Grilled pizza. Grilled rosemary chicken skewers. Grilled tuna salad niçoise. This may sound like dinner at your favorite Mediterranean restaurant, but there’s no reason why you can’t make this food at home on your own grill. Tricky maneuvers like handling floppy pizza dough, flipping fragile fish fillets, or turning skinny vegetables are a lot easier when you use some of the well-designed equipment now on the market. And grilling even the simplest food is more fun when you’re well-equipped, not with gadgets, but with tools that are truly useful.
After scouring stores and catalogs, I gathered up the stuff that looked promising, piled it in my car (along with my husband and the dog), and headed for the beach in Rhode Island for a weekend of testing and tasting. After grilling everything from herbed flatbread to whole mackerel, I became a fan of the following tools.
Choose the right fuel: hardwood charcoal or good quality briquettes
If you’re a gas griller, then starting your fire is flick-of-the-switch easy, as long as you have enough liquid propane. Keep track of this with an inexpensive magnetic patch called a liquid propane level indicator that you attach to the canister. It changes color according to how much gas you have left in the tank. If you own a charcoal grill, you’ll have to decide what kind of fuel to use. I used to let my lighter-fluid-wielding, briquette-hugging husband rule the grill. But after a stint at Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island, where I learned to make the restaurant’s famous grilled pizza over fire stoked with hardwood charcoal, I saw the light, and we were born again into the world of natural hardwood charcoal. This is the quickest lighting, hottest burning, cleanest, and best smelling fuel for your charcoal fire.
Natural hardwood charcoal is pure wood, aged for a year to eliminate creosote and resins, and then baked in kilns fired by grain alcohol, not petroleum, so that no residual petroleum remains in the charcoal. It is simply the char left after the wood is reduced, like the leavings of a beach bonfire—which is exactly what it smells (and sparks) like when lit. An excellent mail-order source for natural hardwood charcoal is Natures Own Online Store, which carries Nature’s Own 100% Natural Hardwood Chunk Charcoal. All this maple wood comes from a government-approved Canadian reforestation program.
If you can’t get natural hardwood charcoal, buy high-quality briquettes. These do contain some binders of lime and cornstarch, but they don’t have the petroleum, nitrates, and cheap fillers of sand and clay that other composition briquettes often have.
Start the fire: kiss lighter fluid goodbye
For charcoal grillers, there are three terrific ways to start your fire without liquid petroleum products, which are stinky, unfriendly to the environment, and becoming illegal in several states. Chimney starters, metal canisters with heatproof handles, are easy to use: Load the top with charcoal, the bottom with crumpled paper, and light the paper. The air draws the flames rapidly up through the chimney and heats the coals. In about 20 minutes, your coals are red-hot and ready to be tipped out into the grill. Weber’s Rapid Fire Chimney Starter is particularly nice. It has an extra-large capacity, which makes it a good choice for larger grills. It also has a nifty steadying handle to help you safely pour out the coals.
If you don’t have a chimney starter, tuck two or three solid paraffin lighter cubes into your pile of charcoal to replace the newspaper and kindling you’d normally use to start a fire. Light the starter cubes (which are odorless and smokeless), and they’ll get your coals going.
Another clean and efficient way to start a charcoal fire is an electric charcoal starter. Nestle the iron coil inside a pile of coals and plug the starter into a regular 120-volt electric outlet (via a heavy-duty extension cord). It immediately begins heating; remove after eight minutes, and your fire is well on its way. This is by far the easiest method to get a charcoal fire going, but it does have one problem: the starter is white-hot when it comes out of the fire, and it needs to rest in a safe place until it cools down. This could be tricky if you have small children in your household or, as at my house, a large dog with a wagging tail.
Add smoky flavor with wood chips and chunks
Once you’ve got your fire going, you can decide if you want to use wood chips or chunks to lend a smoky flavor to your food. Play around with these flavorings—cherry, apple, pecan, hickory, and mesquite, to name a few—to suit your own taste. You’ll want to add the chips, or the bigger chunks, just a few minutes before you’re ready to put the food on. You can soak them first in water, beer, or wine, or you can use them dry. I found that dry chips provide plenty of smoky flavor, and that I’m not crazy about cooking with the steamy, wet heat of soaked chips.
Either way, the flavor your food takes on from wood chips is subtle; certain woods, like mesquite, give a much stronger flavor, which you may or may not like. And using wood chips and chunks seems to make the most sense when slow-cooking foods, like a chicken or roast, over indirect heat; the food has more time to absorb flavor. Thin fillets of fish or chicken do pick up some flavor if cooked directly over flaming or steaming chips, or if you briefly cover the grill.
In a charcoal grill, you can toss chips or chunks directly into the fire (stand back: dry chips act like fuel, and your fire will flare up a bit), but in a gas grill, it’s a good idea to use a metal smoking box to hold the chips so that the fuel port doesn’t get clogged. The boxes are available with or without covers. A great alternative is all-natural compressed wood pellets that arrive in small tins. All you have to do is remove a sticker to expose a hole, drop the can into the coals (making sure it’s surrounded by heat), and again, stand back. The can takes just a few minutes to heat up, and then it sends off a stream of smoke like a spouting whale. You can also improvise and put loose chips into a disposable aluminum-foil pan punched with holes.
Choose the smartest tools for easier cooking
Over the years I’ve tried to cook just about every kind of vegetable on my grill. I’ve rigged up all sorts of goofy aluminum-foil trays to keep asparagus spears and the like from falling through the cracks. But now I’m sold on an incredibly versatile grilling tool on which I can cook all those fall-through-thecracks foods, and I can also use it for shellfish and skin-on fish. I had seen the flat porcelain-enameled steel cooking grids in stores; I’m not sure why I never bought one. All you have to do is brush oil on the grid (sometimes called a Griffo Grill, after its inventor, or a Grill Topper), put it on the grill when the fire’s ready, and let it heat for a minute. Then grill just about anything on it.
You’ll get terrific results with swordfish and tuna steaks, salmon fillets, whole skin-on fish, scallops and shrimp, skinny vegetables like green beans and scallions, large slices of eggplant and zucchini, and juicy things like tomatoes. You won’t lose things into the fire, and there’s a handy lip on the grid to push up against when you’re turning food over. Best of all, the porcelain-coated surface is as close to nonstick as you’ll get with equipment designed to withstand high heat.
After trying the flat grid, which is available in small and large sizes, I really had fun with the wok-shaped porcelain enameled steel grid, designed for stir-frying on the grill. I cut up several kinds of vegetable that are usually hard to grill—cabbage, fennel, snow peas, broccoli—and tossed them into the wok over a hot fire. After stirring them around for a few minutes, I had delicious veggies, caramelized on the outside, crisp-tender on the inside. Since there are so many cooks in search of the perfect grilled pizza, I next tried some items designed to solve a few of the problems that come up when working with the dough directly on the grill. I found one porcelain-enameled pizza grid (which is more holes—4500 of them—than steel) that I liked. Because of the porcelain finish, dough doesn’t stick, and the grid can be twirled around to move the dough over or away from hot spots on the grill. You can also use a flat enameled grid for small pizzas.
Another variation on the porcelain-coated steel grid, new to the market this year, is a fish and vegetable turner. Designed to allow you to flip food without handling it with utensils, this turner consists of two small pieces of porcelain-enameled steel that are joined together like a book with hinges. While it isn’t a perfect tool (it doesn’t hold a lot, and the metal handle is a bit awkward), it is very handy for cooking one small whole fish and does the best job on fully cooking eggplant slices. Usually grilled eggplant winds up charred on the outside, raw on the inside. Sandwiched between the two covers of this turner, the eggplant actually steamed, cooking the inside thoroughly, while the outside became nicely caramelized.
What about all those grilling baskets intended to hold fish, vegetables, or hamburgers? Some grillmeisters like them, but I find them very awkward to use. And now that the porcelain-coated grids are widely available, even the baskets designed to hold whole fish aren’t really necessary. I cooked some good-sized mackerel on the porcelain-enameled grid and got crispy skin and perfectly cooked flesh. I’d avoid those baskets.
You might think to avoid something as funny looking as a porcelain ceramic chicken sitter, but you’d be missing out on a scrumptious smoky chicken. This odd-looking thing cooks unbelievably tasty chicken with extra-crispy skin, and it can be used in any grill with a lid tall enough to cover the height of the propped up chicken. There are several variations on this idea on the market. I tested one called the CeramiCooker, made by Early Morning Pottery, by setting it directly on the grill grate. I pushed my hot charcoal to the sides of the grill, put a foil drip pan under the chicken, and covered the grill, leaving the air vents open. The chicken was delicious, and the ceramic cooker cleaned up easily.
A good set of skewers is essential, and Weber’s Double-Pronged Skewers make a lot of sense. Awkward shrimp or recalcitrant round vegetables like cherry tomatoes will stay put when you turn them, instead of spinning around, so that you can actually grill two sides of the food. Also keep an eye out for metal skewers with a flat edge, which can prevent spinning, too.
If you’re looking for a lovely rustic presentation for a party, try using fresh rosemary skewers. I was surprised to find that these really do gently flavor whatever is cooked on them. First, strip most of the leaves off and thread chicken or pork in strips (saté style) for a nice presentation.
Cook with heat-resistant tongs and turners
There are a zillion sets of grilling utensils on the market. I’m actually most comfortable with two simple tools: a pair of 16-inch stainless-steel restaurant-style tongs and a long-handled natural-bristle pastry brush for basting. I also find that a spatula-type turner can be handy—especially if it’s a combination tool like the turner/tong from Lamson & Goodnow. With this terrific utensil, you can move just about anything without damaging it.
If you really want to own a knockout set of grilling tools, be sure to hold each piece to see if it’s comfortable before buying the set. And keep an eye out for heat-resistant handles. (This is the disadvantage of all-purpose stainless-steel tongs, which heat up quickly over a hot fire.) OXO Good Grips’ set is lightweight and dishwasher safe; Lamson & Goodnow’s is strong, well-made, and good-looking.
What about protecting your hands from the heat? I’m not a big fan of those bulky grilling mittts; I feel like they take away the tactile sensation of grilling. But Ido keep two or three clean old dishtowels on hand to wrap around hot handles or to open the air vents on the grill.
Add fire and flavor with tips from the pros
“I love my chimney starter, and I like to use it like a mini-grill. When the coals are glowing, instead of pouring them out, I put the grill grate on top of the starter. I use that super-hot convected heat to sear tuna steaks for my wife and myself or to quickly blister red bell peppers.”
—Clifford Pleau, The California Grill, Lake Buena Vista, California
“One of my favorite grilling tricks is to use herbs to flavor the food. In summer, when herbs such as sage, thyme, and rosemary are getting leggy, grab handfuls, soak them briefly in water, and toss them onto the coals, put the food on, and cover the grill. The food will pick up the wonderful aroma of the herbs.”
—John Ash, Fetzer Vineyards, Hopland, California
“A big mistake grillers often make is starting to cook before the coals are really hot. Be sure your coals are glowing red under a layer of white ash. Use a long-handled utensil to stir up the coals, shake off the white ash, and distribute the coals evenly. With a really hot fire, the food will sear properly, and it won’t stick as much.”
—Gordon Hamersley, Hamersley’s Bistro, Boston, Massachusetts
Sources for grilling equipment
- Chef’s Catalog, www.chefscatalog.com
- Grill Lover’s Catalog, www.grilllovers.com
- Nature’s Own Online Store, www.char-wood.com
- Sunbeam, www.sunbeam.com
- AMCO Corporation, www.amcocorporation.com
- Bar-B-Q Woods, Inc., 800 E. 14th St., Newton, KS 67114; 800/528-0819.
- Charcoal Companion, 7955 Edgewater Dr., Oakland, CA 94621; 800/521-0505 (outside California); 510/632-2100.
- Early Morning Pottery, www.earlymorningpottery.com
- EKCO Housewares, www.ekco.com
- Lamson & Goodnow, www.lamsonsharp.com
- Oscarware, Inc., 749 Priceville Rd., Bonnieville, KY 42713; 888/672-2797.
- OXO, www.oxo.com
- Weber-Stephen Products Co., www.weber.com