This was the weather I woke up to, though the sun did come out at suppertime, There is no way I could make a paella on the gas grill in this cold weather, but it was just another day for the BGE. In fact the temperature problems I had were too high, not too low.
The first difference between doing a paella on the BGE vs the gas grill is you can do it on the Egg year round. The first half of most paellas involves browning meat or sauteeing vegetables with the lid up. Between lower gas pressure which equals lower heat output and a 15 or 20 minute recovery time when you close the lid, it just isn’t practical to make paellas during the cold winter months. In fact one of the reasons I hadn’t made a paella on the Egg yet is I was waiting for Spring. My wok cooks at 3 degrees (-16C) proved the Egg can cook food with the lid open any time of the year. I was just being slow in making the connection. But this cook proved I can cook a paella any time I want on the BGE. In fact the temperature problem I did have was the Egg was 50-75 degrees too high. More on that a bit later.
A paella needs even heat under the entire pan. Even when using the bggest burner on my electric range, I couldn’t evenly heat the pan. The paellas had to be finished in the oven.
One big advantage my 6 burner gas grill has over either the BGE or my Kitchen stove is the large surface area which can be set to an even temperature. The 16” (41 cm) paella pan is bigger than the largest 12” (30 cm) burner on the Kitchen stove, so it is difficult to achieve the crispy bottom crust, called soccorat. The soccorat is the paella equivalent of the smoke ring in barbecue. It is a sign the food was prepared properly. To get the soccorat the entire pan must be exposed to even heat. This is easily possible on the gas grill, where you light enough burners to evenly heat the area under the paella pan. Many paella recipes have you transfer the paella pan to the oven to finish if you are trying to cook it on an electric range. It is a bit of an adventure to transfer a large shallow pan of boiling liquid to the oven without spilling something or burning yoursef, or both. I consistently started getting the soccorat when I began making the paella on the gas grill. The Big Green Egg can also heat the entire area under the paella pan, but it isn’t as simple as just setting several burners to the right temperature. Every charcoal fire is different. Live fire is always a bit of a challenge and I had to alter my normal procedure for lighting the Egg in order to get an even fire across the entire firebox of the Egg.
As I mentioned: With an electric stove or gas grill you set the burners to the desired temperature and wait for them to warm up. It isn’t quite so simple with the BGE. You are dealing with lump charcoal where the sizes of the pieces can vary widely. To achieve 400 degrees (205C) I normally light 4 paraffin starters and after they go out I close the lid and let the temp rise to about 350 degrees (175 C). At this point I put the metal cap on and begin adjusting the dampers (upper and lower) to stabilize the Egg at 400 degrees (205 C). For this cook I needed all of the coals on the top layer to be lit, and I need the temperature to be stabilized with the lid open. There were two recommended ways to do this. The first involved using a charcoal chimney where you pour a level of lit coals all over the top of the unlit coals. Frankly I am so past wanting to use a charcoal chimney. The coals can take a long time to light in the cold weather and then you need to get them on the grill and get the grill to the temperature. I had several concerns: Lump can be difficult to light, also what if I added the lit coals and had too many? I really had no way of knowing wether the temperature would be too high or too low when I pored on the coals.
The method I used to fire up the Egg was to start with 6 paraffin staters. When they went out I closed the lid & let the temperature rise to 400F (205 C). At this point I opened the lid, closed the bottom damper & let the fire spread until all the coals were lit, which took about 10 minutes.
The second method involved lighting the lump in the Egg using paraffin starters as I normally do. After the paraffin starters went out I would close the lid and then let the Egg rise to 400 (205 C). The Egg gets stabilized at 400 degrees (205 C), and I let is stay there for a while to make sure it is truly stabilized. Next I opened the lid and kept it open while closing the bottom damper completely. Within 10 minutes I had a bed of evenly lit coals, which was one of the things I was looking for. The part that didn’t work as well is the temperature I ended up with was 450-475 degrees (232-246 C). I went ahead because it would take a while to get those coals cooled off. It did make the paella cook more like a stir-fry. I had to keep the food moving constantly and had to shorten the cooking times to suit. If this was my first paella or I hadn’t successfully done stir-fries in the past, I might have delayed the start. Once I closed the lid for the second half of the cook, I was still at 450 (232 C) and I had to close the dampers almost completely to drive down the temperatures. I had to be careful not to put the fire out completely while trying to lower the temperatures. So I’ve now learned that the temps rose a bit when I raised the lid despite closing the bottom damper all of the way. Since the temps were 50-75 degrees (28-42 C) high, next time I’ll stabilize the Egg at a temperature that is 50 (28 C) degrees lower than my desired finishing temperature. With the higher cooking temperature I needed to add some extra olive oil, so any time I make paella on the Egg I will want to have some extra olive oil out at the grill.
This paella cook illustrates the big advantage of the six burner gas grill: Real Estate. In addition to the 16” (41 cm) paella pan I also had a 12” & 10” (30 & 25 cm) saute pan in use, all at the same time. Also I had broth heating on the side burner.
Another advantage my 6-burner gas grill has over the Big Green Egg is the available cooking area. The BGE has an 18” (46 cm) diameter cooking area. The gas grill has a 42” (107 cm) long x 18” (46 cm) cooking area, plus a side burner. I have made paellas where I have had the paealla pan and two larges saute pans on the main grid, all cooking up meats & veggies, plus a sauce pan on the side burner heating some broth. One BGE, or even two BGE’s just can’t match this. Plus the grates on the Eggs are circular vs rectangular and so don’t hold as much. This particular paellaI was making on the Egg was linear and so I didn’t run into a problem of not enough surface area to cook everything I needed. Let me explain what I mean by a linear paella cook. A linear paella cook is one where the various phases are done one at a time, step-by-step. First you cook Item A, then add Item B and continue to cook, then add Item C and continue to cook…etc. etc. Everything is done in one pan, usually the paella pan, and the cook time is based on the total cooking time each item needs to complete.There are some other paella recipes that I will call simultaneous cooks. For these you cook item A in one pan, item B in another, and item C in yet another. Then the three items are all added into one pan to finish cooking. This serves to lessen the total cooking time. While you could cook them one at a time in just one pan and hold each cooked item until the others are done, it is not the best way to go. I didn’t have to decide how to handle this situation this time around, because this was a linear cook. I’ve had some time to think about this and I have a solution. The more I thought about it, I realized the items that are cooked simultaneously are being browned or sautéed. There is zero advantage to cooking them on the Egg vs the gas grill. In fact the gas grill has the advantage of easy precise temperature control in addition to it’s large surface area. The last phase of a paella cook, where the broth and rice are cooked down benefits greatly from the addition of some smoke. The BGE has a definite advantage there. But for browning and sautéing there is no difference between the two grills. So there is no reason I shouldn’t continue to use the gas grill for this task moving forward. For a linear one pan cook I will fire up the Egg. For multi-pan simultaneous cooks I will use the gas grill for the early browning and sautéing tasks and finish up on the Egg where I can add smoke. The only time I can’t use the gas grill is from November to March, and I can always arrange to do a linear one-pan paella then.
The paella pan mounted on the Spider is raised in such a way that it makes it very easy to add wood cips at the end of the cook to add wood smoke flavor.
Speaking adding smoke this is an area where the Egg has a huge advantage. For short cooks it was always very difficult to add smoke using the gas grill. With the Egg this is easy. I use Wicked Good Weekend Warrior which is a very smoke neutral brand of charcoal. I like this because I make the choice whether smoke is appropriate. The Egg is so well sealed you must be careful not to over smoke your foods. For this first paella cook, my instincts about the Egg told me that a palmful of Hickory wood chips would be the right amount. It turned out this was the perfect amount, so I don’t have to do any more experimenting here.
From a technical standpoint my first paella cook wasn’t without a few hiccups. But despite a few surprises, I think I have the knowledge in place to insure the next one goes smoothly. This paella was already one of the best I’ve turned out and the addition of a little smoke flavor was a big plus. I look forward to many great paellas to come.