Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Big new grill

I've been looking to replace the gas grill I melted last spring (turns out 18 chicken leg quarters provide critical mass for a devastating grease fire). I had been feeling inadequate for using a gas grill, so I replaced it with an inexpensive charcoal grill. The thought was "if i like charcoal, I'll buy a better one, if not I'll go back to gas and only be out $100."

Charcoal is the only way to go, so I bought this bad boy last weekend.

I should mention that I already own the "offset smoker" by the same manufacturer, which helped my decision: I've never had a moment of trouble with the offset cooker.

This is probably the easiest grill assembly I've done. Admittedly, the hardest part is the cart, and I got the display model from the store, so I didn't have to actually assemble it. Still, we had it assembled and lit in under an hour.

There are basically three pieces: the cart, the grill, and the hood. The grill body is more or less complete out of the box: you need to put on the charcoal tray handle and the crank to raise/lower the charcoal bed under the meat.

The hood needs to be attached to the hinges, which need to be put on the body. You also need to put the handle and the thermometer on the hood: this requires actually removing the inner part of the hood, then refastening it after you've put the handle and thermometer on. I think the powder-coated model has more direct access, but I don't remember for sure.

The cooking surfaces are cast iron, which is the absolute best grilling surface. It takes a little maintenance, but it works so much better than anything else. If you don't want to buy this grill, that's fine, but whatever grill you buy, seriously consider one with cast-iron cooking grates. Porcelain is fine, but cast iron's the cat's meow for grilling surfaces.

The cast iron grates actually lift out with a little struggle: they get caught on the edge of the grill if you're not careful. There are four grates, so you can move them around, lift some out, etc. I invested in the $7.50 grate lifting tool, which was a good choice. Hey, if you're gonna drop more than $800 on a grill, spend the extra $7.50 and get the tool.

The charcoal bed is divided into three sections with removable dividers. This allows you to control the coal placement. This is what I've been missing all this time! This way, you can build a huge fire at one end, and the charcoal doesn't sort of spill over to ruin your heat control. There's nothing worse than dumping a load of charcoal into your grill and having it spread all over
the place. Especially if you use lump charcoal, that's a real annoyance. The dividers really solve that problem: you can pack all your charcoal into one of the areas to form a well-defined bed.

The charcoal bed does a good job of letting air at the charcoal. On my previous grill, I ended up putting a grate on two bricks on top of the charcoal tray, which let me get the fire closer to the food (for hot cooking like steaks), and it let more air get at the charcoal. I found the tray itself really prevented the fire from burning. On this grill, lack of air isn't a problem.

Best of all, the charcoal bed can be raised until it actually lifts the cooking grates off the grill! This allows you to put a serious sear on those steaks. The crank handle to control the charcoal height is great, and it allows some pretty fine-grained heat control. My cheaper grill had one of those trays you lift with a series of hooks to the level you need.. but they never have one at the right place! With a crank, you can put it almost anywhere.

The bottom of the grill comes out as a tray (slides out with a big handle) for easy cleaning. That's an awesome feature. I mean, the whole bottom comes out. Wow!

One of the nice features of this grill is the front-loading door: the front of the grill opens with a little knob so you can stoke the fire without moving the meat. A lot of grills are doing that now, but this grill has a really wide door. My inexpensive "test" grill had a front-load door, but it was so small, I had to perform some acrobatics to move the charcoal around the fire. This
one lets you really work, without burning your wrists and hands.

Let's spend a minute talking about thermometers. If you don't have a decent thermometer, you're basically grilling by guess. Not a good plan. For common fare: steaks, fish, hot dogs, burgers, this isn't so bad. You can pretty much work with "hot", "sorta hot" and "Wow!". But for more delicate work, like roasts or ribs, you need to know how hot the grill is.

On most grills, the thermometer is basically useless: it is either so cheap it doesn't work, or it has helpful units like "Hot" and "Warm", or it's just in the wrong place. The thermometer on this grill seems to be better than useless, although I haven't really put it to a difficult test yet. To start, it's got both C and F graduated in decent units from around 170F through
540F. That's an immediate improvement on average. Second, it's not all the way up the lid. In other words, it's placed low enough for the measurement to have some relevance to the meat. Face it, the meat doesn't care how hot the top of the lid is, it cares how hot the cooking grates and the air immediately above them are.

Like all serious grillers, I have a plethora of thermometers, including a wireless pit thermometer that seems to be very accurate, and one of those grill-surface thermometers. I haven't tried to do a serious calibration of the built-in yet, so I'm not quite willing to trust it with meat. But my initial, casual observations seem positive.

The cart is nice: two stainless shelves that drop down with a little lift. There are towel racks on them, and one has a bunch of little hooks to hang your grilling tools. Nice touch. A lot of grills have these, but the ones on this grill are a little smaller than most, which actually seems to work better.

The modesty cover on the front of the cart is useless. I may end up taking mine off. It more or less nullifies the value of the shelf under the grill, making it inaccessible. Had I thought of it soon enough, I would have mounted the grill backwards on the cart, and used the modesty cover as a back wall for the shelf. But this thing is heavy, and I'm not up for moving it now, so I may just take the cover off and put it in storage.

The only real problem with this grill (besides the steep price) is the lack of airflow control in the bottom. You can't choke down the fire for slow cooks... I haven't had a chance to barbecue some ribs or butts yet, so I haven't been able to really test how adjustable it is. Of course, I have an offset cooker for that, but the flavor's better when the meat's directly over the fire. That way, the fat that renders out of the meat falls into the fire and generates flavourful smoke.

The size and weight of this grill would suggest that it takes a lot of fuel to warm it up. On the other hand, the weight suggests that it'll be less affected by ambient conditions than most grills. I cooked some burgers on a single chimney full of lump charcoal (so less than 5 pounds), and the grill was still at 200F three hours later. This is a positive sign for longer cooks.


Shan said...

M says, "I'll see your knitting blog, and I'll raise you a grilling blog."

It turns out you're a slave to your art - just like I am! Yay for us! "Excess within control, McKenna." Only I think you have got the all-time record for money spent on materials (although I'm working on it).

Gwen said...

Perhaps the author of this blog should spend some time on his knees, rather than at the grill, confessing the sins of telling falsehoods and plagiarizing others' ideas.
-the REAL creator of Clumsy Ox