The sweet smell of summer is food over flame.
Barbecuing has gone way beyond burgers, brats and hot dogs. There are stones for pizza. And cedar, alder and red oak planks for fish and steaks. Plus skillets for brownies and tarts. The newest cookbooks even have barbecue breakfast recipes: eggs, hash and French toast.
The good thing about grilling is that no matter your type — charcoal, gas or electric — you can cook anything outdoors. Barrett and Abbey Kroll of Prairie Village, Kan., exercise that right.
“The whole idea for us is that when we’re grilling, nothing gets cooked inside,” says Barrett Kroll, an architect who received a grill from his father as a wedding gift. “Unless it’s freezing, we’re outside enjoying it. I’ll even grill in the rain.”
Gas grills — many in stainless steel that mimic the look of kitchen appliances — have been the most popular for years because of their quick starting time. They accounted for 57 percent of sales in 2010, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. But barbecue store employees and manufacturers say charcoal grills are starting to outsell their gas competitors.
“The first year we were open, gas was practically all we sold,” says Dan Hathaway, manager of the Kansas City BBQ Store next to Oklahoma Joe’s in Olathe. “But now, we’re just selling a handful. You can’t beat the flavor from a charcoal grill.”
Barbecuing began over a wood fire. The flavor is great, but a wood log fire creates lots of smoke and requires waiting an hour or more for flames to die down and the embers to reach a manageable level of heat. Charcoal is pre-burned wood. Briquettes reach ideal grilling temperatures faster than wood and with less smoke. It takes 15 or 20 minutes using a chimney starter to heat up a charcoal grill.
Kroll’s grill is charcoal, an American-made Hasty-Bake that includes an oven and smoker.
“That char taste is incredible,” Kroll says. “We love rib-eyes. But pizzas are fun, too, with fresh herbs and vegetables. The key is using really fresh mozzarella. That cheese really soaks up the char flavor.”
Yes, grilling has grown up. Practically no one makes the rookie mistake anymore of dipping meat in barbecue sauce before putting it on the grill, says Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
“They know sugar and tomatoes are going to burn,” she says. “People know about dry rubs and marinades. They want sophisticated layers of flavors.”
Bodum, the manufacturer of colorful, modern housewares, started making grills this past year. The company resurrected a 1962 cone-shaped design, available in colors including lime green and orange enamel. The company added a battery-driven rotisserie to make the grill “a little more fun,” says Thomas Perez, president of Bodum USA and Canada.
“We plan to keep expanding because barbecuing has become year-round and used for all types of meals,” Perez says. “New grilling customers are in their 20s and 30s, many of them women. So the grill has to look good, too. Fashionable, even.”
Barbecue tools are being aimed at the text generation, too. The iGrill is a Bluetooth-enabled meat thermometer that works with an iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone. A free application downloaded from the Apple Store enables the griller to set alarms and timers, find recipes and remotely monitor the thermometer. The device costs $100 and comes with 4 AA batteries and one probe. A second probe costs $20.
The nonprofit Consumer Reports’ verdict: “The iGrill is iGood. The app was easy to use, the temperature readings were fairly accurate, and our iPhone could connect with the device from as far away as 300 feet. The iGrill delivers a high ‘geek factor’ experience. Whether it’s worth about $60 more than other wireless meat thermometers is up to you.”
New totable electric grills also are unfolding on the scene, filling a growing niche of apartment dwellers and condo owners who aren’t permitted to use charcoal or gas on their patios or balconies. Hathaway says one of the popular tech tools for grilling is the BBQ Guru, which introduces air to charcoal to better maintain the temperature. The gadget (about $300 for a system) is a small but turbo-powered blower system that is turned on and off by the microprocessor’s embedded control algorithm. This means, according to the company, “You can leave a large brisket or pork shoulder on your charcoal grill before you go to work in the morning. And after work, as the guests are arriving, your meal is cooked to perfection.”
Charcoal cooking is making a comeback in the past couple of years. It surpasses gas in flavor and price categories, but it takes 15 minutes or so to get the charcoal ready.
A new model is the Bodum Frykat Cone Grill (available in green, red, black and orange, $180, www.amazon.com). The funnel shape includes a traditional grill top with a removable battery-operated rotisserie.
One of the biggest considerations with a grill is the size of the cooking surface. What Weber recommends: 18½-inch diameter for a couple; 22½ inches for a family of four and at least 26¾ inches for more.
Read the whole recipe before you grill. Be prepared for times required for marinating meats or letting charcoal burn down to low temperatures. Plan to use those times for other steps.
Before you grill, assemble all ingredients and tools nearby. Running back to the kitchen wastes time and it can be risky to leave food unattended.
Use a chimney starter for charcoal grilling. It’s an upright metal cylinder with a handle on the outside and a wire rack inside. To use, fill the space under the wire rack with wadded newspaper, and then fill the space above the rack with briquettes.
Prep food while preheating the grill. You can get a lot done in those 15 minutes. Just don’t forget to light the grill first.
Grill with the lid closed as much as possible. The heat reflecting off the lid helps cook food from both sides, which shortens the grilling time.
Don’t overcrowd the grill. You should leave about a third of the grill free for maneuvering your food from place to place. Otherwise, you might need to take food off the grill and slow the cooking.
Brush the cooking grates clean while they’re warm. It’s faster and easier to use a steel brush on a hot grate than a cold one.
More electric grills are becoming available as more of us downsize and live in condos and apartments that don’t permit charcoal or gas grilling. They’re also good for wooden decks. They plug into a standard electrical outlet and take 10 minutes or so to heat up. The Outdoor Electric Grill with VersaStand by Cuisinart ($180, www.cuisinart.com) features telescoping legs so that it can reach standard or tabletop height, plus knock down for compact storage inside the house. It’s best for a single person or couple; the grilling surface holds six burgers.
Gas is the king of quick, the grilling equivalent of microwave cooking. But after a long day at the office, it is nice to simply lift the lid, turn on the gas and light the burners. Gas grills of all price levels are available in stainless steel with one or more burners. Lightweight portable models go camping, tailgating and to picnics, like the Element Portable Grill by Fuego ($149, www.amazon.com).
Weber recommends a grill with one or two burners for a couple, three or four burners for a family of four, six burners for more.
The average gas grill lasts only 3.6 years, according to Consumer Reports. Routine maintenance and savvy fixes could save hundreds or even thousands of dollars over buying a new one.
Check: Firebox interior and exterior. You can remove light corrosion with a stainless-steel brush, but extensive rust or cracks usually mandate a new grill.
Fasteners. Push gently against the grill in different directions. If it bends or shifts, see if the problem is a missing or corroded fastener. If so, you can find the part number in your owner’s manual or on the manufacturer’s website.
Burner tubes. If you see cracks or holes, replace. They average about $25.
Grates. Cracked or rusted porcelain-coated grates must be replaced. Bare-cast grates need to be periodically oiled to prevent rust.
Drip pans. Check for cracks and corrosion, and replace if necessary. Don’t line in aluminum foil; grease can start fire.
All grill types:
Clean the cooking grates. With the grill on high (either right before cooking or right after) brush the grates with a long-handled, stainless steel brush. Keep them covered when they’re not in use.
Charcoal: When the grill is cold, remove the ash from the bowl. Because the ash naturally contains a small amount of moisture, it is important to get the ash out of the bowl each time you use it and before storing the grill. Wipe the inside of the bowl with a warm, wet sponge. This will help prevent carbon build-up inside the lid.
Electric: When grill is warm but not hot, use a wet, soapy sponge to wipe the inside of the lid. Remove the grates. Use a plastic putty knife or spatula to scrape grease from the bottom of the grill. If your grill has a drip pan, scrape bits into it and dispose of them.
Wipe the inside of the grill with a warm, damp sponge, being careful not to get the heating element wet.
Gas: When grill is warm but not hot, use a wet, soapy sponge to wipe the inside of the lid.
Remove the grates and brush the metal bars that shield the burners to eliminate flare-ups.
Gently clean the burner tubes with a brush. Use a plastic putty knife or spatula to scrape grease from the bottom of the grill. If your grill has a drip pan, scrape bits into it and dispose of them. Wash the inside of the grill with warm, soapy water. Don’t get water in the burner tubes.
Metal mesh. Grilling baskets are handy for small bits of food like seafood and vegetables. (Bobby Flay, $50, Kohl’s)
Cast-iron cookware. Griddles for pancakes and eggs. Even woks for stir-frying. (Wok by Weber, $60, store.weber.com)
Meatball makers. Whether they’re beef, pork, chicken, turkey or lamb, these small spheres of diverse flavors are big. (Holds a dozen, Sur La Table, $20)
Flexible FireWire. The skewers bend for easy, even marinating and can be shaped to fit on the grill better. (Set of four, $25, www.target.com)
The electric Kalorik includes an iPod/MP3 connection, 10-watt speaker and FM/AM radio so you can chill while you grill. It is perfect for the patio and can be used indoors, too ($250, www.kohls.com).