All about Grill and Barbecue Cookers
If you are going to be
the best cook on your block or in your town, you not only need to know
recipes, you need to know about the units you use for barbecue and those for the grill. And if you are a beginner, the information that follows will help you
buy, use, and maintain your cooker and be a better outdoor cook. And while
your neighbor keeps spending money every few years buying a new grill,
you can save money and keep using old faithful year after year. So read
There are two basic types
of backyard cookers, the grill type and the kettle type. The kettle type
is shaped like a bowl kettle on tripod legs, with a domed top. When the
top is on, the whole unit is ball shaped. These are charcoal burners,
and are designed with vents and draft controls that allow you to cook
as with a conventional grill and then, just before the BBQ is finished,
you can put the cover on,close the vents and the whole thing fills with
smoke which is wafted around and over the food, intensifying the smoky
charcoal flavor. They range from smaller units to a size that will accommodate
a 12 to 14 pound turkey.
Also, permanent, home-built
grills, constructed of stone, brick, or concrete blocks can be excellent
BBQs. It all depends on the skill of the builder. They are fairly simple
to build; all that is required is a place to build and bank the fire,
steel or iron bars to make the grill, and an area to set the food. The
better ones often have chimneys to increase the draft and I have seen
one that also had an oven built in, which did a marvelous job on bread
When the television show
"Dallas" was being written and produced, the writers figured
that since the setting was Texas, the wealthy family featured in the film
would BBQ in their backyard a lot, and so they contacted a manufacturer
to design a grill that would be appropriate for a super rich Texas oil
family to have in their back yard. The grill was designed and featured
in the show. The manufacturer decided to make it available for those in
the public sector who could afford it and it is now sold under the commercial
name of Par-T-Grill. It is a semi-permanent back yard structure that is
about 4 feet tall, 5 feet and 7 inches wide, and about 2 feet, 2 inches
deep, made of stainless steel. It burns at very high heat, has 445 square
inches of cooking surface, 2 main burners, 1 rotisserie burner, storage
cabinets, an ice chest and covered service areas. Don't ask what it costs,
'cause I don't know. —All I know is that I cannot afford one. Chances
are, you don't have anything like that either, so we will not go into
maintaining one of those.
Backyard grills come
as Charcoal, Gas, or Electric Units but, without a doubt, using charcoal
is the best and most flavorful way to BBQ. It is, of course, not as convenient
as gas but it gives the best heat, the best flame up (yes, you do want
flame-up for some recipes)and imparts the deepest smoky flavor to the
I absolutely do not recommend
electric grills! I have tested several over the years with unsatisfactory
the Charcoal Grill
If you have a charcoal
grill, getting it ready for summer is a breeze. First remove any old ash
or coals that may have (tsk-tsk!) been left over the winter and inspect
the bowl for cracks or holes. Small holes probably will not cause a problem,
at least for a season, but large holes or cracks mean you should discard
the unit, for safety's sake, and get a new one. If, however, there are
no large holes or cracks, use a solution of warm water, a good grease
cutting dishwashing liquid, and a stiff wooden or steel bristled brush
to clean the bowl, inside and out. Rinse well and let it air dry.
Now, this next step is
optional, but if you want to make the unit look new, trot on down to the
auto supply store and buy a large spray can of engine enamel paint. This
paint is designed to bake into a hard enamel when it is heated. In fact,
I used to use it to paint a new muffler system before I put it on a car.
I have had systems last for years because the paint protected the unit
from rust. But I digress. Now that you have chosen the color paint you
wish, apply it to the outside of your cooker and allow it to completely
dry. One can should be more than enough to do the whole unit.
Once the paint is dry,
place a half-bag of charcoal in the unit. Make sure you are completely
outside when you do this next step because the paint will give off a strong
paint and chemical odor as it bakes. Once you have the charcoal in the
unit, light it in the usual manner, replace the grill, and allow the charcoal
to completely burn away. The high heat will clean the grill by burning
away any residue and your old unit will now have a nice, shiny coat of
enamel paint baked right onto it. If you are not sure whether the paint
odor is completely burnt away or not, repeat the process again. Of course,
you don't have to paint it; just omit the painting step and do everything
else and you will have a clean grilling unit, ready to use. If you choose
to paint, however, be sure you do all these steps before cooking any food
on the grill. Otherwise, you will find the smell unpleasant, and your
food may be tainted with the paint odor.
Charcoal comes in two types. There is
hardwood charcoal and softwood charcoal. High quality charcoals are made
from Beech, Maple, Birch, Oak and Hickory woods. Hardwood briquettes are
the best because the high density of the wood itself greatly reduces the
amount of resins that may be present in the briquettes. Low resin content
results in briquettes with low tar which, therefore, smoke less and have
less odor. The briquettes burn more evenly, with no sputter, and produce
a more uniform heat level for efficient cooking.
Always store your unused
charcoal in a waterproof container and in a dry area because the briquettes
tend to absorb moisture. You haven't had frustration until you have tried
to get a decent fire from a bunch of damp charcoal.
How to Prepare a Charcoal Fire
To prepare your fire,
first line the fire box with heavy aluminum foil, shiny side up. This
serves two purposes; it helps make cleanup easier and the foil helps reflect
the heat upward toward the grill. However, commercial sand or gravels
can be used to line the bottom of the cooker before placing the charcoal.
I prefer the foil, because when all is cooled down, I can just fold it
up and drop it in the garbage. Nearly instant cleanup.
I build a charcoal fire
in this manner. First, take several sheets of newspaper and ball them
up. Six or eight balls (1 per sheet) of newspaper placed in the bottom
of the cooker will do nicely. Cover with several small pieces of softwood
kindling. Pile on the amount of charcoal you anticipate you will need,
stacked in a rough pyramid shape. Add liquid fire starter according to
manufacturer's instructions. Light the newspaper with a match or other
charcoal igniter. Warning: be prepared to light the charcoal as soon as
you finish applying the liquid starter. Do NOT let it stand for a few
minutes because vapors can build and create a flash fire explosion when
you insert an open flame. Also, do NOT spray starter directly from the
can onto a hot fire or surface as it may ignite and the flame can run
backwards up the stream and to the source of the liquid . . . . in this
case the can you are holding in your hand (of which you have become so
fond over the years).
Once the initial flame
dies down, you will notice little white corners and spots on the briquettes.
This signifies that the briquettes are starting to burn. Allow them to
stand until all the briquettes have turned white or ash gray. Depending
on the weather conditions, this can take half-hour or better. Once this
point has been reached, spread the now hot charcoal evenly over the bottom
of the cooker, set the grill in place, and commence cooking.
Since commercial charcoal
has little flavor, it is often desirable to add flavoring to anything
being grilled. One way to do this is to brush the meat during cooking
with a bit of liquid smoke which can be purchased in most major grocery
stores. Another way is to use wood shavings from hickory or other hardwood.
These are usually sold in bags at cookout supply stores and are simply
sprinkled atop the briquettes just before you are finished, where they
produce smoke that flavors whatever you are cooking. Mesquite is sometimes
used. Mesquite (pronounced MESS-keet) is a woody bush which grows in the
southwestern deserts of the United States and is cherished by many for
the unique flavor it produces on grilled meat.
If you happen to be using
a kettle type grill, when the wood or mesquite is added, place the cover
on, close all the vents, and let it sit for a few minutes or until the
food has cooked to your satisfaction. The advantage of the kettle grill
is that it traps the smoke and wafts it in a circular motion up, over
and around the food which heavily applies the flavor you desire. Kettle
grills are also convenient for cooking large items such as whole poultry
(turkeys included) or roasts.
It is a little-known fact, but Henry Ford, together with Thomas Alva Edison invented the charcoal briquette. Ford sold the patent to E. G. Kingsford who sold it commercially. A great boon for anyone who loves to grill.
Probably the most popular
units used in backyard cooking today are the gas grills. Gas grills are
rated by how many BTUs (British Thermal Units) of heat they put out per
unit of space. They can be purchased in a range of anywhere from 22,000
BTU up to 65,000 BTU. Obviously, you want to buy the best one you can
afford. The hotter they are, of course, the more expensive they are. I
would not recommend anything under 32,500 BTU but I doubt you really need
anything hotter than 52,000 BTU By all means, if you wish to pay the extra
price, go for 52,000, or more, but about 45,000 BTU is a good average
How a Gas Burner Works
A gas burner heats the
permanent 'briquettes'in the bottom (also called the 'tub' or the 'firebox')
of the grill. Food cooks from the heat evenly radiated from these hot
briquettes and it drips fats, oils and liquids on the hot 'coals' creating
smoke, and some flaming, from time to time. This enhances the foods with
the special smoky flavor associated with outdoor cooking.
The advantage of a gas
grill is you get the marvelous flavor of outdoor cooking combined with
absolute heat control and flexibility of a gas burner. You can vary the
heat, and have just the heat you need instantly by turning a knob.
There are two types of
gas grills. One type uses natural gas and one uses 'LP'(Liquid Propane)
gas. The construction of the grills is the same, but the orifice which
controls the gas is much larger for natural gas due to the differences
of heat emission between the two gases. Therefore, to be safe, you always
know and use the correct type for your grill. Something else you should
know is that liquid propane, when exposed to the air, will expand 27 times
its volume! This is why that little bottle you hook to your burner can
give you so many hours of cooking. If not treated properly, however, it
can also become a small, highly destructive bomb! Remember: roughly speaking,
1 gallon of LP in the bottle, is like 27 gallons in an explosion!
Gas grills are great
for the convenience of use. Turn the knob, push the starter button, set
the temperature and start cooking. However, the maintenance and cleanup
is a bit more involved than with an old charcoal cooker.
Maintaining the Grill
Now, if you are like
me and a lot of other folks, when the last season ended, you threw a cover
over the old grill, rolled it into the back of the garage or a shed (and
some of us even left them standing outside on the patio) and forgot about
it until the next cookout season rolls around. Well, the season is here
but before you just jump into firing up the old cooker, let's do a little
'tune up' for culinary sake and for safety's sake.
First, inspect the lava
grate (upon which the briquettes rest) to see if it is broken or about
to break. This often happens due to being subjected to the extreme changes
of heat. If broken, replace the grate.
Next, check the cooking
grid (or grill) and warming rack. If dirty, clean with a wire brush or
scraper to remove any built-up food residue and clean using a mild detergent
solution or a commercial degreaser after first carefully reading the instructions
on the label. If the grid is broken or severely chipped and gouged, replace
with a universal replacement or order from the company that made your
Now about briquettes.
First, if you noticed toward the end of the last season that you were
getting a lot of flare-up, or uneven heat distribution, you should discard
the old briquettes and get new ones. If the problem didn't exist or was
minimal, you can clean the briquettes. If you have the ceramic briquettes
(which I prefer) the easiest way to clean them is to dump them in your
sink, and cover them with vinegar. Let stand for 10 minutes. Drain off
the vinegar and rinse thoroughly with boiling water. Let dry thoroughly
If you have the porous
lava rock you might want to check with your local dealer about a commercial
cleaning solution. If they are more than two seasons old, you should replace
The Grill Igniter
If the igniter does not
seem to be functioning, check to make sure the electrode is 1/8th (one-eighth)
inch away from the burner. This is the correct distance for spark generation.
Check closely to ensure that no food residue has gotten on the electrode
or that the electrode is not cracked. Check the surrounding area of the
igniter to be sure that it is not shorting out or sparking at the grill
frame or the casting bottom. If none of these problems exist but it does
not spark, it is time to get a new igniter.
Clean and Inspect the Grill Burner
CAUTION: be sure
to consult the owner's manual for the instructions on how to remove the
burner. Also, before removing the burner, take
particular note of the position of the Venturi tube(s) at the gas control
instructions, remove the burner. Use a stiff brush to remove any residue
from the burner. Inspect closely for holes or cracks and note that these
occur most commonly at the burner seams. Unplug the burner ports (the
little holes along the edge of the burner) using a toothpick or a piece
of copper wire. You may also use a small nail, but be careful because
steel it is hard enough to damage the ports. If you encounter any kind
of damage, discontinue use immediately and replace the burner with a new
After sitting over the
winter, the Venturi tubes may contain dirt, spider webs, water or other
debris. These tubes may be cleaned by using bent pipe cleaners, a very
small bottle brush, or a special Venturi brush which can be purchased
from your local dealer. A note here: it is not recommended that you remove
the Venturi tubes from the burner's base because it is easy to damage
the sealing gasket and break the seal.
Clean the Grill Housing
Now, while you have everything
out of the housing, or 'casting' as they call it in the trade, is a good
time to clean it, too. Using a commercial grease remover (always be sure
to follow the directions for use on the label), wear rubber gloves and
eye protection and use a stiff or steel brush and a scraper to remove
any soot and grease residue build-up from the inside housing of your cooker.
Before actually cleaning be sure to cover valve orifices and connection
parts with aluminum foil to protect them from damage and blockage.
After you have brushed and scraped, wipe clean and dry with paper towels.
At this point, you are ready to replace all parts.
Reinstall the burner(s),
igniter, rock grate, lava rocks or ceramic briquettes, and the cooking
grids. Note: be sure to replace the burners the exact way they were before
removing them. Remember, at the beginning, I told you to take particular
note of the Venturi tube positions? So, when replacing the burner, place
the ends of the Venturi tubes over the gas valves so they engage in a
straight line. Make sure that the valve orifices are 1/4 (one-quarter)
inch inside the Venturi tubes.
Inspect the Hose Assembly
before starting, follow these rules to ensure safety: DO NOT SMOKE or
permit any flame or other source of ignition in the area while conducting
the leak test. DO NOT use matches, lighters, or flames of any kind to
check for leaks. DO conduct the test outdoors in a well ventilated area.
DO NOT use the grill until all leaks are repaired and double checked!
Finally, if for some reason you are unable to stop a leak, shut off the
gas supply and call a qualified Gas Appliance professional.
Inspect the hose closely
for cracks, nicks or cuts. If you find any of these, do NOT think you
can repair them with electrical tape or any other kind of sealer. The
gas is under pressure and any defect weakens the hose which may result
in a fire or explosion. If any of these problems are found, replace the
hose before using the unit. If no damage is found, perform the soap test.
To do the soap test,
mix a half and half solution of water and dishwashing soap in a bowl.
Make sure, before you start, all control knobs are in the 'Off' position.
Rub the soap solution over all hose connections then turn gas on at the
tank (or the gas valve for natural gas units). Check each connection to
see if there are any bubbles gurgling up. If so, the connection is leaking
If you detect a leak,
wipe off the solution, remove the hose and reconnect, being sure fittings
are straight and connections tightened. If the leak persists, replace
the hose assembly.
It is also important
to check your propane tank (if applicable) to ensure there are no holes,
dents, or cracks and/or other damage. If any damage is detected, the tank
should be replaced immediately. Also, most areas have a expiration date
which governs the life of the tank. If the tank is past its expiration
date, replace it immediately. Now is a good time to check and ensure all
nuts and bolts and other connections on the unit are solid and tight.
Although, reading this
sounds like a lot of work, it is quite easy, simple and fast do to. If
you have done grill maintenance before, it will take about an hour. If
you are doing it for the first time, do not rush. It may take about two
hours, but it is worth it to have a safe grill that will give good service
and last for years of good cooking.
Tips for Grilling
Cooking out is a long and old tradition
in the south and elsewhere. I believe grill and barbecue was done in the south long before
it was thought about anywhere else. Southern summers can be mighty hot
and cooking over any heat inside, especially the huge old fireplaces in
the southern kitchens before the civil war, can be deadly. Therefore,
it was natural for the evening meal to be cooked outside over open fire
and with open kettles. One of the most famous holdovers from that era
is a product called a "Hush Puppy!" The story goes that during
the late evening cookouts, the dogs would get all excited at the smells
of cooking and would begin to bark and howl. The cooks would make a cornmeal
mixture containing onions and deep fry large tablespoons of these in hot
fat which was heated in open, large and deep, black cast iron kettles
suspended over open flame. When cooled, these would be tossed to the noisy
canines with the admonition to 'hush puppy!" thus the name and the
recipe for a type of bread that I dearly love. The recipe is below, and
I hope you like it, too. But, for safety's sake, cook it in an electric
deep fryer. Hot oil and open flame do not make for a safe combination.
Once you taste these little delicacies, your poor dog will probably never
get a chance at one. Enjoy.
When cooking out with
your gas grill, I recommend using either low or medium heat for cooking.
It is seldom necessary to use the highest setting except when cooking
with the lid up. Even then, with a good cooker, it is doubtful you will
need the highest setting. I find that food cooked over medium heat with
the lid down as much as possible during the cooking time, cooks evenly
and is less dry. Especially when using bastings and sauces.
Conversely, when cooking
steaks such as Porterhouse, Rib, or Sirloin I want the lid up and the
heat high. I also want flame-up because I like the flavor of a steak kissed
by flame. And, when necessary, I accomplish that by mixing a bit of hickory
flavoring in about a quarter of a cup of cooking oil, then pouring directly
on the hot coals or briquettes immediately before I am ready to serve
the steak. I quickly flame the steak on each side until the fat of the
steak is melting and sizzling, which only takes a half-minute. Then remove
When doing barbecue be sure
to accommodate whatever sauce you are using. I like to rub the ribs with
seasonings (a 'rub') first and cook to the desired doneness. Then I begin
coating with sauce and turning and cooking just a bit longer to glaze
the ribs. I then put them in a large pan of prepared barbecue sauce, which
is simmering, and let them simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from direct
heat, keep covered and warm, and let them sit for 15 minutes before serving.
Or, if you and your guests prefer, after glazing, serve them with the
sauce on the side. Makes this old southern boy's mouth water, it does,
just thinking about it.
Burn off the residue
of the day's cooking by closing the lid, turning the heat setting to high,
and leave undisturbed for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and scrape
with a wire brush. You will have a clean grill ready for tomorrow.
Tender cuts of meat are
best for the grill. Less tender cuts can go on the grill but should be first
tenderized by pounding or marinating.
Steaks or chops should
be at least an inch thick for best results.
Meat cooks best and with
more flavor if allowed to reach room temperature before hitting the grill.
Meat and fish should
not be salted until after cooking. Salt tends to draw out the moisture
which may give a drier and tougher result.
Oil or butter based sauces
may be applied during the duration of cooking, but tomato and/or sugar
based sauces (barbecue sauces, for example) should be applied only during
the last 5 minutes of cooking, else they will burn.
Prepared frozen fish
may be placed on the grill directly from the freezer.
Always keep wind direction
in mind. Cooking times may vary according to how windy the day is and
whether the cooking surface is sheltered from it.
When cooking poultry
always check internal temperatures by inserting a meat thermometer in
the thickest part of the inside thigh (without touching the bone) where
it joins the body. The temperature at this point should read 185 degrees
F. when safe to eat. If possible, insert the thermometer before cooking.
Meats thawed in microwaves
lose a lot of their natural juices.
However, sausages may
be precooked in a microwave, then finished on the grill to ensure complete
doneness without over-charring the surface of the sausage.
Keep a box of baking
soda handy to put out large grease fires. Water is not recommended as
it tends to spread the fire rather than kill it.
Do not thaw frozen hamburgers
but put directly on the grill.
Fish is cooked when it
becomes opaque and flakes easily with a fork.
When cooking whole fish,
cook 10 minutes for each inch of thickness measured at the thickest point
of the fish's body. Turn the fish halfway through the cooking time.
Shrimp, crabs, crayfish,
and lobsters turn red when done. Mollusks in the shell such as clams,
mussels, and oysters open up when cooked.
To test the doneness
of small portions of meat such as steaks, chops, or burgers, use the following
RARE: the meat gives
easily when touched. No juices appear on the surface of the meat.
MEDIUM: the meat feels
firmer but slightly springy and juices begin to appear on the surface.
WELL DONE: the meat may
be covered with clear juices. It is very firm to the touch and does not
yield to pressure.
barbecue is the closest thing we have in the US to Europe's wines and
cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes." John Shelton Reed
"The summer picnic gave
the ladies a chance to show off their baking hands. On the barbecue
pit, chickens and spareribs sputtered in their own fat and a sauce whose
recipe was guarded in the family like a scandalous affair." Maya