Summertime is grill time, and the heart of the summer grill season is the week of July 4th. Even if you have not yet mastered the pit, and even if you have never been around the basics of the grill, you need not be intimidated. We will look at the backyard principles of “fire under meat” and explore a few grill options that can have you well on your way to establishing yourself quickly as a barbecueing force with which to be reckoned.
Men, I will not coddle you here. Just as I believe it is best for a man to learn how to drive a stick-shift manual transmission car before going to an automatic, it is best for a man to master a charcoal grill. It is a daring move to tame such a powerful element as fire, but those who learn some basic principles can do it with ease. Hot coals not only cook meat to desired and safe temperatures economically, charcoal adds a flavor to meat that is universally preferred over any other heat source. Most people are intimidated by coal-fired grills because the temperature is not controlled by a knob. Don’t worry. The truth of physics is on your side, and temperature can be controlled with simple understanding of what makes fire hot—oxygen.
A good charcoal grill has dual-controlled air flow, an ample grill area, and a durable material that will not succumb to heat before a full season of use. By dual air flow control, I mean a way to adjust the air that enters the fire box from the bottom of the grill and another adjustment on top of the grill that allows smoke to escape. These features don’t need to be fancy to be effective. I am a skeptic of bells and whistles here. Look for simple, hearty construction.
Also, be careful of the huge over-sized monsters that promise a huge grill area instead of strength of grate. Since heat rises, and the middle of any charcoal grill is likely to be the hot spot, one could be lured into thinking a large grill area means less grilling time. I have found this not to be the case. If you fill a large grill full of meat, it can take you just as long to cook the entire load as it would if you had two loads on a smaller grill. And good luck trying to cook all the burgers on a big grill without moving meat around. If you do, you are certain to burn the middle area while risking undone pieces on the edges. A larger grill area does NOT equal more tasty meat.
For this reason, my favorite small charcoal grill is a Weber One-Touch 22.5″ grill. I know you are paying a little more for the name Weber, but these guys construct quality grills that get the job done. They are easily adjusted for air-flow from the top and bottom, and even have a nice added feature that allows ash removal to be less difficult than other grills. I found one at Wal-Mart for $99.
A step up in features (not construction quality) is the Char-Broil 40″ American Gourmet Smoker. It looks masculine, but it is a very thin material that will not stand up to heat very well. It does have the nice added feature of offering a charcoal grill plus a separate fire box. This allows you to build a hot fire that produces the flavorful smoke but sends the heat and flavor over your meat indirectly. Meat cooked this way takes longer, but gives you the option of slow cooking a thick cut over several hours that a small direct grill cannot. I priced the Char-Broil 40″ American Gourmet Smoker for around $160.
Certainly the top of the charcoal food chain is the Big Green Egg. This incredible coal-fired jewel replaces the cheap metals of most charcoal grills with a thick ceramic mold. It is a small grill area, but the incredible control that this odd looking oven offers is unmatched. And it also wins the prize in the efficiency department. I can smoke a Boston Butt for 6 hours with only a handful of charcoal. Green Eggs are expensive up front—the medium sized Egg will set you back over $550 at our local ABSCO. But, you cannot wear it out, and its efficiency means you will actually use up to 75% less charcoal, evening out the investment over time. If you are lucky, you can register for one of these at a His and Her wedding shower or you get one from a rich uncle. It is worth it. (My buddy David tells me that the Kamado cast iron grill uses the same principle as an Egg for around $400. I am intrigued but cannot be sure until I see it myself.)
I was disappointed on a recent trip to my local grill dealer. Useless features that give an illusion of control were tempting buyers to fall for their fluff. The biggest faux feature that I find completely worthless is an adjustable grate to control the depth of coals in the fire box. Since heat rises in any environment, a grill that promises safety by distance from the coals in order to control heat is a farce, and usually is not functional after a few uses. Master the air flow, and you master the temperature. Period. I had rather you spend $19 at your local grocery on a cheap grill than spend $120 on an adjustable coal bed. Anyone who relies on the distance feature is probably going to burn the meat. The photos below of the Master Forge are examples of some of the useless bells and whistles being marketed on a grill that suck folks into a disappointing purchase. Removable ash boxes sound great, but I have never seen one last beyond a few uses.
So get yourself ready for some grill swagger. Here are the top choices based on your grill budget:
- Under $30, go to your local grocery store and buy a simple charcoal grill. You can become a master griller and throw it away after one season and still be way ahead of a more expensive grill with silly bells and whistles.
- For $100, get a Weber One-Touch. Fine grill that is easy to use, especially with ash removal.
- For $585, the king of the charcoal grill world, the Big Green Egg. Sounds very expensive, but because it never wears out you can actually pass this one down to your grandchildren. But not so fast—you want to be the envy of the neighborhood a good long time before that!