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Direct Grilling in the Winter

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Until a about a month ago I thought you couldn’t logically use the words “Direct Grilling” and “Winter” in the same sentence. A couple recent experiments have me singing a different tune as this blog will explain. “Indirect Grilling” and “Rotisserie Grilling” yes, but “Direct Grilling” in the cold New England winter wasn’t practical. So what changed my opinion?
 

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Some grilled veggies for Chili on the Grill was part of my first attempt to revisit direct winter grilling. They cooked up in the normal amount of time.

As a background I had tried direct grilling in the cold weather several times with several different gas grills. A steak taking one hour or more was the result. I like direct grilled food but that much time was not worth the effort. Lately my grilling and barbecuing have caused me to try new foods I never would have eaten in the past. This in turn has caused me to revisit foods I traditionally did not like. I also decided to revisit and test the validity of some other long standing rules. One of which is: “It isn’t really practical to direct grill in the winter”. Now I do use my grill all and smoker all through the winter. But when winter comes I traditionally have switched to using my gas grill for indirect grilling large roasts or doing small to medium sized roasts on the rotisserie. I decided one way to get away from my normal routine would be to revisit direct grilling. That way I wouldn’t have to wait for the warm weather to have some of my favorites from the grill.

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The two steaks and pork chops for Chili on the Grill finished within a minute of the recipes recommended time. This inspired me to try more direct grilling.

The first item I tried during the weekend after Thanksgiving was Chili on the Grill. This involved the direct grilling of both meat and veggies. When I set out to light the grill it was in the mid forties with a slight wind. I made a couple of adjustments to my normal routine. First I lit the grill earlier because it was about 40 degrees (22 C) colder than summer. Secondly I lit more burners than I’d actually need for the food. Every grill has temperature fall offs near the edges and I figured these would only be worse with the cold winter air and wind. So even though 1, or at most 2 burners would have worked I lit 4 to have a large area with high temperatures so all my pieces would cook evenly. I confirmed this by holding my hand over the grill and got a large area of medium heat. Lastly I set the temperature knobs higher than normal to help compensate for the cold air.

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Some grilled veggies for Chili on the Grill was part of my first attempt to revisit direct winter grilling. They cooked up in the normal amount of time.

I was surprised that the veggies appeared to be done correctly when it was time to flip them. Side two finished up per the recipe and I ran in to get the steaks and pork chops that served as the meat for this recipe. I threw them on and one concession I made to the cold was to skip the mid-side turn I usually do to get cross hatch grill marks on both sides. This would help the grill retain the heat. Besides the meat was going to be chopped up anyway, so the only one who would even see the crosshatch grill marks was me. Once again I was in for a pleasant surprise: the steaks finished in the normal time range plus one minute of time. After that I set the grill up for indirect grilling and cooked a ham on it.

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My last grill had two burners like the one above. They were a fairly thin metal and ceramic briquettes ran in a single row along the two long sides and around one end. The flames came out the pin holes in the burner and ran over the surface of the briquettes to heat them.

The success of my grilled chile was a bit of an eye-opener and made me want to try more to test the limits. But I also like to understand how things work. So I also pondered why this was a success and my prior attempts at indirect grilling on other gas grills was a failure. I developed a single theory that was my working theory until a few days ago. This theory was that the construction of the grills was the difference between success & failure. These prior grills used either lava rocks or ceramic briquettes that were arranged in a narrow line along the burner. The bottom half of the grill had straight sides but the front and back faces tapered from narrow at the bottom (where the burners were) to wide at the grill grate. The burners heated the ceramic briquettes and the warm air rose, expanding as it did and flowed along the tapered front and back surface. So a relatively small area was being heated and this heat was used to heat a much larger area at the grill surface.

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My current grill has 6 burners like the one on the left. These are made of a heavy cast iron and run from front to back. These burners also heat the flame tamers (right) which cover them. Besides helping with flare ups, I think the flame tamers go a long way towards evening out the heat at the grill grate.

My current grill has a totally different method of heating. There are 6 individual rail burners which are large cast iron rails that get heated by the flames coming out the sides of the rails.. Above these are metal flame tamers which keep dripping grease off the burners but I also believe they serve to even out the temperatures. Another factor is the burners on this grill have a much higher BTUH rate than the other grills I’ve owned. It can be driven to much higher temperatures than the other grills. The cast iron burners heat themselves and give off their heat to the flame tamers and this even heat rises to heat the grill. This grill has the most even heat across the cooking surface of any grill I’ve owned. So the larger burners give me more heat and their cast iron metal construction helps them retain more of that heat in the cold. Additionally the flame tamers even out this heat.

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The second dish I experimented with was a grilled pork tenderloin. I actually had a problem with too much heat which seared the first side a bit too much. I dialed the heat down and the rest of the cook went fine.

My next attempt at direct winter grilling was Citrus Grilled Pork Tenderloin. This involved direct grilling a pork tenderloin under medium direct heat for about 30 minutes, or about 7 or 8 minutes a side. After some of my one hour plus steaks in the past, one of the things that attracted me about this meat was it was big enough to use a wireless meat thermometer. I would know when it had reach the right temperature without having to keep lifting the lid. I made a beginners mistake with this recipe, but it was cosmetic in nature. It also was a matter of too much heat, not too little so it is fixable. As before I lit the grill early, lit extra burners and with air temperatures in the 30’s (2 C), I set the burners to medium high. When I walked out to put the meat on I saw the lid temperature was quite high. I incorrectly figured the temperature at the grill level would drop quite a bit when I lifted the lid to put the meat on the grill. This recipe had used a sugary marinade and sugar burns when exposed to high temperatures. When I went to turn the tenderloins I found the surface had burned and stuck to the grill grate in places. It took a while to gently pry it loose which meant the lid was up longer than it could have been. Where I wanted to lower the temps anyway, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case. But if you are trying to minimize up time for your lid, make sure the grill grate is well oiled. I dialed down the temps to avoid repeating the problem on the other sides. The meat finished in 30 minutes, which was within the 20-30 the time range specified for the recipe.

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Some grilled veggies for Chili on the Grill was part of my first attempt to revisit direct winter grilling. They cooked up in the normal amount of time.

My third attempt at direct winter grilling was Grilled Asparagus Wrapped in Prosciutto. It was cooked in perhaps the worst weather yet. We had an air temperature in the low 40’s (4 C) and steady winds in the 20 MPH (32 kph) range with gusts into the 30 (48) and 40 MPH (64 kph) range. I described the conditions and how it affected my smoker in Cure for the Uncommon Cold blog entry. As before I lit the grill early, I set the temps a LITTLE higher than needed and I lit more burners then required. While the recipe didn’t call for it, I took the time to use bamboo skewers to make asparagus rafts. This meant turning 6 rafts of 6 asparagus spears instead of trying to turn 36 spears. This minimized up time for the lid. I’d lit all 6 burners on the grill even though 3 would have normally sufficed. I crowded the asparagus rafts in the middle of the grill, where I would have the most even heat in the high winds.
 

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The wings started off fine, but the pressure drop caused by the low amount of propane in the tank cause them to take quite a bit longer. So use a tank well over half full.

My last attempt at direct winter grilling the day after Christmas was interesting. It gave me a possible new insight into direct grilling problems with prior gas grills. On the menu was BBQ Tex-Mex Chicken Wings which were direct grilled for 25 minutes on medium high turning often. This meant lots of uptime for the lid and would mark the toughest test. The BBQ sauce used was sugary, so it was only put on during the last 10 minutes of grill time. Once again I fired up the grill early, lit all 6 burners giving me more area than I needed and set the temperature knobs one notch above medium high. I also made sure the grate was very well oiled. I had lots of pieces to turn and I wanted to do it quickly. When I put the chicken on the grill things appeared to go well. The grill was sizzling and I got so small flare ups here and there from the dripping fat. The first turn was uneventful and the wings seemed to be cooking up as I’d expect them to. By the second turn two minutes later it seemed like the wings weren’t cooking as fast. Perhaps this was the cold air let in while turning the wings the first time. By the time for third turn the sizzling had stopped and putting my hand over the grill showed the temps had indeed fallen.

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With all of the turning & open lid time involved, I never would have guessed a month ago that I might be eating grilled chicken wings in late December.

At first I suspected the cold air let in while turning the wings. But I also noticed the burners were not exhibiting anywhere near as much flame as they had earlier. I must be out of propane I thought and opened the door to inspect the propane tank. There was about 3” of condensation at the bottom of the tank, meaning it was low but not out. After thinking about it for a few seconds I figured it must be the pressure drop from a low tank. In the summer when the tank is almost empty you get flame but very little heat. Also when the air temps are real high the propane is under more pressure and my grill burns much hotter. In fact I’ve sometimes set the knobs lower to avoid this extra ooomph burning my food. So what I was seeing here was probably the winter version of this effect. Less propane in the tank means lower pressure to start. Cold temps mean even lower pressure so the tank looses it’s punch earlier. This could possibly explain my problems cooking in the cold on prior grills. I have no idea how much propane was in my tanks because I didn’t realize it was a bigger issue than the summer. Returning to the wings, I decided to raise the temps to the highest I could and see if I could finish up on that tank. It added another 20 minutes to my cooking time, but the wings were finally done and done correctly. This was exactly what I had experienced in years past. So while my new grill’s design seems to help it cook well in the cold weather, the propane has less bang for the buck than it does in warm weather. When I shut the tank off I noticed the condensation was an inch and a half high, but I am going to declare that tank DOA.

Below is a list of items I’ve discovered so far about winter grilling:

Winter Grilling Tips:

  • Light the grill early, it takes longer to raise the temps in the cold weather.
  • Light more burners than you’d normally need. The temps will fall off rapidly at the edge of your fire. Make sure you have enough area that will be at the proper cooking temperature.
  • If you can avoid it don’t crowd the food, it will make turning it a faster operation with less heat loss.
  • Place the food in the center of the grill away from the edges. The edges are more subject to heat loss in the low temps and cold winds.
  • Learn your grills hot and cold spots, the colder weather will probably increase the severity of the cold spots.
  • You may need to set the temperature knobs higher to get the same temps you are used to in the Summer. Know your grill and hold your hand above the grill to see how hot is actually is.
  • You will still need to watch out not to burn foods with high sugar content. Keep the temps lower and go a bit longer.
  • Make sure the grill grate is well oiled. If the food starts to stick you will have to keep the lid up longer trying to turn your food.
  • Take whatever steps you can to avoid raising the lid. Perhaps consider skipping your mid-side turn that gives you those cross hatch grill marks. Use a remote read temperature probe.
  • A wireless meat thermometer which allows you to monitor the temps without lifting the lid is over an instant read model.
  • Make sure to always have a spare propane tank on hand. You will use more propane in the cold.
  • You may have to swap tanks when they are not completely empty. The pressure may be too low to give you usable heat.
  • Dress warmly so you can stay at the grill the entire time. It seems there are more things that can go wrong in the cold. You’ve got all the normal issues plus the ones brought on by the cold weather.
  • Keep the platter you plan to plate the food on indoors until it is time to remove the food from the grill. You don’t want to put hot food on a cold serving platter.

I am very excited that I seem to be able to direct grill in the winter. I plan to keep trying new things to see what the limits (if any) are. I encourage you to try the same. It may be that your grill design can or can’t do it, but the only way to find out is to try. I have two suggestions: First try it with a full tank of propane and second do it at a time where it is not critical. Try it for fun the first couple times on any old weekend, not Christmas Day. As for me I’ll post any new items I discover in a future blog. There was an old joke about how devoted you were to grilling. The question involved which you shoveled out first: your driveway or your grill. This winter this question is becoming more of a problem.


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