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The modern kitchen, with its precision instruments and computer-aided appliances, is a marvel. But something is energizing about the primitive pleasure of cooking over an open flame. I got hooked early, as I watched my dad work our family’s Weber kettle in the Virginia suburbs back when I was a kid. That interest really ignited when my mom taught our Cub Scout troop how to make a grill out of an overturned coffee can stuffed with twigs.
So at this time of year, when the evening air warms, I take the covers off my dueling Weber charcoal and gas grills and break out the accessories for the outdoor cooking season.
I’ll take a look at some tools of the trade that make grilling so fun and rewarding. I took stock of my own experience and also spoke with some grill-addicted friends. Among us, we have years working amid the flames, and this article takes stock of what wisdom has shaken out after all that time.
It’s a curated list of some must-have items for starting fires, controlling heat, adding flavor, managing your grill and cleaning up. There are hundreds (probably thousands) of grilling accessories out there, but I’ve focused on time-tested fundamentals from which to start — or modify — your own grilling journey.
Royal Oak Tumbleweeds Fire Starters
There’s nothing more frustrating than gearing up for a relaxing evening at the charcoal grill and struggling with getting the fire started. These miniature bundles of wood slivers and paraffin wax are easy to handle, fast-lighting and do just the trick when it comes to getting things heated up in a fuss-free manner.
Jealous Devil All Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal
Like most things in life, it’s best to start with the right materials. And the same can be said for grilling. Jealous Devil charcoal is made from super hard South American Quebracho Blanco wood, which provides high temperatures and a long burn. The aroma will have your neighbors humming “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for blocks around as their noses pick up the glorious smoke wafting from your backyard.
Kingsford Deluxe Charcoal Chimney Starter
After many years of dousing charcoal in lighter fluid, I learned you can achieve the same effect in a much more agreeable manner by placing the lump charcoal in a steel chimney and then using newspaper or a few of the aforementioned tumbleweeds to ignite and quickly prep the coals. There are more expensive options out there, but I’ve been using this basic model for more than a decade and it just works.
OXO Good Grips Grate Lifter Coal Rake
For years, I poked at red-hot pyramids of charcoal using the same tongs I was about to use to turn hot dogs or flip chicken breasts. Not only did they get ashy and charred, they were inevitably too short and my hands and forearms ended up taking the brunt of the scorching heat. There had to be a better way. Enter the coal rake. This one’s got a comfortable handle and also doubles as a grate lifter.
A-MAZE-N Expanding Smoker Tube
I don’t have a smoker, but I’ve found a number of ways over the years to bring delicious smoke flavors to my grilling. One of the best I’ve found is this expanding smoker tube that’s filled with pellets. At its max extension of 12,” it can provide smoke for up to four hours. (I find it smokes for a little under two hours when I use it in the short format.) You can light it with a torch, or pack one end with one of the tumbleweeds. After about 10 minutes you blow out the flames, position the smoker on your grate (charcoal or gas) and the food soaks in the smoky aroma.
MacLean’s Outdoor Apple Wood BBQ Smoking Pellets
Pity our parents, who could choose from basic charcoal briquettes or … basic charcoal briquettes. These days it seems like there are more pellet flavors than there are ice cream varieties. Savor the progress. I’ve always loved the distinct scent of apple wood, and these pellets from Canada don’t disappoint the nose or tastebuds.
Outset Wood Chip Soaker
Again, it was trial and error that led me to this clever little tool. I’ve used ceramic mugs and glass bowls and Tupperware. Inevitably, the dampened wood chips end up on the counter, stuck on the sides of a too-small container, or on the floor during the straining process. The nifty soaker has a built-in strainer top and a handle for easy pouring into your smoker box.
Meater+ Wireless Thermometer
Gone are the days of guesstimating or poking at your steak with an inaccurate analog temperature gauge — after the meat is overcooked. Leave behind those stressed-out moments trying to converse with your guests while waiting for your iPhone timer to go off to check the grill. The Meater brings your big dumb BBQ into the digital age, with long-range connectivity and smartphone compatibility. It measures internal and ambient temperature, and it calculates the time to finish. And it’s dishwasher safe.
Lodge Cast-Iron Reversible Griddle/Grill
Few items in my cooking repertoire have gotten more use than this gorgeous, multi-purpose slab of cast iron utility. In the winter, when I’m (slightly) less inclined to grill, I use the grill side indoors for mouth-watering burgers, hot dogs and chicken. Outdoors, use the griddle side to easily convert your gas or charcoal grill into a flat cooking surface for searing vegetables, making bacon, or flipping outdoor pancakes. Heats up fast, cleans up easily and is thoroughly indestructible.
Lodge Grill Press
How I lived without this accessory for so long, I’ll never understand. I grabbed it the same week I brought home the griddle above. It’s just the right weight to apply pressure (and a bit of heat) to whatever you’re cooking. It speeds the process overall, gives you more control, and helps to create beautifully defined grill marks. Just remember the handle, although coiled, gets extremely hot when the cover’s been down, so use a grill glove when handling or you’ll apply those marks to your hands as well.
Nexgrill Wooden Scraper
No one likes to clean up after a fun night on the grill, but a wooden scraper goes a long way to making it an easier chore. It won’t ever leave metal residue or trace fibers, and over time it will conform to your grate type for even better cleaning. Make it part of your cleaning routine and you’ll be primed and ready for your next adventure at the fire.
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