ON A RECENT trip to my parents’ place in New Hampshire, I cooked up some chicken leg quarters on the Traeger Timberline 850 grill that I’d brought along to review. I set it to the exact temperature the manufacturer suggested, lit the grill with the press of a button, and, using an app, remotely monitored both the temperature inside of the grill and the internal temperature of the legs and thighs as they cooked.
When the chicken reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit, I opened the grill, expecting smoke-tinged chicken perfection. Instead, I called mom for help.
The internal temperature indeed read a perfect 165, but the skin was rubbery and there was no way I was going to get the heat jacked up to searing temperature without severely delaying dinner and potentially overcooking the food. Instead, my mom browned the skin in a skillet on the stove, saving dinner. The chicken turned out so fantastic that I wondered if the manufacturer’s product and recipe testers instinctively counted on us to ask the lady who brought us into the world to come to the rescue.
The Traeger Timberline 850 is what’s known as a pellet cooker, and this episode encapsulated some of the best strengths and weaknesses of the machine. Pellet cookers tend to have a recognizable grill-like interior, and a hopper full of wood pellets on the side, which are transported to a “burn pot” under the grill grates via a mechanized auger. (Or, as my wife put it: “You push the wood pellets in and it burns them.”) The grill plugs into an outlet, allowing that auger to work and offering push-button ignition. The Traeger has a thermocouple probe at the top right of the interior, helping it to monitor the temperature and holding it steady like an oven, while imparting a lovely smoky flavor. For long, low, and slow cooks—ideal for foods like brisket—pellet cookers are stunningly effective. Searing, however, is their Achilles heel, which made me wish that Traeger would replace the stubby grill table on the left side of the Timberline with an electric griddle that would make searing a snap.
The Timberline also features Wi-Fi connectivity, allowing three-way communication between the app, the grill, and the cloud. There’s some fantastic potential here, but this is Traeger’s first foray into connected cooking and the lack of experience shows. Combine that with some mechanical difficulties and the grill simultaneously charges into the future and shoots itself in the foot. Fairly inexcusable, considering that it costs $1,700.
Smoke It If You’ve Got It
The potential here is enormous. The ability to simply set the temperature and walk away offers a huge amount of control, a difference exacerbated when you switch back to a “regular” gas grill or Weber kettle. Set a brisket to 180 and monitor the internal temperature thanks to the built-in probe thermometer and you begin to realize you could, with long, low-temp cooks, crib recipes from a sous vide cookbook and get fantastic, smoky results. Pair that with an app that could understand what’s happening while you cook, and you’ve got a game changer.
Yet when I made beef brisket (Traeger’s “Beginner’s Brisket”), the one recipe that all pellet cookers should simply crush, limitations and defects were exposed. Most notable was the discrepancy between the set temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit and the actual temp the grill cooked at for the first two and a half hours—between 196 and 221—followed by a brief dip to 161 and a return to 190. Roughly, that meant it cooked about 20 degrees higher than the temperature it was set to for the first four hours of the cook. When I swung the temp up to 250 for the later stages of cooking, it did an amazing job of staying within a couple degrees of the target. (These impressive results were repeated a few days later when I made ribs at 225 degrees.)