Now that I’ve cleared up the differences between grilling and barbecuing, let’s examine the gear-the grills and accessories-you need available for live-fire cooking.
Charcoal or Gas?
The great debate over the merits of charcoal versus gas has raged ever since utility companies introduced the first gas grills (built-in pedestal models) in the 1950s. Charcoal grills can be time-consuming, unpredictable, and messy-all reasons why grill buffs love them. Most professionals favor charcoal over gas.
The vast majority of cooks I met on the global barbecue trail cook over either wood or charcoal. This is certainly in part because of the flavor, but there’s an economic explanation as well. Charcoal is readily available in the Third World, and a charcoal grill can be fashioned from materials scavenged from the trash heap. In other words, charcoal grilling requires very little capital investment. When used properly, a charcoal grill produces a clean, high heat you simply can’t achieve with propane.
But gas grills have their partisans-among them some very high profile chefs. Michelin three-star chef Alain Ducasse made gas the fuel of the high-tech, multiple-spit grills he designed for his acclaimed restaurants, Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Alain Ducasse in Paris. The chefs at what is arguably the most famous grill in Tokyo, the inimitably theatrical Inakaya, cook their robatayaki over tiny high-tech gas grills. And whatever we Americans may profess in public, the most recent reports show that we buy more gas grills than charcoal.
I own several charcoal grills and can wax as grandiloquent about their virtues and idiosyncrasies as the next guy. But I have to admit that for a workday dinner, I’m more likely to fire up one of our gas grills. Sure, I miss poking the coals around and waltzing the food from hot spots to cold spots. But the push-button ignition, even heat, and ease of cleaning make up for the lack of sport.
Why use gas? In a single word, convenience. Gas grills require no messy charcoal, no special ignition devices, no 40 minutes spent lighting and preheating. (A gas grill preheats in less than 15 minutes.) A gas grill is easier to control and provides a steadier, more even heat than charcoal. It also lasts longer without replenishing: A standard propane tank will give you 12 to 18 hours of nonstop grilling. Besides, you can cover most gas grills, turning them into smokers and indirect cookers.
So why doesn’t everyone use a gas grill? Well, gas does have a few drawbacks. You can’t get gas to burn quite as hot as charcoal (especially when the latter is fanned), although there is a new generation of gas grills that burn hotter than ever before. Gas is inherently flavorless. The "grilled" flavor you get from a gas grill comes from charring the meat the "smoke" flavor results when the fat and meat juices burn on the "Flavorizer" bars or lava stones. Gas heat is also a slightly wet heat (when propane is burned, it releases carbon dioxide and water), and purists feel that this moisture adulterates the texture of the meat.
Besides, charcoal has a host of advantages, not the least of which is the thrill most males experience when they set something on fire. Charcoal grilling is a more interactive experience than gas grilling, which makes it, in the eyes of many barbecue buffs, more fun. Charcoal burns hotter than gas and can be "turbocharged" by oxygenating it (ventilating it) with a fan. Indeed, in many parts of the world-especially Asia-the fan or blower is an important item in the grill jockey’s toolbox. To the extent that charcoal contains wood, it also generates a natural smoke flavor.
Charcoal grills are cheaper to buy than gas and can be improvised when commercially manufactured grills aren’t available. The year I traveled through Europe after college, I took one piece of cooking equipment in my backpack: a wok. Whenever I wanted to barbecue, I simply lined it with foil and filled it with charcoal or briquets.
Which grill to buy depends on your personality and lifestyle.
If you enjoy building and tending a fire, if you’re interested in the actual process of grilling, not just the results, a charcoal grill is definitely for you. If you’re more convenience-oriented and time-starved (and who isn’t these days?), you’ll probably prefer the push-button ease of a gas grill. Better yet, buy one of each.
Types of Grills
As grill fever continues to sweep North America, an ever-increasing selection of grills-from portable kettle grills to jumbo built-ins, from simple hibachis to high-tech gas grills-has become available. Here’s a look at the basic styles, starting with the smallest.
hibachi: This small, portable charcoal grill, originally from Japan, is one of the world’s best designed live-fire cooking devices. Making a virtue of simplicity, the hibachi consists of a rectangular or oval firebox (traditionally made of a heavy metal, like cast iron, for even heat conduction) surmounted by one or two metal grates. The hibachi is designed for the direct high-heat grilling of teriyaki, kebabs, satés, and small cuts of meat. The cooking temperature is controlled by air vents near the bottom and by raising and lowering the grate. The saté grills of Indonesia and the braziers of Turkey and North Africa are variations on the hibachi.
table grill also known as the Australian grill or Argentinian grill: This long, narrow grill (4 to 6 feet long, 1 1/2 to 2 feet wide) looks like a table surmounted by a grate. Legs or a trolley platform hold the grilling surface at waist height for comfortable cooking. Charcoal versions have a shallow firebox for the coals and an adjustable grate. Gas versions feature thermostatic heat control. Table grills are used for the direct high-heat cooking of large numbers of steaks, chops, shrimp, and lobster. You often find them at communal or charity barbecues. When Australians speak of barbecue grills, this is what they mean.
Kettle grill: This uniquely American grill has a deep rounded bowl with a grate in the bottom for holding the charcoal (or wood chunks) and a grate on top for the food. The lid is also bowl-shaped, which allows you to turn the grill into a smoker (when you use wood chips) or an outdoor oven. Kettle grills can be used for direct high-heat grilling, but what makes them unique is their ability to do indirect grilling and barbecuing. To this end, the best kettle grills have hinged grates for easy access to the coals and slotted side baskets that hold the charcoal for indirect grilling. The cooking temperature is controlled by vents on the bottom and in the lid. Kettle grills come in both round and square designs.
55-Gallon Steel Drum Grill: This variation on the kettle grill is especially popular on the professional barbecue circuit. A couple of hours of welding is all it takes to cut a 55-gallon industrial steel drum in half lengthwise and install legs, a chimney, a grate, and hinges and handles for raising and lowering the lid. The hefty size of these grills enables you to cook large cuts of meats (including whole pigs). It’s also easy to build a fire on one side of the drum (or in a separate firebox) for the smoky, low-heat, indirect cooking needed to make fall-off-the-bone-tender barbecue. Variations on the 55-gallon steel drum grill include the smaller 10-gallon versions made from propane tanks, common in the Caribbean, and the jumbo 200- or 500-gallon versions made from furnace oil tanks, popular at barbecue festivals.
Gas Grill: Another American in-vention, the gas grill consists of a metal box lined with tube-shaped liquid-propane burners. Surmounting these burners is a heating surface, sometimes a row of inverted V-shaped metal bars, sometimes lava stones or ceramic briquets. Propane has no flavor of its own as it burns, but a smoke flavor is created when the meat juices and melting fat sizzle on the stones or metal bars. These days, most gas grills have two or three separate cooking zones, so you can set them up for indirect grilling.
Built-in Grill: These brick or stone behemoths began to appear in the 1950s, the golden age of backyard barbecue. There are two types: the raised hearth style with a built-in chimney and the southern-style barbecue pit. The former-charcoal- or wood-burning-was designed for the direct high-heat grilling of steaks, chicken, and burgers. The latter was built for the long, slow smoke-cooking essential to making barbecue. With the increased mobility of the American family (the average American moves once every four years), built-ins have largely disappeared, and I must say I miss them. They gave me the sense of comfort and community I feel when I sit in front of a fireplace. However, a new generation of built-ins has started to appear-a veritable high-tech outdoor cooking center that’s as likely to be fueled by propane or natural gas as by wood or charcoal.
The Scoop on Accessories
Owning the right accessories won’t automatically make you a great griller, but it’s a lot harder to be one without them. Here are the essentials and the not-so-essential-but-usefuls. One excellent mail-order source for grilling accessories is the Grill Lover’s Catalog, published by Char-Broil, P.O. Box 1300, Columbus, GA 31902-1300 (800) 241-8981.
- Chimney starter (if you have a charcoal grill):
- Wire brush for cleaning the grate
- Two or more sets of long-handled tongs. (I particularly like the spring-loaded tongs sold at restaurant supply houses and cookware shops)
- One or more long-handled spatulas, preferably with crooked (offset) blades
- Two long-handled basting brushes (natural bristles, please nylon will melt. You may also want to invest in a mop-style baster, which looks like a miniature mop)
- One set of heavy-duty oven mitts
- Three sharp knives: chef’s (8 to 12 inches), paring, and carving
- Carving fork
- Instant-read meat thermometer
- Disposable aluminum foil drip pans (these are essential for indirect cooking and barbecuing and are also useful for soaking wood chips and holding marinates. They are available at just about any supermarket)
- Roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil
- Roll of paper towels
- Water pistol (useful for taming flare-ups)
- Plastic or rubber gloves (wear them when you rub spices into pork and ribs)
- An assortment of metal and bamboo skewers
- Stopwatch or timer
- Portable spotlight for grilling at night (there’s nothing harder than grilling when you can’t see the food)
- Dry spray-type fire extinguisher
- A flat vegetable grate or basket grill with small holes that allow the smoke and flames to pass through but keep the vegetable pieces from falling through the grate
- A hinged fish grilling basket that allows you to grill and turn a whole fish
- A motorized rotisserie that mounts on the grill (it’s great for whole chickens and legs of lamb)
- A larding iron, a long slender tool with a V-shaped blade that enables you to insert strips of ham, cheese, or vegetables into a roast
- An electric spice mill (looks like a coffee grinder)-great for grinding whole spices to make rubs that taste like they mean it
- A meat grinder like grandma used to use (a grinder works much better than a food processor for grinding meat)
- A kitchen syringe-useful for injecting bastes into turkey breasts, pork roasts, and other dry meats to moisturize them from the inside
- A sprayer or mister for basting grilled meats with vinegar or other flavorings. Use the commonplace garden variety for vinegar. One company makes a mister you can use with olive oil-Liquid Motion, Inc., 109 Kettle Creek, Weston, CT 06883 phone: (203) 226-6981
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