Putting together the Masterbuilt Auto Ignite 545 Smart BBQ was an excruciating seven hours of poor instructions and mislabeled parts. By the time it was ready to use it, I was ready to hate this grill. It didn’t help that Masterbuilt’s grills are gravity-fed, which requires an entire learning curve that sent me down a YouTube hole for hours. Still, after all that, I find myself enjoying the Masterbuil. Even though it requires charcoal rather than faster fuels like gas, the grill heats up more quickly than you’d expect. The smart technology is excellently leveraged, allowing you to set and monitor the temperature from the app, and it connects easily. The grill has a decent amount of space, and the grill can achieve decent high (650F) and low (250F) temperatures, and those temperatures can be held because of the smart app.

I do have a few reservations. The lack of flame under the active grill space means that the only place to sear is on top of the hopper, which is quite small. That makes the Masterbuilt more a smoker than a grill. Some embers do fly away due to the design of the ash tray, so they need to be watched. Finally, a few aspects of the app could be better, like the recipe function, which is hard to search. But (if you pay someone else to put the grill together) I think the Masterbuilt Auto Ignite 545 Digital Charcoal Grill ($499) is a spectacular deal. Compared to grills twice the price or more, the 545 has a sturdy build, consistent smoke and is easy to manage from the smart app. 

Pay someone else to put it together

At the time I started putting the 545 together, there weren’t yet instructional videos (thankfully, there are now). This will compensate for the inexplicably poorly illustrated paper instructions. Assembly was so irritating and exhausting, I’d recommend purchasing the grill from someplace that includes assembly, or pay for someone else to do it. Once completed, the 545 is one of the sturdiest grills I tested. The grill feels appropriately heavy, and the parts don’t flex or vibrate. I rolled the grill 50 feet from where it was assembled and it barely made a sound, and no parts moved. 

The active grill space, with the warming grate and the hopper lid for searing.
Credit: Amanda Blum

This is a wide grill, with an active grill space, folding warming grate, and charcoal hopper all under the hood. There are 545 inches of active grill space, in addition to the warming grate, and room to sear on top of the cast iron hopper. The lid is heavy, with a solid metal handle that never got hot to the touch. The grill has two platforms, one on each side of the grill. The left side houses the electronics and the right is a staging area that can be flipped up to conserve space. Underneath the grill is a cabinet with a big open space and swiveling door, and the entire grill rests on wheels big and rugged enough to go over most terrain. I noticed that most modern grills or barbecues end up very light: The metal feels thin, the handles don’t inspire confidence. But the 545 is the opposite—it’s built like a tank, which feels appropriate for a giant smoker. 

Highly functional app with no frills

The Masterbuilt app connected quickly to the grill. Although no smart grill will allow you to turn it on remotely, once the grill is already on, you can set a temperature or timer. The best part about this is that the 545 will reach and hold that temperature as long as you need, as long as the grill has enough charcoal. You can use as many as four food temperature probes (the grill ships with one). The app has a tab just for recipes, but I found it largely worthless, as there is no search capability, so all you can do is surf through recipes based on protein. The recipes themselves were often abridged to the point of being unhelpful. (A recipe for brisket was just three steps. 1. Season overnight. 2. Smoke the brisket until bark is set. 3. Rest the brisket until it is ready to slice.) Additionally, these recipes could not be sent to the grill, as some other smart grills would do. The best part of the app is that you can see previous sessions or “cooks,” displayed by date, as a graph, including the grill and the probe temperatures.  This could have been more useful if you were allowed to name the cooks, so you could find your previous steak cook vs. a rib cook, which would be quite different. 

Learning to ignite

Regardless of what fuel a grill uses, if it’s “smart,” it’ll need electricity to power the brains of the grill—most smart grills take advantage of this to also include an auto-igniter, the 545 included. This is the first spot where the learning curve kicks in, and if you were to purchase this model, I’d recommend watching videos on the gravity-fed process and how this auto-igniter works. From the control panel of the grill or your app, you’ll set a target temperature, and then hit “ignite.” The auto-ignite will spend about 45 seconds heating up and then you insert a flame starter puck from Masterbuilt and push it into the auto-ignite. If you do it right, the grill starts breathing like a dragon as the fan kicks on, and your charcoal will start to smoke. If you do it wrong, your puck will go out, and you’ll need to start over—the grill will alert you if that’s happened. Once you figure it out, you’ll have success each time. With the flame going, you load up the cast iron hopper with charcoal. Masterbuilt wants you to use lump charcoal: It was my first time doing so (I used the Masterbuilt brand, which they sent for me to test and I’d buy again) and I was impressed at the difference between lump and the briquettes you buy at the store. The charcoal ignites quickly and thanks to the fan, is ready to go surprisingly fast. The grill begins heating immediately, and you’ll hit even the highest temperatures (650F) within 20 minutes. The app will alert you when it hits target temperature. 

Gravity-fed heat

Here is the second spot where the learning curve kicks in. The charcoal is not under the cooking grates, but rather in a hopper on the right hand side of the grill. The flame is at the bottom of the hopper, and burns charcoal from the bottom up. As it heats up, a fan blows the hot smoke to the rest of the grill underneath the grates. The grill will get hot, but not from direct flame. In fact, there is no fire to speak of under the grates—it is contained in the hopper. So if you’re looking for a flame-broiled burger, this isn’t the grill for you. You can, however, sear on top of the cast iron hopper, which works, but has its own challenges. First, you can’t open the hopper if there’s a steak on it—so you can’t check the fuel level, or add smoking chips, etc. Second, the hopper isn’t very big, so you can sear one steak or a few burgers, but not two steaks. If you have a steak and some onions you want to grill, you’ll have to choose which one gets the hopper lid. Third, while you will get grill marks on your food eventually just by way of the heat of the smoke heating up the grates, it takes a long while for that reaction to happen. Again, the heat is there, it’s just through hot smoke rather than direct flame. In fact, Masterbuilt designed the active grill area with a shield for drippings that completely prevents flame ups. If you understand that this is the purpose of the 545—to be a smoker, rather than a grill—you won’t be disappointed. 

Somewhere between a smoker and a grill

These chicken thighs were on the grill for about an hour, but ended up with a perfect smokiness and a nice crusty skin with great grill marks.
Credit: Amanda Blum

Once I relaxed into the fact that this was more a smoker, I started feeling really happy with the outcomes. Chicken thighs turned out spectacularly well—they got grill marks eventually, and also a lovely smoke. I executed a small brisket (I went off-book and used my own recipe) and was quite pleased with the results. Shrimp, salmon, steak, pineapple, cauliflower, grilled onions, sausage—they all came out really well once I accepted the 545 for what it was and stopped trying to make it a flame grill. Nothing I made was overly smoky. The grill operates on charcoal, but pitching hardwood chunks into the hopper will allow you to control the flavor and volume of smoke going into the food. Compared to wood pellet grills I tested where the smoke was overwhelming, this was a nice, mild smoke. 

This mini brisket got an excellent bark.
Credit: Amanda Blum

Bottom line: an excellent buy

It’s ironic that a grill I was so primed to detest turned out to be the one I’d likely recommend to anyone who wants to move away from gas into charcoal and smoking. On its own, without any connectivity, it’s a great smoker once you learn how to use it, with some additional searing and cooking capacity. The app adds the functionality you want to control and monitor the 545 remotely, with no extra frills. Sure, I’d love to be able to get real flame under the cooking area, and I’d like the app to have better recipe interactivity, but neither are deal breakers. On the whole, this is a great buy—just don’t put it together yourself.