It’s that time of year: You’re hankering for summertime classics–juicy burgers, sizzling steaks, or tender ribs–but what you really want is to enjoy that smoky goodness from your own backyard. Ready to give it a try? Achieving outdoor-chef bliss at home is possible, if you have the right equipment. These hot tips can help you choose the gear you need to get those outdoor flavors at home.
Before we go any further, let’s clarify. While both grilling and smoking are great techniques, they are not the same thing. When you grill, food is cooked quickly–at a high temperature–over a heat source, such as hot coals or gas-powered flames. Grilling proponents claim that rapid cooking creates a nice sear on the meat, which locks in flavor and keeps it juicy. It’s ideal for foods that benefit from the flames: steaks, burgers, chops, chicken, fish, shrimp and vegetables can all be deliciously grilled. In smoking, on the other hand, meat is cooked more slowly and at a lower temperature, by exposing it to smoky, heated air — “low and slow” in smoker parlance. Fans say smoked meat has a totally unique, rich flavor, and that slow-cooking breaks down toughness in larger cuts of meat, leaving it especially tender. This is ideal for cuts like brisket, ribs, and pork shoulder, but can also impart great flavor to other foods like turkey or lamb. Many foods can be cooked either way, depending on the desired end result. You can slow cook (but not necessarily smoke) on most grills, but you can’t grill on most smokers.
If You Want A Grill…
First, think about the type of grill you’d prefer:
- Charcoal grills are economical and easy to use, and they impart an unmistakable “char-broiled” flavor to your food. In a charcoal grill, briquettes are lighted by hand and smolder at a high temperature. It can take a bit of time to prepare the coals for cooking, however. (Some advanced models do have gas ignition systems to help speed up the process).
- Propane gas grills and natural gas grills start with the flip of a switch and heat up quickly. Some models even have controls that allow you to cook foods at more precise temperatures. Most operate with a canister of fuel that you purchase and refill, though some can be connected to home gas lines. Many models also feature side burners and rotisseries that allow you to prepare multiple items at once.
- Electric grills, which you plug into an outlet, also start up right away. They tend to come in small units that work well for tighter spaces, such as apartment patios and balconies. Some models feature ceramic briquettes, which add barbecue-style flavor.
Next, determine the size of grill you need. First, determine how much cooking area you need. Cooking area is the actual space you’ll have available for burgers, steaks, or whatever’s on your menu. Too large, and you’ll waste fuel and time heating surface you won’t need. Too little, and you’ll spend all day flipping little batches of burgers at the family picnic. The other thing to consider is the amount of space you have for storing your grill. Get one that will cook what you need, but that won’t take over your entire outdoor space.
If you want a smoker…
There are many types of smokers. There are small units appropriate for smoking small batches of food, drum-style units and large smoker rigs perfect for a block party. As their name suggests, bullet style units are shaped like a bullet, while cabinet-style smokers open like a small refrigerator. All smokers have interior racks where you set the meat, drip pans and a heat source.
- Electric smokers are fueled by–wait for it–electricity. That makes it easy to keep them at the low, consistent temperatures required for smoking. To get the smoke, you add wood chips to a heating chamber.
- Propane smokers also do a good job at keeping the correct temperature, though they’re fueled by propane that you’ll buy in tanks. These smokers are portable, so you can take them on camping trips. (But if you do, remember: Since smoking takes some time and running out of fuel is no fun, it’s best to have an extra propane tank on hand.)
- Pellet smokers have a system that automatically feeds wooden pellets into a burn pot that generates the required heat and smoke.
- Charcoal smokers rely on charcoal to create heat and smoke, and are the best at delivering an authentic smoky flavor to food. It can be difficult to maintain a consistent temperature with charcoal, however, and you often have to change the charcoal several times during the smoking process.
Experiment and have some fun, and you’ll be the neighborhood grillmaster (or smokemaster) in no time!
Tell us about your adventures in outdoor cooking–do you have a juicy grill or smoker story to share?