Why is it that articles about buying a new outdoor cooking device must read like motivational jock-talk from an armchair coach? It seems all but pre-ordained that they are full of urgent advice that is both competitive and status-seeking, where readers will “up their grilling game” and “own summer” if they just buy a grill that is bigger and faster and hotter thanks to a patented “Ionizing Plasma Scorch Plate.” Want to be the envy of your neighbours or the best dad ever? Pick up a “Pecos Bill Ranchero XL” and show them this ain’t your first rodeo. Everyone knows this is a bunch of baloney, directed mostly at men because we seem to be highly susceptible to such talk. And everyone also knows that not a single one of their neighbours gives a sweet damn about the kind of grill they own.
So why bother? Wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge that there are many different kinds of cottage cooks, from early adopters who want the latest and greatest to the most reluctant meal providers who are happy to warm up frozen burgers and chicken wieners? At home, I own three grills, which I feel to be the bare minimum for my sort of activities. But at the cottage, where I’d rather be swimming than prepping porchetta, I have an inherited gas grill that is almost ready for the scrap pile. But it cooks dogs and burgers and chicken and chops just fine, so it serves my particular cottage needs.
Maybe you don’t need a grill at all. In which case, you have saved some money and need not read further. For the rest of us, things get more complicated: with the exception of dedicated smokers (wood, gas, or electric), most outdoor cookers claim to be all things to everyone, the one true grail for direct grilling, slow-smoking, and hot-roasting, even acting as an oven replacement for pizza, bread, and baked beans. The (barbecue) rub is that these declarations are both true and false because while just about any grill can pull off standard cooking operations, certain machines excel at one or two styles. Like Mom would say: “You can’t be good at everything.” The trick is to find the grill or smoker that’s really good at making the food you like best.
A primer on gas grills
There’s a reason just about everyone owns at least one gas grill. It’s the all-around workhorse for most cottage cooking chores because it’s simple to operate and doesn’t require any special techniques to get good results. Gassers are great at direct-heat cooking for most of our sear-and-flip favourites like steaks, chops, and burgers, and they can also hot-roast with indirect heat provided the cooking surface is big enough to keep the meat away from the flames. Gas grills with dedicated rotisserie burners—where the heat source is beside the food—are easier to use and get better results than models that rely on the grill’s main burners for rotisserie cooking.
Low temperature, indirect cooking (slow-roasting or smoking) is where gas grills stumble because while they do a great job of getting very hot, they aren’t great at keeping the consistent low temperatures that you need to smoke a brisket. And because smoking is an indirect process, the amount of food you can cook is limited. Gas doesn’t produce delicious smoke, so wood chunks, chips, or pellets must be added and kept smouldering. You can certainly make smoked foods on a gas grill, it just takes careful set-up and temperature control and can deliver inconsistent results.
Many gas grills come plain Jane; others include options like dedicated searing stations, side burners, and rotisserie burners. It’s really up to the buyer. If you aren’t going to use those add-ons, don’t buy them. And consider a grill’s cooking area carefully. If you won’t be using indirect heat to cook a turkey and don’t need to knock out 40 burgers at a time, choose a smaller grill. It will sear steaks and grill sausages just as well as a giant-sized unit.
Try out a charcoal grill
Back in the day, before propane and natural gas came to town, charcoal grills ruled the outdoor cooking world. They excel at the kind of high-temperature direct cooking we love for burgers, steaks, and chops, and the flavour you get from fat dripping on hot coals (as opposed to a sheet-metal shield on a gas grill) is undeniably delicious. In my opinion, meat cooked on a rotisserie over live coals should receive UNESCO world heritage status.
Charcoal grills are simple machines that can produce outstandingly flavourful food but do require active, hands-on management from the cook. Because their heat source—lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes—can be moved around, these grills are versatile for both kinds of indirect cooking, hot-roasting, and slow-smoking. The actual indirect cooking capacity of a charcoal grill depends on the size and shape of the cooking chamber because you need enough room to keep the food (say, a big beef roast) away from the flames. There are also many aftermarket accessories, like rib racks, that let you maximize that indirect grill space.
If you want instant flames at the push of a button, charcoal is not for you. The fuel needs to be lit using a charcoal chimney or the on-board propane-assisted igniters found on some models. For long cooks, more fuel has to be lit and added to the grill at regular intervals. Ashes need to be removed every so often. On a charcoal grill, the difference between white-hot searing temperatures and the 200°F–225°F ideal for slow-smoking comes down to airflow, controlled by vents beneath the fire pit and on top of the lid. (Charcoal grills without vented lids—which you can buy or build—are essentially uncontrollable open braziers good for high-temp direct cooking and nothing else.) Building and maintaining a fire, and carefully controlling the vents to produce the desired temperatures takes practice, attention, and even enthusiasm.
Have you used a Kamado cooker?
Kamado cookers (such as Big Green Eggs) are super-efficient charcoal grills made from thick ceramic material or heavily insulated stainless steel and are capable of both very high temperature cooking and the low and slow needed for long smoking sessions. The lids are heavy and form a tight seal when closed. Precise venting allows fine control of airflow, which prevents flare-ups when cooking at high temperatures and lets the cooker run at consistent, low smoking temps. Because they are so heavily insulated and sealed, kamados use less fuel than a conventional charcoal grill, and ardent fans of these units say the tightly sealed cooking chamber retains moisture for more flavourful food.
Kamados tend to be tall and deep, with a small fire pan at the bottom, accessed through a sliding door. Food is cooked on a grate directly over these coals as per usual. But for both high and low-temperature indirect cooking, some type of diffuser plate must be added between the meat and the heat to protect the food from the flames. Kamado cookers produce excellent barbecue but limited grill space and a coal bed that can’t be moved around does restrict their capacity for big cuts or multiple racks of ribs. The solution? Buy a really big kamado.
Priced anywhere from $1,200 to $4,000, depending on brand and size, kamados are more expensive than most charcoal grills and come with a steep learning curve because they require more precise vent control than a conventional cooker. Newbies should expect a few fails—snuffed coals or total incineration—before they get the knack. Think of kamado cooking as a skill to master, requiring close attention, diligence, and a measure of trial and error.
Dreaming of a dedicated smoker?
Call them one-trick ponies or purpose-built low-and-slow barbecue specialists, dedicated smokers do one thing and they do it well. If smoking is your thing and you’re tired of coaxing along a regular gas or charcoal grill over long cooks, there are three kinds of dedicated smoker to consider.
Charcoal water smokers: a.k.a. “bullet” smokers. Time-tested performers, these smokers look like modular missile silos. Food sits on racks at the top of the smoker, suspended over a water pan. Beneath the water pan is a fire pan that makes the heat. Wood chunks placed on the hot coals make the smoke. The water pan keeps drippings from the meat up top from falling on the hot coals, helps to mitigate temperature swings, and adds humidity to the cooking chamber. Using air vents for temperature adjustment, a water smoker with a full load of charcoal or briquettes can maintain low barbecue temperatures for eight to 12 hours. To add additional fuel or wood chunks, better models have a sliding door to access the charcoal and water pans. Cheaper models make you take the smoker apart to get to the bottom section.
Gas smokers: usually housed in a rectangular cabinet, the units share the vertical arrangement of a charcoal smoker, with the fire pan replaced by a propane burner. A pan for wood-smoking chips sits above the burner and does double duty as a heat shield to keep the flames off the food on the horizontal racks above. Some models have water pans while others do not. Most have some sort of catchment for drippings. With no charcoal to light and maintain, these smokers are simple to run but not fully autonomous: to keep making smoke, you’ll need to add wood chips throughout the cooking process.
Electric smokers: these cabinet-style units create heat and smoke with a simple electric element set beneath horizontal food racks. Basic models cost $250 to $400 and have simple “high, low, off” controls while more sophisticated units are thermostatically controlled. Spend $500 to $800 and you get more features, like a fan to circulate heat, an insulated cabinet, water and drip pans, and the ability to add wood chips without opening the cooking chamber. Some models, with a system that feeds wood chip “pucks” into the combustion pan, are fully autonomous and can complete long cooks without attention. Electric smokers are inexpensive and simple to use. Because they produce smoke without actual flame combustion, some critics feel they impart an inferior flavour to smoked meats. Uninsulated units may struggle to keep up proper cooking temperatures in winter weather.
Try out a pellet cooker
If you are serious about low-and-slow cooking—and other forms of the grilling arts—but want “set it and forget it” convenience, you might want to consider a pellet cooker. Using sophisticated digital controllers, these units take compressed hardwood pellets from a hopper and feed them into a firebox using one or more augers. The same controller actuates fans to increase or decrease the flames, depending on the temperature required, which can be anywhere from around 180°F–650°F. Because they’re able to keep a wide range of consistent cooking temperatures, pellet cookers are very good at high- and low-temp indirect cooking, so you can roast chickens or slow-smoke a brisket at the press of a button. And because they use fans to regulate their temperatures, they perform like convection ovens, which keeps an even heat in the cooking chamber and makes them better at general baking than any other grill. Pellet grills generate lots of smoke at low barbecue temperatures; at high baking and roasting temperatures they impart a very light wood-fire flavour.
While all pellet cookers are good at smoking and baking, some more expensive models get hot enough for direct grilling. This usually requires replacing the heat shield used for indirect cooking with a special direct grilling grate, a warm-up procedure, and the same attention you would give to a charcoal grill.
For anything other than direct grilling, pellet cookers are fully autonomous—some for as long as 24 hours—and many can be fully controlled with a smartphone. More expensive models are heavily built and many are insulated for cold weather cooking. The least expensive pellet grills can be flimsy and suffer from extreme temperature fluctuations, especially in cold weather.
Use an offset barrel smoker
With its steam locomotive looks, the iconic offset barrel smoker is a heavy-duty icon. Purpose-built for indirect smoking, it has a large cooking area separated from the firebox with a baffle. Using charcoal and chunks of smoke-wood or relying wholly on smouldering hardwood logs for heat and smoke, offsets can cook a lot of food, for a long time, at very low temperatures. But what if you needed to grill up a few dozen steaks? With a load of hot coals in the main cooking chamber and a grill grate added to the firebox, an offset barrel smoker can also do double-duty as a high-capacity charcoal grill, with two tight-fitting lids and vents for temperature control. It’s a very good smoker, but it comes with a learning curve and requires careful fire management. For keen cooks with big barbecue dreams.
Former Cottage Life editor David Zimmer would take mustard, not ketchup, to a deserted island. And definitely onions.