Photo from http://www.barbecue-smoker-recipes.com
Anyone who is slightly befuddled by the title of this post probably isn’t a member of the cult of ceramic grills, which are also known by their Japanese name of kamado grills. I used to be one of those people who sneered at my friends who went on and on about how wonderful their Big Green Eggs were and how they could cook perfect ribs or chickens or pork shoulders all the time because of the incredibly well-insulated ceramic grills’ ability to hold a constant temperature for so long.
“They’re just weak,” I thought. “Part of being a pitmaster is the ability to constantly adjust your heat source and air flow to try to compensate for flare-ups and hot or cold spots in your grill.” Heck, I even bragged about how well I could smoke meat on my gas grill, thanks to the use of a smoke box and wood chips. Then I broke down and bought a ceramic grill…
You can officially color me a member of the kamado zombie cult now as I sing their praises to anyone who will listen. In fact, after I bought my first ceramic grill, a Primo XL for our cabin up in the mountains, it wasn’t a month before I bought a Medium Green Egg for the back deck at my house. Why are they so amazing? Take a look at this illustration from the folks at Big Green Egg:
The design and construction of ceramic cookers allows for an incredibly efficient use of charcoal to maintain a constant temperature inside the cooking area. As opposed to thin-walled kettle grills or gas grills that for safety reasons have to have multiple open area for fumes (and heat) to escape, kamados are almost completely air-tight. With just minute adjustments of the air vents below and above the fire box, you can achieve and maintain temperatures as low as 150 degrees for smoking fish or as high as 800-900 degrees for searing a steak Pittsburgh-style.
Because the energy usage is so efficient, you burn much less charcoal than with a traditional grill. These grills use natural lump charcoal and can hold a temperature overnight while you smoke a pork shoulder. Gone are the days of setting your alarm for the middle of the night to wake up and restoke the fire. You should never use any starting fluid in these grills, especially because the porous ceramic walls of the cooker will soak that nasty stuff up and make all your food taste like a petroleum product. Yuck.
Now that I’m the proud owner of two of these grills, both of which are manufactured in Georgia, I’m in a unique position. No, not broke, but close. These things are pretty darned expensive, but I keep trying to rationalize the cost by my savings on charcoal and propane. My unique position is that I can directly compare the Big Green Egg and the Primo, two of the most popular ceramic grills on the market.
First off, let’s look at the Egg.
The round shape of the Big Green Egg maximizes the surface area on the grill vs. the footprint of the entire cooker. This has pros and cons. Actually, I purchased the smaller Medium Green Egg, but there are sizes from a tabletop version for a small urban patio up to an XL Green Egg that can cook two 20-pound turkeys or twelve steaks at one time. The guy that sold me his Egg told me that he’d been warned that everyone who buys a Medium eventually wants to upgrade to a larger size, and that’s how I got such a good deal from him. For my family of two, the Medium Egg seems perfect and is easy to drag around the deck out the way when not in use, thanks to the wheeled “nest” that is available as an option.
The Medium Green Egg heats up quickly and evenly. It’s the perfect size for making personal wood-fired pizzas on the grill, and we’ve gotten pretty proficient at this fun process in my house. It’s great for firing up to smoke a couple of chickens that we use to make chicken salad or breast meat for sandwiches for a week’s worth of lunches. With the addition of a ceramic plate setter, you can block the direct flame and use indirect cooking methods to smoke meats instead of putting them directly over a fire. More on that later.
Temperature adjustment comes from sliding open an inlet on the bottom of the Egg and by adjusting the louvered top that sits on top of the dome. This cap is removable for cleaning, which is an advantage since it tends to get gunked up from soot and grease after a long smoking session. Unfortunately, this also means that it can fall off when you open the lid, and when you’re talking about expensive ceramic, you’d hate to have a heavy piece of cast iron crack your lid. Another reason to be careful when opening the Egg is that the rapid influx of air into the controlled environment can cause instant flame ups that could ruin your meat or more perilously, set your face on fire. YouTube is full of cautionary videos showing these infernos, so they recommend that you “burp” your grill by opening the lid just a little bit at first to avoid a rush of oxygen into the hot environment.
On the whole, I’ve been very satisfied with my Medium Green Egg for its intended use, but I do prefer my Primo XL. Here’s why:
As much as a circle is the perfect geometrical object for maximizing surface area, ribs aren’t circular. Unless you’re cooking a pizza or the world’s biggest burger, most food just lays out better on the oval grate configuration of the Primo XL. The oval fire box is also easy to divide with an optional ceramic wall that allows you to build your fire on one side and smoke your meat indirectly over the other side of the grill. (An aside, both these grills have a whole lot of expensive accessories available, and you WILL buy some of them. Factor that into the final cost of your investment. I mean, you gotta get a pizza stone, right?)
The Primo also allows you to use extended grill racks to cook meats at different levels, and therefore variable temperatures, within the cooking area. This is great for cooking ribs or a chicken directly on the grate while smoking a brisket or pork butt slower and at a lower temperature at the same time.
The configuration of the heat adjustments for the Primo XL are very similar to the Big Green Egg, with the main difference being that the cap is not removable. That’s good for safety, but does necessitate that you clean it often lest it freeze up on you. When you’re done cooking on either of these grills, you can put out the fire quickly and safely simply by closing the upper and lower vents. Unlike your Weber kettle that you have to let burn out, the coals on a ceramic grill can still be reused for your next cookout.
The lid of the XL is very heavy though and it opens to a point that is almost perfectly balanced when open. That means if you sling it open and let go, it can easily rebound against the spring of the heavy-duty hinge and close with a crash. That could be dangerous to both the delicate ceramic and also to your delicate forearms which could get chopped by a hot heavy ceramic guillotine. Again, be careful and burp that thing.
The final advantage that really seals the deal for the Primo in my opinion is how much easier it is to add coals to during a long low and slow smoking session. Even though these grills hold temp so well for so long, sometimes we’re talking about an 18-hour cook time for an entire pork shoulder. At some time during that process, you’ll probably want to top off your charcoal supply.
With the Egg this requires you to open the lid, remove the meat and the grill, use long asbestos gloves to take out the hot ceramic plate setter and pour in some more chunk coal before repeating the assembly in reverse. This takes quite a while and really lowers the temperature of your cooking environment and the meat you’ve been cooking. Not to mention that you have to figure out someplace safe to stack all the hot elements of the grill that you removed during disassembly. I have a wooden deck, so there’s not a lot of good places to put a hot greasy grill grate and a glowing ceramic plate setter.
However with the Primo XL, here’s the procedure to add more charcoal if you’ve had the foresight to leave one half of the grate off over the partitioned section with the indirect heat source: open the lid (burp it!), pour in more charcoal, close the lid again. That’s it. Quick and easy with a minimum loss of heat, because remember what I told you last year, “Lookin’ ain’t cookin’!” Every time you open that lid to add coals or to check your meat, you’re probably adding a half hour to your cook time.
In the end, most people would be happy with either of these fine products, but if you like to smoke big pieces of meat, you’ll probably prefer the Primo. And you’d probably be the kind of person I’d like to hang out with.
The Primo XL is available from grill distributors around the country.
What I liked: Nice large cooking surface. Consistent cooking environment. Easy to add coals midway through cooking process.
What needs improvement: Heavy lid can slam down if opened too vigorously.
The Big Green Egg is also available at grill shops everywhere.
What I liked: Easier to move around than Primo. Better for smaller patios and decks. Less expensive than Primo. Perfect oven for home wood-fired pizzas.
What needs improvement: Top vent cap can fall off, potentially cracking the Egg or leaving a greasy dent in your deck. Difficult to add charcoal during cooking.