Friday, April 19, 2013

Choosing a New Grill – Part 2: Buying a Charcoal Grill

This Will Be Easy

As a follow-up to sharing some general advice about purchasing a new grill, I am going to greatly simplify the process of selecting a charcoal grill by suggesting that you consider just a single brand: Weber. It's just not in your best interest to purchase something other than one of their products.

I will freely admit that I am totally in the tank for Weber, especially when it comes to charcoal units. Although I like Weber's gas grills too, I'm a little more brand agnostic in that category, so stay tuned for complete objectivity in Part 3 of this series. But for charcoal, your one and only choice should be a Weber because all other makes are abjectly inferior. Period. End of story.

So why Weber? For starters, they practically invented the category by popularizing backyard cooking starting in the 1950s. Weber charcoal grills are also unsurpassed in terms of performance and versatility, allowing you to grill, roast, or smoke. What's more, the original kettle design is a timeless classic.

And speaking of timeless, a properly maintained Weber charcoal grill will last a lifetime. My oldest has been in continuous service since 1985, and it's endured short trips for competitions and remote cook-outs, difficult long hauls being knocked around in the back of a moving truck, being inadvertently dropped (or having stuff dropped on it), and decades of foul weather – yet it still works as well as the day I got it. Sure, it's got a few dents and dings, and I've had to replace a few parts over the course of time, but the thing continues to perform like a champ because it is built like a tank.

If your goal is to purchase an el cheapo grill because you're just going to abandon it for the sake of disposable convenience after a single use in a stadium parking lot or on the beach, then by all means buy a $20 piece of crap from Walmart. Otherwise, simply plan on investing in a Weber. The question, however, is "which one?" I'm going to help you find the answer.

Cooking on the Road

The author's 1993 vintage Weber Jumbo Joe
Now that I have officially locked you into Weber as your preferred brand of charcoal grill, the first thing you'll have to ask yourself is whether you need to go portable or not. If the answer is' yes', then the Smokey Joe family is for you.

Weber offers a pair of units with a 14.5" diameter cooking surface: Smokey Joe Silver and Smokey Joe Gold. The main difference between the two is that the Gold has a nifty handle to carry the grill from your car to the beach.

For larger capacity there's the Jumbo Joe, which offers an 18.5" diameter grate. This unit debuted in the early 1990s, disappeared from the Weber catalog in the 2000s, and then returned a few years ago as the Smokey Joe Platinum. The original Jumbo Joe name was restored in 2012. Anyway, the Jumbo Joe's more spacious cooking surface should be considered if you plan to tailgate or camp with more than three people.

It should be noted that Weber makes a portable unit called the Go Anywhere, but it is an aberration in the Weber line-up that I do not recommend. Trust me, you don't want to bother with it.

Cooking at Home

The big one:
Weber One-Touch 26.75" Gold
In addition to the previously mentioned Smokey Joe family of portable kettle-style grills, Weber markets two families of the more traditional charcoal grills to be used in the backyard: One-Touch and Performer.

As we've already seen with the portable line, Weber uses the parlance Silver, Gold, and Platinum to distinguish between different models. Sometimes this can be confusing because the terminology is applied to multiple grill families.

Adding to the confusion is that a Silver-designated model from one family can actually be more sophisticated than a Gold grill from another line. Believe it or not, there's actually some method to the madness, so I will crack the code in the following grill descriptions:

  • One-Touch – The 18.5" Silver and the 22.5" Silver are the "classic" Weber charcoal grills, and except for the fact that the handles are now made out of glass-reinforced nylon instead of wood, the design hasn't changed for decades. But there are two higher end models worthy of consideration: the 22.5" Gold and the 26.75" Gold. The main difference between the Silver models and the Gold models in the One-Touch line (regardless of size) is that the Gold units have a high-capacity ash catcher that makes it much easier to capture and dump ashes compared to the "blowing in the wind" approach of the Silver models. If you've got the money, then you should go Gold. What's more, if you need an extra large cooking surface, the 26.75" Gold is the only model that offers the largest diameter.
  • Performer – There are three models in this family, and each of them basically consists of the main chassis of a One-Touch 22.5" Gold mounted on a rolling cart with a work surface and various other features. The Performer Silver is the low-end model that simply adds wheels and a swing-up work table. If you're going to spend money on a Performer, you should avoid the Silver (unless you're cramped for space) and consider either the Performer Gold or the Performer Platinum. These latter two models include a larger fixed work surface, charcoal storage container, and removable cook timer. The only difference between the Gold and the Platinum – and it's a big one – is that the Platinum has a built-in gas ignition system. Fueled by a 1-lb. disposable propane tank, a small dedicated burner will light off your charcoal, thereby eliminating the need for a charcoal chimney. I've got to admit that it's a pretty handy feature, and I'm sure you will too.

If you will be an infrequent user, then either the 18.5" Silver or the 22.5" Silver are probably right for you given their affordability. A more avid charcoal griller will definitely want to step up to either the 22.5" Gold or 26.75" Gold, with the choice between the two based on capacity requirements. The most serious charcoal aficionado will want to invest in the Performer, and most likely the Performer Platinum due to its unique gas-assist lighting feature.

Here's a simplified set of steps to reach a decision:

  • If you must go big, then your one and only choice is the 26.75" Gold.
  • If the standard 22.5" size is right for you, then you should strongly consider a model that features the super convenient ash catcher. This means making a choice between the 22.5" Gold or one of the Performer models. And if you're going to step up to the Performer, you won't regret going all in at the Platinum level.
  • If the smaller 18.5" size is more appropriate for your needs, then purchasing the 18.5" Silver seems to be the obvious move, but it's not your only option. You might want to consider a Jumbo Joe that does double duty in your backyard and at remote locations. 

For the record, Weber also sells a monstrosity called the Ranch Kettle. This behemoth has a massive 37.5" diameter grate that provides more than 1,100 square inches of cooking surface. It retails for about $1,300, so you'll need deep pockets as well as a large patio to accommodate it. The unit also has an insatiable appetite for charcoal, so you'd better be prepared to keep a large volume of Kingsford on hand.

Eric from Smoke Dreams BBQ
with his Weber Performer Platinum in brick red
All of the Weber charcoal grills are available in black. But if you are someone who is interested in adding a splash of color to your patio, then you will narrow down your options because only three of the models mentioned above are available in colors other than black. The One-Touch 22.5" Gold and the Performer Gold are available in dark blue and green. The Performer Platinum is available in these same two colors plus brick red (see photo).

Although the grills described above are not officially classified as being in the portable family per se, any of them will do well at your next tailgate party as long as you've got a vehicle that's large enough for transport.

Tip #1 – Assembly

You should never pay to have a retailer assemble your grill. In fact, you shouldn't have them assemble it at all. I'll tell you why.

The folks at Home Depot and Lowe's are very helpful, but their brightly colored aprons don't qualify them as grill assembly experts. You don't want them leaving out the owner's manual, losing a part, configuring something incorrectly, or damaging the unit. Furthermore, a grill that's already been assembled is much more likely to get messed up on the drive home because it becomes a challenge to stow securely in any vehicle other than a truck or van.

These admonitions also extend to the phalanx of pre-assembled grills chained up along the curb outside a typical home improvement store during springtime months. In addition to the previously mentioned problems, you've got a few more because the grill likely has been exposed to the elements, knocked around by careless staff, and groped by countless tire kickers.

Sure, Weber will stand behind any grill purchased at an authorized retailer regardless of who assembles it, but you can avoid a lot of hassle by purchasing a unit that is pristine and unmolested. Simply keep your new grill in its box and only break the factory seal when you're within the peaceful and friendly confines of your garage. Assembly is not that difficult, so you'll take great satisfaction in doing the job yourself.

Tip #2 – Fuel

Be sure to read up about differences in fuels, specifically briquettes vs. lump charcoal. Each variety has its own cooking characteristics that should be taken into consideration for overall use or specific grilling situations. Heck, there are even significant differences between varous brands of lump, so do your homework and experiment to find out what you like the best.

You should also avoid the use of lighter fluid because it can adversely flavor your food. I was a lighter fluid guy for many years. Then one day I came to my senses and purchased a charcoal chimney, and I haven't used a drop of lighter fluid ever since. All it takes is a few sheets of newspaper and a match to get a pile of charcoal going in about 20 to 30 minutes. Easy!

Special Acknowledgement

Certainly there will be people who will gripe about my failure to recommend kamado-style cookers such as the Big Green Egg. BGEs are great, there's no doubt about it. And the large and growing number of loyal followers – the so-called "Eggheads" – is a testament to their quality.

Furthermore, a BGE is pretty versatile, too. It can be used as a grill or a smoker. And with so many different accessories, you can do all sorts of things, including turning it into a pizza oven. For what it's worth, any Weber One-Touch or Performer charcoal grill can also be used as smoker or as pizza oven.

There are a couple of issues that I have with the BGE. The first is that they are costly. The extra large BGE has 452 sq. inches of cooking area and costs around $1,100. In contrast, the Weber One-Touch 26.75" Gold has a 508-sq. inch cooking surface and can be had for only $299. I know this isn't necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison given the particular performance characteristics of a BGE, but facts are facts.

My other BGE complaint has to do with portability. The damn things are heavy, so if you have to move them around (e.g., to a competition), be prepared to exert some effort. But by far the biggest problem is that they can break. The BGE is made out of a ceramic material, so if you're moving it from Point A to Point B and it gets dropped or if something falls on it, you run the risk of it becoming permanently damaged. A useless and expensive heap of rubble is not cool.

If you are fascinated by the Big Green Egg, then by all means shop around – but do your homework. Talk to multiple people to get all points of view, not just the standard chorus of praise from the faithful partisans. Draw your own conclusions before making your investment.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is that choosing a charcoal grill means solving an equation with multiple variables: portability, physical size, cooking capacity, operational performance, features, and cost. If you can balance these out to suit your situation, you will choose a very fine grill that will delight you for years to come.

Got questions? Just send me a message and I will gladly respond.

Previous Post: Part 1 – General Considerations
Coming Soon: Part 3 – Buying a Gas Grill

Friday, April 12, 2013

Choosing a New Grill – Part 1: General Considerations

You say you're in the market for a new grill, eh? That's great!

I live by one simple motto: "Friends don't let friends by crappy BBQ gear." That's why I'm here to help you.

April is the month when big box discount stores, home improvement centers, and warehouse clubs are stocked to the rafters with more outdoor cooking merchandise than at any other time of the year.

There's a lot to look at and drool over, but you've got to keep a level head and only plunk down your hard earned cash for items that deliver on the promises of quality, performance, and convenience.

The purpose of this three-part series is to help you formulate your decision criteria and purchase strategy. In this first installment we will consider general decision criteria. The second story will focus on the purchase of a charcoal grill. The third and final post will cover the selection of a gas grill.

One quick note before we get into the details: this series deals only with grills. Evaluating smokers is an even more complex proposition than studying grills, so we'll have to get to that at a later time.

Thinking About a Grill

Acquiring in a new grill is a serious proposition, mainly because you will be investing in your outdoor cooking enjoyment for years to come. You want to make sure that your selection satisfies your immediate requirements yet meets your long-term needs as well.

The secret to making the best decision is introspection. You've got to ask yourself a lot of questions about what you want out of a grill. It would be impossible to capture every possible question, but here are the big ones that I would ask if I were sitting at your kitchen table to devise your purchasing strategy:

  • Size How many people will you cook for at one time? How much food will you need to prepare all at once? How much space do you have to use and store a grill? The primary dimension of a grill is cooking surface area, and this will determine how many burgers, steaks, or chops you'll be able to prepare simultaneously. So whether you're cooking for two people or a dozen, choose the size appropriately. Separately, the footprint of the grill should also be evaluated to make sure that it will fit in the available space.
  • Location – Where will you do most of your grilling? On your deck? On your patio? On the road? If you want to cook on your wooden deck, a gas grill is safer because you don't want to burn your house down with a stray hot briquette from a charcoal grill. A patio surface such as concrete or stone is safe for charcoal. The question about cooking on the road brings up the consideration of a portable grill or a larger size unit that is still somewhat convenient to transport.
  • Frequency How often will you cook on your grill? Five times a year? Five times a month? Five times a week? If you're only planning to cook a few times a year, then don't invest in some large and very expensive rig. It's simply not worth it, so buy a less expensive grill. If you're a five times a month person, then I recommend investing in a very good grill. But if you're a five times a week person, then you'll definitely want to invest in a unit that is going to deliver outstanding performance and reliability over the long haul.
  • Convenience How much meal preparation time will you typically have? For example, are you always in a rush throwing together your evening dinner, or do you have the luxury of moving at a more leisurely pace. The objective should be to minimize the hassle (either real or perceived) of cooking outdoors, and if you're rushing around to make dinner, then you're not going to have time or patience to light off a batch of charcoal. You're going to want to turn the knob on the propane tank, press the ignitor, and be ready to cook in less than 10 minutes. But if time is not a concern, then charcoal becomes a very good option.
  • Seasonality Will you cook year-round or only in fair weather months? This is sort of an offshoot of the frequency line of questioning. Year-round grillers are typically in the five times a week category, so a serious evaluation and investment are warranted. Gas grills have a slight edge because you'll spend less time outside getting the fire going in winter months, although charcoal grills are perfectly fine for cold weather diehards. Those who will put their grills into a hibernation mode for the winter should be aware that gas grills will need to have a little maintenance performed on them after sitting idle for several months.
  • Capabilities What features and functionality are must haves? Which are simply nice to have? You've got to get a good idea of what you want to do with your grill and what you want it to do for you. Basic attributes such as size of the available cooking surface and construction quality are important, but you've also got to look at operational aspects such as ease of starting a fire, temperature evenness across the entire cooking surface, and ease of cleaning (including dumping ashes on charcoal models). Functional considerations should also be made, such as a built-in side burner (gas grills), rotisserie, and other add-ons that are available from the manufacturer in the standard package or as options.
  • Budget How much can you afford? I suggest having two numbers. The first should be your preferred maximum expenditure. The second should be your stretch number, some higher amount above the maximum that you would be willing to pay for your ultimate grill. The thinking here is that if you discover a unit that is perfect in every way except that its price exceeds the preferred limit, you then give yourself license to purchase it as long as it doesn't exceed the ultimate limit. You should spend be prepared to invest wisely without necessarily taking the el cheapo route.
There are myriad other considerations, of course, but the factors cited above are the main ones to keep in mind as you contemplate your many options.

Charcoal vs. Gas

As you are probably aware, there are two schools of thought about fuel. On one side you've got the folks who believe that charcoal is the one and only fuel that should ever be used to grill meat. Lined up on the other side are those people whose belief system sees gas as the only way to true grilling enlightenment.

Get over it, people! Seriously. My view is that charcoal and gas are both great but for different reasons. In fact, I think that every serious griller should own at least one charcoal grill and one gas grill in order to respond to the full spectrum of grilling scenarios. The next two posts will cover the particulars of charcoal and gas, respectively.

And while electric grills are clearly outside the scope of this series (and my outdoor cooking life in general), they do deserve the slightest mention here. An electric grill is often the only option available to apartment dwellers whose landlords strictly forbid the use of either charcoal or gas.

Next Steps

If you are in the market for a new grill – either as a first-timer or a seasoned pro looking to replace an existing unit or expand the fleet – then use the insights shared above to inspire your thinking on the matter. Get out there and see what types of grills are available. Talk to your friends about their grills and what they like or don't like about them. Just do the research and devise a sound procurement strategy rather than just spend 10 minutes in Home Depot to haphazardly buy whatever random product looks cool and happens to be on sale.

Got questions? Just send me a message and I will gladly respond.

Next Post: Part 2 – Buying a Charcoal Grill
Coming Soon: Part 3 – Buying a Gas Grill

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Equipment Tip: Invest in a Good Wire Brush

I am frequently blown away by the countless BBQ accessories that are on the market. Some of the new products are quite innovative, although many fall short in terms of utility or performance.

Consider grill cleaning products. There are a ton of them out there, but most of them are garbage. Today's post provides some very worthwhile insights on how to select a grill brush that is effective, inexpensive, and safe. But before getting to the good stuff, we should take out the trash.

For example, one should stay away from gimmicks like the steam cleaning grill brush. It's an expensive product that is also quite ridiculous because the steam is unnecessary if you're cleaning your grill at the proper time, which is when the grates are hot (more on that below).

I also recommend against any sort of motorized grill brush, These units lack power, plus they require proprietary (and typically expensive) replacement brushes.

Stay away from gimmicks!
Let's face it, it's hard to beat a real wire brush, the kind that requires a little elbow grease. However, I'm not talking about your everyday grill brush. The kind of brushes that you find in the BBQ section of any big box store are usually of very inferior quality.

The main problem with the el cheapo models is that the bristles bend and get worn down very quickly. What's more, the bristles can break off, adhere to the grill unnoticed, transfer onto your food, and possibly get ingested. Not good.

I experienced the detached grill brush bristle phenomenon myself a couple of years ago. It happened while feeding my face at a restaurant. I won't name the joint, but let's just say it was a national chain that specializes in chicken wings, beer, and lots of sports on big TVs.

While taking a monster bite into a tasty burger, I all of a sudden felt a sharp pain in the back of my mouth. It was evident something was wrong, perhaps a loose filling or something along those lines. Rather than swallow, I diligently worked my cud until I could spit out the foreign object. It turned out to be a long but thin bristle from a cheap grill brush. The manager came over and apologized profusely while laying blame on the kitchen staff. Lesson learned: loose bristles are not your friend.

I've often said that the best grill brushes aren't on the shelves with the BBQ stuff; rather, you need to check out the painting supplies aisle at Home Depot or Lowe's for incredible wire brushes with heavy-duty stainless steel bristles that offer superior scraping performance without falling out. These products are typically around $6, so the price is right, too.

Now THIS is an excellent grill brush!
And while you're selecting a new brush, you should also pick up a high-quality paint scraper to remove some of the difficult bits from your grill grates. As an alternative, sometimes the kick-ass stainless steel brushes described above have a little scraper on the end. Shop around to find what's right for you.

There's a product out there called The Texas Brush. As the name implies, it's big. The brush head is oversized, and the handles are available in 2-ft. and 4-ft. lengths. But at $50 this brush is a little too expensive, especially when you consider that it has the same kind of heavy-duty bristles as the less-than-$10 models at your local home improvement store. Unless you need a jumbo brush with a super long handle to reach the deepest, darkest recesses of your monster BBQ pit, I would suggest not buying into the hype of The Texas Brush.

Finally, please note that the proper time to use a grill brush is while the grates are hot. The easiest way to do this is to work the brush on the grates right after you've removed the meat and taken it inside to the kitchen. While the meat rests, come back outside and make a few swipes with the brush before your grill or smoker has had time to cool off. This way it will be clean as a whistle before your next outdoor cooking extravaganza.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Looking Back at 2012

What a year we had. We celebrated our 5th year at COFaQue and also participated in a pair of KCBS events.  This was quite a set of accomplishments given the challenges associated with trying to align the schedules of our quite busy team members.

Bluemont BBQ Bash (Kirk, Dwayne, Michael, Eric). We had really nice weather on the mountain this year, and we enjoyed something that we didn't have in 2011: electricity.  The great part about having so many engineers on the team is that the guys did an excellent job of wiring up our cook site for lights, fans, music, etc.  The lighting in particular was first rate, but we had just one problem: bugs. There were probably at least a dozen different types of bugs that swarmed all over us and the meat we were trying to prepare in the middle of the night.  Some of the smaller bugs looked like the pepper in our pork rub, so we had to meticulously remove them from the meat.  It was a real pain in the ass, but we got the job done.  There were many more teams this year, which was the second annual event hosted by Great Country Farms. (photos)

COFaQue (Kirk, Luke, Dwayne, Michael, Eric). We always have a good time at COFaQue.  This year we did something we have never done at any competition: we flew without a plan.  Let's be clear, we worked from a very detailed list of meat, gear, and supplies; however, we did not have a preordained cooking schedule.  We simply worked out everything on site, and this low-key approach allowed us to have more fun at the event.  The highlight, of course, was seeing our own Luke Darnell on stage with his musical partner LeAnne who together form Sweet Tea Blues. (photos)

Pickin' in the Panhandle (Kirk, Luke, Dwayne). At the time that our team was profiled by a local news outlet, we thought we were going to have smooth sailing, but in reality this event presented several challenges.  For starters, we had only three team members.  While we had postulated that we could meet all of the competition obligations with only three guys, the real trick was getting all of our stuff into just three vehicles.  Guess what?  We did it, and we felt pretty good about it.  The other difficulty we faced was the weather, because on Saturday we had some winds and torrential rains that threatened to trash our camp.  We held down our canopies and survived with minimal damage.  The main thing was that we made all of our turn-in times despite the storm hitting us during our busiest period. (photos)

Even though our scores weren't that great, we accomplished our main mission this year, which was to get together as a team as often as possible and have fun preparing BBQ for ourselves, our friends, and the judges.  Our BBQ is not the best on the planet (although it is pretty damn tasty), but we always have a good time doing what we do, and that's all that counts.

Separately, one of the biggest changes this year was how we communicated information about our team.  This web site was not updated as frequently as it had been in prior seasons, and the main reason for this is the focus we placed on our Facebook page.  Facebook is simply more versatile for us when it comes to posting updates, sharing photos, and making general observations about the world of BBQ.  We'll try to do a better job of updating this site in 2013, but please keep in mind that Facebook is where to find the stream of real-time updates.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Getting Ready for the 2012 Season

The gang from Smoke Dreams BBQ is in prep mode for a competition season that will start in July and wrap up in October.

Events. Would you believe that there are nearly 30 KCBS events within a 220-mile radius of Ashburn? With so many competitions to choose from, we have the luxury of being selective based on event size, proximity, cook site dimensions, and a variety of other factors. Check out our upcoming events page for complete details.

Equipment. Our site plan calls for using a pair of 22½" WSMs and one 18½" WSM as our primary cookers. One of the big WSMs will handle our pork butts and spare ribs while the other will take care of a couple of briskets. We're going to use the smaller WSM for chicken thighs. An old 18½" Weber One-Touch will be on hand just to provide some higher heat for us to set our sauces on the ribs and chicken.

Cook Site. With another WSM 22.5 in the mix, we are able to go to an all-Weber line-up in 2012. This will streamline our cooking process and also make it easier for us to transport our gear. The overall configuration of the cook site feature improved traffic flow and better protection from the rain. There will be dedicated workstations for preparing food and assembling boxes, and washing our many utensils.

Recipes. This is where the magic is happening. We are completely overhauling our method for chicken, and our approach for ribs has undergone a slight modification. Our team uses three rubs in competition; the two that we use on pork and chicken will not be changing at all this year, but brisket rub is undergoing a little bit of an overhaul right now, primarily to refine the balance of the seasonings.

We hope to see you on the BBQ trail!!