Essential Grilling Gadgets

Published November 7, 2006.

What equipment do you really need to cook outdoors?

Overview:

Most kitchenware stores would have you thinking you couldn’t grill a hamburger without investing in a staggering assortment of gadgets and gear. Not so. We’ve tested hundreds of pieces of grilling equipment over the years and here are our findings on what you really need to cook outdoors.

LIGHTING THE FIRE:

Chimney starters eliminate the need for lighter fluid, which some of our more sensitive tasters swear they can taste residually on the grilled food. And we prefer chimney starters to electric starters because they are faster, and you do not always have an electrical outlet nearby your grill. A chimney starter is cylindrical with an attached heatsafe handle. It resembles a huge beer mug. Inside the cylinder, just a few inches up from the bottom, a perforated metal plate separates the large upper chamber from the small lower chamber. Different models of chimney starters show very little variation. Some have wooden handles, some have plastic handles, but all do just about the same thing. One thing to keep in mind when buying a… read more

Most kitchenware stores would have you thinking you couldn’t grill a hamburger without investing in a staggering assortment of gadgets and gear. Not so. We’ve tested hundreds of pieces of grilling equipment over the years and here are our findings on what you really need to cook outdoors.

LIGHTING THE FIRE:

Chimney starters eliminate the need for lighter fluid, which some of our more sensitive tasters swear they can taste residually on the grilled food. And we prefer chimney starters to electric starters because they are faster, and you do not always have an electrical outlet nearby your grill. A chimney starter is cylindrical with an attached heatsafe handle. It resembles a huge beer mug. Inside the cylinder, just a few inches up from the bottom, a perforated metal plate separates the large upper chamber from the small lower chamber. Different models of chimney starters show very little variation. Some have wooden handles, some have plastic handles, but all do just about the same thing. One thing to keep in mind when buying a chimney is the charcoal capacity. We like a large chimney (one that holds about six quarts of charcoal briquettes and measures 12 inches high by about 7 1/2 inches across) because it holds just the right amount for grilling most foods over medium-hot heat in a large kettle grill. Smaller chimneys necessitate extra heating time for the coals that cannot fit into the chimney. Expect to pay between $15 and $30 for a chimney starter—a very modest investment for such a useful tool.

CLEANING THE COOKING GRATE:

Grill Brush. Anyone who has grilled a rack of sticky barbecued ribs has had to deal with the task of removing the sugary, burned-on mess that gets left behind. The ideal time to do this is soon after your food comes off the grill, but, if you’re like most of us, you close the lid, walk away, and save the mess for the next time grill duty calls. We set out to find a grill brush that could make the tedious task of cleaning a gunked-up cooking grate more efficient. What did we find? Those brushes with stiffer bristles fared better than their softer counterparts, but none of them worked all that well. The bristles on most bent after a few strokes and trapped large quantities of gunk, thereby decreasing their efficiency. In the end, we found that the unusual but incredibly effective Grill Wizard has no brass bristles to bend, break, or clog with unwanted grease and grime. Instead, this brush comes equipped with a large woven mesh stainless steel “scrubbie” pad. The pad conforms to any cooking grate’s spacing, size, and material, including porcelain. Best of all, the pad is detachable, washable, and replaceable.

MOVING, TURNING, AND SUPPORTING FOOD ON THE GRILL:

Long-Handled Tongs. A pair of tongs is the ideal tool for turning foods as they cook. A large fork pierces foods and causes some loss of fluids. A spatula is fine for small, flat foods, especially those prone to sticking, but it is useless with flank steak or chicken parts. A pair of tongs is the most useful and versatile turner of the lot, capable of flipping something as delicate as thin asparagus spears or as heavy as a rack of ribs. Testing all manner of tongs, we groped and grabbed kebabs, asparagus, chicken drumsticks, and 3-pound slabs of ribs and found tong performance differed dramatically. Some were heavy and difficult to maneuver, and their less delicate pincers couldn’t get a grip on asparagus. Other problems included sharp, serrated edges that nicked the food, flimsy arms that bent under the strain of heavy food, and pincers whose spread could not even accommodate the girth of a chicken leg. The winner? Oxo’s 16-inch stainless steel kitchen tongs with soft, nonslip handles ($13), which outperformed tongs especially designed for use on the grill.

Grill Grid. Grill grids, also called vegetable grids, are useful for cooking small pieces of food that might fall into the fire if placed on the cooking grate that comes with most grills. A grill grid goes on top of the grill’s cooking grate, is allowed to heat up, and is then used as the cooking surface for the food. In our tests, grids made of perforated, porcelain-coated metal proved more versatile—they made it possible to cook delicate fish fillets and fish burgers which stuck easily to wire mesh grids. Nonstick and stainless steel metal grids did not brown fish burgers as well. Buy a grid that covers about half your cooking grate and expect to pay about $20.

FOR MAINTAINING AND MANAGING THE FIRE:

Hinged Grate. Sometimes you will need to add charcoal to a fire to maintain its temperature, as when barbecuing (cooking indirectly over a low, slow fire on a grill). A hinged cooking grate (a grate with a hinged flap that opens for easy access to the charcoal below) allows food to stay in place as you add coals. Many charcoal grills have hinged cooking grates, but some do not. Hinged grates for a 22.5-inch Weber grill cost about $18.

Plant Mister/Squirt Bottle. Keep a plant mister or squirt bottle filled with water nearby your grill. It’s the best way we know to control flare-ups that can char food. Available in any hardware or discount store, usually for less than $5.

GAUGING THE TEMPERATURE OF THE GRILL AND DETERMINING DONENESS:

Thermometers. We rely on a few kinds of thermometers when grilling. A grill thermometer will tell you what the temperature is inside a covered grill. Most gas grills come with this gauge. If you have a charcoal grill, you will need to buy a grill thermometer at a hardware store. This kind of thermometer has a dial face with numbers and a long stem. To use this device on a charcoal grill, simply insert it through the vents on the lid.

Instant-read thermometers are essential for determining when foods are properly cooked. The best instant-read thermometer in our tests is the Super Fast Thermapen Digital Thermometer ($85). It’s fast, accurate, has a large, easy-to-read digital display, and its slender probe won’t leave a gaping hole in your food.

And, for longer-cooking foods, such as a whole chicken, turkey, or roast, you can use a timer/thermometer. This thermometer includes a probe that is left in the food as it cooks and a LCD console that reads the temperature outside of the grill. Just set the desired internal temperature and activate the alarm, which will ring when that temperature is reached. Of those that we have tested, the Polder Dual Sensor Thermometer/Timer ($30) is easy and intuitive to figure out. In our tests, we have gotten different temperature readings within a very, very small area so we recommend double-checking with an instant-read thermometer.

PROTECTING DELICATE FOODS ON A CHARCOAL GRILL:

Large disposable foil roasting pan. Sensitive tasters can pick up off-flavors caused by carbon residue on the inside of a charcoal grill lid used to cover foods as they cook. Instead, we find that simple foil roasting pans can do the job without imparting off-flavors to food. Simply invert a foil roasting pan over delicate foods on a charcoal grill, in lieu of putting the grill lid down.

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