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Smokers

By Cook's Illustrated Published July 2010
April 2016

Weber has tweaked the name of our winning smoker, without changing the product. The Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker - 18 ½-Inch is now called the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker Smoker 18", although its size has not changed. Weber representatives say that this change was intended to simplify the product name.

How we tested

Though plenty of rib and brisket enthusiasts convert their grills into makeshift smokers—we’ve made do with an indirect fire, a pan of water, and soaked wood chips—proper lower-temperature smoking is best achieved with a designated appliance. Giant truck-towed smokers can run as much as $5,000, so we shopped for more affordable alternatives and came home with a trio of significantly cheaper (between $60 and $750) “bullet” models: smaller, cylindrical-shaped vessels, about the size of a kettle grill, that feature a large cooking surface atop a charcoal pan.

Other than introducing wood to the fire, smoking is all about holding the heat at a low, steady temperature for a long time—a full day, in some cases—a process that not only bathes the meat in smoke flavor, but also helps tenderize it by breaking down its tough connective tissue. The appeal of a smoker over a rigged kettle grill is its promise of prolonged, steady heat retention. Smokers typically have the advantage of a larger fuel capacity (for a longer-burning fire), a water reservoir (to absorb and retain heat and produce moister results), and more vents (to control the air flow and temperature within a smaller, more precise range). According to manufacturers, these features keep the ambient temperature in the necessary 225- to 250-degree range for up to 24 hours with little tending of the fire.

We settled for a 12-hour temperature test, recording the temperature of each model every hour while smoking turkey breasts, ribs, brisket, and pork shoulder. Design flaws in one model immediately became apparent. This smoker had neither air vents to control temperature nor an ash grate for its charcoal pan, so that burnt charcoal bits continually smothered the fire. Even with constant tending, its temperature plunged below 200 degrees after only three hours. Furthermore, the charcoal pan was accessible only by removing the 17-inch cooking grates and water pan first—an awkward and potentially hazardous maneuver. One other gripe: Its imprecise thermometer read “hot,” “cool,” and “ideal,” instead of exact temperatures.

Meanwhile, two others hovered comfortably in the 250-degree range from start to finish. One not only boasted exceptionally precise temperature control, but due to the excellent heat retention of its ceramic construction and vents that opened all the way, it was able to reach temperatures as high as 700 to 800 degrees, allowing it to double as a grill and brick oven. However, it came up short on the basics: The single, 18-inch grate was cramped. It also lacked a water reservoir, so that meats turned out drier across the board. In the end, a mid-priced competitor smoked out the competition. It included twin 18.5-inch grates, which provided ample room for four pork butts, two whole turkeys, or four rib racks; a water pan; and a multitude of vents for excellent temperature control. Our only complaint? A lack of handles made transport and cleanup difficult.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*
Best Buy
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*