Hello from the Fire Pit and Grilling Guru!
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Contents of this issue of the
Fire Pit and Grilling Guru Guide
- I Get Mail! - Common Reader Questions Answered
- Featured Outdoor Cooking Products
I Get Mail!
Summer is well underway and at the height of outdoor cooking season. Every summer I get a bunch of emails from visitors asking a slew of questions about how to improve their grill, barbecue and fire pit cooking. It occurred to me that some of the common questions could be useful to the rest of my readers so I've assembled a few here with my answers. I hope you all get something out of them! If you have additional questions of your own, please Contact Me and let me know and I'll try to respond to your inquiries individually.
Common Reader Questions Answered
Question 1 (Not Enough Heat!): I have a basic charcoal grill but have had a hard time getting the charcoal hot enough. I light the coals and wait for them to ash over as the instructions say but I still don't seem to get enough heat to really sear my burgers and steaks. What am I doing wrong?
Response: Good question. Having adequate heat to get the job done is one of the most important things in grill cooking. Steaks and other cuts of meat just don't come out right without a nice sear on the surface. To do that, you need hot, direct heat at least at the start of the cooking process.
Without seeing how you are setting up, I can't be sure what you are doing wrong. However, there are several pitfalls that many novice grillers get into:
First, you may not be waiting long enough until all your coals are lit completely. You want to be sure they are all lit before spreading them out on the bottom of your grill. My preferred method for starting my coals is generally to use a charcoal chimney which gets them going quickly and evenly, without lighter fluid.
Next, make sure you are using enough charcoal! It may seem obvious, but some people don't realize that the more coals you have, the more heat when they are lit. If you don't have enough for the size of your grill, you will struggle to get the heat up. Figuring out the perfect amount of charcoal for your grill may take a little trial and error. If it is not hot enough initially, you can simply add more charcoal and wait a few minutes for it to light. Test the heat by holding your hand a few inches over the grill surface. For high heat searing, it should be too uncomfortable to hold your hand there for more than a few seconds.
Also, make sure you are using your vents wisely! Another thing that is often completely overlooked are the vents. Most charcoal grills have adjustable vents both on the bottom near the charcoal as well as on the lid. These vents vary the amount of air which can get to the fuel. Obviously the coals, like any fire, need oxygen to burn hot. The more oxygen, the hotter and faster they will burn. First of all, be sure the bottom vents are completely open. If they aren't, your fuel will not even get enough oxygen flowing through to get adequate heat. Second, if you are using the lid, leave the vents open for higher heat and close them progressively for lower heats. A grill thermometer can be useful to test the interior temperature. For searing, simply leave the lid off completely to get the most intense heat.
Finally, make sure your charcoal is close enough to the grill surface. Some grills have adjustable charcoal grates which can be raised or lowered. For high direct heat, raise the charcoal up closer to the grate. If yours is not adjustable and you think they are too far away, simply use more coal.
Question 2 (Grilling Vegetables): My wife and I love grilled asparagus and other vegetables. But many smaller and more delicate veggies either fall through the grates or stick and get destroyed on the grill. I'm tired of trying to balance asparagus spears across the grates so they don't fall in. What other solution do we have?
Response: Another excellent question. Most of us first learn to use the grill to cook large, hearty foods like steaks, sausages, burgers and dogs. We don't even consider that it can be quite versatile and used for many other types of food. But small and delicate foods are sometimes a problem. However there are many solutions which can help make this type of cooking easier while still getting all the benefits of cooking on a grill or fire pit. Some of these are further described and illustrated on my Vegetable Grilling page.
For one, remember that oil is your friend. If you are throwing some veggies into a frying pan you add plenty of olive or other vegetable oil first, right? Well the same is true on the grill. Without it, delicate foods can stick to the grill and tear to pieces when you try to move them or take them off. Brush your grill liberally with olive oil before adding the food, and even brush your veggies with oil as well.
Next, for smaller, more delicate pieces, you can use a vegetable basket or pan to grill in. There are several forms of these available. They are basically a metal basket or pan which has small holes in it. It allows you to hold and stir chopped vegetables without them falling through the grates, all the while benefiting from the aromatic smoke that comes up through the holes, flavoring your food nicely. They are available at most places where barbecue equipment is sold.
For foods that are very small or just simply will not work on a grill grate or basket, such as peas, eggs, beans, soups, etc., consider using a frying pan directly on your grill! I have several cast iron skillets that work beautifully for this purpose. They are heavy duty, inexpensive and hold heat beautifully, allowing you to pan fry or boil foods right on your grill. You can read some tips about using a skillet or pot on your grill or fire pit on my Grill Skillet page.
Finally, one method that I love to use for chopped vegetables is wrapping them in foil packets. Simply wrap up those mixed, chopped vegetables along with some seasonings and oil and throw it on the grill. The veggies steam in their own juices beautifully becoming aromatic and tender. I have instructions for this on my Foil-Wrapped Grilled Vegetable page.
Be sure to check out all my vegetable cooking pages including How to Grill Vegetables, Foil-Wrapped Grilled Vegetables, Fire Roasted Sweet Peppers, and Grilled Endive.
Question 3 (Fire Pit Cooking): I have been grilling all my life and consider myself a pretty good cook. My girlfriend and I recently bought a cabin that has a big yard where we can build a nice fire pit. I haven't yet tackled trying to cook over real firewood on a firepit and frankly don't know where to start. Do you have some suggestions for cooking on a wood pit? Can I just throw a metal grate over the fire and start cooking or is it more involved than that?
Response: Fire pit cooking is a lot of fun and feels primal and adventurous. Get back to those cave man roots! In many ways it is very similar to cooking on a charcoal grill, but there are some important differences. Here are a few tips to get started...
Yes, you can simply find a grill grate that will fit nicely over your fire pit (or many portable fire pits are made with a removable grill grate already included). Whether an in ground fire pit, a raised brick or stone fire pit or portable fire pit, you can do this. However, there are a few things you need to pay attention to. First of all, be sure that the height of your grill will be adequate once you add wood to your fire pit. If the grate is too low, it will not fit on once you have a big pile of wood burning or will be too close to the heat, making it hard to avoid burning your food! If need be, you can use some sort of spacers to raise the grill over your heat source. You can improvise with various heat-proof items such as bricks, cinderblock or stones to raise your grill as necessary.
No, you can't just "start cooking" in general. Because firewood fires give off a large flame initially, if you try to cook over this immediately after starting your fire you will burn the surface of your food to a charcoalized mess. Cooking over real firewood takes a bit more patience. Ideally, I like to build a nice big fire and let it burn for a while, allowing it to burn down until you have a nice core of hot embers that give off a lot of heat but don't have a big flame. Only once you are at this stage should you put on your grill grate and add your food. This will help prevent flare-ups and flames from engulfing your food, burning it quickly.
Alternatively, if your grill is high enough off the wood, you can cook while there are still flames. Just be sure the grill is well above the flames so that your food doesn't catch fire. However, using this method you generally don't get as good a dispersion of heat around your food and still may have trouble with the surface burning before the rest is done. A good alternative for larger roasts is to employ a rotisserie to turn your food slowly over the heat to avoid burning and to guarantee even cooking and a juicy, tender interior.
There are many other options to make fire pit cooking more versatile. If you are interested, be sure to check out my pages on crock pot or skillet cooking, rotisserie cooking, tripod cooking and cooking with pie irons.
Question 4 (Necessary Grill Supplies): Thanks for the great site! I want to buy a grill but have never owned one before. Besides the grill itself, can you give me a list of the supplies you think are most crucial to have to start cooking good grilled food using both the direct heat and indirect heat techniques you describe on your site? Thanks!
Response: Thanks! I'm glad you have found my site useful. I think many would-be grillers share your question about getting started with a new grill. To answer your question, I think that a lot of great grill cooking can be done just with a grill, fuel for the grill (charcoal or gas), a pair of grill tongs and your ingredients. In fact, most things can be done with this simplistic set-up! These are sufficient for direct heat grilling of most common grilled foods like grilled steak, hot dogs, burgers, sausages, chops and chicken pieces. Additionally, indirect heat grilling techniques, which are great for slow cooking of larger roasts like leg of lamb, whole poultry, tri-tip and ribs, can be done very adequately as well. While you can buy special bins to hold your charcoal briquettes on each side of the grill, you don't really need them. Simply move them aside on your own, leaving an empty area in the middle to cook over. Some people like to put a pot or metal bowl of water in this space to help prevent flare ups and to help keep the inside of your grill from drying out too much.
In my Grill Accessories section you can learn more about how certain accessories can help make some aspects of grilling easier. Tools like a meat thermometer, grill thermometer, vegetable baskets and grill skillets can all help make certain recipes easier.
If I had to make a list of some of the top few supplies you need to bring your basic grilling to a higher level, the following items would be at the top. While none are necessary to grill, they all help make your food better than just simply good.
Good Charcoal - If you use a charcoal grill, using good charcoal can make a subtle but important difference to the aromas and flavors of your grilled food. While basic pressed charcoal briquettes are adequate for simple heat, they often have chemicals that can add off flavors and aromas. Although it is a bit more expensive, real hardwood lump charcoal is really a big notch up. If you are using only the best ingredients in your recipe, why skimp on the charcoal?
Smoking Wood Chips or Chunks - To get creative with the smoke aromas and flavors your cooking imparts to your food you'll want to explore smoking woods. There are many woods, in either chips or chunks, available on the market that help create rich, savory smoke that permeates your food. They can be a great adjunct to your charcoal and turn a gas grill from simply a heat source to a true barbecue which instills smoke flavor. Mesquite and Hickory are the two most popular and widely available woods but there are many which you can play with. Pecan, maple, cedar, apple, grape, almond, alder and others are all interesting and can really add variety to your outdoor cooking repertoire. For gas grills you will need a smoker box or just some heavy aluminum foil to hold your wood chips. For charcoal, while you can use these, you really don't need them; you can simply scatter your soaked wood on your hot charcoal.
Utensils - While you can get away with one basic utensil like a good pair of sturdy grill tongs, it is nice to have a good set of barbecue utensils. Most sets of these are not expensive. They usually include a tongs, spatula (which is useful for lifting and flipping more delicate foods on the grill, such as fish), a grill fork (which I don't use very often), and a grill scraper/brush to clean your grill. Also useful is a long-handled basting brush so that you can easily baste your foods while the cook without burning the hair off your arms!
Aluminum Foil - Foil comes in handy when grilling. You can use it to wrap grilled vegetables, to hold smoking chips, to cover cooked meats while they rest prior to serving, etc.
Grill and Meat Thermometers - While not 100% required, thermometers can help, particularly for beginners who don't have much experience yet. A grill thermometer helps you tell how hot it is inside your grill so that you can adjust it for ideal cooking. A meat thermometer allows you to measure the internal temperature of larger cuts of meat so you take the guessing game out of the picture. If you do use one though, try to avoid the temptation to pierce the meat too often as this will let out interior juices and dry out your meat. Wait until it is almost done and use the thermometer once or twice to confirm that you are at the desired interior temperature. Also remember that for larger cuts of meat the heat in the middle will continue to go up a bit after you take it off the grill as the heat redistributes as it rests.
Whole Hog Rotisseries
SpitJack.com is a great source for equipment for cooking with fire that is hard to find elsewhere. Sure, you can find grills, smokers and fire pits just about anywhere, but how many places do you know that sell specially designed fireplace grills, fireplace rotisseries and heavy duty rotisseries for cooking whole hogs on a rotisserie over a fire pit?!
"The Beast" (the SpitJack P150 Whole Hog Rotisserie) is a heavy duty, motorized rotisserie specifically designed to cook whole pigs. It has been tested at over 200 lbs for those huge roasts! It has a 76" food-grade, stainless steel spit with a patented rotisserie system, and excellent construction. It is built to last, totally food safe, and portable (it can fit into the trunk of a car). Just supply the heat and you've got yourself one serious fire pit cooking tool! If you don't need quite the size of "the Beast", SpitJack also has a smaller P80 Whole Hog Rotisserie system. Made with similar construction, this smaller rotisserie (60" spit) can handle up to 85 lbs. This is ideal for smaller pigs as well as a range of other larger whole roasts such as lamb and goat.
I strongly recommend either rotisserie for those of you who cook whole hogs, lambs or goats regularly or for those of you thinking about tackling a whole hog roast sometime soon and really want to do it right. These rotisseries not only make cooking a big animal a lot easier, they also help ensure even cooking so that your feast comes out tender, juicy, succulent and delicious!
Pig Terracotta Grill
I had to include this one, not to promote it, but to answer a lot my readers' questions at once! Ever since I posted an article on terra cotta and ceramic grills on my website with a picture of this example on it, I have been inundated with questions about where to buy one. It certainly is a cute little thing and while perhaps not too practical for big events (it is quite small) it is ideal for quickly grilling burgers, dogs or steaks for you and your loved one. In fact, I bought it to be my young son's grill to cook dogs or sausages alongside me when I am cooking outdoors!
However, I am sorry to say that I do not know where to get more. They were carried by Cost Plus World Market stores earlier this year. However, they quickly sold out and from what I can tell they are not available either in stores or online. I have not been able to track down any other sources for this cute ceramic grill anywhere. One of the problems may be that they were quite fragile. I went through two boxes of broken pigs before finding this one that I bought. This may have been a universal problem and lead to the discontinuation of the line.
For anyone looking for terracotta grills of other types, many stores do sell them, just not the pig version. Many Cost Plus World Markets carry a slightly larger round terracotta grill (pictured below) which is excellent for small get togethers or a day at the park or beach (assuming grilling is legal at that park or beach of course!). I don't think they are available on their website, but most of their stores still carry them. Good luck and enjoy!
Don't forget to stock up for the summer on all your grill and fire pit related supplies!
Here are a few places you should check out that have a great selection of "cooking with fire" related items:
SpitJack is a great online retailer that sells all sorts of tools for food & fire. They have all the basics like fireplace tools, wood storage and fire pits. But what makes them really special is that they have hard to find fireplace cooking items like fireplace grills and fireplace rotisseries! They also have big outdoor rotisseries for next spring or summer's pig roast.
The Fire Pit Shop has dozens of choices of fire pits and outdoor chimneys. Get warm this winter with a nice outdoor fire pit to cozy up next to!
Grills Direct stocks virtually every major brand of grills, barbecues, fryers and smokers. While it's probably too cold in most areas to grill right now, this can be a great source for gifts for your grill loving friends and relatives.
Do You Want to Get Published on the Fire Pit and Grilling Guru Website?
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I want to hear your favorite recipes and I'm sure my visitors would love to see them as well! Upload your recipe and even include photos and you will be featured on my site!
Want to share your homemade firepit photos or your fire pit design ideas with other visitors?
Here I am looking for either instructions for how to build a fire pit to supplement the tips I already have on the site OR you can just show off your homemade fire pit! Send me pictures if you've got em and tell us all about your homemade fire pit. I am sure my visitors would love to learn from your experience!
Have a Reader Tip or a Question? Contact Me!
I love to hear from my readers and visitors. If you have a handy tip to share or questions or comments on anything related to fire pits and grill cooking, please contact me! If you want to submit a recipe idea for inclusion on the site, go to the Share Your Recipe page. If you want to submit a fire pit design idea or pictures of your homemade fire pit then go to the How to Build a Fire Pit Submission page.
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