The Umami Guide to Outdoor Cooking
Here at the Umami outdoor cooking center, we pride ourselves on our deep and abiding commitment to outdoor cooking and a love of the ridiculous.
When people get a look at the line-up of fire harnessing contraptions filling the deck, they usually get a quizzical look and ask “why so many.” What I try to explain, since the subtext of the question is never envy, is that every device serves a purpose and seven isn’t really that many fire-breathing cooking devices when you start to think about how big the outdoors are and all the things we don’t have ~ yet.
We really believe the basis for great outdoor cooking starts by having the right tool for the job and knowing how to use each tool. It’s a lot easier to cook ribs for ten hours in a smoker designed to cook low and slow than on a grill designed to cook things like steaks and burgers over direct heat.
To help people figure out what the right tools are for them, we’ve put together a guide to some of our favorite outdoor cooking devices.
When you think about cooking outside, you normally think about using a grill, with the main debate being charcoal or gas. We have both, use both, and love each of them for what they do well.
Personally, I have a deep Pavlovian response to the smell of charcoal and lighter fluid, every time I smell their combustibles wafting through the air it feels like summer. For a long time, this was the only type of grill I used. In college, I bought a standard Weber grill that lasted so long the middle of the grate wore out. At the very end, you could have broken through it with a misplaced shrimp because the metal bars were so thin from years of scraping.
What is great about charcoal grills is their versatility; they work equally well when you’re cooking directly over the coals or when you’re cooking over indirect heat with the coals banked on one side. A downside to them is the amount of time it takes to get the coals ready to cook, compared to a gas grill and the mess from the charcoal. This is why I moved away from charcoal for a long time, only using it when I was craving a really good summer burger.
The past few years I’ve started to move back to using charcoal a lot more, what brought me back was lump hardwood charcoal. It is surprising how different the flavor is from standard briquettes. Hardwood charcoal is the closest thing I’ve found to producing the flavor of a wood fire, without having to build a campfire. It’s also nice that hardwood charcoal doesn’t have all of the nasty binders in it that the briquettes can have.
– The charcoal adds flavor to whatever you’re cooking
– You get to play with lighter fluid and fire
– A good charcoal grill is relatively inexpensive compared to gas grills
– It can take a good 20 to 30 minutes to get the coals ready to cook
– The flavor from charcoal can overpower lighter dishes
– The amount of space on the grill can be limited
– Clean-up can be a mess, depending on whether or not your grill has an ash catcher
What we like about gas grills are their convenience and consistency. During the nicer months of the year, the gas grill at my house is used about twice as much as the stovetop. In fact, most of our summer meals are built around things that can be grilled. It’s so easy, you walk out, turn on the gas, hit the starter, and instantly have a fire. I like to think this is what Prometheus had in mind.
A pro and con of a good gas grill are how controlled the fire is. Once you get to know a grill you can set the burners and know exactly what heat your going to get and where you’re going to get it, which makes cooking easy, but doesn’t give you anything fun to fiddle with, like you get with a charcoal grill or campfire where skill is required to tend the fire.
I tend to like grills with more burners, rather than less because multiple burners let you direct the heat to where you want it, and lets you cook more than one thing at a time. Gas adds some flavor to the food you’re cooking, but not anywhere close to what charcoal or an open fire can add. A big advantage to gas is when you want to cook something for a long time; you can use indirect heat without having to constantly monitor the grill to see if it needs more charcoal.
– The convenience of being able to start on demand in any weather
– The ability to set and hold a consistent temperature
– Adds flavor compared to cooking on a stove or oven, but not as much as other grilling methods
– On the high end, you can spend as much as buying a pretty nice used car
– Still haven’t found a reliable method to measure how much propane is left in the tank, but have learned that the more people you have coming over, the more likely a tank is to run out
The most common way to cook rotisserie is to use an adapter with a gas grill. The adapters have brackets that attach to the grill and come with a large spit and a small engine to keep everything moving along. We like rotisserie cooking enough that I converted an old gas grill to full-time rotisserie status.
Rotisserie cooking is best for big hunks of critter that you want to cook for a long time. The beauty of rotisserie cooking is how evenly it cooks everything. What surprised me when I started getting into rotisserie cooking and researching its history is the level of richness it adds to the cooking process. By slowly rotating the meat, it continually bastes itself with its own juices, which keeps everything moist and tender.
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It’s also really cool to see a hunk of meat turning round and round on a spit. If you don’t have a rotisserie attachment for your grill, get one, use it, and have fun.
– It’s like having caveman TV in your backyard
– The rotisserie process cooks everything evenly and continually bastes whatever your cooking
– There’s some extra set-up time, but not too much if you really care about what you’re cooking
– There’s a little learning curve to making sure you secure everything, so it doesn’t come loose and only cooks one side
– Unless you have a separate rotisserie set up, you’re only cooking one thing at a time
This is my favorite way to cook outdoors. I love getting the fire ready, I love getting to sit down by the lake with a drink, closely watching whatever I’m cooking, and I love the flavor of cooking over an open fire.
I don’t do it very often, because it takes a long time to get the fire set up right, let it burn down to the coals, and it’s hard to get everything ready for dinner on time, when you have to sit by the fire watching one part of the meal, and you’re not really sure how long it’s going to take.
This is why cooking over a campfire is special occasion cooking for me. Someday I would like to have a set-up that combines cooking with a real wood fire and some of the convenience of a grill, but that big fancy fire pit is a ways down the road.
– You get to play with fire for a whole afternoon
– Nothing compares to the flavor of cooking over a real fire
– If you’re doing it right, you’re sitting on a chair next to the fire with a drink in your hand and a friend to chat with
– It takes planning; you can’t decide you’re hungry, go start a fire, and have dinner before you’re really, really hungry
– You need to have a fire pit and a source for hardwood
– Depending on your set up it can be hard to cook for a lot of people at once
Smoking is not the same thing as grilling; it’s a cooking technique that uses smoke, low heat, and time to slowly cook things. It is the best, and some would say the only, way to cook barbecue.
The way most gas and charcoal smokers work these days is the smoke comes from burning wood chips in a cast iron pan that sits between the burner and a water pan. It’s a surprisingly good set-up that delivers smoke to the food being cooked and helps keep everything moist. Done right, you can get the same smoke rings from a home smoker that they get in barbecue joints.
The gas smoker we use is a Smoke Vault, and I have to admit at the beginning that I have an unhealthy love for it because it is the single best-designed piece of cooking equipment I have ever owned. For years I got very good barbecue from a charcoal smoker, but using a gas smoker was a revelation.
The main reason why we like gas smokers so much is temperature control. When you tell a Smoke Vault to cook ribs at 200 degrees for eight hours, it says “yes sir” and stays at 200 degrees all day long, whether you’re there or not. Good smoking requires a consistent temperature for long periods of time – something many gas smokers excel at.
One of the main differences between gas and charcoal smokers is how much space they have available for cooking. Generally, gas smokers have more space and more flexible shelf configurations. They also are usually a lot more expensive.
– Generally big enough that you can cook just about anything in them short of whole hog
– Super easy to use, excellent temperature control and staying power
– Doubles as an oven during months when you don’t want to turn the oven on inside
– Having a hard time coming up with anything here
There are a ton of little charcoal smokers on the market these days. They are dirt cheap, pretty easy to use, and offer people a chance to smoke things at home in ways you can’t on a grill.
Their low cost and convenience make them a great entry point for people who want to branch out from grilling into smoking. If you’re going to be smoking anything for longer then a couple of hours you’ll need to add charcoal to keep the heat up.
They have enough room to smoke a turkey, which is the best way to cook them but can be really crowded for long cuts like ribs and brisket. They tend to produce a lot of smoke for short periods of time, which means you have to add wood chips throughout the cooking process.
– Low cost and simple design
– Great entry point to smoking
– Allows you to smoke in ways you can’t on a grill
– There can be a limited amount of space on the most common models, that can make it difficult when you’re cooking for a large group
– It’s hard to keep them at a consistent temperature when you’re smoking something all day long
– There are so many racks and bowls that cleanup can be a pain
Whatever method you choose the most important lesson to learn about cooking outdoors is there is no substitute for experience. The more you learn about what you’re cooking on, about where the hot and cold spots are, about what works and what doesn’t, the better your food will be.
And even if you burn a few things it doesn’t matter, you’re outside, and you’re playing with fire, which is a lot better then being inside, playing with fire – so invite a few friends over, grab a drink, light up, and have some fun.
If you’re looking for ways to cook with fire check out Umami Market’s Grill & Outdoor Cooking section.
Mark is Umami's publisher