Outdoor Grilling

by LiamBean

March 30, 2013 - It's time to haul out the grilling apron (with the silly saying on it), long handled tongs and spatula, the brass brush and fire up the grill.

If you are new to grilling or are an "old hand" that wants to try a few things anew please read this article. It is loaded with decades of admittedly amateur grilling advice.

I don't know about you, but there is just something about the smell of a fire that is akin to the finest perfume combined with the wonderful earth smells I associate with nature.

There is just something primal about it all. But whatever I cook on the grill it has to end up tasting good, so there are a number of things I do to ensure a tasty burger, roast or rack of ribs.

A Grilling Horror Story

Recently a three million dollar home in Malibu burned to the ground when the renter neglected to quench the coals in the bottom of his grill.

The problem? Rust had rotted out the bottom of his grill and he hadn't noticed. Hot coals spilled out of the rusty holes and set the wooden second floor decking alight.

The family of four barely got out in time, but the beach front home was a total loss. The problem of course was (in my opinion) poor grill maintenance.

Why bring this up? When resorting to this ancient cooking technique taking care of the fire after cooking is still very important. Fire is an indiscriminate destroyer even today.

Considerations in Grill Choice

It's all about size and materials

Grill Size
You don't have to spend a small fortune on a grill if you don't already have one. Some very small grills indeed, under fourteen inches in diameter, can be big enough for a group of four people and cost less than twenty bucks. If you cook in shifts, in other words cook one batch, keep the first batch warm in an oven, and cook the next batches, you can cook for a substantial crowd on a small grill.

Grill Outer Material
What is the grill made of? Well there are a lot of options, all of them metal of course, but in that narrow range of elements you can get aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron, carbon steel, or enamel coated mild steel.

Granted most "professional" grills are made of stainless steel, but I suspect this is because pros want to look good cooking their wares so they buy a grill that looks sharp just sitting there. That said some of the best grills around are still made from a fifty-five gallon drum (an oil barrel) with a four inch diameter pipe sticking out of the top for a chimney. You can also fix one heck of a meal on a hibachi.

The truth is the material is important, but not as important as its upkeep. Stainless can be mistreated so badly that it will corrode or just be impossible to keep clean. Enamel coated mild steel can be maintained so well that even after five years it still looks new.

The trick is to keep it clean and monitor the grill for wear.

So what is the best grill? The one you like the look of. Just bear in mind that you will want a material that is easy to maintain, a grill size that will accommodate the number of guests you plan to invite and the fuel source.

Grill Grating
Grill grating has recently been narrowed down to four materials. Chrome plated steel, carbon steel, enameled mild steel strip and cast iron bar. All of these wear well and function properly. Regardless of what the grill grating is made of however, it will get better and better over time as more and more food is cooked on it. Chrome and carbon steel grill grating is typically thick round cross-section wire that is welded together at regular intervals to keep the surface level. Enameled steel and cast iron tend to be rather thicker grating with a flat cross section (giving you bigger grill marks). These are easier to clean than round wire grating.

What is the Best Grill Fuel?

Convenience or Tradition

This is a contentious issue. There are some proponents that insist that the best fuel is propane. Others are adamant that natural gas (which is usually cheaper than propane) is the only fuel to use. Still others are emphatic about charcoal. Everyone is a purist.

What you need to know as a new griller is what will work best for you! Do you want convenience and better temperature control? Go with gas.

Do you want the challenge of cooking over a "real" fire? Go with charcoal. Pretty simple.

The Fuel is a Matter of Convenience
This is really a matter of ease of use. If you want to be able to turn the grill off at will and also control the internal temperature, the better choice is gas. If you like the smoky flavor and enjoy the challenge of cooking on a temperature variable grill charcoal is the clear champion.

Gas GrillGas
Propane and natural gas have nearly identical burning characteristics. The main advantage of using one over the other is the cost of the fuel. However, this is a choice you want to make before purchasing your grill. Some gas grills let you chose between propane or natural gas by simply turning a knob; no additional cost to you. Others will require a conversion kit to use natural gas and these kits can run anywhere from $50 to $100. This is an important question to ask when making a purchase decision so bear it in mind. You never know when you might want to switch gas fuels.

It never hurts to ask your supplier if the gas grill you are looking at will take either type of gas or if a conversion kit is required. If they don’t know the answer you are probably better off shopping elsewhere.

Beyond that the two fuel types generate the same general basic temperatures and have roughly the same cooking performance.

A key advantage to gas fuel is that the temperature of the grill can be kept consistent and you don't have to keep dumping raw coals on top of burning coals to maintain the temperature. Also, once you are done cooking you simply turn the grill off just as you would your oven in the kitchen.

Charcoal GrillingCharcoal
Charcoal is a whole other animal. It has a finite burn time (adjusted by adding more coals or using hardwood charcoal) which may not be as much time as you need to cook. Also charcoal progressively generates less heat as it burns down into ash.

Despite these disadvantages some people prefer charcoal simply because of the flavor burning wood imparts to the grilled items. I'm one of those people.

It's Important to Know
Regardless it is very important to know what fuel type you are going to settle on before you buy your grill. You will want to purchase the "right" grill primarily by the fuel type you choose to use. The second consideration is size and the third is the overall material. This last is an important maintenance consideration, not one regarding the quality of the cooking.

But this last consideration is almost unimportant if you take good care of your grill by cleaning it regularly and keeping it out of the weather.

Some Common Grill Types

Kettle Grill
Kettle Grill
WikiCommons
"Oil Drum" Grill
"Oil Drum" Grill
WikiCommons
Propane Smoker
Propane Smoker
WikiCommons
Propane Gas Grill
Propane Gas Grill
WikiCommons

And The Winner Is...

Whatever suits your needs and provides you with the right combination of convenience and function is the right grill for you. And so you know, smoky flavor is not the sole domain of a charcoal grill. With a touch of trickery you can get smoke on your gas grill too. For that reason you should not limit yourself to charcoal if your time is limited and you don't want the additional hassles of dealing with ashes, burned down coals, and gradually decreasing temperatures.

I would strongly advise asking friends that use a grill for their advice on choice. Certainly ask more than one and while you are at it ask them why the like the grill, dislike the grill, and what they would change about it if they could.

Grilling Tricks

Fast Low Smoke Briquette Starting

For years I would pile my briquettes into a pyramid, douse them with lighter fluid, and risk every hair on my forearms attempting to start the pile. Then I’d stand there, breathing fuel fumes just to make sure the pile lit properly. A nasty business at best.

Charcoal Chimney StarterThen my brother, who is a master cook if I must admit it, told me about the charcoal chimney starter (see picture left). You load it with charcoal, put a single sheet of newspaper in the bottom, set the entire thing on your grill, and light the paper through the holes on the bottom.

This works beautifully, doesn’t stink, doesn’t smoke as much, and most astounding of all, get’s all the coals lit at almost the same time. It is also much easier to control where the coals go when you dump the contents of the chimney. Brilliant!

Smoky Flavor on Gas

Do you want the smoke flavor, but are using a gas grill? No problem; get a small pan, just a few inches square, put your favorite wood (soaked in water overnight) in that pan, and set the pan on the burners. Problem solved.

Retain Meat Moisture on Coals

This is a trick I use when cooking a rack of ribs. I start with a really hot fire, and sear both sides of the ribs. This might take as much as five minutes per side, but no more.

I then remove the ribs and upper grill rack and place a stainless or carbon steel bowl filled halfway with water on the coals. I then replace the grill and ribs and allow them to cook, turning every ten minutes, for a half or three quarters of an hour.

I have also used a mixture of soya sauce, Worcestershire, and water in that bowl to impart some additional flavor to the ribs. It works beautifully and your ribs, or any other cut for that matter, will come out cooked, moist, and tender.

The moisture wafting up from the bowl helps keep moisture in the ribs.

British Thermal Units or BTUs

Why do I need to know this?

Lately I've seen the BTU figure on a lot of grills. This is all well and good, but for most of us the figure is downright meaningless. Consider it a marketing ploy and move on.

For example, Weber, the de facto standard for both gas and charcoal grills, never lists BTUs. Why is that? It's really unimportant!

Coda

Buyer Beware

Outdoor grilling has become a mufti-million dollar per year industry. If you consider that outdoor grilling is confined to roughly three or four months out of the year, that is pretty impressive.

Go to any store supplying grilling goods and you'll find grills, gadgets, utensil sets, chef apron and hats, special wooden "planks" for cooking fish, gadgetized doodads for cooking the perfect whole bird, fish grilling racks and so on.

As clever as many of these things are, quite a few are unnecessary. Sure it's important to get long handled utensils because burned hands and fingers are not the object of outdoor grilling. For example, I’ve seen some beautiful sets, but it never fails that at least one of the five items really isn’t that well designed; the spatula is too narrow, the fork too short, or the included knife on a long handle is just pointless. Really the basics are best and I, for one, don't feel they have to match. The best tools often don't.

You also don't have to buy some specialized fish rack just for fish. It's important that the design is one that will last a long time and have capacity for other types of food. A clam-shell fish grilling rack should also be able to accommodate chili peppers, baby corn, carrots, or other items that might fall through the grill otherwise. In other words, buying a fish grilling gadget that conforms to the shape of the fish is totally impractical for grilling any other small item. Get the most out of your tools. Make them pull double-duty or avoid them altogether.

Just remember that a lot of the doohickeys out there are designed and packaged for impulse buying and may not even serve the purpose they were "designed" for.

Updated: 06/24/2013, LiamBean
 
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