If you were to rate all of the cool options for smoking food, propane smokers would be near the bottom. There are so many flashier alternatives to cook and infuse smoky flavor like a Big Green Egg, a Weber Summit or modified Weber kettle grill, an ace in the hole like the PK 360 Grill & Smoker, a barrel-shaped offset smoker, or even a backyard smokehouse. Hell, my buddy Tony once catered an event with a giant trailer-mounted rig that spat flames and fed dozens. Using a propane tank seems so effete in comparison. You don’t use gas to fuel your smoker, goes the thinking, you use wood.
And yet! I’d heard good early reports about the Masterbuilt MPS 330G, a tall and boxy unit known as a cabinet smoker that offered a degree of control and an ease that makes most other methods look baroque.
How’s that? Smoking food tends to require hands-on attention. (From here on out, I’ll be talking about “hot smoking” where you both cook the food and smoke it, as opposed to “cold smoking” which applies smoke without heat.) Wood and charcoal fires need tending. The temperature in your smoker needs monitoring. You might need an independent thermometer to make sure it’s cooking at the temperature you want. It can take hours. By nature, it is fussy and you need to be nearby in case things go sideways. It can be a great way to spend an afternoon sipping beers with your pals, but it is a commitment, and on the wrong day it can feel like a chore.
I loved the Masterbuilt because it’s none of that. Instead, it embraces an idea that’s deceptively simple and years old and something that much of the industry eschews: an effective thermostat to lock in the cooking temperature. Just set the big, plasticky dial at the Masterbuilt’s base to the exact temperature you want to cook at.
The 330G is pretty simple: four racks are stacked in a cooking chamber that looks like a filing cabinet. Below them sits a combo drip and water pan which, among other things, keeps things moist, not too hot, and helps the smoke stick to your ribs. Further down is the tray where you put your wood chips or chunks, and below that is a heat diffuser and a gas burner. In this setup, you can think of it like this: the gas provides the heat to cook the food and the wood chips or chunks provide the smoky flavor.
Photograph: Masterbuilt Manufacturing, Inc.
There are a fair number of pellet smokers with thermostats and temperature control on the market, and while some of those work, some don’t, and most are very expensive. You can also get accessory thermostat controllers for all kinds of wood- and charcoal-burning grills and smokers, but that’s kind of missing the point. At $250, the Masterbuilt is, comparatively, dirt-cheap. You fire it up, you set the temperature, you put the food in, then you go about your life while it cooks.
Before I cooked a thing, I used the push-button igniter to start the burner, set the temperature and put a probe from my trusty ThermoWorks Smoke thermometer in there, first on the rack just above the Masterbuilt’s temperature sensor, then on each of the three other shelves. Each one was only a few degrees from the temperature I’d set it to. Plus, I let it sit on each rack for a while to watch for temperature fluctuations that can appear like mood swings in other smokers, but in the 330G, there were none.
As rudimentary as this seems—after all, we’ve been setting the temperature in our home gas ovens for decades—this is like a superpower. The food you’re both cooking and smoking in there turns out how you want it, when you want it, making cooking much more predictable. Why this isn’t the standard for regular-old gas grills is beyond me. Hey Weber! Hey Char-Broil! Hey every other gas grill manufacturer out there! Why isn’t this the norm?
The 330G allows you to follow a recipe and make plans. In my case, it freed me up to go for a swim.
I tested the Masterbuilt on a visit to my folks’ house in New Hampshire—something of a summer grilling tradition—and rooted around in their fridge the night it arrived and came up with some chicken thighs. Further exploration unearthed some barbecue rub I’d made the summer before. In the space of about five minutes, I turned the smoker on, loaded a few handfuls of wood chips into the hopper above the flame, coated the chicken with the rub and got it smoking. Mom was putting together a salad and I realized that I could nip into the lake for a swim.
Floating around, I noticed our neighbor Carl sitting on his dock. Carl happened to be researching smokers and he asked how I liked the one I was testing. I told him how it worked and about the chicken I was in the process of cooking and he clearly liked the idea.
“Sounds like all the flavor without the work,” he exclaimed, summing it up nicely.
From there, I jammed, starting with a recipe for vegetable cassoulet from Steven Raichlen’s cookbook, Project Smoke. Raichlen’s a full-on carnivore who I once watched order a roast-beef sandwich between meat-grilling events, but I trust his palate even when it’s just veggies. His cassoulet turned out to be one of the better vegetarian dishes I’ve ever made. It was also becoming clear to me that using this smoker was only slightly more complicated than popping something in the oven.
Life’s a Gas
I pressed on with test after test, cooking all sorts of food in there: pork chops, other veggies, even sausage. I switched over to Meathead Goldwyn’s fantastic reference cookbook, Meathead. Goldwyn has two magic numbers for smoking: 225 and 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and just about everything I cooked in the Masterbuilt used them.
Along with the “just pop it in the oven” idea, the Masterbuilt’s ability to lock in temperatures (or, perhaps, simply not having to fuss with them) allowed me to open my mind to larger concepts in smoking, most notably the idea of smoke as an ingredient, something I’d seen in cookbooks, but which hadn’t sunk in until I could put something in there on a whim. Here, I could experiment. More accurately, I realized that I could cook something in the smoker while I got the rest of dinner together. We had a couple of leftover baked potatoes in the fridge one evening and I cut them in half longwise, and reheated them in the smoker with a handful of wood chunks, all of which meant about one minute of effort. I pulled the smoked spuds out when the rest of lunch was ready. They were great.
The last thing I cooked was beef short ribs, a big, brick-shaped cut that, like brisket, cooks low and slow for hours, the tough muscle and tissue eventually becoming supple and tender. They encountered what’s known as the stall, where the internal temperature plateaued beneath the target temperature for a couple hours toward the end of the cook, which made dinner very, very late. But when it was done, it tasted good enough to enter into a competition.
One further happy finding? It’s a slow sipper. After a week and half of near-daily testing, I’d burned off only about a quarter of the propane in a standard four-gallon tank. There’s a very handy built-in fuel gauge that’s built into the regulator, but the smoker had consumed so little that I briefly wondered if the needle was stuck on full.
Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.
There were a few problems, but they only reached the level of minor quibbles. At 43 inches high—the exact height of my belly button—I wasn’t wild about bending over to use it, but I’m not sure what the fix would be outside of longer legs on its base, or a completely different design. Also, most of us have bent over to access the ovens in our kitchens all of our lives. The model I tested has a good amount of space to cook in, but it’s not very wide. You can cook a ton of food in there, but pork rib racks and brisket will need to be halved, at minimum. That could be a deal breaker, depending on what kind of griller you are, but it’s not the end of the world for most of us. (A larger “XL” model has racks that are 19 inches wide though that’s still pretty tight.)
The one thing that did feel like a bit of an oversight was that the 330G is just slightly a bit too small to fit a standard 12-inch Lodge cast-iron pan in there. I also found the door-mounted wood-chip tray to be oddly flimsy relative to the rest of the machine, but it worked fine. On the corporate side, the automated side of the customer service line could have been less of a maze. Finally, my review model was shipped assembled, but that’s not the norm and apparently putting it together is a bit of a chore.
Still, these are small potatoes. The Masterbuilt worked so well that it changed the way I think about smoking. It opens the door to entry much wider for the smoker-curious, like our neighbor Carl. It helped me to understand the idea of smoke as an ingredient. It took the convenience of cooking in an oven and applied it to smokers.
This ease of temperature control is so helpful that I even chose to ignore Masterbuilt’s electric app-controlled smokers. While controlling appliances with your phone can be interesting and occasionally helpful, it pales in comparison with the ease of dialing-a-degree that the relatively simple model I reviewed offers. Apps tend to be gimmicky, but temperature control like the 330G offers is a superpower.
social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/review/masterbuilt-mps-330g-propane-smoker