It being spring, my mind has turned to thoughts of grilling. The fragrant smoke, the glowing embers, the sizzle and his of precious meat juices combusting like shooting stars as they fly from sputtering lamb chops. Sadly, as a New Yorker, I live in a tiny apartment and have no room for the offset smoker I so long for; I have to make due with a Weber kettle grill, a tool I have written about here with some frequency.
Still, as Uncle Charley says in Death of a Salesman, “a salesman is got to dream boy. It comes with the territory.” A friend of mine just bought a house in Westchester and has a big house there. Well, I’ve never seen it, but I assume it’s big. I don’t see anybody buying a hillbilly cabin in Westchester. One thing you know is that he has a big backyard, big enough for the barbecue engine of his choice. I am betting, Rachael Ray reader, that you do too. So the question becomes, what does the serious barbecue aspirant buy if they want to grill?
Well, it depends on where you are in life. A young person starting out life’s journey, who is just learning about the subtleties of outdoor cooking, should absolutely start with a Weber. The basic kettle grill is the first, best teacher of live fire cookery there is. It’s shape can’t be improved upon, and its minimalistic controls – basically a lid and two air holes – calibrate your sense of what is happening. (Two many variables, and you’d never know what you were doing right.) You can grill on it, and you can even smoke on it, once you learn about two-zone fires. And if you really want to barbecue seriously, you can even do that with the addition of an accessory called the Smokenator, which holds coals and wood apart from the live fire, allowing them to smoulder more or less indefinitely. Personallly, I don’t like the Smokenator; I think you should approach the Weber the way a kendo student does with his wood sword, or an apprentice conjuror his deck of cards.
Once you’ve mastered the grill, or even if you haven’t, you are ready to get serious about barbecue, and that means only one thing: an offset smoker. You can’t be mixing your fire and your smoke; not really, not if you want to do barbecue seriously. They have to be two seperate compartments, like lust and remorse. The design of any offset smoker is basically the same: there’s a tube where you stick meat, and there’s a box where you stick fire. There’s a hole that connects to the two, and there’s a chimney that lets the smoke out. That’s it. The things that matter about an offset smoker are not so much the design, which is as simple as a club, but the weight and gauge of the steel, because that’s what holds the heat steady. You can buy a cheap one, of the kind sold by Char-Griller or Brinkmann, but you shouldn’t, for this reason. They are basically big soda cans. Get a Smoke Hollow, and you’ll keep it for twenty years. And every year you’ll cook a little bit better.
But, of course, there may come a day when you will want something bigger. A trophy rig; a pro pit like the big boys use. This is a serious commitment, both in cost and in space. A full-size pro mobile rig is very large and very costly: the best ones, like those made by Dave Klose, the nation’s greatest barbecue builder, can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. You don’t need to go that far: but if you want to cook for 100 people or, god help you, get into competition cooking, this is what you’re going to need. A rig like this can hold heat in a freezing downpour, it can go anywhere, and you can cook upwards of 500 pounds of meat in it. Best of all, it looks awesome, and inspires a vague and nameless unease in your friends, all of whom will feel somewhat diminished by not having one. Of course, there’s always that one guy, the one with a chrome gas grill that cost as much as a used car, and which makes everything taste like it was cooked in the San Quentin death chamber. You moved past him the day you bought your first Weber. And that’s a feeling that, no matter where you are, you can’t put a price on.