It wasn’t so long ago that people routinely retired their grills after Labor Day, stowing them in a corner of the garage or basement to commiserate with the golf clubs until better weather.
My, how times have changed. Whether it’s due to larger investments in grills and outdoor kitchens, a protracted appetite for the smoky flavors of summer, or the continued need for barbecue bragging rights, live fire cooking outdoors has become a four season endeavor. The Hearth and Patio Barbecue Association reports that the majority of Americans (56% in its latest survey) grill year-round.
Now, you might wonder why you’d accept winter grilling advice from a man whose home base is Miami, Florida. Well, I grew up in Maryland and lived in Boston for 20 years, and book tours and television shoots—not to mention regular winter excursions to Martha’s Vineyard—keep me up on grilling in inhospitable weather.
Here are my tips for winter grilling:
- Position your grill perpendicular to the wind in a protected outside area (wind really reduces your grill’s efficiency) that is well-ventilated. Never grill in a garage, under a porch overhang, or other enclosed area. Not only is the potential for a fire great, but deadly carbon monoxide can build up. Clear any accumulation of snow off the grill.
- If grilling with gas, check all lines and connections for leaks. In cold weather, parts become brittle or cracked. Make sure the control knobs are not frozen and turn freely.
- Once you’ve started your gas grill or built your fire, replace the grill lid and preheat the grill for at least 20 minutes.
- Line charcoal grills with heavy duty aluminum foil, shiny side up, to help retain and reflect heat; poke holes through the foil corresponding to the bottom vents.
- Have plenty of extra fuel on hand. When charcoal grilling, I like to have a second kettle grill for lighting and holding live coals. Or have extra chimney starters at the ready on a heat-proof surface. (Not on your wooden deck!) Add coals every half hour, or as needed.
- Heat escapes rapidly each time the grill lid is lifted; resist the urge to “peek.” A digital temperature probe can keep you apprised of what’s going on under the lid. Some charcoal grills come equipped with a built-in thermometer—very useful in the wintertime.
- Allow extra time. Food will take longer to cook in cold weather—anywhere from 30 to 100 per cent longer.
- Remember, winter days are short. If lighting around the grill is dim, supplement it with a Clip-On Grill Headlight or food-illuminating Lumatongs. At the very least, have a flashlight on hand.
- Save the ambitious menus for friendlier grilling conditions. Select foods that can be cooked quickly—in 30 minutes or less— over direct heat. Steaks, chops, burgers, chicken breasts, shrimp, fish steaks or filets, kebabs, etc., are all good bets.
- In my experience, smoking is very difficult to do in cold weather as many smokers are constructed of thin-gauge metal and do not retain heat well. You can smoke in a kettle grill if you maintain temperatures of 250 to 275 degrees by periodically adding fresh coals.
- Rather than throwing soaked wood chips directly on the coals, which will immediately cool them, make a smoker pouch and put it directly on the grill grate.
- Gas grills with double-walled construction are better at holding in heat. Kamodo-type cookers, are extraordinarily heat-retentive, too.
- As always, protect your hands with heavy-duty grill gloves. Ski gloves are not an adequate substitute!