Grilling trends, through the ages

Illustration of man with a grill in a wheelbarrel

The past: campfire

As any tent-dweller knows, you don’t need store-bought contrivance to cook a burger. A carefully managed campfire, burned down to hot coals, can do a fine job of direct-heat grilling. You just need to add a cooking grate, propped up on a few rocks or small logs. Too lazy to build a campfire? Dig a pit and dump in a bag of charcoal briquettes. Once they’re lit, with a light covering of grey ash, add that cooking grate and some steaks. Need a bigger cooker? Is squatting by a campfire hard on your knees? Consider creating a one-wheeled grill using a steel wheelbarrow. Just build a fire in the bottom with wood or charcoal, rig a cooking grate across the top and you’ve got a mobile MacGyver grill.

The present: gravity cookers

Originally developed on the pro-barbecue circuit, gravity cookers were made for low-and-slow smoking. But civilian models are now available that can do high-temperature grilling as well. A horse of another colour, gravity grills are charcoal burners with a few modern twists. Grill jockeys add lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes to a tower-like hopper offset from the cooking chamber. Once lit, the hopper acts like a giant chimney to keep the fuel burning. A thermostat-controlled blower fans the flames (or shuts off) to reach the desired temperatures from 225˚F–700˚F. Chunks of smoke-wood can be added directly to the fuel or set underneath, to be ignited from falling ash. Whether low-smoking or high-temp grilling, heat from the fire tower is directed beneath a diffuser plate under the cooking chamber; there is no fat dripping directly onto the coals. With a hopper full of fuel, gravity grills can do low-and-slow smoke sessions for eight to 12 hours.

The future: flat-top griddles

For cottagers with a lot of hungry mouths to feed, the grill of tomorrow isn’t even a grill, it’s a flat-top griddle, as seen at better diners everywhere. Powered by propane and available in a wide range of sizes, one griddle can do the work of a gas grill, a kitchen stove, and every pot and pan in the cupboard. I recently watched one in action cooking every meal for 10 people over a long weekend. Full breakfasts—with eggs, bacon, hash browns, and even toast and grilled cheese sandwiches—all done outdoors. Flip-and-brown stuff like steaks and burgers and dogs are a snap, and big units have enough cooking area for sautéed onions and mushrooms, warmed sauerkraut, and toasted buns. Basically, anything you can cook with direct heat can be made on a flat-top. And if you serve it straight from the griddle, there are no dishes to wash whatsoever. None. Just scrape grease and food bits into an integral catch pan and you’re good to go for the next meal. The grill is dead. All hail the flat-top.

Originally published in the Summer ’16 issue of Cottage Life.

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