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Pitmaster IQ

From Grilled Chicken and Salad with a Kick

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.

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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*

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*
Done in 281 ms! 61.385 KiB - 7.5% = 56.776 KiB