How we tested
Producing fall-apart-tender barbecued meat requires many hours of steady, gentle heat inside the grill. The trouble is, opening the grill to refuel releases heat. Over the years, we’ve come up with some tricks to regulate heat: setting vents to regulate airflow, arranging the pile of charcoal to burn gradually, and adding more charcoal at intervals during cooking. But we were intrigued when we heard about the Pitmaster IQ120, which promises to regulate the temperature in a charcoal grill automatically. A metal funnel connected by a plastic tube to a digitally controlled fan, it covers one of the vents at the bottom of your grill while you tape the other two vents shut with electrical tape. Its temperature sensor clips to the grill grate and relays readings back to the fan, telling it when to feed or starve the fire of oxygen to increase or reduce the heat to maintain the target temperature you set.
To see if it made barbecuing easier, we compared barbecuing with and without the tool on duplicate models of our favorite inexpensive charcoal grill, preparing side-by-side batches of hot-smoked salmon, barbecued spareribs, and barbecued beef brisket.
Our first discovery: The Pitmaster has a steep learning curve, starting with setup. We needed to watch videos on the company’s website to understand the installation process (once we did, the process was simple). More significantly, using the device requires adapting recipes (the company suggests calling its representatives for guidance) and inevitably a lot of trial and error.
First, there’s choosing the amount of fuel. The directions recommend starting with half as much fuel as you’d typically use—the Pitmaster’s more-controlled airflow means less of the charcoal burns, and adding too much charcoal may make the fire too hot—but it took us three attempts and scaling back up to the entire amount of charcoal the recipe called for before the grill consistently held our target temperature.
Second, there’s setting the target temperature. Some recipes, like our barbecued brisket, are written to account for how a fire cools over time, so picking one target temperature from start to finish requires adjusting the recipe. For example, the fire in our brisket recipe typically starts around 400 degrees and falls to about 250 degrees over six hours; to adjust the recipe for the Pitmaster, we took a guess and decided to set the target temperature to a moderate 325 degrees, and we found that we did not have to refuel. The key is to observe the temperature on the device’s monitor: If it falls steadily, you must refuel. The device comes with an alarm to alert you if the temperature goes outside a certain range.
Third, the rib test taught us that the Pitmaster doesn’t work well with recipes that require frequent basting because the grill lid must be lifted too often for it to effectively regulate heat.
The good news was the food itself: The insular, slow-and-steady cooking environment improved the quality of the food. Once we got the setup right for all three recipes, tasters preferred food cooked on the grill with the Pitmaster, noting that the salmon was more moist, the brisket juicier, and the ribs smokier and more tender than the same dishes cooked on the regular charcoal grill. But given the fussy setup, the considerable trial and error, and the steep price ($199.95), we think the Pitmaster is only worth buying if you’re a barbecue aficionado who routinely cooks meat low and slow and feels comfortable experimenting with fuel amounts, target temperatures, and time.