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Outdoor Cooking Is Becoming More Refined

By Denise Cowie The Philadelphia Inquirer

It used to be so easy.

Fire up the charcoal, have a couple of drinks and tell a few tall tales until the coals were just the right temperature, then throw some steaks and hot dogs on the grill.

But then came gas grills. Soon there were dry smokers. Water smokers. Side burners. Warmer shelves. Rib racks. Rotisseries.

Backyard chefs aren’t happy with a hamburger on a bun anymore.

They want to lay out thousands of dollars for multipurpose grills that can cook steaks for two or smoked turkey for 22.

They want cooking grids and swing-up tables and warming ovens.

They want outdoor kitchens so they can prepare entire elaborate meals in the great outdoors, from hors d’oeuvres to desserts.

They want designer colors like teal and black cherry. Or they want - newest of the new - everything with the shiny high-tech appeal of stainless steel.

Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just a Beemer in the driveway - it’s a customized tiled cooking island with a $3,000 drop-in grill on the patio and a built-in side burner as well, for doing the gourmet veggies.

Oh, OK. Maybe we’re exaggerating a little.

This summer, there’ll still be thousands of families getting together in backyards and parks for cookouts, often on charcoal barbecues that cost less than a hundred dollars.

The ubiquitous and inexpensive Smokey Joe is still Weber’s best-selling little kettle. And hamburgers, steak, chicken and hot dogs are still the most frequently barbecued foods.

But since gas grills really started to become popular in the 1980s, cooking out has gotten ever more sophisticated, more expensive - and more frequent.

Back in ‘87, according to the Illinois-based Barbecue Industry Association, there were 1.4 billion barbecues a year in the United States. Now there are 2.7 billion. At last tally (in 1995), 77 percent of U.S. families owned grills - including 84 percent of those who live in houses.

“More and more people love to grill, and they are very serious about it,” says Mike Kempster Sr. of Weber-Stephen Products Co., whose top-of-the-line grills sell for upward of $3,000.

“Today’s cooks are looking for more than just a picnic accessory - they want a serious outdoor cooking appliance that can help them prepare the meals they want, from start to finish.”

“More people are learning how to barbecue,” adds barbecue industry spokesman Donna Myers, “and as they learn, they want to do more things. So there are more versatile grills.”

If barbecuing, always popular, is hotter than ever, what are some of the hottest trends?

Stainless steel. Almost every manufacturer has a stainless steel grill this year, touting it as not only handsome and tough, but also convenient for cleaning.

Side burners. Like a gas burner on a stove, these burners, usually built into side tables, can be used to warm a pot of beans, simmer a sauce or heat water for corn on the cob or other vegetables.

Delicate-foods grids. These are flat porcelain trays with small holes in them, on which you can cook small or delicate foods - shrimp, scallops, mushrooms, chopped onion and the like. Some are built-in, others can be bought as accessories.

Barbecue woks. Similar to grids, only wok-shaped. Ideal for adding smoky flavor to vegetables without adding any sauce or butter.

Water smokers and dry smokers. Both allow smoke or other flavors to penetrate deep into meats (and also tenderize less-prime cuts).

The Big Green Egg. Getting a whole lot of attention is this oval ceramic smoker that can cook a turkey in two hours. Big Green, which costs around $400 and is made by a company of the same name, is based on an ancient Asian design that uses no water but keeps food moist.

Smoker boxes. These have been around for a while, but are still popular: inexpensive, small, vented metal boxes that can be used on any gas grill. Just add soaked wood chips (apple wood with pork, say), fresh herbs or other flavorings, and set the box over the heat.

Easier charcoal grilling. Some barbecue diehards wouldn’t dream of giving up charcoal flavor for the convenience of gas, so now there are charcoal grills with flip-up or hinged sections so you can add briquets as you cook; deeper ash catchers so you don’t have to empty them as often; porcelain or stainless steel grill racks that you can put in the dishwasher; and gas ignition, so the charcoal lights faster.

Instant charcoal. First there was charcoal impregnated with lighter fluid. Then there were chimney starters that cut lighting time. Now there’s light-the-bag charcoal that keeps your hands clean; just touch a match to a bag of pre-measured charcoal, and let it rip.

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