Welcome to T3's review of the Char-Broil Smart-E, a full-size electric barbecue that delivers on all fronts.
Electric barbecues are nothing new but, as I explain in my article on electricity becoming the fuel of choice for future barbecue grilling, major manufacturers like Char-Broil and Weber – check out our review of the new Weber Lumin Compact – appear to be embracing this oldest and most ubiquitous of energy sources more seriously than they have in the past. Even kitchenware brand Ninja is getting involved with the recent launch of its fabulous Ninja Woodfire, a compact 3-in-1 portable grill that grills, smokes and even air fries.
Until now, the majority of electric barbecues have been small and compact and therefore designed for use on balconies, smaller patios, glamping sites and other areas with restrictions on the use of charcoal and gas (in the States, many Homeowner Associations have already banned the use of gas and charcoal on their properties, leaving electricity as the only al fresco alternative). There are other full-size electrics out there but the the Smart-E is the first model from a premium player.
So what is electricity like to grill with and does it produce the same barbecue flavour as charcoal? Moreover, can it compete with gas barbecues and charcoal grills for outright convenience? Let’s find out...
Char-Broil Smart-E review: why go electric?
There are a number of reasons why electricity may become the barbecue fuel of the future and chief among these is the environment. Take gas, for instance. Although it’s arguably the cleanest of fossil fuels, it’s still far from perfect so it will almost certainly be phased out sometime in the distant future. Charcoal, meanwhile, is absolutely not good for the environment since it involves cutting down trees which might not always be done sustainably. Also, the wood it yields is then slowly burnt, creating a cocktail of bad chemicals and gasses in the process. It's then shipped across the world which increases its already high carbon footprint even further.
Now I’m the first to admit that I’m never conscious of contributing to climate change when I fire up the barbie – all I’m thinking about is getting the food onto the grill so I can dig into that deliciously smokey flavour brought about by food cooked over an open flame. And there’s the second rub. Fire. Electric barbecues don’t produce a flame so they are the perfect alternative for users in restricted areas where naked flames are banned. They are also perfect for balcony use since they don’t generally produce as much acrid smoke as charcoal – especially when it has just been lit.
Electricity is not only considered a much more environment friendly source of energy – especially if it’s been produced by wind or solar power – but it’s a cheaper fuel in the longer term than both charcoal or gas. And, best of all, electric barbecues never run out of fuel so you could feasibly carry on grilling till the cows come home.
Don’t for one minute think that grilling on an electric barbecue couldn’t possibly produce the same barbecue flavour as charcoal or gas. Given that the flavour of grilled meat is mostly produced by the smoke generated by meat fats dripping onto a heat source below, does it really matter whether that source is a pile of coals, a sheet of hot metal above a flaming gas burner or an oven-style heating element directly beneath the grate?
Char-Broil Smart-E review: assembly
Like all large barbecues, the Smart-E arrives in a large box on a wooden palette and requires self assembly. I’ve assembled loads of barbecues in the past and this one was almost as easy to build as a charcoal model. Yes, there were a few hiccups along the way – most notably sections 4 and 5 which aren’t illustrated clearly enough and sections 11 to 13 which relate to the fitting of the electrical components – but in the main, it all went relatively smoothly. I’d say it took me about two hours to assemble which is faster than it takes to build most gas barbecues. Incidentally, if you can’t get on with illustrated assembly manuals, there’s a more thorough photographic assembly guide on the Char-Broil website.
Char-Broil Smart-E review: design
In America, this model is sold under the name The Edge and it’s in stainless steel rather than all black. In the pantheon of large barbecues, the Char-Broil Smart-E is on the smaller end of the scale – it measures 71.5cm in width, 80cm in depth and 50cm in height – so it will fit very nicely on a large balcony that’s big enough to accommodate outdoor furniture. However, if your balcony is standing-room only then perhaps consider a Weber Lumin or Ninja Woodfire instead since both of these models will sit comfortably on a small 24-inch tabletop.
I’ve got to say that this is one of the better looking barbecues I’ve ever assembled. I’m quite liking the simple angular design, the shiny black livery and even the racy air-intake slats on the front that may or may not have any bearing on how the system works, because behind the slats and door, there's nothing to mention aside from an electrical box, a small drip tray, a wire storage rack and a large empty space that doesn’t appear to serve any purpose at all. Two collapsible shelves, meanwhile, provide ample space for ingredients waiting to go on the grill while making the whole shebang easier to store.
However, the very best thing about this barbecue is the large silver dial and enormous LED interface that you simply can’t miss unless you need a visit to Specsavers. In fact, I will go so far to say that, in my opinion, it's one of the most beautiful screen interfaces I think I’ve seen on any product, let alone a barbecue. The interface may only provide temperature readouts but the 7cm tall characters are so sharp it’s like looking at an Apple Retina screen, only in black and white. The dial, too, is so tactile in the way you give it a tap and a turn to select a temperature of choice, followed by another tap to set the temperature. Although you don’t see it as clearly in broad daylight, there’s also an LED band around the dial that glows in different colours depending on the status of the internal temperature.
Hence, when you tap the big silver dial to input your preferred grilling temperature, the light pulses red and when it reaches the predetermined temperature it glows solid red. And when it’s time to give the grill a clean (more on this below), the light turns orange. Once set, the temperature readout on the screen constantly flits between actual and preset so you’re always kept abreast of the process.
While it’s not a big deal, I am surprised that this barbecue doesn’t work in tandem with an app. After all, most electricity-powered pellet grills like the excellent Broil King Regal 500 and Traeger Ironwood 650 are fully app enabled and able to keep track of grill temperatures, etc while you’re in the kitchen or entertaining guests. The lack of any app connectivity here seems like an odd omission given the Smart moniker. It’s not a deal breaker by any means but it’s also a bit of a missed opportunity on Char-Broil’s behalf.
I should add that, being of an electric nature, it’s essential that you either buy a cover for this barbecue or store the grill in a shed. Thankfully, Char-Broil produces a highly durable cover for this barbecue that looks like it will last for years.
Char-Broil Smart-E review: features
Unlike the average gas or charcoal barbecue, this model uses an old-fashioned oven-style heating element that meanders up and down the underside of the TRU-Infrared grill grates. In a nutshell, this simple heating element provides all the heat required to grill, slow cook and sear. And at just 2.4kW, it’s pretty frugal on electricity consumption, too. At least for a barbecue. Ideally, you will need a suitable outdoor electricity outlet nearby to use this barbecue though you could run it off a 13-amp extension lead if necessary.
The Smart-E’s cooking grate measures 57cm x 39 which equates to 2,223cm2 of grilling space. Char-Broil says it will feed 4-6 people but there’s no doubt it will feed many more mouths if grilling skinnier dishes like sausages, kebabs, drumsticks, wings or corn on the cob. Like all Char-Broil grills, the Smart-E utilises the US company’s TRU-Infrared technology. Infrared in this instance doesn’t mean the barbecue has a special heating lamp beneath – it’s simply a term used to describe the way the food cooks.
So how does it work? Well, the grill grate itself comprises a thin corrugated panel of perforated stainless steel that sits above a similarly-shaped sheet of non-perforated steel. It’s this combination that radiates the ‘infrared’ heat synonymous with the trademarked moniker, ensuring even heat distribution and high meat-searing temperatures. According to some pundits, the two corrugated sheets create radiant heat that cooks the food more directly rather than the standard convection system where the heat bounces around the inside of the lid, often drying out the food in the process. All I know is that every time I use the TRU-Infrared system, I'm super impressed by how juicily it grills meats, whether it’s chicken, beef or lamb.
The slight downside to this system is that the two corrugated panels require regular cleaning. Char-Broil used to provide a special toothed tool for the job but this model arrived without one. Instead it came with a plastic bristled brush which I used while it was still piping hot. The brush naturally melted. Since I am not the only one to have done this, I thought I’d forewarn you lest you tried something equally silly.
Thankfully, cleaning the grates is actually rather easy and involves a simple tap on the control dial to initiate the cleaning mode which ramps the temperature of the grill up to 370˚C, rather like a pyrolytic oven. The upshot is that all fats and food bits are reduced to ash which you simply sweep away or suck up with a vacuum cleaner.
The same high 370˚C temperature is also available for general grilling purposes which means you can easily sear a steak on this grill, replete with caramelised crust marks. You could also bake a pizza at this temperature – just buy the optional 12” cordierite pizza stone and put it on top of the grate.
Char-Broil Smart-E review: performance
The fact I needed to run a 13-amp extension cable to use this barbecue was a bit of a faff but then that’s my fault for not having an outdoor AC outlet installed.
After giving the Char-Broil Smart-E a good seasoning using a rub of oil and setting the temperature to around 300˚C for 25 minutes, I let it cool and then started it up again and set the temp to 250˚C. As per usual, my first test was with some buffalo wings and a few drumsticks – it turns out that 250˚C was a perfect temperature to sear the skin and deliver good crisp. And, as expected having used Char-Broil’s TRU-Infrared gas and charcoal grill in the past, the meaty parts were succulent and juicy. In fact, I’m still gobsmacked at how well this infrared system works.
On day two, I threw on some burgers and steak kebabs, only this time I started at an even higher temperature of 300˚C to produce a perfect sear. In fact I had to reduce the temperature immediately in case it went too far. I then set the temperature to 350˚C and put on a fillet steak. Wowsers, talk about a sear – and in mere seconds, too. I then removed the steak, lowered the temperature and put it back on for another four minutes. The result was utter perfection – a black caramelised outer and a gloriously juicy medium-rare centre.
At no time during any of these grill-offs did I question the fact the food had been cooked over an electric oven element – enough seasoning smoke was produced to make everything taste genuinely barbecue-y. Moreover, I loved the ease of control and how responsive the grill was to temperature changes. Yes, it took a bit longer than gas to drop or raise the grate temperature but it was quicker than a pellet grill and much faster than charcoal.
Char-Broil Smart-E review: price and availability
The Char-Broil Smart- E retails between £680 and £789, depending on where you purchase it from. The best deal in the UK at the moment is at Barbecue World where it retails at £679.99. Alternatively, try StovesAreUs (£719), Marks Electrical (£789) and Very (£799.99).
Char-Broil Smart-E review: verdict
If you’re looking to embrace the world of electric barbecuing but have been waiting for a suitable family-sized model, step right this way. The Char-Broil Smart-E performs brilliantly well, it’s a doddle to use and you will absolutely love the interface and stupendous LED screen display.