Editor’s note: This is the first of two blog posts looking at what’s needed for a successful backyard grilling season. This post focuses on the “must have” items. The second post will focus on “nice to have” and “really nice to have” items.
Warm weather, longer days, the smell of cooked meat and wood smoke. That must mean that grilling season is underway.
Hopefully you’ve started to use that outdoor kitchen we call the grill. If you haven’t gotten started yet and you feel a little rusty, you can get a quick refresher by reading my Tips on how to get your grill on blog post.
However, already this year I’m getting quite a bit of questions from people asking what else they need to be fully prepared for a stress-free grilling season. I know that when you go to the barbecue or hardware store you’re blinded by all of the cool shiny gadgets you see targeted at the back yard griller.
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And if you’re like I once was, you think to yourself, you must need all of that stuff. After all, they make it, so I must need it.
Well, I hate to burst your gadget-lovin’ bubble, but you really don’t need all that stuff. I say that from experience. Early on in my grilling days I bought a lot of those items only to find out that I didn’t need most of them. Or I would find out that in my Scrooge-like attempt to save a few dollars, I bought something that didn’t even last half of a grilling season.
I’ve made a list of gear for us back yard grillers and smokers. The list has three sections: Must Have, Nice To Have, and Really Nice To Have. Today, we’re going to focus on just the basics … the Must Have category.
While most of the list is applicable to both gas and charcoal grills, there are a couple of specialized items on the list just for the Charcoal grilling enthusiast.
Charcoal chimney starter (charcoal grill only) — Why do you want a charcoal chimney starter? Well, do you like the smell of lighter fluid? Yeah, me neither. Nor do I want that smell to transfer to my food. That’s why you want to use a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid to get your charcoal going.
I recommend a brand by a grill manufacturer. You don’t want a cheap chimney that will fall apart quickly. Depending on the use, a good charcoal chimney starter will last a few seasons. They will usually succumb to rust.
Grill brush — I recommend a brush that’s called a three-sided brush. The end of the brush is shaped like a triangle. The advantage of this design is that it allows you to clean the cooking grate easier and from different angles.
Welder’s gloves — Notice I didn’t say “branded” barbecue gloves? For ultimate hand protection I only recommend welder’s gloves, not barbecue gloves. Why? Welder’s gloves are much better quality and a heck of a lot easier on the wallet. I can usually buy three pairs of welder’s gloves for the price of the one pair of “branded” barbecue gloves.
Tongs — I like the stainless steel, inexpensive, spring-loaded tongs. Nothing fancy. You can usually find these at a decent restaurant supply store. They don’t need to lock, or have a fancy coating or contoured hand padding. They just need to work.
Personally I like 12-inch tongs for most of the grill work that I do and I have a set of 16-inch tongs for specialized “down in the fire” super-hot cooking. Once you find a pair of tongs that you like, you’ll want to grab up two to three pair of those. Why? Because grilling involves raw food and cooked food. And unless you are an acclaimed Sushi master, you do not want the utensils that touched raw food to touch your semi or fully-cooked food. That goes for plates and pans, too.
Timer — I can’t say enough about a good, dependable and very loud timer. Many a good meal has been saved due to my timers. (Yeah, I have a few.) One of the enjoyable aspects about outside cooking is that it’s a very interactive and social activity. However, all of that interactivity can cause even us good grillers to lose track of time and miss a crucial “turning point” for food.
Instant read thermometer — You may not think of a thermometer as an essential tool for grilling, but I can tell you that it really is. Nothing ruins a good cook out — and potentially your reputation as a “Grill Master” — than someone getting sick on the food you cook for them. Cooking and serving foods at their proper temperature is just as important as getting that charcoal flavor on that steak. I’m not trying to scare you, but even the USDA estimates that about 40 percent of chicken that is cut up and sent to grocery stores contains salmonella, so you better make sure that you are cooking chicken to at least 165 degrees.
Disposable aluminum pans — These inexpensive containers are excellent vehicles to transport food back and forth to the grill, just as long as you adhere to my point above about not mixing raw food with cooked food.
Wood chunks (charcoal grill) — Nothing says outdoor cooking like the hint of smoke on your burger, steak or even beer can chicken. Of course you don’t want to overdo it, but that’s what experimentation is all about. For charcoal grills, I prefer using wood chunks instead of wood chips.
By the way, let me put to bed the question about whether or not you should soak wood chunks. The quick answer is no. Why? You can soak a wood chunk for 12 hours and the water will only penetrate about 1/8” or so. Some people say you should soak the chunks so they won’t catch on fire. If you want wood to smoke instead of catching on fire, leave the lid on your grill.
I had a friend that was trying to prove to me why soaked wood chunks were better. He would put the soaked chunks of wood on the fire, and point out to me, “Look at that smoke.” Unfortunately, his overzealous grin turned flat when I said “Do you mean the steam?” Because that’s all it was doing, steaming out the moisture until the heat could get to the wood and get the real smoking process started.
I hope this helps you feel more prepared for your summer cooking. Remember, you always want to master the basics. Keep an eye out for my next blog post where I’ll cover the “Nice To Have” and “Really Nice To Have” gadgets. Until then, keep your grills hot and your beverages cold.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a master student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.