Grilling 108: Beyond The Black Kettle

Grilling is done best when done most simply. I counsel novices to cook on Weber grills of the convention “kettle” kind, because they are cheap and simple and have no moving parts. You have no choice but to work with wood and coal and heat yourself, because there are no elaborate mechanisms to do it for you. So good. That’s fine. But let’s say you’ve mastered the basic skill of cooking meat over coal. Let’s say that you aspire to something higher, something deeper, something that will bring to a higher plane in the zen of grilling.

If so, there are only two ways to go. One is to commit entirely to a primitive naturalism, an animistic religion deeply rooted to earth and soil and light and fire, the stuff of primal man and Jungian archetypes. A kind of culinary shinto. This is a noble but arduous path, Shaolin monk-type stuff, and not for everyone. If you feel this calling, I would suggest getting two books: Seven Fires, by Francis Mallman, and Smoke: The New Firewood Cookery, by Tim Byres. (I wrote the introduction for the latter book, if that is any added inducement.)

The other way to go is to the store, credit card in hand, to buy some better equipment and better fuel. The Weber, for all its sacred simplicity, is fundamentally flawed. While its design can hardly be improved upon, its size is limited, it gets very clogged and dirty very quickly, and most importantly, its thin steel provides almost no insulation for the food you are cooking. That’s why I stress it as a grilling tool: if all you need is a way to cook thick steaks over hot fire, it’s ideal, and even has the added benefit of a tight-fitting curved lid that gives even ambient heat to food once it’s off the fire. But the second you lift the lid you lose all the heat, and even if you don’t lift the lid, if you are cooking in the rain, or in cold weather, or have fuel that has burned down, you are out of luck.

And it’s at that point that you turn to a ceramic cooker like The Big Green Egg or Komodo. These things weigh a million pounds and cost ten times the amount of a Weber. But the reason is obvious: they are solid, well-built, and massively well-insulated. When you close the lid of one of these things, you can come back five hours later and it will be more or less as hot as when you closed it. You don’t have the kind of real-time response, that you would with a Weber, and there aren’t the same kind of airflow control, but in terms of getting and keeping heat they are unbeatable. You can even load in some unlit coals and put a few hot ones on top, and the fuel will burn steadily for house.

I resisted them for a long time, because people liked them for the worst possible reason: because they didn’t like grilling, and sought a way to do less of it. I find this attitude abominable. But if you are a true griller, and the love of wood and fire and meat burns deep inside you, you might want to consider acquiring one of these things. They are very, very good for barbcue too – but that is another series.

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