In fall 2008 Weber announced a new improved version of their industry standard 18.5″ Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) smokers as well as an all new, larger 22.5″ WSM, the first major changes in many years. In the photo at right, you can see the new Big Unit, and the old Little Unit (my nicknames, not theirs).
The WSMs are high quality, charcoal fueled, bullet-shaped smokers. The old Little Units can often be seen competing head to head with large commercial cookers at practically every competition. And winning. They take very little time to master, and there are a lot of tricks the experts use to produce incredible food.
The 2009 models are the first major upgrades to the WSM in many years. I have been allowed to test the Big Unit and the good news is that it is a good value and a fine cooker. There is, however, room for further improvement.
Like the old Little Unit, the new Big Unit cooks at a remarkably steady temp for hours and raising or lowering temp is fairly easy by opening and closing the vents. Problem is I have had difficulty getting it down under 275°F. I like to smoke at 225-250°F. At 275°F meat can get tough.
The big advantage to the Big Unit is capacity. The grates are 21″ across compared to 15.5″ on the Little Unit. You can actually get a few slabs of ribs to lay comfortably on the grates without cutting them in half or bending them. I’m guessing one could easily fit a dozen five-pound pork butts in the Big Unit with plenty of room for smoke to circulate. At right is shown a whole center cut pork loin with room to spare.
Construction is solid and finish is beautiful. Weber really knows how to make long lasting porcelain and chrome coatings. The legs are sturdier and there is a bowl-shaped aluminum heat shield under both new units. Call me superstitious, but I still put a galvanized sheet under it to protect my deck.
Both new models have a built-in bi-metal thermometer, a welcome addition, but sadly the one on the Big Unit I am testing reads about 30°F below the temperature on my highly accurate Thermoworks MTC Mini Handheld Thermocouple.
All WSMs have a side door for adding coal, wood, and water, although adding water and lit coals through the door is tricky. The new door and latches are improved, but they still leak smoke and let in oxygen, making it hard to shut down the supply of oxygen and kill the coals. I had to bend mine slightly to make it fit better, and I remain puzzled as to how Weber could craft the door so poorly after crafting the other parts so well.
The water pan in the Big Unit is huge, and you need to add more water than you think it needs because of the increased surface area. Also, it is waaaay to large to fit flat in my sink for cleanup, and you can’t line it with foil easily because it is wider than the widest sheets of foil in my grocery. Hopefully someone will market a disposable pan liner.
One change I wish they had made is a wider lid. It still rests inside a lip in the center section allowing rain and melting snow to get in. I would prefer that the lid overlap the center section, just like the lid on the Weber Kettle. Perhaps they’ll get to this in the next version. Hopefully we won’t have to wait so long for that.
If you are trying to decide between the Big Unit and the Little Unit, keep in mind that a full slab of ribs will not fit onto the grates of the Little Unit without some trickery , and if the meat gets too close to the sides the heat rising around the water pan can scorch it. On the other hand, it is hard to get temp down to optimum cooking temps on the Big Unit.
The WSM has a fanatical following and a good independent website devoted to its use at http://www.virtualweberbullet.com.