem to do. Perhaps this is operator error, but in the future, I will use the control unit to set the cooking temperature and use another meat temp monitoring device. This seems like a missed opportunity by Masterbuilt. What good does remote monitoring do if you can’t monitor your meat temperature??
- Relative to the control unit, the display uses a blue digital display, which is easy to read when you are standing within 6 feet directly in front of the unit. Otherwise, it is nearly impossible to read. Maybe you are supposed to wear 3-D glasses or something.
- It seems to me like this unit burns a bit inefficiently and goes through a lot of charcoal. If you are used to a Green Egg or kamado style smoker, you might be disappointed in how inefficient this smoker is in its use of fuel. My anecdotal experience was that a 20-pound bag of charcoal did not last 12-15 hours of cooking time as advertised, but I have not truthfully tested this out. Your mileage may vary.
Oh, and the eye of the round? Pretty good, but for sure it didn’t have the flavor of a brisket or beef rib. Remember, it is a lean cut, since it is from the part of the cow that actually works – the hind leg. You know, the one cows do pirouettes on.
Also, I didn’t get the smoke flavor I am accustomed to with my wood smoker. But the meat was tender, juicy, cut with a fork, albeit not that explode-in-your-face flavor you get with a brisket. To be honest, I probably won’t smoke another eye of the round – unless it is just cook up like a roast beef.
I am looking forward to further experimentation, and will probably add some wood chunks into the mix for a little smokier flavor – if I ever get it working again.
Until next time, smoke’m if you got’m!