The dizzying array of outdoor cooking equipment available today might lead you to believe that there are many different ways to grill outdoors. Basically, there are only two—direct heat and indirect heat—and almost any outdoor grill can be used for both methods with some success. The differences in equipment come down to matters of size, sturdiness and durability, types of fuel and optional features, all of which will affect the cost of the product you choose.
The smallest outdoor grills, such as square or rectangular Japanese-style hibachis, are easily portable. Bear in mind that they will limit the quantity and size of the foods you cook and that the smallest ones lack a fire bed or cooking rack of sufficient size to accommodate indirect-heat cooking. These small grills are sometimes made of less durable materials and may not last beyond one summer.
Larger, sturdier grills will accommodate enough burgers or sausages to feed a crowd and are commonly designed to handle cooking a large cut of meat or whole poultry by indirect heat. They will last season after season if properly cared for. Some of the largest models, whether fueled by charcoal or gas, may even be built into brick or stone bases to become permanent backyard features.
Consisting of a metal pan that holds a bed of glowing charcoal beneath a metal rack or grid, charcoal grills come in many shapes and sizes. These include the small, inexpensive, cast-iron Japanese hibachi and the flat-bottomed brazier, which starred in many backyard barbecues in the 1950s. More versatile than the brazier is the popular kettle grill; its deep, hemispherical fire pan and domed cover make it fuel efficient and suitable for cooking with direct or indirect heat. Vents on the fire pan and cover allow control of the fire temperature.
Whether fueled by a natural-gas line run from the house or by propane in refillable tanks, the flames of a gas grill burn beneath a bed of heat-absorbent crushed lava rock or ceramic briquettes, which in turn cook food placed on the rack or grid above them. More sophisticated models include multiple controls, allowing only parts of the bed to be heated for indirect-heat cooking; separate burners for cooking sauces or heating griddles; and built-in metal boxes that hold and heat wood chips for smoking.
A rotisserie consists of a large spit positioned above the fire bed, slowly rotated at a constant speed by an electric motor. It may be built into your charcoal or gas grill, or available as an attachable accessory. Evenly balanced on the spit and held securely in place with adjustable pronged forks that clamp firmly to the spit, a large meat roast or whole poultry cooks slowly and evenly on a rotisserie. Look for models with sturdy spits and strong, reliable motors.
The key to mastering this technique is to understand the center of gravity of the food you wish to spit roast. If the food is not well balanced, the motor will strain and jerk, resulting in uneven cooking, lost juices and undue stress on the motor. Most rotisseries come with a counterweight system, which can be adjusted to compensate for the awkward shape of certain foods. It is preferable to have two people on hand when mounting food onto a rotisserie spit. Truss whole poultry and tie roasts with linen kitchen string. Build the fire for indirect-heat cooking, positioning a drip pan beneath the food. The food will baste itself as it turns, but, if you like, you can baste it using the pan drippings.
For easy indoor grilling, the electric countertop grill has stick-resistant metal grill surfaces that are electrically heated to three preset temperatures. Two hinged cooking surfaces allow foods to cook quickly on two sides at once or may be opened flat for a larger cooking surface. The electric smoker, reproducing the effects of a traditional pit barbecue, cooks food on wire shelves by indirect heat from fragrant wood smoldering in an electrically heated box.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Complete Grilling Cookbook, Edited by Chuck Williams (Time-Life Books, 2001).