Saturday, March 8, 2008

Over The Top Grills

Outdoor cookery was born when some clumsy caveman accidentally dropped a hunk of brontosaurus into the campfire. After yelling and screaming at him for his fumble-fingered treatment of their dinner, his family’s response was probably, “Fire… Meat….Gooood!”

When the caveman moved to the suburbs, his campfire became a bowl-shaped charcoal grill standing on three wobbly legs. With luck, he could coax a pile of kerosene-soaked briquettes to cook a few hotdogs in no more than maybe thirty minutes. But, just as the caveman evolved into today’s investment banker, the barbeque grill grew up to become a $15,000 outdoor kitchen complete with wok and pizza stone, infrared burners, and a built-in refrigerator with beverage dispenser. The sink with hot and cold running water is extra.

The up-to-the minute outdoor chef can choose from several monster hibachis that will make him or her the envy of the neighborhood (although hopefully not the bane of the fire department). Today’s outdoor cooking centers have some remarkable features.

The first thing most discerning grillers look at is the size of the cooking surface. Most usually want nothing less than a grill that’s about thirty inches wide overall with close to 700 square-inches of total cooking area. A serious outdoor chef will opt for something larger, though. Freestanding models wider than sixty inches aren’t uncommon and built-ins apparently have an upper size limit just slightly smaller than an aircraft carrier.

Distribution and containment of the heat over the cooking surface is important, too, so many units now come with lined hoods that are almost sealed when they close. That can bring the internal temperature up to 800 degrees so you can toast your hamburger buns very, very fast.

Other new features include battery-powered or electrical igniters instead of the old-fashioned piezo, or clicking, igniter. Some models even have interior lights that only have to be cleaned every three or four uses. Most manufacturers offer an LP or natural gas option.

The infrared burner is a significant development in outdoor cookery. Some manufacturers build them in as part of the “cooking system” along with traditional burners, while others use infrared as their sole heat source. Traditional grills cook by convection: the burners heat up a secondary element (briquettes, lava rock, vaporizer plates or rods), which creates radiant energy and heated air. Infrared burners produce high temperatures through direct radiant energy. The food is directly heated because there are no secondary elements. The infrared burner produces intense heat that immediately sears the food, locking in moisture and flavor. The food cooks in its own juices in up to half the time needed by traditional grills.

But buying the base-model grill, like buying a new car, is just the start. All the top grill manufacturers offer numerous options and accessories for the griller who wants to have it all. One of the most interesting options is a built-in commercial-quality, all-weather refrigerator with wine cradles. The caveman may have stored his stegosaurus steak in a handy glacier, but the modern backyard chef can keep his in the fridge right under his grill. For serious partiers, some manufacturers also offer a built-in refrigerated beverage dispenser that comes complete with CO2 cylinder and keg coupler.

You can also add a wok to stir-fry like a pro. Or a griddle. Why go out to a restaurant for breakfast when you can cook eggs and pancakes in your backyard? Then there is the steamer for your vegetables or the deep fryer for your French fries. And don’t forget the wood chip smoker so your salmon filets can taste like they were cooked over an open flame (it’s a retro-caveman thing). You probably can’t do without a food warmer or a pizza stone. And you absolutely must have a motorized rotisserie—you can get one that handles thirty pounds of meat!

Fortunate is the family who has an outdoor cooking center (what the heck’s a grill, anyway?) and a fire-meister to cook on it. While the rest of us are indoors microwaving our TV dinners this summer, they’ll be outside enjoy grilled portabellas, rotisserie prime rib, crispy hash browns…or maybe seared tuna steaks with stir-fried vegetables…or smoked salmon pizza served with a freshly-drawn tap beer…or….


--Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

No comments: