For many years, I owned an offset smoker, and as a hard-core barbecue enthusiast I insisted on it as an absolute necessity for low-and-slow cooking. Having a firebox to the side, not under, the meats means you can more easily keep the heat gentle - and replace coals and wood as needed.
Then a couple of years ago, I gave it to a neighbor. It was still usable, but I'd grown weary of its frailties, its leakiness and its creeping Soviet-like empire-building rust. I had intended to replace it with a much better one, but after a road trip to various custom smoker manufacturers, I returned home mired in indecision.
Meanwhile, I found myself doing more and more of those big smokes, such as ribs and beef brisket, on my simple 22-inch Weber kettle instead.
These days, I cook nearly everything on it. And I use almost nothing else. Very little gadgetry. Few accessories. That's because I know that the key to good barbecue is fire management and that has very little to do with the equipment.
I do use a hinged cooking grate, because it makes adding charcoal and wood to an existing fire easy. On rare occasions, I set up a rotisserie. And of course I employ a grill pan, long-handled tongs and a good pair of gloves.
If I wanted to, I could buy all sorts of items, including special heavy-duty searing grates, rib grates and entire barbecue "systems," which, as it happens, encourage you to buy yet more stuff. But the more I barbecue, the less equipment I seem to need.
Kettles have long been frowned upon by the 'cue-noscenti as little more than the workhorse of holiday burgers and wieners and the occasional birthday steak. But they can do so much more once you know how to set them up.
The first step is imagining what you'd like to do. Think of the kettle as both stove top and oven. You want to cook something quickly, you can. You want to roast something over time, you can do that as well. We're not just talking meat, either. Think vegetables and fruit, too.
Don't get me wrong: As much as I like it, there are downsides to using a kettle for everything. One, volume. You can can't fit as much food on a kettle as you can an offset or even a bullet smoker. Two, level of stress. You can smoke big food items in a kettle, but using a smoker, which is made specifically for low-and-slow cooking, allows you to feed the fire more easily if needed and will generally turn out more consistent results.
Still, there's something appealing, in a minimalistic sort of way, about an all-in-one piece of gear, and when you know how to manage the fire, your kettle can be exactly that. Here are some techniques for varying the placement of coals, wood and more to get the most out of it.
The old-school style of cooking, hot and fast. Distribute the charcoal in a layer across the entire bottom of the grill.
Pros: Great for cooking a lot of quick-grilling items, such as those burgers and wieners for that birthday party. It's the preferred method for searing, as well. Thick, firm items, such as pineapple slices, take well to this method. So do sliced vegetables, such as eggplant, onions and zucchini, which when dressed in olive oil, vinegar and herbs make for a fantastic antipasto.
Cons: You have to be super-organized, because the food is going on and coming off pretty fast. You have nowhere to put items that may need more cooking, but less heat.
Tips: When the fire is hot, you can sear meat and get terrific grill marks on vegetables, fruit and some denser fish, like swordfish. It also does wonders for opening the shells of oysters, mussels and clams. A medium fire allows you to thoroughly cook such semi-dense foods as mangoes and salmon and, yes, even burgers (although you won't get the char you may seek).
The standard-bearer of the modern grillmeister. Distribute coals on one side and leave the other side empty.
Pros: Allows maximum flexibility to grill and yet, by moving the food over to the cool side, you can cook it all the way through with control, or even smoke it. Excellent for thicker steaks, when you want a good char but you also seek a medium-rare or medium piece of meat. Good, really, for anything that you want charred, then smoked.
Con: Reduces the actual cooking area by about half.
Tips: To add smoke, distribute some wood chips or wood chunks onto the coals. Allow to catch, then put the lid on, with the top vents open anywhere from a sliver (for a very low but dense smoke) to about half (for a quicker, lighter smoke).
This is unconventional and not as useful as a basic indirect method, but fun to experiment with. After the coals are ready, distribute a large pile of them on one side, slope a smaller pile next to it, and leave the last third of the grill empty.
Pros: Allows you to sear, cook and smoke. It also lets you cook over different temperatures at the same time. Say, sear a steak over the hot coals and grill fruit over the medium-hot coals.
Cons: The three temperature zones can limit more than expand what you cook because of the tight space. Plus, it can be challenging to cook over multiple zones at once.
Tips: This one is all about timing. A slice of eggplant over medium heat will take about the same amount of time as a thick burger over a hot fire. Plan accordingly. Use the empty zone as a warmer or as a fail-safe if something is cooking too quickly.
Ring of smolder
For cooking at low temperature for a long time, a.k.a. low-and-slow. Distribute the charcoal in a ring around the perimeter of the kettle, about three coals wide. Add another layer of coals on top. Top with wood chunks every few inches.
Pros: The fire will burn from six to 10 hours, or even more, depending on the depth and length of the charcoal ring. Ideal for big meats, such as ribs and pork butt. What some consider the summit of barbecue, brisket, comes out incredibly juicy, with a nice crusty exterior.
Con: The entire grill is pretty much devoted to that one item.
Tips: Check the fire about four hours into your cook. There should be spent coals approximately two-thirds of the way around. If you feel you need to add coals to get to the number of desired hours, do so sparingly, only about six coals. You'll may not need to add any, but if you do, you'll almost certainly need to add only one time. Be careful not to add too many during the cook because you can cause the edges of the meat to sizzle and burn.
For even cooking of substantial meats that will cook for an hour or two. An electric rotisserie (about $150) fits perfectly inside a 22-inch Weber kettle. The coals should be distributed on both sides of the meat, and the space directly beneath the meat should be filled with an aluminum foil drip pan.
Pros: Great for roasts and whole chickens. A nice crust forms on the roast, and the skin on the chicken crisps up beautifully. Also, rotisserie cooking is effortless. Set it and forget it.
Cons: You must have an electrical outlet handy. It is a minor hassle to set up and, afterward, clean.
Tips: Place some vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots and onions, beneath the meat to flavor them with the drippings.
A platter of grilled zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper and onion makes for a super-easy summertime appetizer.
You'll need a small smoker box and 1 cup of hardwood chips, such as apple, oak, or pecan. No need to soak.
Serve with crusty bread and a glass of rosé.
MAKE AHEAD: The dressing can be refrigerated up to 4 days in advance. The grilled and dressed antipasti can be refrigerated a day in advance; bring to room temperature before serving.
For the dressing
• 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 heaping teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
• 1 heaping teaspoon garlic, minced
• Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
For the vegetables
• Olive oil cooking spray or 2 tablespoons olive oil
• One 12-ounce eggplant, sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds (about 12 to 14 rounds)
• One 12-ounce zucchini, cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick slices (about 5 slices)
• One 12-ounce yellow squash, trimmed and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices (4 or 5 slices)
• One 12-ounce sweet onion, cut into
• 1/2-inch-thick rounds (4 or 5 rounds)
• 1 medium red bell pepper
• 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the dressing: Combine the vinegar and salt in a small bowl; let sit for a minute or two, then slowly whisk in the extra-virgin olive oil, oregano, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, stirring to incorporate.
For the vegetables: Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high. Put the chips in a smoker box (or make an aluminum foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke); set it between the grate and the briquettes, close to the flame. Once you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium (375 to 400 degrees).
If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on the grill. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 6 or 7 seconds. Scatter the wood chips over the coals. Close the lid and open the vents about a quarter of the way. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.
Use olive oil cooking spray to lightly coat the vegetables, or brush them lightly with olive oil. Arrange the vegetables directly over the hot coals. Once the skin of the red bell pepper blackens on one side, which should take 3 to 4 minutes, turn it to another side; the whole process will take between 8 to 10 minutes. Once the other vegetables have browned and charred just a little (3 to 5 minutes), turn them over to cook for 3 to 5 minutes on the second side. Use tongs to transfer them to a platter.
Once the bell pepper is cool enough to handle, peel/discard its charred skin. Core and seed the remaining flesh. Pat it dry with a paper towel, then cut the bell pepper into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Pat it dry again.
Arrange the vegetables on the platter, gathering the bell pepper slices in a little mound, if you like. Spoon the dressing over the vegetables, turning to coat well. Garnish with the parsley; cover with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature if serving within a couple of hours. Otherwise, cover and refrigerate up to 1 day in advance; bring to room temperature before serving. Nutrition | Per serving: 210 calories, 4 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
RING OF SMOLDER BEEF BRISKET
8 to 12 servings
You don't need a smoker to smoke a brisket. It can be done on your basic backyard Weber grill. Two things matter: the size of your brisket and the formation of your coals.
Ask your butcher for the deckle, or fatty end, of a brisket, about 4 pounds. The salt and pepper rub is simple and borrows from central Texas barbecue joints. But if you have a favorite spice rub, use it. This recipe is for a charcoal grill only. You'll need an instant-read thermometer and 10 to 12 fist-size chunks of hardwood, such as apple, oak or pecan. No need to soak.
Serve with your favorite sauce on the side or, better yet, no sauce at all. Go Texas style, with sliced onions, dill pickle spears, whole jarred jalapeños and cheap white sandwich bread.
MAKE AHEAD: You may have some of the salt and pepper rub left over, which can be kept in an airtight container. The smoked brisket, wrapped in aluminum foil and a towel, can be held warm for up to 2 hours before serving.
• 2 to 3 tablespoons kosher salt
• 2 to 3 tablespoons cracked black pepper
• 4 pounds beef brisket, deckle (fatty) end, trimmed to 1/4 inch fat on top (see headnote)
Pour a full chimney of charcoal briquettes (about 85) into the grill. Arrange them in a ring around the inside perimeter of the kettle, about three briquettes wide. Leave a space between the starting and ending points; depending on how you arrange your coals, the space might be as little as 6 inches or as wide as a foot or more. Place a layer of 3 briquettes atop the bottom layer.
On top, place about 10 chunks of hardwood, about an inch or so apart, so that there are chunks of wood all the way around the ring. Using 6 briquettes (or 2 paraffin wax cubes, available at hardware stores), light one end of the ring. Once a few coals catch fire, about 10 minutes, close the lid and open the vents halfway. Preheat and maintain a temperature of 250 degrees.
Combine the salt and pepper (to taste) in a small bowl to form a rub; use it to season the brisket aggressively.
Place an aluminum pan beneath the cooking grate in the center (on the fuel grate) of the kettle to catch any meat drippings. Place the brisket above the pan, fat side up. Close the lid, open the vents halfway. Cook from 4 to 6 hours; a lot of variables, including outside temperature and formation of the coals, can affect the cooking time. Check the brisket at 4 hours with an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the brisket. It should register between 190 and 195 degrees and the top of the meat should jiggle a little.
If, at 4 hours, the brisket isn't finished cooking - and it probably won't be - remove the brisket from the grill and wrap it tightly in aluminum foil. This will help make the brisket juicy.
Once the brisket achieves the proper temperature, remove let it rest for 30 minutes (still wrapped, if using).
To serve, cut against the grain into thin slices. Or re-wrap the brisket in foil, swaddle it in a towel and place in an empty cooler. This warming method will help the brisket retain its juiciness. The brisket can be held this way for up to 2 hours, and will still be warm when you slice it.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 12): 400 calories, 27 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 32 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 670 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
SMOKED ROTISSERIE CHICKEN
Using a rotisserie device - available at many stores that carry backyard grills - might be the easiest, and best, way to cook a chicken on the grill. It results in unsurpassed juiciness and crispy skin without having to pay attention to the fire. This recipe is for a charcoal grill only.
You'll need an instant-read thermometer, kitchen twine, barbecue gloves (for handling hot rotissserie parts) and 2 fist-size hardwood chunks, such as apple, pecan or oak.
MAKE AHEAD: You may have seasoning rub left over, can be stored in an airtight container for up to a month.
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 3/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
• 1 teaspoon garlic powder (granulated)
• 1 teaspoon onion powder
• 1 tablespoon dried thyme
• 1 tablespoon dried sage
• 1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds), giblets removed
• Olive oil, for brushing
Prepare a charcoal grill for opposite-sides indirect heat. Light the charcoal or briquettes; once ready, distribute them half on one side of the grill and half on the other. Place one hardwood chunk on each of the piles. Place the rotisserie base on the grill. For a medium-hot fire (400 degrees), you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.
While the grill is warming up, whisk together the salt, black and cayenne peppers, garlic and onion powders, the dried thyme and sage in a medium bowl to form a seasoning rub. Brush the chicken all over with oil, then season the bird aggressively with the rub. (If you don't use all the rub, store leftovers in an airtight container for up to 1 month.) Use kitchen twine to truss the chicken.
Slip the chicken onto the rotisserie rod, clamping it in place, and fit the rod into the rotisserie's mechanism. Turn on the rotisserie. Close the lid. Open the top vents about halfway. Cook for about 11/4 hours. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast (away from the bone) should register 165 degrees.
Wear barbecue gloves to unscrew the clamps and slide the chicken onto a platter. Let it rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Nutrition | Per serving: 330 calories, 43 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 130 mg cholesterol, 410 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar