Grills and Smokers

                                                         The Basics

No matter your skill level or experience with cooking, the basics start with a grill, fuel, and flame.  For the purpose of this discussion a grill can be any container fabricated for the purpose of retaining heat to cook meat.  The world over barbecuing is a pastime that brings friends and family together, whether cooked over an open pit, on a spit, conventional smoker, grill, or kalua (Hawaiian traditional earthen oven used for cooking pork) where there is meat and flame you will always find good friends gathered to pay homage to the gods of barbecue.

Depending on your addiction or pursuit to amaze your friends and family with mouthwatering cuts of meat, identifying your conveyance is the first step.  For most beginners, or even the experienced pit master, deciding on what method to use is often of much debate. Will you chose electric, gas, charcoal, wood, pellet, or lava rock (yes, lava rock, we will get to that later in a future post). Deciding what to pick often depends on where you live, how much space you have, your skill level, and even local HOA rules or City ordinances.  With the right preparation great mouthwatering barbecue can be achieved using any of the above mentioned methods.

                                                           The Grill
Charcoal
The most commonly recognized grill found in backyards across America is the kettle style grill. It provides any user with the most basic controls to allow for amazing food preparation, and its round construction allows for the knights to circle the round table and consult the king of the grill while consuming their favorite brew.
                                                          
 Kettle Style grills are relatively abundant and can be found in any big box store from most notably Webber.  This style of grill’s primary fuel source is charcoal and based on the model, may include a separate metal box that can be used for wood chips when indirect cooking to impart smoke on your meat.  A major consideration when looking at charcoal grills is the type of charcoal available in your area, and the safety concerns over the use of lighter fluid in the process of getting your fire started.  I prefer natural lump charcoal and I use crumpled up paper under a charcoal chimney starter.  It takes a little longer for the coals to heat up, but it avoids imparting any aftertaste on your meat. Natural lump charcoal, such as Royal Oak 195228071 Lump Charcoal, 1/8.8-Pound, will also burn hotter and faster than compressed briquettes, so ensure you have enough on hand for an extended cook.  If you love the taste of meat cooked over charcoal, and only have room for 1 grill, then this is where you should start.

Gas
For those who love propane and propane accessories, there is the gas grill (which most can also be adapted to CNG to forgo a refillable tank).  Gas grills come in all shapes and sizes and range in price typically from $89 to several thousand dollars.    Gas grills are great for beginners and experienced alike as they provide a wide range of heat that is easily adjusted and requires little time or effort to set-up and get cooking.  Some considerations that must be taken into account when selecting a gas grill are BTUs (British Thermal Units), this refers to a unit of energy that is needed to cool or heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit, grilling surface area, and materials used in the construction of the grill.  Don’t be sold on a grill that boasts high BTUs without considering the cooking surface, and materials as an oversized grill that is poorly constructed will no effectively provide heat or retain it for consistent cooking performance.  Realistically for every 100 square inches of cooking surface, the grill should be capable of providing 100 BTUs (500 square inches of cooking surface = 50,000 BTUs). The bigger the grill, the more BTUs needed, and the more fuel consumed to maintain heat (this is true for any type of grill/smoker).

                                                         

 The materials used to construct the grill are very important and can be the difference between a grill that lasts a lifetime or one season.  Grills constructed of metal and coated with high temp paint are relatively inexpensive and if maintained, can last for a number of years. Over time these grills will form surface rust which has to be sanded down requiring a new coat of high temp paint.  While not a major issue, it is a condition of ownership to extend the life of your grill.  Stainless steel is a great material for constructing grills and not only holds up to extremely high temps, it can handle just about any weather that comes its way with minimal maintenance.  Stainless Steel grills are typically in the mid to high range for cost, but are low maintenance and will last a long time.  I highly recommend investing in a cover for either style if it is exposed to the elements.

Electric
Electric Grills….. Yes, I said electric.  This is not a new concept, they have been around for a number of years and typically consist of a heating element and ceramic plates or blocks that are used to retain the heat.  The heat is regulated in much the same way as an electric cooktop.  I KNOW, I KNOW, you are asking yourself why… The revitalization of many downtown areas and multiple story condominiums, hasn't restrained the desire of grillafants to cook outdoors, but  many local ordinances or HOA rules prevent sparking up a fire on a balcony (with good reason…).

                                                        

Electric Grills still allow for a great grilling experience, but without the risk of shooting flames (as long as you don’t dose the heating element in grease).  There are a number of manufacturers that offer electric grills and smokers that are affordable and will provide years of grilling satisfaction.  If your community has regulations with regards to grills, I would recommend seeking approval for use before purchasing a unit.

Wood
This next category is my favorite and in my opinion is as natural and primal as cooking meat can be without wearing a deerskin loin cloth at the opening of your cave…. Hmmm…. Naw, not sure the wife will go for moving into a cave, but maybe she will let me construct one in the backyard… Ok, wood fired grills and smokers, are in a category all their own, and most would not consider it, but should.  Whether you are cooking over direct heat on a Santa Maria style grill or using an offset smoker wood imparts an indisputably distinct flavor to anything you can imagine.  Meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables are all candidates for imparting the flavor of wood smoke.

This set-up is what I use, and with a little elbow grease and tweaking you will have an amazing smoker that will provide years of smoking satisfaction!  Mine is 3 years old and just getting warmed up...

                                            

The list of woods that are available, and the flavors they impart are a post all their own and will be covered at a later date.  Starting a wood fire takes some patience and strips of extremely dry kindling to help get the fire going.  I know the urge to douse the wood in lighter fluid will cross your mind, but I don’t want you to ruin your food with the afterburner taste of jet fuel… If you want to speed up the process heat up a chimney of lump charcoal and dump it on top of the wood ensuring there is enough airflow to feed the flames.  Commercially available wood fired grills and smokers have to be constructed to withstand the high temps generated by the burning of wood, so in terms of cost, they are in the mid to high range.  If you have the space and are thinking of building your own pit, the possibilities are limitless.     

Pellet
Pellet smokers are gaining in popularity due to the “set it and forget it” design of the units.  These smokers are not cheap, but for those desiring to smoke a cut of meat while they play a round of golf this is a good option.  They require very little fiddling and as long as there are pellets, it will continue to cook.  The pellets are pressed wood material that come in many varieties of wood to impart different flavors. 

                                                       

Future posts will describe information on specific makes/models as well as what type of grill should be used for a specific style of cooking.  Hope you have enjoyed this introduction and will tune in for future posts.