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Expert Grilling Tips

Gas or charcoal? What are the best kinds of wood to put in a smoker box? And what's in store for grills of the future? We interviewed several grilling gurus to find out some answers.

Gas vs. Charcoal
Favorite Grill
Optimal Grill Size
Rotisserie Tips
What's in the Smoker Box
Great Gadgets
Where to Place the Grill
Cleaning the Grill
Best Bottled Barbecue Sauce
Grill of the Future
Grill Trends

Gas vs. Charcoal

Kenny Callaghan, executive chef of Blue Smoke in Manhattan

I prefer charcoal to gas because you want to be able to get the grill really hot for searing. With a charcoal grill, you can always get it hotter by adding more charcoal. With a gas grill, you have to make sure you buy one with enough BTUs to get things really hot.

Mark Miller, chef and owner of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico

If you're going to cook something for a short time, such as a piece of fish, gas is good. But if you've got something that takes longer to cook, like a leg of lamb, you'll want the smoky flavor you'll get from charcoal.

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Favorite Grill

Bruce Aidells, founder of Aidells Sausage Company and co-author of The Complete Meat Cookbook

With charcoal you want to look for a grill that allows you to control airflow with the proper vents. The grate needs to have a substantial amount of surface area so that you can cook with both direct and indirect heat simultaneously. It should also have a heavy-duty cover, so you can put the lid on and cook with convection as well as radiant heat. My favorite material is cast iron. I personally use a standard Weber 18- or 22-inch covered charcoal grill. I've had it for 10 years, which is about as long as you can expect it to last.

Cheryl Jamison, co-author of Chicken on the Grill: 100 Surefire Ways to Grill Perfect Chicken Every Time

I really like Hasty-Bake, a well-built, high-end brand of charcoal grills. You can move the firebox up for searing and down for roasting. It comes with a metal heat deflector so you can cook directly or indirectly (from $690; 800-4AN-OVEN or hastybake.com).

Robb Walsh, author of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from the Pit Bosses

My favorite is the Texas hibachi, a 55-gallon oil drum that's set on its side, cut in half and hinged, with a grate placed inside of it. They sell these outside hardware and feed stores here in Texas, and they cost around $60. When you can use real wood for grilling and you have enough room to cook away from the fire, you can do great stuff and get really fancy.

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Optimal Grill Size

Cheryl Jamison

If you cook mostly shrimp and kebabs, then you can get by with a hibachi. But if you like steak and almost any of the other larger cuts of meat, you'll need high heat and more space so you can shift the meat around to deal with hot spots and flare-ups. Get as much space as you have room for and can afford because you can always find a way to use it, and it will give you more flexibility.

Mark Miller

You'll want one larger than what you think you'll need. If it's a rectangular grill, you'll want a minimum of 4 feet, because you need to use some of the surface as a place for meat to rest after cooking. To do bigger cuts of meat, you'll need multiple temperatures, and small grills don't allow for this.

Steven Raichlen, host of BBQ University on PBS and the author of The Barbecue Bible

A 22-inch charcoal grill is pretty good. When it comes to gas, you want a minimum of three burners-four to six would be better.

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Rotisserie Tips

Bruce Aidells

Some gas grills, like Viking's, have infrared rotisserie burners built into them, which I think are great. You want to get one that's large enough for boneless roasts or a prime rib. You have to ask yourself, am I going to do a whole pig? I mean, that's not what a grill is used for.

Cheryl Jamison

You need a rotisserie with some heft to it: If you want it to hold three chickens, as opposed to one, make sure the motor and bar can handle the work.

Waldy Malouf, chef and co-owner of Beacon in Manhattan and co-author of High Heat: Grillng and Roasting Year-Round With Master Chef Waldy Malouf

I use the Viking one, which is good. I've also used one from DCS, and it was pretty sturdy too. The less expensive ones tend have a weak motor and flimsy hardware. You get what you pay for. If you use the rotisserie a lot, get one that hooks on to the grill solidly and firmly.

Mark Miller

If you're having a grill built, you'll want a rotisserie with three raised metal sides-the back, right and left-to give reflective heat and protect it from the wind. Rotisseries over open fires are not very effective. The outside of the food will scorch before the inside gets cooked.

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What's in the Smoker Box

Bruce Aidells

If you're going to do long smoking, like a brisket or ribs that take four to 18 hours, you want chunks of wood, not chips, and I usually soak them overnight. My mainstay is hickory. I find it very versatile. Its flavor is compatible with lots of things, from pork to chicken. I have used a fair amount of mesquite, but it's too harsh for some things, like poultry or fish. Some cheaper gas grills don't have smoker boxes, but I would never buy one.

Kenny Callaghan

I use hickory predominantly for beef, which has a higher fat-to-meat ratio and can handle the intense flavor, and applewood for pork and chicken because it's sweeter and less intense.

Cheryl Jamison

I love these little wood pellets from BBQr's Delight. They come in flavors like Sassafras and Black Walnut in little bags that are so compact, it's easy to keep a bunch on hand ($5 a pound; 877-275-9591 or bbqrsdelight.com).

Mark Miller

Pecan wood chips, sassafras chips, cinnamon sticks (i.e., Mexican canela for fish or lamb). Sometimes we'll even use sawdust.

Diane Morgan, co-author of Dressed to Grill: Savvy Recipes for Girls Who Play with Fire

I live in the Pacific Northwest, so alder is readily available. It's a little milder than some other woods, so it's terrific with salmon.

Steven Raichlen

I've been using a lot of fruit woods lately-cherry and apple. And someone just gave me a bag of orangewood and it's terrific, but not widely accessible.

Robb Walsh

I have a pecan tree in my yard, so I use the wood plus pecan shells and old pecans. It's a little known fact that pecan is closely related to hickory.

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Great Gadgets

Bruce Aidells

Spring-loaded tongs, ideally around 15 or 16 inches long. Some of my favorite brands are Messermeister, which are made of heavy-duty metal ($14; 800-426-4134 or messermeister.com), and Edlund, a commercial brand ($11 at Sur La Table; 800-243-0852 or surlatable.com). This is no place to stint, since even the best are pretty inexpensive.

Kenny Callaghan

La Caja China. It's a box lined with marine-grade aluminum in which you roast meat. You put the lid on and build a charcoal fire on top and it intensely roasts whatever is inside. I suppose it's not technically grilling. I cooked an 18-pound turkey in and hour and 40 minutes, and it would have taken 4 or 5 hours in the oven (from $170; 800-338-1323 or lacajachina.com).

Waldy Malouf

If you're using charcoal or wood, a plastic spray bottle of water is useful for taming flare-ups and to cool the grill if it gets too hot.

Mark Miller

I like instant-read thermometers for testing meat, like the Taylor Analog ($5 from amazon.com).

Diane Morgan

The newest pastry brushes have silicon bristles instead of natural bristles, so they don't burn ($17 for Sili Brush from easycookin.com; 877-392-6656).

Steven Raichlen

The Weber rib rack is pretty good. It enables you to smoke four racks of ribs in a space where you'd otherwise only be able to smoke two ($12 from amazon.com).

Robb Walsh

The Polder "Cooking Timing" thermometer. It has a metal sensor thing you stick in the meat that gives you constant internal temperature, and you can also set an alarm for your target temperature. Plus, it has a timer ($25; 800-431-2133, ext. 245).

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Where to Place the Grill

Bruce Aidells

You don't want to locate your grill near an open window or door, or smoke will blow inside-and don't put it next to flammable materials. Mine actually sits on a wooden deck, but I never leave it unattended there. Ideally, you want some kind of fireproof surface underneath it like a sheet of metal or some bricks.

Kenny Callaghan

You want to be at least five feet from the house so you're not burning the siding, but you also want to be able to get in and out of the house easily.

Waldy Malouf

If you have a rotisserie on your grill, remember that it requires electricity. So if you're cooking outside you need to put it close to the house so the extension cord can reach a plug.

Steven Raichlen

Never use a grill under an overhang or near an open garage-any place where carbon monoxide could build up. Also, keep the grill on a stable surface and away from hanging plants.

Robb Walsh

Don't put it on a wooden deck. If you drop a coal, you could start a fire. I store mine under an overhang to keep it out of the rain, then wheel it out onto a brick surface when I use it. That way, the smoke won't go in the house.

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Cleaning the Grill

Cheryl Jamison

Scrub the grate with a crumpled of piece of foil that you can hold in your tongs. You may want to dampen the foil first to create some steam and the gunky stuff will come right off.

Mark Miller

Clean the grill while it's hot. I always scrub it right after grilling so I don't have to deal with it later.

Diane Morgan

Keep an eye on the drip pan of a gas grill; you've got to make sure you empty it. If it's too full, it will catch on fire. Once a year, I take both my gas and charcoal grill apart for a good cleaning. On the gas grill, you want to check the ignition and make sure no spiders have crawled in to block that. Charcoal grills have fewer parts to clean. You just have to scoop the ashes out of the bottom, and clean the grate.

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Best Bottled Barbecue Sauce

Robb Walsh

I would say Stubb's Legendary Barbecue Sauce ($4; 800-BAR-B-CUE or stubbsbbq.com). It's a nice balance between spicy and sweet. There's nothing wrong with bottled sauce, but you can't use it alone. You need to add juices and meat bits. It's just like making gravy.

Diane Morgan

My husband is from Kansas City, so he'd tell you flat out that the best is Arthur Bryant's Barbecue Sauce (3 for $18; arthurbryantsbbq.com). I mostly make my own, but Bryant's is great for slathering on ribs or a brisket after you've smoked it. It's also great for dipping French fries.

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Grill of the Future

Kenny Callaghan

A grill with a mister-like they have at the supermarket to keep the vegetables fresh-to cool the cook on a hot summer day.

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Grill Trends

Steven Raichlen

Grilling used to be main course only. Now it can be whole meal. I also foresee the globalization of American barbecue. Asia and Latin America have their own grilling cultures, and they will have a bigger impact on our culture. There will be much more interest in barbecue-the process of slowly cooking food over indirect heat-as opposed to grilling over high heat-and there will be a fusion of the two. And grilling will become more than just a way of cooking and entertaining-it'll be a performance.

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Published June 2004
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