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Off Skillet Empire: Grilling Potluck

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We like grilling and smoking food

Now this is a grill!
Ted Glover

Every once in a while your humble writing staff retreats to our Slack.com chatroom and we talk about random things when we’re not planning a fresh batch of content. One of the things that’s caught my eye repeatedly is the amount of discussion we have about grilling and smoking meat, so its high time for another potluck!

What cooking equipment do you have on your deck or backyard?

LPW: I’m moving to a new apartment in my namesake neighborhood in two months, and I hope to find a place with a deck so I can get a propane grill or a charcoal grill. If not, I’ll be stuck with a George Foreman and making pepper steak. A while ago I had a roommate and he and I had a propane grill.

If I go to my parents house, then have this gas powered Weber grill on their deck.

WSR: I’ve currently got a Charbroil 6-burner grill that takes up roughly the space equivalent to an endzone and a Masterbuilt Electric Smoker. The MES is getting dumped and replaced with a Bradley at some point real soon because it likes to simply shut itself off at random times. (Seriously. It’s like this:

and then you have to unplug it, plug it back in, and reset your time & temp. Not ideal for long-term projects in the smoker.) I need equipment that works all the time when it’s scheduled to, not go on random strikes like it was a Peugeot employee.

Jesse: I’ve got a Charbroil Infrared 4-burner grill for doing quick and dirty things. The nice thing about that setup is that it has that whole ‘heat diffuser’ tray that lets me throw wood chunks on top and still get some smokey flavor when I make burgers the fast way. It’s worth noting that I’ve more or less exclusively moved to making things in the cast iron skillet when I’m grilling in there, but we can get to that later.

As for smoker, I have a MasterBuilt Gas/Charcoal hybrid thing. It works, but I’d love to upgrade sometimes. Ironically, that was my current upgrade from a cheap offset smoker that leaked heat worse than anything I could have glued together. This cabinet at least traps in heat. I have zero pictures of either right now because LOL moving.

Ted Glover (aka some old dude that used to write here): It’s a Smoke Hollow combo unit that has a searing box, both charcoal and gas grills, and a smoker. I started out with the classic Weber charcoal grill, and upgraded over the years. I love the option of either using gas or charcoal if I want, and the IR searing grill and the smoke box pretty much makes this an all in one deal. I love this thing, man. Like more than I love distant relatives.

From L to R: IR searing grill, 3 burner gas grill, charcoal grill, smoke box
Ted Glover

I also have this slick thing called an Orion Cooker, which allows me to smoke something in a fraction of the time it would take the regular smoking process, especially if you have a charcoal smoker like I do. You don’t get as much of a smoke flavor as you would if you’re doing the full smoking process, but it’s still there, and you don’t have to commit to an entire day of smoking, which is really nice.

And it’s ridiculously simple to use. Prepare the meat, put some wood chips in the bottom, between the drip pan and the edge of the cylinder on the inside of the cooking chamber, light the charcoal, and follow the cooking times that come with the instructions. Just make sure you use Match Light charcoal, as that is what the cooking times are based off of.

If you’re looking to get a smoker, I do not recommend a charcoal one. Get an electric, gas, or pellet fed one. I love smoking, but a charcoal smoker is a real pain in the ass. You use a ton of charcoal and wood, and you’re pretty much tethered to the smoker for as long as it has to cook, as you really have to keep up with the temperature. With a gas, electric, or pellet fed smoker, most of them are ‘set it and forget it’ operations now, and you lose nothing in terms of flavor. So lesson learned on my part there.

Orion Cooker

Stew: I have a standard Weber kettle grill, and I also made my own Ugly Drum Smoker out of a 55 gallon barrel. You take a 55 gallon barrel, clean it, burn off the old paint, drill some holes in it for air intake and to hold grill plates, make a charcoal basket. Some pics:

Here you can see that I put in two bars, I use these to hang meat. It’s a much more efficient use of space, and it bastes the meat as it cooks, too.

charcoal basket

It works beautifully. It’s big enough to hold a ton, is pretty easy upkeep, was relatively cheap to make (~$200), and can hold temp for about >16 hours with a full basket.

What’s your favorite thing to grill/smoke?

LPW: Steak, Burgers, Chicken. Fairly simple stuff. If I get a grill I’ll get a little more advanced.

DJ: Grill? Burgers and steaks. Specifically, I grab fresh sirloin burgers from our butcher in town. It takes the hassle out of making the patties and they’re 80/20 as well so it’s a win. For steaks we’ll generally buy whole beef tenderloins and have them cut it into steaks for us (filet for non-cooking people). We’ll honestly just buy what’s on sale because everything tastes good if you cook it the right way but we are picking favorites here.

To smoke? That’s a much more complicated question. My smoker is fairly new but you can’t go wrong with smoking a pork butt. I used that for my first smoke and it turned out amazing pulled pork after about 11 hours. I smoked spare ribs this weekend that also turned out delicious. I mean really it’s hard to go wrong unless you use too much smoke. Smokers are a great addiction.

Townie: My grilling life began in earnest when I bought a Big Green Egg. I know, I know, it’s like the Cross Fit of grills. But I had good reasons for buying it. First, I found myself needing a new grill every two years or so. The salt air here just wrecks the interiors of the grills.

When my last grill died, I wanted a charcoal grill to replace it. Webers are expensive and metal, so it didn’t solve my problem. And I had several friends who already had Eggs and were really pitching me on it.

The truth is, it was expensive, but worth it so far. I can make anything from gently smoked Spanish Mackerel for dip, a low and slow brisket, pizza...you name it.

I love this grill.

WSR: Grill? Anything except chicken. I’ve always hated dealing with chicken breasts, because there are so many things that can go wrong. In the past week I’ve done burgers, brats & dogs, steaks, and pork chops. All are easy and great. But the smoker? Pork ribs. They’re the best. My favorite thing to do is to squeeze about 12 racks of spare ribs in the smoker for 5-6 hours, wrap them in foil, throw them in a cooler, bring them to a tailgate, toss them on a grill for a few minutes, and watch them disappear.

Ted: I’ll grill anything. Thick cut ribeyes are probably my favorite thing, but with a family that has varying tastes, I’ve gotten to know my way around a grill—steak, chicken, pork chops, pork steaks, lamb, burgers, salmon (use a basket for fish, always), hot dogs/brats, you name it. Hey, WSR, for chicken breasts, the key for me is to turn early, turn often. People get too wrapped up on getting the char marks looking good, and they end up overcooking the meat. Keep them on medium to lower heat, and give them about 30’ish minutes. Juicy chicken breasts every time.

If I’m going to smoke something, it’s going to be ribs or a Boston Butt. Although I smoked some chicken wings in that Orion Cooker, and they were some of the best wings I’ve ever had.

Stew: These are significantly different things. There are things that can be grilled that cannot been smoked, and vice versa. Grilling: steaks (NY Strip), chicken, Iowa Chops (these are about the best bang for your buck, bar none), brats. Smoking: Ribs, pork shoulders/butts, and bacon wrapped stuffed jalapenos. Brisket is fantastic, but that’s much more expensive, is far harder, doesn’t keep as well. It’s much more for special occasions.

Jesse: Alright, I’m with everybody else, but let’s chat about my favorites. My current favorite thing to grill is trout. I didn’t think I would love trout, but the more I eat, the more I love it. It’s super easy, and with the right butter mix, it’s great. We can talk about that in the recipe section. Otherwise, count me in for flank steak. Sear quick and high and get that butter slathered on. You can also do that in more of a reverse sear situation, but again... we’ll talk more later.

Smoking? My favorite thing is Pork Butt, but a solid set of chicken thighs is sort of my go-to as of late. Although, a sidenote is that I made my own chili powder last year and while the work was absurd, it was the best chili powder I’ve ever had. So that’s fun.

Do you have any tips for people aspiring to grill or recipes to share?

DJ: If you’re going to get a smoker don’t skimp out on a cheaper model, buy the right tool for the job. If you’re mechanically inclined you can build yourself an Ugly Drum Smoker from 30/50 gallon metal barrels or you can go ahead and buy a smoker. I use a 22" Weber Smokey Mountain and I have zero complaints. There are some fantastic websites out there that can guide you along so do your research before hand.

Townie: The key to grilling well is temperature control. Understand what your food needs and how to get there. Burnt food isn’t barbecue...it’s soot.

I know far too many weekend chefs that throw the food on, set the dial to Medium, crack a beer...and then it’s "Oh Shit" time a few minutes later.

You wouldn’t do that in your oven, don’t do it on the grill. Have a thermometer for the food and the grill. Use it.

My family’s favorite barbecued meat is brisket. It’s a big cut that is usually sold in pieces (the "flat" and the "point"). Sometimes you’ll find the full "packer" cut with both pieces together. But you’d better be having guests, cause a packer brisket is a monster.

I usually buy the flat, simply because the shape means it cooks evenly. Points are more tender, but come to a point, which means the pointy end is often overdone.

I use a simple recipe...

Make a spice rub. Mine is salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and brown sugar. Rub the meat (nice...), put it in the fridge overnight. The next day, set the grill up for a smoke. I put a ceramic insert in that blocks the coals from the meat. That way I get "indirect" heat.

I soak hickory or cherry wood chips in water, then put them in tinfoil, right on the coals. I set the Egg for around 225-250 degrees and on goes the brisket for about 5 hours (170 degrees internal temp).

Once I hit that temperature, it’s into foil and the "Texas Crutch". I wrap the meat in two layers of heavy duty aluminum and pour in 1/2 cup of apple juice mixed with some brown sugar.

I cook the meat for another 2 hours or so, until the internal temp hits 190 degrees.

From here, it’s up to you. Some folks do a glaze on it, but I don’t. Instead, I wrap it up in a towel and put it into a insulated cooler for 30 or 40 minutes. By cooler, I don’t mean with ice. What I mean is somewhere that the meat won’t lose heat quickly.

This step is critical. You must rest the meat after cooking. What you end up with, is a juicy, unctuous brisket that has a nice pepper hit and just enough sweet to keep the kids coming back.

Add some fried onion strings and a bowl of creamed corn...it’s on.

WSR: Practice. If you want to make something and get good at it, make it a few times a month. More often than not you’ll get to eat your mistakes. One thing that I’ve been making quite a bit lately is smoked red snapper, and I just glaze a filet with about a cup of maple syrup and a light coating of black pepper. It’s amazing.

Ted: Just get out there and do it. When you’re starting out, you’re going to screw up, so there’s no shame in having to put something in the microwave for a few minutes if it’s undercooked. If you overcook it, you’re kind of gooned though, so it’s better to take something off too early as opposed to forcing down something that 3/4 of the way into becoming a diamond. That said, here’s some stuff I wish I knew when I started grilling that would have helped me out a lot:

Meat Thermometer: To help prevent the over/undercook scenarios get a meat thermometer. So many people have no idea how long they should cook something, and cooking times off the Internet can vary. A meat thermometer takes the guesswork out of it, and after a few times you’ll have a pretty good idea how long something should take.

Know Your Grill Surface: Every grill, whether it’s gas or charcoal, has some areas that are hotter than the others. If you have a multi-burner gas grill, you can control how hot or cool your grill surfaces are. If you’re grilling a bunch of meat that is of differing shape and size, move it around the grill. Put the thicker stuff on the hotter surfaces, and as it gets close to getting done, rotate it to cooler areas and move the smaller stuff to the hot areas. Or if you’re grilling steaks, put the stuff that needs to be more well done on the hotter areas first, etc. That way stuff all gets done at about the same time, and everyone gets their food hot and right off the grill.

Who are you? For me, there are two types of grill people: those who live by the ‘sear marks’ on your meat, and the ‘turn early, turn often’ crowd. I generally fall into the latter category, especially with chicken, and folks that live by the sear marks can overcook the meat trying to get that perfect char. So what I do to make my wife happy (she really likes sear marks, damn it all) is I get half of my grill surface really, really hot, like over 400 degrees, and the other half I’ll only get kinda warm. I’ll put the meat on the really hot surface first and get a good sear, and then reduce the heat on that side. While that side is searing, I turn the heat up on the other side of the grill, and get that really, really hot. When the one side is seared, I’ll flip the meat over onto the hot side of the grill and do the same thing. Rinse and repeat one more time for the nice checkerboard look, then reduce the heat and let cook. Boom, perfect sear marks, perfectly cooked meat. If you’re cooking a lot of stuff, just turn early and often. You can keep a better track of what’s getting done, and how fast, much better.

Rubs and marinades: I know some people have some great recipes for rubs, but if you’re just starting out, off the rack stuff at the store is just fine. Use them to find what kind of taste you like to compliment your meat, and then start making your own. A rub is pretty essential if you’re going to smoke something, but that’s just me.

For marinades, I’ve used store bought and made my own, but I’ll tell you, the best marinade I’ve ever used for steaks is...wait for it...Italian dressing. No kidding. I generally don’t marinade anymore, though, especially with steaks. A good cut of meat doesn’t need anything, other than maybe some salt and cracked pepper. But hey, if you want to use a marinade, go for it.

Smoking: For smoking, temperature control is the key. 225 degrees is the magic number for most everything, and I soak my wood chips. I think I get a smokier result, and it really penetrates the meat better, as the smoke lingers longer. You can’t go wrong with apple or cherry wood chips, but mesquite is a bit too strong of a smoke flavor for me. but hey, that’s just me.

Let the meat rest: Whether you smoke or grill, DO NOT carve the meat as soon as you pull it off the grill, wait anywhere from 5-15 minutes, depending on how big the piece(s) of meat are. The meat will still cook for a time once you pull it off the grill, and letting it rest is essential. Cutting it too early causes the internal juices to just drain out, and you lose a fair amount of flavoring. So just be patient for a few more minutes.

Stew: AmazingRibs.com is my go to for techniques, tips, and tricks. By the way, let me correct some misconceptions by made by my colleagues. Don’t soak wood chips in water. It does nothing. Wood doesn’t absorb water, that’s why it floats in water. For meat that is cooked to Medium or less (steaks, chops, etc.), DON’T REST THE MEAT!!! Resting will only cause the meat to continue to cook past where you want. Eat it is quickly as you can off the grill. However, for smoked meats that have been cooked to >185, hold that meat as Townie described, wrapped in foil in a cooler lined with towels for as long as an hour or two. Now, here’s something quite a few people don’t practice, the reverse sear. A lot of people cook their steaks, chops, etc. by searing the it over high heat first, then cooking it to the desired temp. This produces acceptable results relatively quickly. But really, to get the best result, start by cooking it over lower, indirect heat, turning it often, until it is cooked to just below your desired temp. Only then putting it over super high heat, searing it. You’ll get a much more evenly cooked piece of meat. Finally, I’ll echo Teddy McOld, use a damn thermometer, don’t be a hero.

Jesse: Wait, there’s not a recipe section? Is this the recipe section? Whatevs.

Look, let’s talk about the castiron skillet. Having something that you can control the temp of is nice. I love my grill, and I love char marks, but what I’m really going for is that smokey flavor and that feel of ‘over the fire’. Otherwise, just do it on the stove, right? That said, throw a few tablespoons of butter, squeeze juice from a lemon, add three sprigs of fresh thyme and grill away. That’s sort of not grilling, but let’s be honest, neither is most gas grilling. At least I’ve had the decency to throw some pecan wood chips in the grill.

As for the reverse sear, look at old Stew get after it. I’m a huge fan of that for steak. It works so well. I just did that the other night with a thick as hell tenderloin. Got a nice sear with butter and thyme and sage at the end and it was ah-maaaaaaaay-zing. Do that.

Finally, as for smoking, I’m with everything my esteemed* colleagues have said. try, try, and try again. Use the right tools. Ask around from others who have gone before you. Oh, and remember, the worst case scenario is there is cooked meat you have to do something with. It’s a fun hobby. Get after it!

LPW: Thanks guys!