The company that used to manufacture smokers for Traeger and Grilla Grills also makes inexpensive smokers under its own name.
Nothing compares to the flavor of food smoked low and slow. I have large, medium, and small pellet-powered smoker grills that I use all year. While my smokers infuse food with delectable flavor, they don’t crisp the skin on a salmon filet without overcooking the fish, and they can’t sear a steak.
Years ago, Z Grills manufactured some of the smokers for Traeger, Grilla Grills, and other brands for more than 30 years (though it hasn’t manufactured with Traeger for many years). Z Grills’ new wood-pellet smoker grill, the Flame Elite ($439), offers grill temperatures up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit and has a rotating fire-access door under the cooking grate. This allowed me to change the smoker’s heat output from smoking mode to direct-flame searing.
It also costs half as much as its more famous and robust brethren.
Some Assembly Required
If the thought of assembling IKEA furniture gives you hives, this grill isn’t for you. The Flame Elite and all Z Grills arrive in a box with the tools and parts you need for assembly. The directions were easy to follow, parts were well-labeled, and after the first few steps (and getting the hang of the directions), the process went smoothly.
An hour later, I had a compact smoker grill ready to get cooking. A greasy film covered parts of the grill, but that burned off during seasoning. I followed Z Grills’ instructions for lighting the grill for the first time and for seasoning it, and all went well. Once I assembled the grill, I plugged it in and fired it right up.
Z Grills Flame Elite 600D3E: Performance
The Z Grills Flame Elite 600D3E isn’t as heavy-duty as Traegers I’ve tested, but it works quite well. Z Grills says the 21.4 x 15.5-inch cooking surface holds 24 burgers, five rib racks, or four chickens.
This grill has eight functions: grill, smoke, sear, bake, BBQ, braise, roast, and char-grill. In all modes, it cooked evenly enough. Every meal I prepared on this grill was delicious.
I grilled zucchini and onions, smoked a locally sourced pork butt for pulled pork, seared Faroe Island Salmon, and high-heat cooked two Misty Knoll Farm chickens with a black trumpet mushroom rub I made from fungi I harvested.
The grill temperature is controlled with a digital PID control board and fan-forced convection. Z Grills says that gives precise temperature control when cooking.
After using the grill for a month, I’d say it doesn’t have the same temperature precision as other smokers I’ve used, but it does continuously correct to the temperature I select. And temperature swings never affected the outcome.
When I set a pork butt to 250 degrees F, the smoker temperature swung between 235 and 275 degrees F, but the pork was as delicious and tender as I could have hoped for.
The drippings pail, which lives in a cabinet under the smoker, had a few ashes in it. But, interestingly, it held no greasy, burned-off fat, which was a first.
Smoking on the Z Grills Flame Elite
The Flame Elite used fewer pellets than a similar-sized Traeger grill, and even though it has a smaller hopper compared to similar-sized name-brand smoker grills, I could leave the lit smoker longer without fear of having to reload.
It doesn’t come with a built-in thermometer, so when I wanted to monitor my meat temperature from afar, I used an aftermarket meat thermometer to check the temp.
The smoker stand is a storage cabinet accessed by two handles that together form the shape of a wine glass. The cabinet is vented, not sealed. If you live somewhere dry, you can use it to store extra pellets.
In Vermont where I live, the summer humidity makes crackers, pretzels, and chips go stale in under 30 minutes once they’re open. So I opted to keep pellets in my house instead.
Grill tool hangers on the right-hand side table hold utensils on strings or with large holes in the handles. The bottle opener on the front of the grill is a fun touch (though in Vermont, most IPA comes in cans).
Most of the smoker is made from heavy-duty steel, and the grates are ceramic-coated. The pellet hopper cover was the only part that felt cheap. It’s made from stainless steel, but a thin gauge, and it never closed all the way, though it closed enough to keep the pellets inside dry.
The grill’s wheels weren’t the ruggedized rollers that come on name-brand competitor grills. They were much smaller, and I had to move the grill gently so they wouldn’t get stuck in the metal grate on my deck and snap off.
Z Grills vs. Traeger
The main difference from Z Grills’ competitors is the price. With 572 square inches of cooking space on the main grill surface and a half-depth upper rack, the Flame Elite 600D3E is similarly sized to the Traeger Pro 575. The Traeger grill sells for $800, and the Z Grills model costs just $439.
The Traeger has a bigger hopper, integrated WiFire meat thermometer, it uses heavier-gauge materials, and there’s a certain status to owning one. But its max temp is only 500 degrees F; the Flame Elite’s is 750.
It’s likely your dinner guests won’t know the Z Grills name, so they may not be impressed while you’re cooking. But they will when it’s time to eat.