When the weather turns warm and Independence Day is just around the corner, my thoughts turn to an afternoon tending a pork picnic shoulder in the smoker or a quiet evening with a pair of elk loins on the grill. The caveman in me has prepared well for this season by collecting and drying past years’ windfall branches and trimmings. My favorite wood for cooking (and flavoring) is cherry, but apple and maple follow close behind. The modernist in me has prepared by stocking up on chunk charcoal, a chimney lighter and a pile of newspaper to fire it.
My dad and the hot dog turned me on to the joys of cooking with fire. He and I had gone for a midwinter hike on the Missouri River bottoms near Bismarck, North Dakota. When my not-quite-5-year-old stomach began to growl, we stopped, he built a fire fueled with bur oak sticks, and a small feast appeared from deep within the pockets of his parka. I don’t think I have ever tasted such delicious fare – fire-roasted hotdogs and hot chocolate, in winter, in the middle of nowhere, with my dad.
Grilling was a summer tradition in our house, and lighting the coals was an assignment I earned during my last year of junior high. We didn’t use lighter fluid so I learned to get the charcoal going with a small wood fire.
Our first cooker was a 1960s charcoal pan with a removable wind hood. When that grill could no longer be welded back together, we graduated to a cast-iron tabletop Hibachi. I liked the Hibachi because the cooking surfaces could be placed at several different levels, which afforded some heat control. It was also small enough that when the charcoal briquette supply fell short,
I could make sufficient coals by burning down a small pile of sticks.
Fire-cooking technology has come a long way since those days. Weber introduced the kettle and mainstreamed the concept of indirect cooking, barbecue-house-sized smoker/grills were downsized to fit on trailers, trailer-sized smoker/grills were downsized to fit on patios, and gas grills took the country by storm. Today, the fire cook faces a staggering number of appliances, all sure to help create the best smoked brisket or choicest grilled hotdog. Some are perfectly suited to fast-paced urban and suburban lifestyles. With others, the making is as much of an event as the meal.
If lighting the fire to prepare your food means more than turning a knob and tossing a few wood chips into a pan, or your inner caveperson is clamoring to get out, it might be time to upgrade to the best the wood and charcoal grilling/smoking arena has to offer. I’ve included five models from five different makers here, to whet your appetite.
Grillworks Inc.’s original grill, the Grillery Standard ($2,375; 85 pounds; www.Grillery.com; 202-758-7425) is a stainless and tempered steel work of art. This natural wood-fired grill was inspired by Argentinean, rural French and Turkish designs combined with the classic open fire barbecues found in St. Louis, Chicago and along the East Coast. Each grill is handmade to order in the United States and built to last for generations. Until Ben Eisendrath took over the business from his father in 2007, it was known to a relatively few lucky people who learned of the grills by word of mouth.
The Grillery Standard’s smart design includes a black tempered-steel fire grate located above a stainless steel ash pan. Its patented V-channel cooking surface is tilted so that juices flow to the front and into an included basting pan. Heat control is accomplished with a beautifully cast hand crank that raises and lowers the grill and basting pan as a unit. Optional equipment includes rotisseries, folding side tray and cover. This outdoor cooking tool tames the open fire concept, and it will have you questioning the need for charcoal or propane gas in no time.
The smallest of the Good-One smoker/grills family, the Open Range ($1,499; 215 pounds; www.AceOf HeartsBBQ.com; 888-422-3227) traces its roots to Ron and Larry Goodwin of Goodwin Industries, a Burns, Kansas, manufacturer. About 20 years ago, Ron decided to build himself a combination smoker, grill and holding oven, and after a bit of trial and error, he created an all-steel design that includes an integrated firebox and grill in front, and a smoke chamber above and to the rear. Goodwin’s grills gained considerable respect among amateur and professional barbecue contestants. In 2007, Ace of Hearts BBQ Specialties LLC purchased the line, which is now marketed throughout the United States. It’s still made in Kansas.
The Open Range is a perfect patio-sized cooker. Its 11-gauge steel body and 14-gauge steel lids should last a lifetime and then some. If you want to grill up a couple of steaks, all you need do is light some charcoal in the firebox and place the meat on the cooking grate. Temperature control is easily accomplished by opening and closing the lid and firebox air dampers.
If you want smoked Gouda to go along with those steaks, just place the cheese in the smoking chamber and crack open the damper between the grill and smoker to surround the cheese with flavor. The Open Range is known for its even heating and fuel economy. In scientific tests using 10 pounds of charcoal, the grill maintained a temperature of about 600 degrees and the smoker held steady at about 250 for 7 hours straight. With control like that, you could smoke a pork shoulder all day and get some useful work accomplished around your place to boot.
Old Country Swivel Grill
This latest innovation from Old Country BBQ Pits, the 24-inch-diameter Swivel Grill ($200 delivered; 60 pounds; www.BBQuePits.com; 956-286-6389) is a freshly updated blast from the past.
From a company that fabricates large trailer-mounted and patio-sized smoker/grills in an artisan-operated shop near Laredo, Texas, the Swivel Grill is a heavy-duty and seriously updated version of the old charcoal pan grill, but this one is a joy to behold and beautifully constructed of 1/8-inch-thick steel plate. This new grill is based on the company’s successful (but more difficult to ship) 28-inch-diameter cooker.
Old Country BBQ’s Swivel Grill consists of a 24-inch-diameter stamped pan (the company creates this from flat plate) with three legs and leg extensions. Remove the extensions and you can cook near the ground or use the grill as a portable fire pit. With the leg extensions in place, the cooking surface is raised to a comfortable working height.
The grill includes a 34-inch-diameter (removable) ring to hold utensils, sauces, dishes, etc., and a 24-inch-diameter cooking surface that can be centered on the fire or swiveled away from it. Alternatively, the grill can be fit with a hand crank to adjust the distance between the cooking surface and the fire. The Swivel Grill can be fueled with charcoal or natural wood, and you can cook over flame or coals.
Big Green Egg
The most popular size in Big Green Egg’s stable of ceramic outdoor cookers, the Large Egg ($836.85 with stand and shelves; 205 pounds; www.Big GreenEgg.com; 770-934-5300) continues to turn backyard burger-burners into innovative chefs. Founded by Ed Fisher in an Atlanta strip mall in 1974 with a line of Asian-influenced clay cookers, the company today leads the ceramic sector of the U.S. barbecue industry and employs special heat-holding ceramics developed for Big Green Egg grills.
With its thick walls and precise air control, the Large Egg makes a perfect smoker. It is designed to work best with lump charcoal rather than briquettes. Just layer your favorite wood chips with the charcoal when loading the firebox and you’ll get plenty of food-flavoring smoke.
If grilling is your game, then open the air dampers and raise the Egg’s internal temperature to 750 degrees to sear your steak. Back down the dampers to lower the temperature for less dramatic cooking. Since all grilling is done with the lid down, flare up and associated charring are pretty rare. Add the optional plate setter and baking stone, and you can use your Egg to make perfectly crusted pizza and other baked delights.
Tejas Smokers Barbecue Pit
The Tejas Smokers Barbecue Pit model 2430 ($1,395; 385 pounds; www.TejasSmokers.com; 713-932-6438) is a full-featured smoker/grill with a footprint that’s much smaller than most. This cooker is one of many that the Houston, Texas-based company produces using heavy steelplate and craftsman-quality welding. Tejas grills and smokers offer some of the best fit and finish in the business, and a limited lifetime warranty to boot.
The 2430 features a 24-inch-diameter by 36-inch-long cooking barrel with an integral water pan/charcoal tray in the bottom that’s fabricated of 3/16-inch steel plate. The firebox, which is located below the cooking barrel, is insulated from it with an inch of air space. When smoking, the approximately 3.5 gallons of water in the tray will keep your food moist and tender; when grilling, the heavy steel tray will safely hold all the charcoal you need. The firebox is designed to accept 18-inch-long logs and has sufficient air control to make it easy to maintain ideal smoking temperatures of 225 to 250 degrees.