"Grilling Season" is Here.
06/22/14 - 06:03 Filed in: Seasonal Grilling
After a series of blogs which were rather long and somewhat technical, I decided I was going to write one that is more in the spirit of fun and talking about the state of our hobby. Actually it will be a mix of fun and some mini rants. I always enjoy the advent of warm weather in April and May because it marks the coming of the Official "Grilling Season". Here in New England, where we have four distinctly different seasons, "Grilling Season" is from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There is a yearly ritual that takes place in the stores and in the media around grilling. During this time of year you are one among many when you are grilling. And everyone "knows" people don't grill in the Winter because "they" (whoever "they" are) say so.
The approach of Memorial Day in May, means warmer weather and the approach of summer. The Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. It is starting to be called the "Gateway to Summer". Retail stores are always several months ahead of the approaching seasons. I always find it strange in February where we are getting a foot or more of snow there are very few snowblowers to be had, but there are a ton of lawnmowers being shipped to the stores. In early April you start seeing the influx of grilling based products. I am just going to string together a series of observations about this yearly ritual and some of the trends I've noticed.
Grills Everywhere: Once "Grilling Season" draws near, it seems like you can't avoid walking past a ton of mass-market grills near the entrances of department stores, hardware stores, grill stores, grocery stores etc. They are often outside of the store as you walk in. Often there will be even more grills inside of the store in their outdoor living departments. I do enjoy looking at these collections of new grills to see what new features there might be. But in the last 5 or 6 years it has been getting increasingly depressing. This is because....
Quality Grills Nowhere-Big Picture: Right after I got my first serious gas grill, a 6-burner Kenmore Elite gas grill, the price of stainless steel went through the roof. When I saw the grill that replaced my grill in Sears product line, I was shocked. Other than the wheels and one of the handles everything else had been "value engineered". Much less stainless steel, far more plastic, when stainless steel was used it was the thinner lower grade 430 stainless steel which actual rusts. Even Weber has succumbed to this trend, their grills are now assembled in the US from parts made in China using the lower grade stainless steel. There no longer seem to be any middle level gas grills. The mid priced models are the same base grills with more semi-useless bells and whistles. Things like handle lights, more hooks for grill tools, towel bars, cup holders and built in bottle openers. None of these things improve the way your food is cooked or the longevity of your grill. They are intended to fool you into thinking if you spend twice as much you are getting a better grill. Realistically, as a Big Green Egg owner these issues no longer apply to me. The ceramics are guaranteed for life. But if there had been a good mid-level gas grill to replace my 2003 Kenmore Elite, I never would have looked at a BGE. So part of me still has a fondness for that type of grill and I know lots of people love their gas grills.
Quality Grills Nowhere-Materials: I mentioned how most grill manufacturers are using type 430 stainless steel vs type 304 which doesn’t rust. You could tell the 304 grade had been used because a magnet wouldn’t stick to it. I used to bring a magnet with me when I was looking at grills. These days there is no need. Weber was one of the last holdouts and they have been using a thinner gauge type 430 stainless steel for many years now. If this 430 stainless is thick enough and is manufactured using good practices, it is less liable to rust. The problem is anything that causes stress to the surface of the 430 grade stainless steel, will create minute hairline fractures which allows moisture to penetrate the surface and to rust. It is better if the joints are continuously welded, instead of being bent. But to hold down the prices many joints are spot welded and and the gaps between the welds tend to be rust prone. Even worse many grills are using bent tabs fastened by screws at the corners. Bending the steel stresses the surface and drilling the screw holes creates potential rust spots. The manufacturers are also using thinner gauge stainless steel to save money and this lighter gauge material is going to flex more causing the hairline surface fractures. Each year I rap my knuckles on various parts of the grill and it seems like they get thinner by the year. After reading comments about various grills on websites where they start rusting in a matter of months, if not weeks, I wonder how many outdoor display models these stores go through during the "Grilling Season"?
Quality Grills Nowhere-Safety: In reading user forums about gas grills, it seems there has been a drastic increase in safety related issues such as fires and small explosions. Sadly with the decline in quality and materials in the grills it is hardly surprising. There seems to be quite a few issues relating to grills that have leaks in the hoses/gas supply system out of the box. The other issue relates to the bottom of the body of the grill rusting out prematurely. These aren't just little holes, and sometimes they appear right over the propane tank. That is scary. When I was using gas grills there was always a long and rather scary page in the front of the manual about safety. They invariably mention something to the effect of giving your grill a thorough visual inspection before each use. In my gas grill days I never felt the need to do this. In these value engineered, made in China days, this is probably sound advice.
Grill Trends-"Systems": One of the trends that seems to be gaining popularity is "grilling systems". They consist of a replacement grill grid with a hole where you drop in other components (wok, recessed pans) and styles of grill grids (flat top cast iron griddle, cast iron searing grill, etc.). I was a fan of these because my 6-burner grill had a version of these. It used 3 similarly sized enameled cast iron grill grates. You could swap any one of these out for recessed pans, griddles etc. With this grill each grill grate had 2 burners centered directly below them. So you could control the heat under these accessories very precisely. The current systems hit the market about 5 years ago, starting with the Weber Gourmet BBQ System and other manufacturers continue to follow suit every year. At first I was a bit jealous and thought they were cool because they had more toys available. On the surface it seemed like you could do everything with these.
Then I saw them in the flesh and now, sadly, I think they are a way to pry extra money out of folks. Once I saw them I had a bunch of questions about potential problems I saw. Going online and reading reviews about them, I saw there was a basis to my fears. The first issue I saw is many of these are made for smallish 3 and 4 burner gas grills. You drop the replacement grill grid in with the 12" dia. (30 cm) cutout in the middle of the grid, and you have the worst of both worlds. The 12" dia. (30 cm) inserts are smallish and don't handle a lot of food and the remaining grill grid space surrounding the inserts is small and borders on useless. Remember you don't get even heat out to the edge of most grills, so the usable area is even less than it appears. When the filler insert is installed to turn the grill grid back into a normal grill grid, there are fit and finish issues. The inserts don't fit perfectly and you get raised edges that interfere with your spatula. Several of the inserts for some grills seem to suffer from the problem where inserts are not optimally placed over the burners below. It seems like the system was designed without looking at burner placement. Seriously? Online comments about several of the insert systems with woks, it seems the burners weren't able to heat the wok up enough to get satisfactory results. Many also suffered temperature drops when the food was added.
Bottom line: While these "grilling systems" look good on paper, I think you may be able to do better. Don't order one of these before seeing them in the flesh. Look at the useable/unusable area you get when using the accessories. Look at fit and finish. Look at the burner locations relative to the accessory hole. Lastly go find some sites that have reviews of the system for your grill. You may find you will do better with a 3rd party grill pan or flat top grill griddle. You can buy something bigger and rectangular and then you place in on the grill to suit the actual burner locations.
Grill Accessories: It is always fun going into the grilling stores at the beginning of the "Grilling Season" to see what new grill toys have been created for the current year. There is usually a mix of pure crap and some useful toys. Look at the materials used and the quality of construction. Since my Grilling Season is year round, I can afford to wait a while until these new toys have had time to be reviewed and used. Also as mentioned below, I can also wait to get them at the fire sales held at the end of "grilling season".
Grill Cookbooks: Each year more and more grilling, and lately smoking related, cookbooks start showing up on the shelves starting in April. This is always fun, because more books means the possibility of more specialty cookbooks covering new subjects you want to learn about. Many grilling cookbook authors are on a yearly release cycle these days. You will need to check if the content is indeed new material on a subject you are interested in. It may also be material from previous books "repurposed" and republished under a new name. If you don't have the original material, this won't matter to you. But if you already have the books the "new" material came from, you won't be a happy camper. Usually there is a statement on the title pages some where saying "The material in this book was previously published under the title of..."
Magazine Supplements: Many food related magazines offer grilling related Summer Grilling Editions. I usually pick up a half dozen or so of these. What I like about these supplements is they often feature meals that take 30-60 minutes total to prepare. They are perfect for a summer evening meal where you don't have much light left and want to get in a cook before dark. They will often have "themed sections" which can be your intro to styles of cooking you may wish to try and learn. One of this years supplements had a whole section on grilled Italian food I plan to dive into. One word of caution: Some of these recipes can suffer from more boo boos than a traditional cookbook.
Charcoal Everywhere: In the summer around here it seems like any stores that carry grills or food of any kind also stock charcoal. There will be palettes stacked with charcoal just as you walk in the door. There will be special displays within the store too. Charcoal everywhere. There will be a wide variety of charcoal types from standard briquettes, to all-natural hardwood briquettes to lump charcoal. Depending on the brand and type of charcoal you use, you can get some great prices too. In the winter it can be a sad state of affairs. No special displays of discounted charcoal. No charcoal in some stores. Other big box stores that sell grills stop replenishing their charcoal when it runs out. They may keep blue bag Kingsford and Cowboy lump in throughout the winter. Supermarkets have little, if any charcoal. If they do keep any in, it is in the smallest bags at twice the price. Things are better in the lump department. It seems like butcher shops and little yuppie markets that cater more to foodies, keep lump in throughout the Winter. Also the BGE dealers keep lump in year round.
BBQ Fests: A fun thing to look out for is local or regional grill fests. Some of these are competitions, some are charity events, and some are customer appreciation events. Around here we have something called Chef's in Shorts where 30 well-known Boston chefs prepare food on grills to raise money for charity. Your ticket gets you as many of the sample sized portions as you can eat. It is interesting to see what kind of fare creative chefs come up with for the grill. The various BBQ sanctioning agencies have competitions going on throughout the summer in various regions of the country. Eggfests, where cooks prepare food on Big Green Egg for tasters, are example of a customer appreciation event with some clever marketing thrown in too. The tickets are usually relatively cheap. The dealers, distributers and BGE Company run them as a way to showcase the Egg and reward their loyal customers. Some of their most loyal users buy tickets to be cooks using Large BGE's furnished by the dealers. Others by tickets to be tasters and eat the food. This is a great thing for the dealers to send potential customers too. The best way to sell someone on the BGE is to serve them food cooked on it. At the end of an Eggfest, the Eggs used for cooking are sold off as a package with several Eggcessories at a discounted price. I actually know some folks who go to these who aren't Eggheads. They don't plan on ever owning an Egg, but they appreciate great food and get inspiration from some of the recipes they see.
Panic Mentality: In this region, it is comical watching the annual pricing rituals. If you are a year round griller, or can take a long term outlook, you can usually get some decent bargains. Before Memorial Day there will be decent sales on grills and grill accessories to "...help you enjoy a summer of great grilling". The approach of 4th of July weekend brings even better sales to "...help you with your 4th of July and other summer grilling tasks." Here is where it starts getting comical: the very next weekend after the 4th, many stores that don't carry grilling accessories year round will start offering fire sale prices with no comments other than "Sale!! XX percent off". Come Labor Day most stores are offering sales on grills, grill accessories and charcoal. The degree of sale depends on whether they keep a supply of grills on the show floor throughout the winter of not. Around here WalMart doesn't keep grills around year round, and they practically give charcoal away around Labor Day. Stores that still have grills around they want to move will have one last blowout sale sometime in October, so keep your eye out. How do I know this? Well my 6 burner gas grill was on sale for $100 off around Labor Day and towards the end of October it was $200 off one weekend.
Another example of this was a Stephen Raichlen Best of BBQ brand rib rack. Bed, Bath & Beyond used to carry his line of grilling accessories from May to July essentially. The rib rack sold for $19.99. For Memorial Day it was marked down to $14.99. For their 4th of July sale it was $9.99. Four days later it was sitting on a table for final clearance at $5.99. I bought the last 3.
Books also can be seriously marked-down in the late summer too, cause everyone knows people don't grill in the Winter. I picked up a Weber grill cookbook for $5.99 on a clearance table in late November. This same book had been priced at $24.95 the past spring and was "sale" priced at $19.95 the following spring.
Sense of Community: I find it so amusing how the same activity is looked at so totally differently at two different times of the year. Just because "they", whoever "they" are, have determined that in New England "No one grills in the Winter". I'm guessing "They" mustn't get around very much, because I know lots of year round grillers. In the summer you are part of the community of grillers taking part in the annual All-American summer ritual. Other times of the year people often don't know just what to make of you.
In the winter people who are walking or driving by often slow down or stop and stare. They never seem to say anything though, probably the same type thing where you "don't make eye contact on the subway because there are lots of crazy people". I've noticed this even more now that I have lights in my grill gazebo. I was introduced to a new neighbor living far down the street from me, at the neighborhood holiday party. He said: "Oh you're that guy who is outside grilling in all kinds of crazy weather." It seemed like he didn't know quite what to make of me after that, because on this day I seemed normal enough, but ...hmmm. In the summer no one slows down or stops. There are 3 or 4 other folks with their grills pushed out of their garages onto the drive way. In the summer if you buy 10 or 20 bags of charcoal no one gives it a second thought. In the winter buy even a single small bag of charcoal at some stores, and people from customers to the checkout person look at you like you have two heads.
Conclusion: The bottom line is "Official Grilling Season" can be fun if you approach it with the right attitude and go with the flow. If you can be flexible about when you buy grilling items, you can play the game and realize some great savings. If you do grill year round these end of the "grilling season" sale prices will help keep you well stocked for the winter and you can start playing the game again in the spring when the sales to celebrate the start of grilling season begin again.
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