by Jay Kitterman, consultant, Culinary Institute, Lincoln Land Community College
“One positive from the pandemic is that people were spending more time together,” is what George Preckwinkle, an owner of the Central Illinois Ace Hardware stores, said when I met with him recently on what was new for grilling this year. Grills and even certain types of charcoal were selling out in 2020, and George has plenty in stock for 2021. They will even deliver and assemble for you.
First some basics. Gas grills (we still have a 10-year-old Weber Genesis) are easy to use, heat up quickly, often have a thermostat to control the heat, and there is even a gage on the side that indicates when I need to refill the tank. Compared to the basic charcoal grill, they are more expensive. Some of the benefits of charcoal is it can burn hotter than propane which will add that dark crust on the occasional steak that Carol likes and of course, the scent and flavor from a charcoal grill can be very nostalgic.
From experience, if deciding on a gas grill I would recommend a cast aluminum firebox, porcelain coated cast iron grill gates and at least three burners in order to grill a dozen burgers or so. I take advantage of indirect cooking when only one or two burners are in use to avoid charring – great for slow roasting a chicken. Tools I recommend are a fish turner or fish spatula. They work great for flipping burgers, moving the vegetables around and of course gently turning and taking the fish from the grill. The long, thin, slightly flexible blade slides under food without damaging it and most importantly keeps your fingers away from the heat. Also important are long commercial style tongs (16-inch range is good), heavy duty gloves and a stainless-steel grill brush to clean the grates before and after cooking. You need to be careful about bristles breaking loose and getting into your food, and some folks just use aluminum foil or a stainless scrubber -pad.
If you do decide on a charcoal grill, a chimney starter to light the coals will avoid the petroleum smell the way starter fluid does.
Gaining in popularity are pellet grills. They seem to be popping up everywhere. Pellet grills date back to 1985, when Joe Traeger patented the design. It involves an augur that feeds hardwood pellets made from sawdust into a fire pot, where they burn and can create a nice smoke. A fan feeds air to the fire to ensure that robust combustion and temperature are maintained by the frequency the pellets are delivered. Traeger had a patent until 2006, and now you can now buy a pellet model from almost every grill brand. Competition has driven development that has made them easy to use and versatile. They can grill, smoke, roast, braise, baste and bake. Keep in mind that they need to be within reach of an electrical outlet.
Traeger now offers what they call “Wifire” Technology. You can change temperatures, monitor your food temps and even add smoke remotely from your phone. They have hundreds of recipes online, and after you select recipe, the Traeger will automatically prepare it.
Also very popular and pretty affordable is the Ooni Koda 12 pizza oven. Featuring instant gas ignition, the Ooni Koda 12 is ready to cook in 15 minutes and can reach temperatures up to 950°F (500°C). They also have pellet and wood chip models. It is portable and many accessories are available. Just fire up your heat of choice, and once it is going, the flame spreads across the top of the oven, resulting in extremely high temperatures. Pizza in 60 seconds.
Still very popular (users are called “eggers” for their cult-like following) is the “The Big Green Egg” named for their shape (like an egg) that provides you with excellent temperature control and easy cooking. Unique styling makes this cooker one of the most effective options available when you want the flavor of charcoal without the mess and hassle. The sealed firebox in the bottom of the egg allows you to use natural lump charcoal. A flow draft door is located below the firebox, allowing air to enter the box and help the charcoal burn efficiently. The heat rises into an airtight cooking chamber. Like a crockpot or roaster, the tight seal retains the heat and moisture, so your meat will not dry out like it can on a regular grill. Finally, the rising heat is vented out through a dual-function metal top, allowing you to control the amount of air escaping and carefully adjust the temperature. It is on the expensive side, but most users feel that it is well worth the investment. A must for any Green Egg owner is the Green Egg salt and pepper shakers in the shape of the iconic Green Egg.
New on the market is the “Weber Connect Smart Grilling Hub.” It is a step-by-step grilling assistant that sends notifications directly to your smart phone on everything from a food readiness countdown, to when it is time to flip and serve.
My thanks to George Preckwinkle and Springfield Wabash Ave. Ace Store Manager Alan Miller. Alan is also the corporate grill buyer and great resource if you are in the market for a new grill. As part of the massive remodeling of their Wabash Store, all the grills and supplies are the first thing you see when you arrive. Be sure to check out their expanded selection of sauces, spices and rubs. Enjoy your summer and while at Ace, get some Buggins for those pesky gnats.