Danielle Bennett is a BBQ pitmaster. The DivaQ has won over 300 awards for her slow-cooking prowess: 14 of those are Grand Championships, and she’s been crowned the Jack Daniels World Pork Champion as well as the World Bacon Champion. So when she told me that switching from my gas grill, a barbecue I know inside and out, to a Traeger Wood Pellet Grill, the same style she’s been using to crush the competition for 10 years now, will change my life, I took her word as a challenge.
For the uninitiated, a Traeger Wood Fired Grill cooks using wood pellets instead of chunks, and uses an automatic auger to keep the fire lit and maintain desired temperatures. There are other, similar barbecues on the market, but Traeger is credited with being the first. The unit I tested, the newly released Pro Series 22, came fully equipped with Traeger’s Digital Pro Controller which regulates cooking temps to within 15 degrees. The build quality is robust and while I’m used to a thicker gauge and heavier lid, the wisps of smoke only exit via the Traeger’s hatted chimney. For extra precision there are also twin meat thermometers and enough real estate to keep every carnivorous neighbor in a three-block radius smiling.
That’s a lot of technology for a cooking method celebrated for its truly minimal approach, and I’ll be the first to admit that plugging things in and flicking a switch lacks the romance of chopping wood and stoking the fires of traditional BBQ. I presented Bennett with my concerns and she told me many in her industry felt the same way at first, but that they found truth in the tasting. It’s the flavor and quality of the meat your method yields that’s important in competition, not how you get there. Pellet grills are found at almost every competition — and that tells you everything you need to know.
After 30 more minutes of pestering Bennett for whatever tips and recipes I could jot down, I loaded the hopper and started the mandatory “burn-in.” Similar to seasoning a cast-iron skillet, the burn-in is an essential step in maximizing flavor and efficiency of a pellet grill. The applewood pellets I used perfumed the entire backyard. Even without meat, the grill radiated BBQ and set my mouth watering. Then I started prepping a twist on the classic beer-can chicken.
Traeger Pro Series 22 Specs
Grilling Area: 572 square inches
Burger Count: 24
Rib Count: 5 racks
Typically, using a new grill for the first time involves extra attention. With gas, there are hotspots and flareups to watch for and lump charcoal/wood units need constant monitoring to remain stocked and stoked. Not so with this grill. The pellets are automatically and continually augered into a fire pot hidden beneath a heat shield and a fan creates a convection current that the company claims maintains a 5 percent burn-to-smoke ratio. Once you’ve set your desired cooking temperature and inserted a digital meat probe, you can close the lid, walk away and pour yourself a drink. The first time around, my gut told me this was too easy to be real BBQ. I anticipated tossing the charred corpse in the trash bin.
But, once the bird came off the grill and I sliced through its crisp skin, I saw that the breast was plump and tender, and the juices had run clear. The flavor was better than the BBQ chicken I’d made before, and that came with only a mild dry rub massaged on before cooking. It was mostly the wisps of smoke — that applewood flavor that imbued a subtle hint of smoke into the skin and outermost layers of meat. It was just enough to impart a pitmaster’s touch without becoming overpowering. It was a flavor profile I had botched badly in a barrel smoker before (way too much smoke) and was never able to recreate on a gas grill. On top of that, the Traeger eliminated all the guesswork.
I sliced through its crisp skin and saw that the breast was plump and tender, and the juices had run clear.
Encouraged by the chicken, I made a trip to the butcher shop and put a pork butt on the grill. Pork demands slow, low and consistent heat to render properly, and while a crock pot does that well, a wood-fired BBQ can add the essential smoke to develop the characteristic umami and deep mahogany finish. With the pig, the Traeger again delivered. My pulled pork was tender and could be shredded by a stiff breeze — all with minimal effort on my part. So with summer just around the corner, if you’re looking to up your BBQ game, a Traeger is one tasty way to eliminate the pitmaster’s learning curve.