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The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

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Winter Grilling

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I had an earlier blog entry on WINTER SMOKING. The last three weeks I’ve been using the gas grill and I thought I’d take the time to encourage people not to put the gas grill away for the winter. You’ll  be missing out on some great meals. This winter I have had something coming off the grill or smoker all but two weekends.  Those two exceptions were because some of our guests wanted to cook a meal to repay me for the meals I’ve made for them.
 
I’ve cooked in temps down to single digits and during snow storms. These conditions are not ideal, but they are doable. Be prepared to use more fuel as you will need to turn on more burners and set them higher. Allow more time to start the grill and for cooking. As mentioned in my
WINTER SMOKING entry wind is the true enemy. Anything you can do to screen your grill from the wind will make your job easier.
 
Indirect Grilling:
How do you use your gas grill in the winter? (See 2009 Addendum below). It is too cold to do steaks or burgers, where you must keep lifting the lid to check on the food. This type of cooking where your food is cooked over the heat source is called Direct Grilling. The Key to winter grill use is Indirect Grilling. Indirect Grilling is where you light one or more burners away from where you place the food. The food is placed on a section of the grill where the burners are off. The food is cooked with the lid down. In essence you are using your grill as if it was an outdoor oven. The advantage is you can use your grill’s smoker drawer or a smoker pouch to add smoke flavor. You can’t do this in your Kitchen’s oven. Another advantage is the oven in the Kitchen is freed up to make something else.

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Prepping Your Wood Chips:
To prepare the wood chips, start by soaking your them in cold water for an hour. I use about 2 cups for my smoker drawer. Strain the chips and place them in your smoker drawer, You can also buy a cast iron smoker drawer for you gas grill. In that case use the quantity of chips recommended by the manufacturer. If you don’t have either of these accessories you can make a smoker pouch using aluminum foil.  I use 2 cups of wood chips per smoker pouch. If you are making a smoker pouch, stain and spread the damp chips out on a piece of aluminum foil so they are stacked 2 or 3 chips high. Seal up the aluminum foil and poke the pouch on all sides to make holes for the smoke.


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Using the Wood Chips on the Grill:
Using my smoker drawer, I set it’s burner to high for about 15 minutes. When I start seeing smoke it is time to add the food. At this point I may reduce the temps on that burner to medium if necessary to help maintain a low temperatures. Actually in the winter it is often not necessary to reduce the temps of the smoker drawer  burner to hold low temps. If using a smoker pouch I put it below the grill grate, above the flame tamers. For a cast iron smoker box follow the manufactures directions. In my grill the 2 cups of chips last for 45 minutes to an hour. So as I load up one batch of wood chips, I start soaking the next batch.

 

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What can you cook?
Large pieces of food, such as roasts are ideally suited to indirect grilling. I’ve made Prime Ribs. Turkey, Bone in Pork  Roasts, Brisket, Pork Shoulder, &  Beer Can Chicken. Now Brisket and Pork Shoulder are probably better suited to going low and slow on a smoker, but they can be done this way. My gas grill has modular drop in accessories that replace one of the grill grates. For doing a large roast, I install a cast iron pan in the center section with a roast rack set in the pan. Ideally chose a recipe where opening the lid is minimized. Every time you lift the lid, you add 10-15 minutes to your cooking time

 

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Food Arrangement:
My grill has 6 burners arranged left to right.  With the roast over burners 3 and 4 that leaves me burners 1,2,5 and 6. My smoker drawer uses burner 1, so I next light burner 6 to balance that off. I’m trying to keep the heat source as far away from the meat as possible. If needed I can bring burners 2 and 5 into the mix. If you have 3 burners arranged left to right, light the two outer burners and put the food over the unlit middle burner. If the three burners run front to back light the front and rear burners and put the food over the middle, I have not cooked on a gas grill with this arrangement. I would think you would need to periodically rotate the food 90 degrees to even out the temps, since the meat is very close to the front and rear burners. I like to have the food in the middle with heat on both sides. That way if the wind is coming from either side it will blow the heat onto the meat not off it. If you have only two burners, this starts to get tricky in real cold or real windy weather. You may not have enough BTU’s in the one burner to overcome the cold. You would also want to light the burner on the side the wind is coming from.

 

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Remote Read Thermometers:
A good remote read thermometer helps make winter grilling more pleasurable. I talked about these in my What Utensils do I Need-Pt. 1 Blog entry. You can see the leads for the temperature probes coming out of the prime rib which was prepped cooked in late November on the gas grill. The remote read thermometer allows you to spend most of your time indoors warm and toasty, instead of running out to check the food all the time. Three words of warning: One-have spare batteries around, the cold uses up batteries faster. Two-you may have to set the receiver closer to the grill than in warmer weather. Three-in real cold temps the unit may stop working entirely.

 

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Rotisserie:
Another good candidate for winter grilling are items suited to the rotisserie. These would be any pieces with fairly cylindrical shapes. Many times you can get pieces from your butcher already tied up and ready to go. One advantage of a rotisserie is the meat is self basting so you don’t have to keep opening the lid. For wintertime use avoid recipes requiring a mop or a glaze, so you can keep the lid down. Due to the rotisserie rotation you can’t use a remote read thermometer-the cable from the probe will wrap around the meat in an ever tightening coil. So have an instant  read meat thermometer on hand to quickly check your temps.

 
My grill has a dedicated infra red burner on the back wall of the grill. The burning gas jet heats a metal mesh plate to a glowing red. This plate transfers its heat to the meat without heating the air in between. This radiant heat effect is similar to being in a cold car with the sun streaming through the window. The air in the car can be cold but where the sun strikes you directly through the window, you feel warm. This type of heat is ideal for the winter. Follow your grill’s manual for rotisserie grilling for your setup. If you are using the regular burners on your grill you may need to crank up the heat to compensate for the low temps. Speaking of low temps, check out the rotisserie directions to see what the low temperature rating is for the rotisserie motor.

My Experiences:
As I mentioned, my infra-red rotisserie is very well suited for winter use. As long as I don’t open the lid to much, my times seem to be 15-30 minutes longer than in warmer weather. In the extreme cold it took 45 minutes, I think that was mostly due to my lifting the lid to check the temps more often. This is definitely doable for the pleasure of a good roast.

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With food cooked indirectly in low temps, I find I have to use  more burners and more heat. If I use 4 burners on Low to Medium Low in warm weather, I need to go Medium to Medium High in the sold. Simple as that. Last weekend I cooked Matambres with air temps in the mid twenties and winds of 25-45 MPH (40-72 kph). This was pushing the limits of what I can do without a wind screen on my grill. I had the 4 burners I can use set to high and I was just reaching the 325 (160 C) I needed. However I follow my own advice: this was a test cook to see if I could actually do it, there were no guests coming over-see the Dry Run item below. The Matambres were used on the next day. I also had to turn the grill so the vent openings on the back side were facing away from the wind. Make  sure to have a spare filled propane tank around.
 

Dry Run:
Winter grilling may be pushing the limits of your equipment to the max or beyond. Rather than have a room full of hungry people and nothing to feed them, try a dry run before inviting people over for a holiday feast. This way here you can experiment with temperatures and grill settings in a stress free environment. If it is mid twenties and calm and you are barley able to get the temps required by your recipe, this will tell you not to try it when it is colder than that or real windy. Your fallback is you can throw the roast in the indoor oven. You lose the smoke flavor, but save the day. After a few dry runs in various types of weather you’ll know what to expect from your grill.

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Bottom Line:
Don’t put your grill in mothballs come the cold weather. With a little experimentation to test the limits, you may find you are able to keep good meals coming off your gas grill year round. The three best meals I’ve EVER prepared came off my grill. They were cooked on Thanksgiving in the snow, plus Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve in the cold. Think of what I would have missed if the grills were in hibernation until the spring.



Addendum 2009

I discovered in the winter of 2008/2009 that some of my prior ASSumptions about winter direct grilling were wrong. Turns out with my current grill I CAN direct grill in the cold weather. The information in this blog entry still applies for indirect or rotisserie grilling in the winter. But you may also find your grill is up to the task of turning out direct grilled food year round. There is one good way to find out. Here are some links for some of my recent blogs which describe what became my on going winter grilling experiment. You might want to start with my Direct Grilling in the Winter??? blog where I describe why I think my current grill can still put out enough heat in the winter.


SOME RELATED LINKS:
  HOT DOG Blog Entry
  MORE WINTER GRILLING Blog Entry
  WINTER WISH GRANTED Blog Entry
  DIRECT GRILLING IN THE WINTER??? Blog Entry
  CURE FOR THE UNCOMMON COLD Blog Entry


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