The Big Green Egg has been the Cadillac of charcoal cookers since it was introduced in the 1970s. Its thick ceramic exterior and ability to seal in both heat and moisture makes it the pinnacle for smoking and high-temperature grilling. But its high price tag - about $1,500 for the standard model - puts it out of reach for the average outdoor chef.
Now, with a flurry of BGE knock-offs hitting the market, there are alternatives. So when Paul Rogalski, chef of Calgary's Rouge, told me about cooking crispy pizza at 800° and perfect pulled pork at 225° on his new Big Steel Keg charcoal unit, I was intrigued.
Like many chefs and foodies in Calgary, Mr. Rogalski and I are barbecue fanatics - not of everyday grilling, but of slow smoking of ribs, chicken and other southern delights. At Rouge, Mr. Rogalski has a little smoker to hit the elk medallions or char-grilled Alberta lamb chops with that sweet barbecue aroma, and I have an old R2D2-style bullet smoker at the cabin that makes perfect tender ribs, pulled pork and smoked trout.
But these heavy-duty, egg-shaped grill ovens promise what the average smoker can't - very low, slow cooking for tender pulled pork butt and brisket, as well as very high heat for pizza and steak. Not sold on the beer-keg look, I opted for another option, the ceramic Vision Kamado, and we staged a cook off to see how our bargain-priced grills compare.
We started by smoking a five-pound pork butt (shoulder), then opened the vents wide to let the charcoal take the ovens up to extreme heat for pizza.
Both the Keg and the Kamado have thermometers built into the lid - the Keg goes up to 800 F but my Vision Kamado gauge stops around 550 F, and we pushed both beyond the dial.
It was sometimes tricky to keep our barbecues at a steady 225 to 250 F but the smoky pork from both was tender, juicy and falling apart to the "pulled" stage after about eight hours. The bonus for both units was the moist cooking and the slow burning of the fuel. We both started with about four litres of quality hardwood charcoal that lasted throughout the smoking process.
Our thin-crust pizzas cooked perfectly on their ceramic pizza stones, crisp and lightly charred like good pizzeria fare, but we needed more charcoal - about eight litres to maintain high heat. When we fired up the Keg for pizza, it took an hour to get to the upper ranges.
My Vision Kamado soared up to high heat in 30 minutes, but while cooking we heard a loud pop. I'd read that pizza stones can break in the Kamado. My stone was fine, but I found a hairline crack in the exterior of the unit after it cooled. While the dealer assured me the Vision Kamado can cook at 150 to 800 F and agreed to replace the cracked unit, there's only a one-year warranty. (Hopefully this won't happen again.) The double-walled insulated steel Keg is better designed for high-temperature cooking.
Charcoal cooking is more hands-on than gas grilling, but if you're serious about outdoor cuisine, these egg-shaped units are cool tools. Just make sure you check out the warranties and service before you buy.
HOW THEY STACK UP
Big Steel Keg: $799
Vision Kamado: $846
Ease of Use
The Keg has a heat-proof stove gasket to seal the top and base. The Kamado has a replaceable thick felt ring and its interior edge burned and blackened at high temperature.
The Keg is difficult to relight as all of the grills need to come off to add coals, while the Kamado has a hinged grill that makes replenishing coals and adding wood chips for smoking much easier. On the other hand, the Keg's heavy cast-iron grills are better for searing steak and it is better able to withstand ultra-high temperatures.
Both of these units are well sealed and can flare when the lid is opened. So always crack the lid slightly, and open slowly, or open the vents to stabilize oxygen levels before opening. Ceramic cookers don't get as hot as metal units on the exterior, but use caution when cooking at high temperatures.
The BGE and other ceramic kamado grills are definitely stylish - my black Vision Kamado, with its sleek stainless steel base and bamboo side tables, adds a nice focal point to the back garden. But it's fragile and extremely heavy to move around (think two or three people to lift it).
The Keg is light enough to lift onto a trailer hitch (so you can haul it out to tailgate parties), but it looks as clunky as it sounds with a khaki beer-keg profile, large plastic wheels and side tables. Both feature cooking surfaces about 18.5 inches across.
Both are all-season barbecues, but it's hard to say how they will stand up over time. Metal barbecues like the Big Steel Keg are prone to rusting, and the ceramic Vision Kamado can crack. Unlike the original Big Green Egg, neither is guaranteed for life.
Overall ranking (out of 5)
Big Steel Keg ****
Vision Kamado ***
Special to the Globe and Mail