Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What Grilling Gear do You Need?

As a foodie and amateur cook, I've learned a few things about the kitchen. There are certain kitchen tools that are essential to food preparation. As a neophyte (or Neanderthal) grill master, I had a feeling there were certain essential grilling tools, as well. And hey, I'm a guy. If outdoor grilling really is a form of urban man-sport it's only natural that we'd find a love of tools bleeding over from all of our failed do-it-yourself projects and aborted car repairs.

So far, I've not been proven wrong. A few weeks of charcoal grilling is hardly a long time, but I'm a fast learner. Here are some of the essential grilling tools, outside of the grill, that I've come across, so far.

Chimney Starter

A chimney starter is basically a large tube with holes in it that's supposed to let you light the charcoal more evenly. The idea is to light it in the chimney starter and pour it into your grill, once it's ashed over.

I've seen lots of people on TV who love these things and get great results. My dutch oven friend, Mark Hansen, has one and hates it. He told me he's never been able to get the charcoal to light, no matter what he's done.

I don't have one. I bought “quick-light” charcoal (charcoal impregnated with lighter fluid) and the bad said “not to be used with chimney starters” so I didn't buy one. I saw someone use one to smoke cheese, once, so I may have to pick one up one of these days. Just not today.


Tongs are quickly becoming my tool of choice when it comes to food manipulation, especially meat. I like them a lot better than the traditional “grilling fork” that lets all those yummy juices escape when I stab the meat. On the grill, tongs serve their traditional purpose of moving food around, but they also come in handy when repositioning hot coals before, and after, lighting.

To light my charcoal I'm using a product from Diamond called Strike-A-Fire. Essentially it's an over-sized flat match made of particle board soaked in lighter fluid. (Be careful using stuff like this, by the way. The do contain products that have been shown to cause cancer and birth defects.)

The idea is to light the Strike-A-Fire like a match and then arrange the coals over it once it's fully engulfed in flame. To be honest, it takes longer to fully ignite than I'd like. Tongs to the rescue! I use my tongs to hold it at an angle, with the burning end pointed down, allowing the flames to move up the rest of the match, shortening my lighting time significantly.

Once the Strike-A-Fire match is fully ignited, I need to arrange the coals around it. Not having fire-proof asbestos hands, I use my tongs to arrange the coals around the fire.

Once the coals are completely lit, and the fire has died down so the coals show a nice coating of ash on them, I use the tongs to rearrange them across the bottom of my grill grate. For a small grill like mine, it works great.

Grilling Gloves

I've got four criteria for a good grilling glove: 1. Stand up to high heat for a long time. 2. Be long enough to protect my forearms when I reach across the hot grill (I like my arm hair just the way it is, thank you). 3. Not break my wallet. 4. Not be a mitt.

The first three seem like obvious issues. The fourth one has to due with the fact that I hate mitts when it comes to cooking – oven mitts, too. I don't feel like I've got as much control with a mit. I know, it's stupid. For some reason I'd rather use a regular square hot pad than a mitt.

Grill Mop

If you're going to be applying a marinade or other sauce during cooking, you've got to have something to slather it on with. The traditional tool is a grill mop. It looks just like you think it would – a toy mop for Cabbage Patch dolls. It seems to be favored over the traditional soft paint brush (which I would use) by grill masters, though. Who am I to argue?

Metal Spatula

When I started looking at all the tools that could be had to clean and prep your grill, my mind wobbled. Every incarnation I could find came down to one or more of three options: a scrubby brush, a wire brush, and a thing that looked like a thick, short metal spatula. (There is one I found that resembled a gray lava-like stone, but it was kind of expensive.) Some of them were plastic, some were wood, and most of them looked like they were made in a Jr. high school shop class. I wasn't impressed.

I decided to by-pass them all. I already had all of those things for my kitchen. Why pay for a second set of the same tool for my grill? It's just silly.

Metal Sheet Pans

I guess you don't have to have these, I just found them useful for transferring large amounts of meat and veggies from the kitchen to the grill, and back again. Just don't use the same ones for the raw meat, as you do for the cooked. Unless you want to wash them, first.

Disposable Aluminum Baking Pans

These will save you a lot of clean up when it comes to grilling certain foods, such as the sliced onions I grilled up with my sausages. I've also seen them used to great effect as drip pans for indirect grilling. You just put them in the middle of the bottom grill rack and arrange the coals on either side.

Aluminum Foil

Ask any Boy Scout, and he'll tell you. The best way to cook up meat and potatoes around a campfire is to roll 'em up in aluminum foil before you chuck 'em in the coals. Aluminum foil is also a godsend when it comes to grilling more delicate foods (like most fish fillets) that just won't hold together when cooked directly on the grill.

Metal Skewers

If you want a good grilled shish-kebab, you've gotta have a skewer or two. Yes, the bamboo ones are cheaper, but you have to deal with the fact that they're going to burn and splinter no matter how much water you soak them in before hand. Make sure your's are sharp, and flat. That way your food will actually turn over when flipping, instead of just spinning around on the skewer.

Grill Pan

I've only seen these, to be honest. I've never used them so I don't know how “essential” they are. If you're doing a lot of grilling, though. I think they'd come in handy. I'm definitely getting one for the future. Basically they're flat sheets or pans with small holes in the bottom. They're used for foods that are too small to put on the grill directly, but large enough that you still want to get that great, dry cooked, grill flavor. I think it might be easier to make grilled shish-kebabs with one of these than a skewer.

I'm sure I missed a few. If we've got any grill masters around, I'd love to hear more suggestions for essential grilling gadgets and, heck, anything else that you can think of that would help a neophyte grill cook out.


Wm Morris said...

I don't what Mark is doing wrong, but a chimney starter is a must. It means you can avoid messing with smelly, dangerous lighter fluid and/or the briquets that are soaked in lighter fluid.

It means that all of your coals are nice and ready faster and hotter and can be easily poured out in a stack if needed (if you are doing the kind of grilling where you need a really hot and not as hot sections). And it means that you can create a second set of coals if needed while still keeping stuff going on the grill.

And according to America's Test Kitchen, one of the best models is only $13: Weber Rapid Fire Chimney Starter

BBQ Grail said...

Never, ever use lighter fluid. Chimney, two sheets of newspaper and a match. That's all you need.

John Newman said...

Thanks for the tips on the chimney starter. This is only my second year as a wannabe grill master. I may have to pick one up.

I noticed that the guy from America's Test Kitchen cheats, though. He puts a few of the "quick light" briquettes in the bottom, and then finishes it off with the regular ones.