Wired Review: PK360 Grill & Smoker
Combines some of the best traits of charcoal grills and kamado-style smokers, allowing you to do a burgers on a weeknight or a long, slow smoke on the weekend. Impressive ability to control temperature. Built like a cast-aluminum tank, it should last for decades.
IT MAY HAVE arrived at my home in a box delivered by FedEx, but from the moment I saw it, I wondered if the grill I was testing hadn't been shipped directly from the set of some 1960s sci-fi television series.
Like no grill I've ever seen, the PK360 Grill & Smoker by PK Grills is a cast-aluminum clamshell perched on a base that may have been inspired by the octopods from Arrival. Two semi-elliptical tables clamp firmly onto the sides, a wire rail around them giving the whole thing a "rings of Saturn" look.
As visually striking as it is, the most impressive feature of this grill is the clear amount of thought that went into its creation. As I assembled it, then cooked one tasty meal after another, I kept imagining a circle of designers and engineers sitting around and puzzling their way through problem after problem: How can we clamp the lid down tight and position vents to help hold the temperature steady during long cooks? How can we make this an effective grill and smoker? How can we reengineer a hinge?
What they came up with melds some of the best characteristics of charcoal grills and smokers.
You can certainly dump a pile of hot coals in the middle and grill some steaks directly over them in what's known as "direct grilling." But with two vents on top, two below, and a rectangular grill grate, you can put the coals off to one side, allowing you to create two "zones," one for direct grilling, and the other—opposite the embers—for "indirect grilling," where the lid is down and you use the grill like an oven or smoker.
I was visiting family in New Hampshire while testing the PK360. I started with a whole chicken, cutting the bird in pieces, getting the internal temperature close to done in low heat in the indirect zone, then opening the lid and moving the parts directly over the hot coals just long enough to crisp up the skin. Then I fully opened the lower vents to increase the oxygen flow and really let the coals rip, allowing me to sear a bunch of asparagus. I lost a few too many spears through the stainless-steel grill grate, whose bars are a bit too far apart for my tastes, but for a first run with a new-to-me grill, I was mighty pleased.
The next day, I started steaks in the indirect zone, then rested them on a tray while I grilled a pile of veggies and some shrimp. Once the coals were ripping hot, I seared the steak.
Frankly, I could have done better—the steaks slipped from medium rare to medium in my pursuit of a good, hard sear, but that error was the result of me getting used to the grill. They were still great. And as my grill-guru friend Dave reminded me, "Every time you cook over coals, it's a little different."
I Need to Vent
Cooking the food on the indirect side meant I also got to familiarize myself with the vents, a phrase that even in my profession, I never imagined writing. I became proficient at adjusting the heat with the vents under the coals and above the indirect side, guiding the smoke diagonally through the grill's interior and across the surface of the food by keeping the other two vents shut.
While you've seen versions of the 360's top vents on other grills, the lower vents (PK calls them "air intake cylinders") are ingenious. Each side employs an aluminum tube with three holes that slides into the body of the grill beneath three corresponding holes. Twist the end of the tubes like throttles to let 'er rip or slow to a crawl. Combine the tubes with the firm-closing lid and I quickly learned how well they allowed me to control the heat, a quality on full display as I made my next dinner.
I was excited to have ribs on the menu. I had some applewood chunks to toss on the coals and a nice rub for the ribs themselves. Eight family members were looking forward to that smoky flavor and falling-off-the-bone goodness. and that's about where I read into my first notable problem: the grill's not huge. The 360 in its name denotes the number of square inches of its cooking surface, and that's not a large enough number for slow-cooked ribs for eight; I fiddled around for a while trying to get the geometry to work and never came up with something that allowed for proper "two-zone" cooking, even with the coals nudged up against one of the sidewalls. I ended up buying a rib holder (a stainless rack that holds several sets of baby backs vertically), cutting the racks in half, and cooking two racks' worth in the oven.
During the cook, the temperature control was excellent—not set-it-and-forget-it, but more like "just check in on it every hour or two and maybe slightly adjust a vent while you're there." Impressively, it was so efficient that after an afternoon of grilling, it had only used about a half of a charcoal chimney's worth of briquettes.
The ribs it did make were splendid. After cooking away for hours, they had a lovely pink smoke ring around the edge and a nice, dark bark. My gang was a happy gang.
One of the things I really learned to appreciate was having a quality thermometer built into the lower left side of the lid. While most grills with built-in thermometers mount them rather uselessly near the top of the lid, the PK's is just above grate level. Made by Tel-Tru, it passed a calibration test with flying colors and the readings it got compared to my "air probe" thermometer I mounted next to it during most of my cooking were so similar that I found there wasn't much need for the air probe at all.
I'd also really come to admire how solid and well-designed the whole grill is. The hinge is an ingenious set of thick, interlocking tabs. The top and bottom edges are hand-ground. When it shuts, it feels like you're sealing a bank vault closed.
Slow and Low
Throughout my testing, I'd been consulting several books, most notably Meathead Goldwyn's Meathead and I was happy to have that book as a guide for one of barbecue's big enchiladas: brisket.
Cut from the hard-working pectoral muscles of a cow, brisket is an all-day cook that tests (and exposes) any grill or smoker's strengths and weaknesses. Having a potentially too-small grill and definitely fewer people than I needed for a full-sized brisket, I bought a 6.5-pound point cut—the fattier, more tender of the two muscle groups in a whole brisket. Like with the ribs, I'd head out to the grill every once in a while and make the occasional vent adjustment, but that cast-aluminum design kept me within 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit of the target temperature all day long—better temperature control than some electric ovens!
When the meat temperature plateaued at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit, a problem commonly known as "the stall," I was ready, having encountered it last summer. I wrapped the meat in foil to keep the temperature rising toward the target internal temperature of 205 degrees. It did, but then it stalled out again in the mid 190s and I realized the brisket wasn't going be done by dinnertime. My mom, having run into similar problems with my cooking adventures in the past had already begun rooting around in the fridge, preparing a sort of leftover smorgasbord for dinner.
I later checked in with Meathead himself who assured me that a "second stall" is a common problem, likely because I hadn't wrapped the brisket tightly enough in foil.
After dinner, I played cards with my brother-in-law Ben as the meat continued to cook. After a couple of hours, it was midnight, Ben had skunked me twice at cribbage, and I was ready for bed. I pulled the brisket at 196 degrees, and packed it into cooler, a trick that Meathead suggests to do for two hours to "allow the internal temperature to even out and the collagens to continue to melt."
The next morning, I was up at sunrise to fish with my dad and nephew Eli, and stopped on the way to the dock to cut off a few "test" slices. Just lifting the brisket from the cooler, I was optimistic as the beef had a sort of pillowy spring to it that I'd only ever encountered in the unbelievable beef ribs I tried at La Barbecue in Austin, Texas. Cutting slices across the grain, I knew the results were going to be outstanding.
I brought a few slices down to the dock on a paper plate for Eli, dad and I. While I'm not usually the kind of guy who eats a day's worth of beef before the sun rises, the three of us got an early snack of some on the best food I've ever cooked.
My quibbles with the 360 were minor. If you're frequently cooking for more than a couple of people, particularly if you're cooking larger or longer cuts of meat, you'll want a bigger model, and that isn't an option. The interior bottom of the grill is not easy to clean; The manual says you can just hose it out, and I did, but there was some gunk in there that didn't want to be blasted loose.
A little more troubling was the odd choice of the shallow grids etched into the tops of the side tables. While I was able to cut a bone-in chicken breast in two with nary a wobble, that crosshatching was hard to clean and felt like a breeding ground for salmonella. If you're willing to shell out an additional $200, the teak side tables are smooth. The heavy-duty wheels were stout little buggers, but they're way too small, making a roll across the deck more bumpy of an adventure than it needs to be.
I was surprised to not find a tiny notch between the top and bottom edges for a thermometer probe cable or two. There are utensil hooks, but they're on the back of the grill, which means you won't be hanging your tongs or spatula from them while you cook. My mom pointed out that you could buy some little "S" hooks and hang them from the rail beneath the side tables, which would solve the problem. Finally, taking the base apart clearly didn't happen the way it's supposed to, as the pole that holds the grill in place got stuck in the base, an issue a company rep acknowledged. My dad and I had to get creative with a hammer to get the parts separated.
Really though, I loved cooking with the PK360. It's a durable and works so well at both at both grilling and smoking that it doesn't feel like it cut corners in a successful quest to do both well. It's efficient and well-thought out to the point that one afternoon I just stared at it, wondered what, if anything, would break first, and couldn't come up with much. It's built to last for decades.
I found the grill to be extraordinary, and if you're looking for an all-in-one grill/smoker that's going to last and keep you happy for years, it'd be hard to find one better than the PK360.