When we moved to our new house back in July, my old Weber-style kettle grill didn't make the trip. After years of being left out behind the old house in the rain, it was shot--the plastic wheels shattered and useless, the bottom of the kettle so rusted out that one of the three legs was no longer attached. The grill had served us well, but it met an ignominious end at the city dump.
It's taken a little while for me to replace it. The Wife has a lot of curious notions, such as thinking that painting walls, upgrading bathroom fixtures, and buying a sofa for the new living room should somehow take precedence over seaching for a new barbecue grill. I find this baffling. Which of these invites sounds better to you: "Why don't you guys come over Saturday and we'll grill up some chicken in the backyard?" or "Hey, come over this weekend and we can sit on the couch." Seems like a no-brainer to me, but The Wife is immune to logic.
Finally, after two long two months without any means to smoke, sear, or char meats over an open fire, I finally went out and purchased my new grill. And I did it my way, too. The Wife, a long-time Consumer Reports subscriber, would have gone about it much differently--spending days researching the market, comparing product rankings, and settling on what the absolutely best make and model would be for her budgeted price range.
My approach is a little different. I headed down to the nearest home improvement megastore, figuring they probably had a pretty good selection, my mind completely unfettered by any sense of budget or brand preference. I perused what they had out on the floor and chose what looked like the best of the lot. Then, I took it home and, following a round of doubt and impending buyer's remorse, decided to look the model up on the Internet and make sure I hadn't bought a lemon.
Fortunately, my selection--the Char-Griller Super Pro--has gotten pretty good reviews on the barbecue enthusiast message boards, which was not only a relief but also confirms in my mind that I have a keen eye for grill detail as well as the general superiority of my method of shopping.
This time around, I avoided the Webber kettle and its ilk, having decided a long time ago they aren't really suited for grilling (since you can't adjust the height of the grill over the coals) nor for smoking (since there's not enough room in the kettle to really build and keep an indirect fire going). I also decided to not go down the path of the gas grill. There is a certain appeal to the gas grill: I could have shelled out two weeks' salary and gotten a chrome-plated beauty with indicator lights and shelves and cabinets and more amenities than my kitchen and lorded it over all my neighbors, which would be fun. And, in theory, I could come home from work, switch the thing on, and grill up a steak in about twelve minutes. But I know I never would.
It's not about convenience. The point of grilling in the backyard is that it needs to take time. You can have a beer while the charcoal burns down and chat with your friends and play with the kids. If you don't have a good two hours or more to relax and hang out in the backyard and just enjoy a lovely weekend afternoon, what's the point?
For the price of a low end gas grill, I went hog wild on a charcoal-burning model, including the side smoke box so that I can take on major barbecue initiatives. I also deviated from past precedent and actually read and followed the manufacturer's instructions.
Step 1: Assemble the grill. I have developed my own rating scale that measures the ease of assembly and quality of a product's instructions from 0 to 100, with 0 being the best score. The scale represents the number of swear words you utter while trying to put the &$#^@% thing together added to the number of times you tell the Six Year Old, "Don't tell your mother you heard me say that." The Char-Griller scores pretty well here--definitely in the single digits and well below anything I ever purchased the children for Christmas. It took about an hour, but soon the sleek black beauty was assembled and ready for action.
Step 2: Season it. I have been cooking with cast iron pans for years, so it was with great delight that I discovered the Char-Griller has heavy cast iron cooking grates that you season just like you would a cast iron skillet. (Note to The Wife: These are the kind of little joyous discoveries you miss out on if you do a bunch of research before buying a product.) In fact, the instructions recommend you season the entire grill. This means rubbing the inside of the grill with vegetable oil, and the cast iron grates with bacon grease (yes, bacon grease). Then, you light a fire inside, close it up, and let it go for 2 hours.
Step 3: Cook something.I had intended to do something dramatic for the first cooking, like slow-smoking an entire pork shoulder. But it was already mid-afternoon by this point, and a little quick math (5 pounds of pork @ 1-1/2 hours of cooking per pound) told me that unless I wanted to eat at midnight I'd have to scale it back a bit.
So, I went with smoked chicken wings instead. I marinated a big package of wings (about 16 of them) in lime juice and garlic while I prepped the fire, then loaded them all into the big drum and let them smoke slowly for about 2 hours. When I was ready to serve them up, I took the wings off, added some more lump charcoal to the grill and worked up a good hot fire, then returned the wings to the grill and gave them a quick searing directly over the flame to crisp up the skin.
The wings ended up even better than I expected, and they bode well toward a long autumn of fine backyard feasts.