Owning a great grill and accessories won’t necessarily make you a great griller. But it’s a lot harder to achieve master grillsmanship if you don’t have the right tools. The truth is that, though grilling is the world’s most ancient and widespread cooking method, for many modern cooks the primal act of cooking over fire is still shrouded in mystery.
The first step in mastering the art of grilling is to purchase the right grill. This isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds, as there are hundreds of models on the market. (I happen to own 60.) The right grill for someone who routinely stages tailgate parties for 80 people is not necessarily the same grill that will best serve the guy (or gal) who cooks a meal for two once a week.
The place to start is with a debate that has raged since the 1950s: charcoal or gas? Each has its advantages and partisans. Here’s what you need to know to decide which type of grill is right for you.
Charcoal grills are great for people who love messing around with fire-starting, or should I say, building fires (you know what I mean, guys; it’s hard-wired into our systems) and waltzing foods from hot spots to cool spots. Charcoal grilling is an interactive sport that requires active participation at every stage of the process. This type of grill is essential for anyone who likes smoke or preparing true barbecue (big hunks of meat cooked low and slow in the presence of fragrant wood smoke). It’s easy to smoke on a charcoal grill — and virtually impossible to smoke on a gas model.
Speaking of smoking, if you buy a kettle grill (one of the most perfect smoking devices ever invented), try to find one with hinged panels at opposite sides of the grill grate. This lets you add charcoal and wood chunks as needed without having to remove the food and grate.
While we’re on the subject of smoking, if you really get serious about this style of live-fire cooking, you’ll likely want to invest in a smoker. There are many types: water smokers (the ones that look like the “Star Wars” robot R2D2; photo, below right), offset barrel smokers (miniature home versions of the rigs used by the big boys at barbecue competitions), 55-gallon drum smokers, pellet smokers that are thermostatically controlled, and even gas and electric smokers. (The latter have one big advantage and one big drawback: They work effectively and almost effortlessly, but it’s hard to claim guts and glory when you smoke via the turn of a switch.)
Charcoal grills come in many sizes and shapes, from the familiar and darn-near perfectly designed kettle grill to a new generation of front-loading grills (rectangular metal boxes on legs with a door in the front) that allow you to grill with wood as well as charcoal. If
you’re grilling for yourself or one or two other people and your tastes run to simple grilled chicken breasts and seafood, it’s pretty hard to beat the hibachi, an open-top brazier-style charcoal grill from Asia. A lot of people use hibachis on their porches or decks. If you do, be sure to place a sheet of metal or other fireproof material underneath to avoid starting a fire. In fact, that’s a good idea no matter what type of grill you use. One good commercial deck protector is the Grill Pad.
Gas grills offer the convenience of pushbutton ignition and turn-of-a-knob heat control, which is why roughly 70 percent of American families prefer gas to charcoal. If charcoal grills are about the process and the journey, gas grills are about the results and the destination. At bare minimum, you’ll want a two-burner grill (so you can shut one burner off to do indirect grilling); ideally, you’ll want three to four burners.
Btus can be misleading in the same way the number of cylinders in a car engine can be. A four-cylinder sports car goes a lot faster than a bulky V8 sedan. As a rule, a respectable gas grill will offer 10,000 to 15,000 Btus per burner — but how the burners are configured is every bit as important. To find the right grill for you, patronize a grill shop where you can see several models fired up.
So what else should you look for when buying a gas grill? The most important amenity is an easy-to-empty grease-collection system. (Yes, that’s a jab at some of the pricy gas supergrills that funnel the fat from a half-dozen racks of baby-back ribs into a large, wide tray that’s only 1/4 in. deep.)
Even seasoned grillers can mess up a meal by misjudging their grill’s fuel supply. Avoid such a calamity by choosing a grill with a built-in gas gauge.
In this water smoker, steam from the water pan combines with smoke from the coals to cook (and essentially baste) the food sitting above. Because smokers use indirect heat, the cooking time can be as much as four times longer than regular grilling — perfect for a leisurely grilling day.
The grill should have a gas gauge to tell you how much fuel you have left (and an extra propane tank — filled please — so you never face the embarrassment of running out of gas). I also recommend a thermometer built into the hood so you know at what temperature you’re cooking.
As for the grill grates (the actual grilling surface), my favorite material is cast iron, followed by bar steel, pressed steel and last of all the commonplace porcelainized enamel. The reason is simple: The thicker, heavier grates produce better grill marks. This isn’t strictly cosmetic, as the surface charring associated with grill marks imparts a smoky flavor to the meat.
Whichever grill you get, make sure it feels sturdy. Side tables are a plus: You can never have too much work surface. I like a grill with a comprehensive multiyear warranty. Remember, this is a device that stays outdoors, where the elements, such as salt air, can wreak havoc.
If you’re really serious about grilling, my advice is to hedge your bets on the gas/charcoal question and join the 30 percent or so of Americans who own two or more grills. Use a gas grill for quick, convenient weeknight grilling and a charcoal grill when you want to take the time to smoke pork shoulders or ribs on the weekend.
Ultimately, what you really need is a grill you’re comfortable working on and a fuel that suits your temperament — as well as plenty of patience, experience and inspiration. You can’t buy the last three, but I can reassure you that they come for free with a little practice.
There are three accessories no grill master should be without — and about 30 that come in handy for specific applications. The essentials are:
1. A long-handled stiff wire brush for brushing the grill grate (a step you should perform on a hot grill just before putting on the food and right after it’s done cooking).
2. A set of long-handled spring-loaded tongs that allow you to turn steaks and other meats without poking holes in them, which drains out the juices. (Remember one of my 10 Commandments of Great Grilling: Turn, don’t stab.)
3. An instant-read meat thermometer to tell you the internal temperature of a large cut of meat such as a whole chicken or brisket.
WEB EXTRA ACCESSORIES
Here are some other tools that will come in handy.
1. Beer can chicken roasters enable you to smoke-roast whole chickens in an upright position over an open can of beer. Three advantages to this method are extra flavor, extra moistness and wow power that’s off the charts.
2. Rib racks allow you to cook as many as four large racks of ribs in an upright position on a small grill.
3. One very important accessory, whether your fuel of choice is gas or charcoal, is a grill light, which clips on the side of the grill and focuses a bright beam of light on the cooking surface. You can’t be a master griller if you can’t see what you’re cooking.
4. Cedar planks are useful for grilling salmon. Cooking the fish on a soaked cedar or alder plank imparts a terrific flavor and keeps the fish from sticking to the grill grate.
5. Cajun injectors, which look like oversize hypodermic needles, enable you to squirt flavor deep into an inherently dry food such as turkey or pork roast.
6. Basting brushes and barbecue mops let you apply sauces and glazes to food as it grills.
7. Vegetable cages or rings hold onions, artichokes, apples and other round fruits and vegetables upright on the grate during grilling.
8. If you have a charcoal grill, try a large chimney starter to help you light the charcoal quickly and evenly without resorting to lighter fluid. Simply place the coals in the top of the chimney and a crumpled newspaperin the bottom.
Grilling the Grill Master