Mastering the Flame
Outdoor cooking ignites a particular passion and can lead to new takes on traditional menu items.
by Jane Schmidt and photos by Turner Photography Studio
South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave may be the place where the feat of barbecue was born nearly 2 million years ago when man’s ancestor, homo erectus, first harnessed fire to cook food. Ever since then, barbecuing, grilling, and smoking have all become popular outdoor cooking methods for creating mouth-watering, flavorful dishes that go well beyond the capacity of today’s indoor contemporary home kitchen.
Fortunately, today’s modern world offers plentiful options of state-of-the-art equipment, tried-and-true techniques, and a multitude of flavorful combinations for creating great barbecued, smoked, and grilled foods our cave-dwelling ancestors would surely envy. Read on for tips and advice from a Tri-State outdoor cooking expert and several seasoned local outdoor cooking veterans whose knowledge and experience guarantee to inspire you to think outside the kitchen and explore the flavorful worlds of combining food and fire through barbecuing, grilling, and smoking.
Playing With Fire
Cooking food with fire is chemistry, shares Eric Forrester, owner of Mason-Dixon BBQ Services in Greencastle, Pa., and Frederick, and who is also a restaurant and catering expert who hosts barbecue boot camps at both his business locations and participates in national barbecue competitions.
Grilling and barbecuing are fast-cook options, while smoking requires constant attention, plus much longer cooking times. “Cooking temperature defines the outdoor cooking process. Grilling is fast and occurs at 400-plus degrees Fahrenheit. Barbecuing takes place between 275 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Smoking is low and slow, between 180 and 275 degrees Fahrenheit,” elaborates Eric.
Know Your Cooking Goals
A variety of cookers, grills, and smokers are available for beginners and experts alike. The key to selecting appropriate equipment should be based on how you plan to use it, and how much time you want to invest in cooking.
Zack Murter of Frederick is a dedicated griller who learned as a teenager while helping his dad, and prefers his kettle-style charcoal grill. “Charcoal imparts a much better flavor. The different charcoals and hardwoods you can use as fuel gives you ultimate power to really tune the dish. Charcoal grills are versatile, multi-faceted tools that I think offer vast more capabilities. You can sear, go slow and low, and smoke,” explains Zack.
An 18-year outdoor cooking vet whose passion is fueled by his love of eating, John Sponsky of Chambersburg, Pa., prefers an offset barrel style charcoal-fueled unit. “It easily maintains low temperature with minimum fluctuation.”
Randy Gearhart of Waynesboro, Pa., has been barbecuing for a decade. The owner of three grills and smokers, he favors his 931- square-inch wood-burning offset smoker. “It requires a lot of attention to maintain proper heat, but there’s something about stoking a wood fire all day that is extremely satisfying,” he elaborates.
For tailgating or camping, portable grills are a great option. Joe Schmidt of Hagerstown, a 40-plus-year outdoor cooking veteran who was also food steward for his 42-member fraternity during college, owns a couple of portable gas grills, including a small stainless steel gas grill which mounts to his boat rail. “There’s nothing quite like a fresh, hot-off-the-grill burger while anchored in a cove in the evening on the Chesapeake Bay,” shares Joe. His favorite grill is the kamado-style ceramic grill/ smoker his wife and daughters surprised him with last year as a Father’s Day gift.
There are many reliable smokers available. “Wood pellet-fueled cookers are easy to use for grilling and smoking and are great for making pizzas,” Eric states. There are also direct fire and water-type smokers. Scot Metcalfe, a 35-plus-year outdoor cooking veteran of Welsh Run, Pa., loves using both his kamado-style and charcoal grills. “The kamado-style has better temperature control due to its ceramic design. I can maintain really low temperatures for long periods of time. The charcoal grill is quick and easy to use,” he shares.
Whatever style smoker you invest in, choose an insulated model. “Insulated smokers offer more temperature regulation, with controls to let expanded gases out and fresh air in to adjust temperature, allowing heat and smoke to move evenly within the cooking chamber,” elaborates Eric.
Fueling Your Passion
Today’s outdoor cooking enthusiasts have a much greater range of fuel options available than our ancestors. Propane gas is a popular one, and offers a great initiation into outdoor cooking, as it is easy to use — even while grilling or barbecuing in wind and rain. Eric cautions to keep the lid closed to best control air flow and avoid food flare ups. “If you’re looking, you’re not cooking,” he quips.
Wood and wood chips are used when smoking meats, fish, fowl, casseroles, and side dishes. Many hardwood varieties are ideal companions to outdoor cooking, including apple, cherry, maple, and hickory. Commercially packaged wood chip combinations offer easy, goof-proof ways to add layers of flavor. Scot prefers using whole wood to impart richer, deeper flavors to his outdoor culinary creations.
Charcoal has made a great comeback as a popular outdoor cooking fuel. Lump-style charcoal is comprised of moisture-free dried and burned hardwood. “It lights really easily, and quickly burns with very little ash. It is a phenomenal fuel for both grilling and smoking,” explains Eric. Charcoal briquettes are harder, and better reserved for smoking, states Eric.
Food For Thought
When devising outdoor cooking menus, it is important to be aware of the specific cooking methods certain foods and dishes require to maximize flavors and make sure they are properly done. John recommends beef brisket for low and slow techniques, and rack of lamb for wood-fired grilling. “Low and slow is ideal to help break down meat and render the fat, making the meat more tender and flavorful,” adds Eric.
Scot loves to grill rib-eye steaks on his kamado-style ceramic cooker using lump-style charcoal. Casserole-type dishes like macaroni and cheese also gain richer, deeper flavors from smoking, although Scot cautions to be mindful how much wood is used.
Zack likes to grill or smoke ribs. “I really like St. Louis-style ribs with an orange barbecue [sauce] that I adapted from a recipe Bobby Flay created,” he shares. Duck stuffed with onions and mandarin oranges, and basted with a mandarin orange juice-based sauce was Zack’s very first and successful venture into smoking.
“I have smoked ribs and brisket that turned out great on my kamado-style grill/smoker. Since I have both gas and charcoal grills, I can definitely say the flavor is better from the charcoal,” adds Joe. “Plus you can add wood chips for extra smoke for either propane or charcoal fueled cooking.”
It’s worth noting that grilling, barbecuing, and smoking require different food preparation, states Eric. “Grilling is ideally suited to preparing steaks. Steaks should be room temperature and prepared with a base of oil or butter, combined with a rub of spices to optimize flavor.” If smoking or barbecuing, Eric advises to prep meat with a rub and injection or a marinade the day before so flavors penetrate meat. In addition to just meats and fish, kabob skewers featuring combinations of different proteins coupled with fruits and vegetables, is another menu option perfectly suited to outdoor cooking.
Plus, a variety of flavor enhancers may be used in food prepared outdoors, opening limitless entryways into tantalizing tastes. Wood, wood chips, and seasoned wood planks offer excellent enhancement possibilities. And spice rubs in combination with an oil base — or Eric’s suggestion of plain yellow mustard as a base — provide rubs with better meat penetration. He also recommends a squeeze-style margarine base — especially if there’s not enough marbled meat fat that is characteristic in meats like ribs, brisket, or pork loin. Other base options include beef broth, beer, apple juice, or infused grilling oils featuring mushrooms or garlic to enhance moisture and flavor.
Sauces and mops make for additional mouth-watering flavor options. Sauces can range from traditional tomato-based barbecue-style to exotic teriyaki and fruit-infused flavor profiles, and cover all points in between — including sauces injected directly into the meat during cooking. Topical sauces should be applied during the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking. Mops, developed in the South, are typically vinegar based and coupled with spices and some sugar. Mopping is best suited to gas grilling, and should be applied every 30–35 minutes for best results, shares Eric.
Besides your outdoor cooker and fuel, Eric and our group of outdoor cooking veterans recommend having several accessories in your outdoor cooking arsenal. “Leather gloves are a must for moving grates or roasting pans off the grill,” Eric shares. He also recommends owning heavier, rubber food-safe gloves to pick up and turn large meat items like turkey, pork loin, or London broil. “Jabbing meat with a fork to turn it causes major loss of important juices,” he explains.
All recommend buying a chimney starter instead of using lighter fluid to speed the heating process, as lighter fluid’s noxious chemicals can penetrate food and spoil flavor. “Chimneys heat hardwood pellet or charcoal fuels quickly and efficiently,” Eric elaborates. Fire starter wax-like pellets help fuel the chimney starter, shares Joe. “Coals are hot in 15 minutes,” he shares.
John recommends a spray bottle to apply mops and sauces, and Scot suggests having good heavy-duty sets of tongs, spatulas, and a wire brush, plus a wok, griddle, vegetable tray, and foil pans. A grill basket and silicone spatula for cooking fish and veggies, silicone brushes, and stash of cold beer to drink while cooking are also all musts, adds Joe.
Our grill gurus all agree that a reliable meat probe to check internal meat temperatures is also vital. “Don’t believe the thermometer on the grill because surface temperatures are not the same as meats’ internal temperatures. Some probes can be synced to send cell phone messages regarding meat and surface temperatures,” explains Eric.
Ready, Set, Grill!
Outdoor cooking continues as a great tradition that brings friends and family together, just as our ancestors did all those years ago. “You have to have fun,” encourages Eric. “You don’t need to have the biggest or the best to enjoy cooking outdoors, but you do need a lot of patience. Barbecues are social experiences you can and should enjoy year-round. Outdoor cooking is a great way to treat yourself and your guests to some very memorable meals,” he concludes.