Mastering Your Grill

Tim Cebula takes a trip to BBQ U with acclaimed grillmaster Steven Raichlen.

Tim Cebula

USED TO BE, MY WIFE wore the grill apron in the family. It's cool; I never felt inadequate. Neither one of us takes the troglodyte view that men are innately avid grillers. But as a passionate and experienced indoor cook, I had a gap in my culinary résumé. I'm a perfectionist, and cooking over flames presents more variables than I like.

All that changed at Steven Raichlen's Barbecue University. Raichlen, a shoo-in for the Mount Rushmore of Grilling Gurus, hosts the PBS show Primal Grill; authored The Barbecue Bible and dozens more grilling cookbooks; and won five James Beard Awards along the way. Because it offers personal tutelage from a celebrity expert, BBQU is like fantasy camp for coalheads. But more than that, it's a hands-on, three-day crash course in grilling, beginning with lessons on lighting a chimney starter, working up to more advanced techniques, and hitting every conceivable live-fire topic along the way. Smoking meats? Check. Grilling pork T-bones on a hardware-store shovel? Covered. Can you cook crème brûlée on the grill? After BBQU you can.

Our class of 50 students collectively barbecued more than 25 dishes over three mornings, using about 30 different grills—everything from a simple Weber kettle charcoal grill to offset smokers; gas grills; small wood-burning stone ovens; Big Green Egg smokers; and an $18,000 stainless steel, tri-fuel behemoth, a rig so sophisticated, sleek, and shiny it looked like it could launch strip steaks into outer space to be grilled upon reentry.

Raichlen is a Reed College Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in French literature—not the kind of background that usually leads to a career in live-fire cooking. He's also, as his TV shows reveal, an endearing, fairly soft-spoken, highly thoughtful, professorial type: the opposite of a swaggering, blustery Anthony Bourdain.

It was a postgrad fellowship spent touring Europe to study medieval cooking techniques that set Raichlen on his grilling trajectory. "My work now is the interface of food, history, culture, and teaching," he says. "I'm not going to pretend that I smoke the best ribs or grill the best brisket in the U.S., but I think I know how to explain it in a way that people can replicate it."

I was left with the singed-bare forearms and headful of new grilling wisdom to prove him right.

BARBECUE 101: THE COMPULSORY MATERIAL

"What is barbecue?" he asks the class Socratically on the first morning. Several answers are acceptable here, including Southern-style, low and slow meat cooking, which Raichlen also calls "true" barbecue (do not call grilling "barbecuing" where I live, in the heart of Dixie; unpleasantness will follow). There's also Yankee-style grilling over direct heat, South American rotisserie cooking, and the newly chic "caveman method" of putting meat directly on coals. Raichlen doesn't take sides. He wants us to understand that barbecue is cooking with live fire.

But the answer an eager student gives Raichlen to his opening question seems to hit more on the room's prevailing notion of barbecue: "It's a way of life," the student declares, and the class chuckles appreciatively. There are no dilettantes in this room, not considering the $2,100 price tag for the seminar and three nights at the tony Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, plus travel costs. These folks love them some barbecue, use their grills and smokers a lot, and are dead serious about learning some new tricks.

First things first: Raichlen reminds us often, each day, to keep the grill hot, clean, and well lubricated. Otherwise, food sticks horribly and won't cook right. Raichlen's heat standard for direct grilling is about 600°. Here's the easy test: Two seconds should pass with your hand held 3 inches over the grill rack before real pain sets in. For indirect grilling, he recommends 350° (pain delayed until about four- or five- Mississippi). Clean the grate twice with a stiff wire brush: once when it's fully preheated, and again after cooking. For lubrication, rub the clean grate with an oil-soaked, tightly folded paper towel held with tongs, or take the rack off the grill and spray it with oil.

On the topic of fuel, Raichlen says that while he prefers charcoal or wood, there is no shame in a gas grill. There is shame, however, in quick-light briquettes, lighter fluid, and coal fires built from anything but natural lump hardwood charcoal: organic material that burns cleanly, without noxious additives that flavor the food and make the air stink.

Clean heat, in other words, is the first order. After that, Raichlen is all about heat management. "There's a certain kind of griller who throws food on the fire and prays it'll get cooked perfectly without burning," he notes. "But the whole goal is for you to control the fire, not have it control you."

The trick to heat management is building a zoned fire: You build a hot zone at the rear of the grill, a medium-heat zone in the middle, and then a cooler safety zone in the front. Use no coals in the safety zone or, if you're using a gas grill, turn one of the burners off. This approach lets you sear and mark your food with just the right amount of char in the hot zone, then move it to the middle zone to finish cooking more slowly and evenly. If the food starts to cook too fast, or if you need to step away from the grill for a minute, move it to the safety zone, and you're covered.

This was my personal lightbulb moment, the elusive grilling control I'd been seeking. Until then, I was that prayerful, flame-fearing cook. Now I saw that I could essentially have three ovens working at once with distinct temperature differences, letting me manage heat every step of the way.

Out on the Broadmoor patio outfitted with dozens of grills—called the burn area—we put these early lessons into practice and cook our way to a complete understanding of the difference between direct and indirect grilling. We set asparagus spears, zucchini and eggplant slices, radicchio wedges, and squares of chilled polenta directly over high heat for a Tuscan Veggie and Polenta Platter: delicate, quick-cooking ingredients that lightly char to deliciousness in less than 10 minutes. By contrast, Brazilian Rib Roast with Ember-Charred Salsa cooks between two piles of coals set on opposite ends of the grill; bigger, slower-cooking cuts of meat need indirect heat.

ELECTIVE LESSONS: STUNT GRILLING AND THE GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE

Raichlen wants BBQU students to go home with more than just a new collection of recipes. He teaches broad techniques that apply to a multitude of dishes. Yes, he gives you a fish (Peppered Tuna "London Broil" with Wasabi Cream, on one occasion), but then he teaches you how to fish.

"I take a very global perspective. People grill everywhere, yet they do it differently. When I think about something like pork shoulder, I'm thinking about Italian porchetta, Balinese babi guling, North Carolina pulled pork, German spanferkel," Raichlen says. This multicuisine approach opens up vast possibilities for students: Learn to slow-cook pork shoulder on the grill, and a whole world of flavors and approaches is now at your ash-dusted feet.

And then there's the flashy stuff. Grilling on shovels (pristine, used only for this purpose) or placing food directly on the glowing coals won't sit well with everyone, but the results are spectacular and the methods are sure-fire conversation starters. I felt that I had never truly tasted pork until I tried it fresh off a red-hot shovel. The intense sear creates delicious caramelization that you just can't get from traditional methods.

Even crème brûlée can be done on the grill. The custard cooks over indirect heat, smoked by applewood chips, and it gets its classic burned sugar crust from a screaming-hot brûlée iron set on top for about three seconds. Raichlen is not showing off here; he's proving the true versatility of the grill. Used smartly, live fire can cook your entire dinner, from smoky soup to toasted nuts.

The smoke and char flavors act like extra ingredients, as shown in Raichlen's recipes. Smoked Salmon, Barbecue University-Style calls for cooking salmon over indirect heat, bathing it in both hickory and cedar smoke, gorgeously burnishing the moist fillets. Raichlen's expertise with global cuisine comes through with Salt Slab Chicken al Mattone, a clever twist on Italy's traditional chicken under a brick: This version uses a salt slab to press and season the chicken as it cooks. For Grilled Gazpacho, fresh ripe vegetables are both smoked and charred to add wonderfully complex flavor to Spanish chilled soup.