If you could have just one outdoor cooking appliance, what would it be?
Backyard grilling has always been a big American pastime, but in recent years this has been joined by an explosion of interest in slow smoked barbecue, cooking meats slowly at low temperatures with indirect heat and plenty of smoky flavor. This has led to a boom in smoker sales, but for most people that means a second unit, and usually a big one, since many smokers are of the offset variety and require a lot of space.
The problem of multiple grills is confounded, because when most people say they are having a “barbecue” they really mean grilling, or cooking over flame, the most common form of backyard cookery. Most of us use our smokers for a limited number of specific slow cooked BBQ specialties such as ribs, brisket and pork shoulder, but grills do everything from a single steak to hamburgers for a crowd, hot dogs, chicken, pork chops, vegetables, seafood and so on and soon. Some smokers, especially vertical ones, can double as wood or charcoal burning kettle-style grills, but this is not typically a solution for the frequent griller.
Because grills typically get used more often than smokers, convenience becomes a big factor: while it is well worth lighting a hardwood charcoal fire to cook ribs for six hours, few people want to bother with this to make a couple of hot dogs, or burgers for two. This typically reduces grill selection to a choice between more convenient propane or more flavorful wood fired cooking, two very different types of grills, and some people want both – along with a smoker (there is also a very limited niche of dual-fuel grills that can burn wood and propane).
But many Americans live in an urban or suburban world of limited outdoor space, a single patio or even balcony, and if you have to choose just one grill that truly can do it all, the choice is simple: it is almost impossible to argue against a pellet grill. These can slow smoke or grill, do both very well, and easily, with real wood and real fire but without hassle or time constraints, lighting quickly with no mess or chimney starters, and then cooking accurately with minimal supervision.
Pellet grills burn small hardwood pellets about twice the size of a pencil eraser, which you buy in bags. Like wood chunks, they come in different “flavors” like hickory, oak and mesquite. They are not brand specific and are readily available in stores. Different brand grills work differently, but at the higher end, better pellet grills generally have a storage hopper for the pellets and an electronic auger which feeds them into a firebox. This typically has an electronic igniter, an element that heats up when you start the grill, and when pellets are dropped onto it, they catch fire. Once it gets going, new pellets are ignited by the old. The whole thing is computer controlled, and you set the temperature with a digital thermostat, just alike a wall oven, then the computer and auger feed pellets as needed to precisely maintain the temperature. That’s pretty much it – whether you are slow smoking at 215° for 12 hours or searing steaks at 500° for two minutes per side, you turn it on, set the temperature, and wait for it to heat up, which is slightly slower than propane and much faster than a wood fired smoker or grill.
Convenience – To make ribs, turn the smoker on to 220° with the flick of a switch and the push of the temperature control arrows, and less than 15 minutes later the ribs went in. With a regular smoker, it’s 15 minutes in the chimney starter just to ignite hardwood charcoal, than another 25-30 minutes to get the smoker itself going and settled down after the initial weave of excess smoke. And while it’s never a good idea to leave a fire burning apparatus unattended, this is largely a case of “set and forget.” Once the ribs or brisket or wings go in, you can do something else until it’s time to check, spritz or sauce them, no refueling or tinkering required.
Efficiency – As long as you have pellets on hand you never have to unhook a tank and take it to the gas station again, and the pellets are cheaper and much easier to ship and store than hardwood charcoal. A 20-pound bag (from $12) takes up very little space, and one bag easily gets you though three 4-6 hour smokes and several high-temperature grilled dinners.
Accuracy – Once lit, the temperature never fluctuates by more than 2-3 degrees with zero supervision. A regular smoker requires a constant eye and adjustment of vents and fuel and even using a remote digital thermometer to monitor it.
Versatility – Pellet grills are just as adept at grilling as slow smoking, can go up to 600°, and for a wood grill, the high temperature is even harder to regulate steadily than the low, but here, you punch in 450° you get 450°. You can grill steaks, burgers, corn on the cob, and more direct grilled, all with great success.
For more information on pellet grills, contact West Sport in Sudbury.