I love to grill. A lot. So much so that a proper outdoor cooking spot became the singular focus of my last apartment search. I got the deck, and it came with a beat-up old propane grill, which I, a devout charcoaler, vowed never to use.
I used the hell out of it last summer. And all through the winter. Up until recently, when I decided that I was finally ready for a big-boy grill.
Shopping for gear is never easy for me -- I've used so much of it and I see so much of it in a given day that my standards are nearly impossible. Buying a grill turned out to be one of the most intense consumer-driven research projects I've undertaken in years. But I think I ended up with something special.
At my last place, I had a standard 18.5-inch Weber Kettle grill and a junky Brinkmann Smoker known affectionately in the BBQ forums as the ECB, or El Cheapo Brinkmann. Neither item made the cut when it came time to move -- the Weber was cheaper to buy again, and the Brinkmann, just kinda sucked. It required constant attention, but with some choice mods, I managed to make a lot of wonderful meals with it. Totally worth the $US60 I paid for it.
The Weber, on the other hand, worked like all Weber kettles do: as well as the griller. You can really do so much with one of those. My only gripe was that it took a while to start up -- loading up the charcoal chimney, waiting for the coals to go white, and then heating up the grill took about 20 - 25 minutes total. After a year with the propane rig, I was spoiled by the five-minutes-to-dinner convenience. I wanted that kind of functionality in my new grill -- but I also wanted the charcoal flavour, and the ability to use the thing as a smoker.
With a little bit of internet research, I found a Chargriller combination model that had both propane and charcoal capabilities. DONE. You could get it online for less than $US400, you could attach an offset smoker box, and Amazon would Prime-ship it to my door for free. I was ready to pull the trigger, but there were some suspect reviews. I decided to check with a friend first.
My friend, who prefers to remain anonymous, designs grills for what is basically the most badass outdoor cooking company on the planet. They can outfit your patio with weatherproof everything -- from refrigerators to dishwashers to pizza ovens to, of course, incredible grills. It's the kind of stuff you see in the background of celebrities' Twitter pictures. The company's lowest-end grill costs more than anything I've ever bought. That grill is basically exactly what I want, because it allows you to cook with charcoal, wood or gas. But I don't think I'll ever be in a position to spend that kind of money on a grill. Because it's a grill. Which rhymes with bills -- something that I would have to forego in order to afford anything his company makes.
In designing grills for such a baller company, my buddy is familiar with pretty much every single grill in the world; they're the competition, and his job is to make things that are better than the competition. I mean, if you dropped $US25,000 (no sweat) on a grill from them and found out that you could get something better for less money, you'd be pissed right? So I sent my friend this email, testing the waters of how much help he'd be able to give me:
SUBJECT: I am having a hell of a time deciding on a grill
Hey man, how are you?
I am in a pickle, and I know you know everything about grills, so I thought I would bounce this question off you: my came-with-my-apt gas grill is dead. [Edit: fixed it.] Ordinarily, I'd be like, ding dong f**k it, let's get a Weber kettle grill, but this gas grill has changed me. I like being able to sear a piece of fish that has been in the sous vide for an hour without adding fat; I like grilling up breakfast sausages without waiting for the coals to heat up. But sometimes I want charcoal. And sometimes I want to smoke stuff. (Eventually I will get a cookshack, but for now new brake lines take precedence.)
So I was thinking about getting one of those combination gas/propane deals. Have you run across *any* of them that are any good? Oh, and here's why this question is hard: I don't want to spend more than $US500.
Thanks in advance for your help!
I was hoping hoping hoping he would respond, unprompted, with something like "You know, those Chargrillers are great for the money!" No such luck. His answer:
All is well and very busy. How are you? [Note: Personal boring stuff removed...]
None of the "duos" out there seem to be anything more than a lackluster gas grill and a more lacking charcoal grill side by side in the same frame. Napolean makes a decent product, and they offer a charcoal tray you can put down inside the grill.
[More stuff removed so I don't waste your time reading about his tradeshow-filled life]
OK, a lead! Napoleon! Promising. I started looking into it, and yes, Napoleon does make a very nice grill, but two problems: 1) The one that was in my $US500-ish price range was pretty small -- a two-burner affair that, while really sharp-looking, wouldn't do it for me, size-wise. Second, smoking and charcoal is a serious afterthought with these grills, accomplished via a tray you drop into the grill. How do you add more wood to that? Remove the grates? Remove all of your meat? Nonstarter -- especially considering the tray wouldn't even work with the only grill of theirs I could afford. You'd need to pony up for a $1,000 model to get that functionality, and that's just not an option for me. I was moving on. I pinged my buddy again, and he came back with this:
I just remembered a charcoal grill that starts REALLY fast. Hold tight…
My ears perked up like a dog that hears the word "treat", and my pulse literally quickened. A charcoal grill that started really fast was, for me, the equivalent of a unicorn driving Kate Upton to my house in a Ferrari. He took HOURS to respond. And then this:
More expensive than I remembered (haven't thought about them since 2007). It is a charcoal grill that uses a basket system and electric blower to start the fire quickly. Then it has a garbage disposal hooked to it so you just hose it clean. It is called Diamond BBQ. Took a bit of searching to re-find it.
Oh man, it looked awesome. Two problems. 1) It's a built-in unit -- not an option for my Brooklyn rental. 2) $US3500. There was no way I was spending $US3500.
I started cruising forums and heard a lot of talk about pellet grills. They seemed perfect: the taste of wood, with the consistency of gas. My friend recommended a company called Memphis, which makes awesome-looking pellet grills: computer-controlled, auto-fed, double-walled-steel-clad. Gorgeous. Great reviews. Want to grill up? Just switch the thing on. Minutes later, the grill is hot and smoky. Want to smoke? No problem, just dial down the temperature, make sure the hopper is full of pellets, find something good on TV and consume beer. The controller will make sure your temperature stays where you want it. This was for me. I was in love. I am still in love.
But ugh: The model that gets up to 350C -- and you need at least that to sear a steak -- is $US2800. That is so much money. But still, it was my frontrunner for about a week. I was literally about to not buy new brakes for my motorcycle and purchase this thing. And then I was like, f**k it. I sent this email to my friend:
It's funny. Originally, I was like, I want to spend $US500 on a grill and that's a lot. Should be easy. Then I was like, oh the $US1,000 range is good -- I can get something that replaces my smoker and I'll have for a long time, etc. Now I'm seriously considering dropping $US2K on a pellet grill for an extra 65 degrees -- and honestly, 260 degrees on a grill is not enough to do anything real. I sorta can't believe the price inflation in this category.
He did not respond. And I can understand why: I was taking out my frustrations on him -- the grill business is a little nuts, but it's not his fault. I decided to go DIY.
[Note: If I were a regular person, I would buy a Big Green Egg. You can get one for decent money if you look hard enough, and it can sear, smoke, or slow-cook like a champ. But they're not for me: I drink a lot when I BBQ, and I would break it. In fact, I've had one, and I broke it before I ever got to use it. The ceramic body is just too fragile for a klutz like me.]
For my Frankengrill, I started off with a Weber Performer -- the highest-end version of Weber's venerable kettle. It's a wonderful piece of kit: well-made and nicely insulated for single-walled steel; the heat-resistant side table makes a great staging area, and the weatherproof charcoal storage bin solves a very real problem. I opted to pay a little extra and get the Touch-n-Go ignition system, which uses a propane jet to start your coals. That was a mistake. That little propane trickle doesn't have enough oomph to really do anything. You're better off saving the money and dropping $US15 on a charcoal chimney, which is what I ended up doing anyway. (I may hack it yet -- and if you have any ideas, let me know.)
So OK, I had a great base. But I had to figure out a way to regulate temperature.
For the past few years, the buzz in the BBQ forums has been around a little gadget called the BBQ Guru. It's a fan, about the size of a computer cooling fan, with a pair of temperature probes that measure the mercury in both your grill and your meat. The heart of the system is a fuzzy logic controller that is constantly monitoring what effect the fan's little pulses of air have on the temperature inside your grill. It's brilliant, and the only reason I hadn't gotten one before is because they were a little expensive -- around $US300-$US400 when you assemble a package that contains the controller, the fan, the probes, and the adaptor that lets you fit the thing on your grill. Seemed a little pro for me.
The price hurdle lowered this year when the company came out with a scaled-down product called the PartyQ. To keep the cost down, the company took out the probe that measures the temperature of the meat -- all the PartyQ measures is how hot it is on the grill grate. And frankly, that was fine for me -- especially since the gadget was only $US139 with the adaptor included. Sold! I ordered it up, drilled a hole in my brand-new grill, and installed the thing.
Great. Now I could keep the temperature constant in the grill, which is great for longer cooks -- like a roast or a whole chicken. But I wanted to use the grill as a smoker as well. The internet had an answer for me as well: a little gadget called the Smokenator (I love BBQ names) that I found while reading amazingribs.com. [Side note: You should go to that site if you like to grill. The guy who runs it, Meathead (again, I <3 BBQ names), is a mad genius, and tests the hell out of pretty much everything that comes out.] So yeah, the Smokenator. It's a genius little device made for a Weber kettle: an 18-gauge steel plate that snuggles up against the side of your grill and holds your wood chips and a pan of water (keeping the smoke moist is key). And it's only $US60.
Add to cart... thank you for your purchase... your order has shipped...delivery confirmation... BOOM
Installation took about eight seconds...
Then it was onto the small stuff. I used furnace cement to seal up the little cracks and crannies endemic to mass-produced items, did a couple of dry runs to season the kettle and figure out if it had any hot spots (it does, but they're negligible), and started grilling. Steaks, veggies and burgers are easy -- like any other well-made charcoal kettle, it gets hot and and holds temperature very well. And even though I wouldn't shell out for the propane ignition system again, I did find a use for it: Instead of loading up my charcoal chimney with newspaper, I just sit the thing over the flame. The chimney lights right up -- and catches faster than when you use it normally. Is it worth the extra $US50? No f-ing way, but it's hard to complain about the Performer. If you're going to get one, just get the version without the igniter.
Smoking on the grill is trickier, but I've already had some great successes -- notably, a few racks of ribs which the PartyQ helped me keep at a rock-solid 107 degrees for eight hours, and about three kilos of bacon that I had at around 65 degrees for 10 hours. They came out amazing, and even more amazing was how infrequently I had to mess with the fuel. I could keep the rig at a smoke-filled 100 for almost three hours without any effort. Back in the Brinkmann days, I was down to a system where, to maintain temperature, I was adding charcoal or wood every 15 minutes or so. It was gruelling. Anyway, here's my food:
Would I change anything? Sure. The kettle doesn't seal very well, and, even though that will get better the more I use it (carbon deposits), I think I am going to put a nomex gasket around the lip to seal it up tighter. Also, I've been meaning to cut a welding blanket up and make it into an insulating cover that will extend charcoal life -- especially when it's colder out. Other than that, though, I am thrilled. For roughly $US540, I have an incredibly versatile grill. Sorry for the immensely long post, but it was quite an experience for me, and I wanted to share it with you. Got any tips or tricks? Hit me in the discussion -- I have a feeling this project will never end.