For me, the first rule of grilling is: active fire must never be wasted.
Does anyone else get that antsy feeling every time you grill, where you've just served the main course, but the coals have yet to die out and your mind suddenly starts racing... "Fire being wasted...Must find more things to grill" and suddenly your guests are stuck eating alone because you've ran into the kitchen, ransacked the fridge, wrapped a half dozen vegetables in foil to place directly on the embers, and are standing wondering how well frozen dumplings and charcoal fire mix?
The second rule of grilling is of course: Always be prepared.
Despite the fact that there are hundreds of so-called grilling "essentials" on prominent display at food stores and catalogues, you figure out over the years that the only real tools you need are the ones that help you bring your food close to fire, preferably without burning yourself. After all, isn't that what grilling is really all about—food and fire in all its primal glory?
Here are the six items that you really need. Everything else is just bells and whistles. And please, don't even think about buying those "grill kits." Not even as a gift.
1. A Grill
For the high heat essential for searing and flavor, nothing beats cooking over the smoldering embers of real hardwood charcoal. And as far as coal cooking goes, there ain't all that much difference from grill to grill. It basically all comes down to three factors: size, ventilation, and ease of operation.
A large grilling surface is desirable. It allows you to cook for large groups and allows for the all-important two-level fire. With plenty of space to bank coals on one side, you can create an ultra-hot searing zone while leaving the other side of the grill relatively cool in order to gently finish cooking chicken breasts, burgers, or steaks to your desired level of doneness. A large surface area and domed lid are essential if you plan on doing any grill-roasting of whole birds or larger cuts of meat.
Ventilation is key, particularly around the coal are. Look for a grill with a separate rack for keeping the coals elevated above the floor. This allows ashes to fall through, increasing oxygen supply to the coals, and allowing them to burn faster and more efficiently. As far as vents in the cover and base go, as long as your grill has got them, the positioning makes little difference.
Finally, look for a grill with only the features you can afford. Heat resistant handles, wheels, side tables, and easy-to-clean ash catchers are all nice, but won't make or break your food. You're better off spending more $$ on a grill with a larger cooking area than a smaller one packed with features.
The Weber Master-Touch ($199) is the classic, and my personal grill of choice. New models come with hinged cooking grates, allowing you to add more coals to your fire without having to remove the food.
What about gas, you might ask? If you don't mind sacrificing flavor in lieu of convenience (even our resident grilling expert Joshua Bousel is on the fence on this issue), then a gas grill can be a great, albeit far more expensive, option.
All the same rules for charcoal grills apply to gas grills, but In this case, different brands perform markedly differently. Some don't burn hot enough. Others heat unevenly. Still others have badly designed grease drainage systems, leading to flare-ups.
The grill experts at Weber have the best models on the market, like the Weber Genesis S-330 Propane Gas Grill ($949). I have not personally tested their less expensive "Q" series ($359), but they seem to get a strong thumbs-up from Joshua.
2. A Chimney Starter
Recommendation: the Weber RapidFire Charcoal Chimney Starter ($14.99)
Lighter fluid is fun to play with, but it can leave your coals smelling like gasoline, imparting an off-flavor to your food.
A chimney starter is faster, cleaner, more efficient, and better for the environment. It's a tall metal cylinder with holes punched out of it, and a grate at the bottom for holding the charcoal in. It works with the power of convection. When a lit newspaper is placed at the bottom, igniting the bottommost coals, the hot air rises up, pulling fresh oxygen in through the vent holes and through the bottom.
This constant supply of fresh oxygen coupled with the fact that the metal efficiently reflects heat back towards the coals means that you require nothing more than a single piece of newspaper and a match to turn a full six quarts of coals into a roaring inferno within 20 minutes. In the long run, it's also a much cheaper option than buying multiple bottles of lighter fluid.
When buying a chimney starter, the only thing you really need to worry about is its capacity. A full six quarts of charcoal is just about enough to cover the entire cooking surface on my Weber grill, and not coincidentally, that's exactly how much the Weber RapidFire Charcoal Chimney Starter ($14.99) holds. Neat!
3. Long-Handled Tongs
Recommendation: the OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Locking Tongs ($12.95)
Indoors, I prefer the control that a shorter seven or nine-inch set of tongs gives me. When flipping a dozen steaks over a blazing hot fire, however, it's better to keep your distance.
When shopping for tongs, look for ones made from two separate arms connected with a spring-loaded hinge. While a locking mechanism is nice for storage, it's by no means essential.
Many tongs are made of lightweight, easily bent, and quick-heating aluminum. Avoid these models. If the tongs don't feel hefty and well-constructed the moment you pick them up, chances are they're not. For head design, I prefer a scalloped oval shape to ones with forked or looped heads.
Finally, heat-proof nylon-tipped tongs should be avoided. Not only do they give you less grip and less control, they also aren't really that heat-proof (trust me, I've melted them in the past).
The OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Locking Tongs ($12.95) are what I use at home. Their solid construction has lasted for a good 6 years of heavy (and I mean heavy) use so far.
4. A Grill Brush
Recommendation: the Weber Style Heavy Duty Grill Brush ($29.95)
A clean cooking grate is essential for good grill marks, even cooking, and ensuring that delicate foods like fish and vegetables don't stick. While a crumpled-up ball of aluminum foil held with a pair of stiff tongs will work to scour a grill clean in a pinch, a dedicated grill brush is a tool you'll use every time you fire up the coals.
Most models come with stiff brass bristles. The problem with these: the bristles gunk up, bend out of shape, break off, and generally become completely ineffective after a mere half season's worth of usage.
Weber comes to the rescue again with the Weber Style Heavy Duty Grill Brush ($29.95). The sleek brushed stainless steel number comes with two detachable and replaceable heads: a metal bristle head, and a scouring pad that conforms to the shape of any grill grate, removing bits of sticky barbecue sauce and melted cheese from spots you didn't even know your grill had.
5. Two Spatulas
On the grill or in the kitchen, a flexible slotted metal spatula like the Black Nonstick Slotted Turner by MIU ($7.95, pictured), is one of the tools I use the most. Its strong head allows you to flip a big one-pound steak or a delicate piece of salmon with equal ease.
Being thin and flexible is key, giving you the precision and control to ensure that you'll never lose another piece of chicken skin to the grill gods. Whatever brand you choose, look for a model with a slanted head, great flexibility, and a full tang (the metal head should continue all the way through the handle in one single piece).
The only problem with fish spatulas? Short handles can mean singed arm hairs. That's where a heavy-duty grill spatula comes in. For working over hotter fires, I prefer long-handled models with wide, firm heads, like the Weber Style Stainless Steel Fish Turner ($16.95, ignore the nomenclature—this spatula is for more than just fish). Its wide size is great for cooking whole fish, or even for flipping grilled pizzas—a tough act for a regular spatula or wooden pizza peel.
For ultra-delicate foods, like a flaky cod filet, I use both spatulas, flipping the food with the slotted turner, and catching it with with large surface of the fish spatula before gently lowering it to the grill.
6. A Instant Read Thermometer
Recommendations: the Splash Proof Super-Fast Thermapen ($96)
Long story short: It's expensive, but it's the most useful tool in any serious-cook-with-half-a-brain's knife bag. It's the best, more surefire way to ensure that your meat comes out perfectly cooked every time. Anyone who refuses to use a thermometer while cooking simply has an overactive macho gland and must be dealt with accordingly by cutting off their...
And that's it. With just this short list of gear, you can be off and grilling like the pros.
Now Southern-style barbecue, on the other hand, is another story for another day...