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Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Art of the Outdoor Grill

Let's encourage the return of warm weather with a piece from thirteen years ago that needed little updating.


IT TURNS OUT THAT I didn’t know anything about grilling at all. Oh, sure, we’ve long had a nice kettle unit, and year after year would dump in charcoal briquets, squirt in some fluid, wait for white coals and sizzle away.

Then my cousin Billy Ray showed up. He’s from the south – suffice it to say I’m a Hatfield descendent – and he regarded my outdoor setup with an expression that shriveled my burgers in shame.

“You haven’t got a clue, now, have you?” he asked in a no-nonsense tone. “Tomorrow we’re going to git you started and have some barbecue.”

He intended it to be a celebration, which is, after all, the provenance of barbecue. When Spanish explorers first spotted Caribbeans grilling whole pigs in a lattice of green wood suspended over a smoking pit, they adapted the native word for it into barbacoa, whence our term. As near as anyone can figure, it’s always been a slow cooking process because tougher meats were usually being grilled into submission.

Distributing the heat is important. Capturing it also helps, which is where the Weber grill comes in. In 1951, George Stephen, working for Weber Metal Products, bent a couple of pieces of metal and fashioned a kettle grill with a tall, snug lid. Domelike Weber grills have been going strong ever since, and the company recently put together Weber’s Art of the Grill (Chronicle Books), a compendium of good grill advice and lots of imaginative recipes.

If you get really stuck, Weber also has a telephone help line that’s staffed daily from 7 AM to 11 PM CST, year-round except for Christmas and New Year’s (1-800-GRILLOUT).

Marge, a supervisor at the help desk, told me that she gets lots of calls from people who want to share their best recipes (“and we don’t always agree,” she laughed). This year, she said, sales of gas grills have for the first time surpassed those of charcoal grills. “That’s because people are getting more and more impatient.”

Impatient northerners corrupted the grilling process. Sure, you don’t need to do any fancy cooking to produce a reasonable hamburger, but what else are you eating? Charcoal briquettes are made of sawdust that’s been turned to carbon, burning away wood flavor. The binding material can include coal and petroleum products, and there are any number of chemicals mixed. Those briquettes that boast of hardwood flavors are simply studded with bits of the wood in question. Here’s a surprise: our national charcoal industry was started by Henry Ford, who built Model T bodies of hardwood and turned the leftovers into charcoal. At first for it was distributed for industrial use, but a clamor from consumers led to more widespread availability – they were sold at Ford dealers. Eventually, that division spun off and became Kingsford.

You can get natural briquettes that use vegetable starches for binding. But my preference is for lump hardwood charcoal. It burns hotter, so you’ve got to watch the stuff, but the flavor is so much better than those briquettes.

Don’t use charcoal lighter fluid. Grab a charcoal chimney and you can light your briquettes from crumpled newspaper, saving you and your food from the unpleasant petroleum taste of the fluid.

How to arrange the coals? Decide if you need to do direct or indirect cooking. Direct is for foods that cook quickly, typically thinner than an inch and a half. Hamburgers and hot dogs, for instance. A thicker steak should be seared, then cooked in a covered kettle. (Use that lid, by the way, to speed up cooking time, but don’t peek! Every time you look in, you’re losing many minutes of cooking time.

Indirect cooking is for roasts or whole slabs of fish. Arrange the coal into two banks and put a drip pan in the middle, to which you can add seasonings.

Those coals are ready for direct cooking if you can hold your hand six inches away from the fire for no longer than three seconds. Indirect should be cooler – you get six seconds to feel it in your hand. And don’t try this indoors! Grills give off carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Finally, remember to take a wire brush to the grill rack. Especially if fish has been in the picture

Wood chips can really make a difference. They used to be hard to find, but now you can find at least mesquite in supermarkets and hardware stores. Be sure to soak them for half an hour before dumping them onto the coals. Here’s a rundown of what we’ve enjoyed.
  • Alder: Gives it sweetness. This is used for an annual salmon dinner in the Pacific Northwest
  • Apple and cherry: Fruity, of course, but a great component of the smokey flavor you want in your turkey or chicken.
  • Ash: A very light, distinctive flavor that’s good with red meats.
  • Birch: Kind of “woodsy.” Good for poultry and pork.
  • Grapevine: A classic – and it grows by my house! Very tart, but with a fruit finish.
  • Hickory: One of the classics. Sweet but assertive. Goes with everything.
  • Maple: Mellow but smoky; think of this with vegetables or sturdy cheeses.
  • Mesquite: Beware its hot burn. The pungent, earthy flavor it imparts is a good all-around addition.
  • Oak: If you can’t find mesquite, this may be in your yard. A lighter version.
  • Pecan: Is to hickory as oak is to mesquite. Sweet and with a nutty flavor.
The stuff we grilled, by the way, was delicious. Cooked it over hickory for a couple of hours and couldn’t have been happier. “The real McCoy,” Billy Ray assured me.

Metroland Magazine, May 20, 1999


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