Conspicuous Consumer STRICTLY THE PITS

You’ve been had. It’s very likely that the New York strip with the distinctive charcoal flavor you delight in or-dering at your favorite eatery is cooked on a grill over a hot metal plate, three blocks from the nearest bag of charcoal briquettes. But that’s all right, really, because charcoal doesn’t flavor meat anyway. It’s tasteless and odorless. “Charcoal flavor” is actually produced by the searing effect of meat juices dripping onto any hot surface. With that in mind, here’s a rundown on the latest in backyard cookout equipment.

Hibachis, braseros and mini-grills.

These are ideal for very small spaces or very small appetites. The best all-round of the miniature class is the double grill cast-iron hibachi, available throughout the area for $10 to $15. It’s particularly useful as a warmer for appetizers. Don’t buy one with long spindly legs, though. While the added height may seem more convenient, you won’t feel that way when the topheavy grill topples over. The worst in the class is the ceramic brasero which will crack like dirt in a drought if you get it too hot. Sanger-Harris has a nifty mini-grill – a table model Electric Char-B-Que ($79.99 plus $25 for the table) that’s great for hamburgers, chops and wieners.

Braziers. This is the curse of middle class America. For as little as $5, you can purchase a model which will rust out and become unusable in six months. For as much as $200, you can get the deluxe rig that costs four times its worth. This is the unit designed for “real” charcoal cooking, which means an hour and a half to get the fire started and black, sooty hands at cleanup time. Were it not for the advent of the gas grill in the early Seventies, we would by now be a whole nation of eyelashless and eyebrowless people permanently deformed by charcoal and lighter fluid flare-ups during fire starting ordeals.

Gas grills. This is the most versatile, the easiest to use, and the most economical to operate backyard cooking equipment on the market. A single burner model costs less than 3 cents an hour to operate. You could cook your evening meal on one of these every day for a year for about five bucks. The best of the best, though, is the double burner, single cover model which runs about $200 plus an average of $50 for installation, depending on which contractor you use. With this model you can slow cook a casserole over low heat while you’re searing a steak over the other burner. But more important, you can turn off one of the flames and slowly cook the big cuts of meat like roasts and briskets with indirect heat. If you want that good old hickory flavor, all you have to do is throw in a few hickory chips (Chuck Wood Hickory Bricks, $2.25 for a 30 ounce bag at Custom Gas Products, 11375 Grissom). To appease the charcoal freaks, gas grills come with charcoal-like lava rocks that heat up in about ten minutes and begin to sear meats just like charcoals. The lava rocks ($5.65 a bag at Lone Star Gas) last for a couple of years before they need replacement.

Arkla, Charmglow and Falcon all make good quality gas grills, once you get past the budget lines. Arkla offers two separate controls on the dual burner models which considerably increase cooking flexibility. These brands are available at most stores which sell outdoor cooking equipment. The greatest single distinguishing feature among the leading lines, though, is the Falcon grid. It is V-shaped to drain off excess grease and avoid flare-ups. With other less efficient grids, if you don’t maintain a careful vigil over the grill, you might find it difficult to distinguish your ribeye from the lava rocks.

Arkla has come out this year with a Patio Range which roasts, fries, barbecues, smokes, even bakes a cake. It’s $466.30 at suburban Lone Star Gas offices, including installation. All of the major manufacturers offer portable models with propane tanks, but these cost much more to operate than the regular gas units, and it’s a real drag to run out of gas halfway through a roast.

Electric grills. These operate on the same principle as the gas grills, right down to the lava rocks. (Smaller rocks are recommended for electric units, $9.89 a bag at Montgomery Ward.) Gas or electric is largely a matter of personal preference. I selected gas as part of my overall effort to cut down on electrical consumption. I can cook with gas outside at the same time that I’m not heating up the house inside with my electric oven – sort of like double bonus Green Stamp day.

There have been some problems with some of the electrical units on the market. Electra Chef, made by Pride Industries in Richardson, is one of the better brands. It’s available at the Jarrell Company, 2651 Fondren ($169.95), or from Sears under the Kenmore label. If you select electric, don’t use a glass of water to extinguish your flare-ups, or you may get the shock of your life.

Smokers. This is the rage today. There are charcoal, gas and electric smokers, single and double grid, priced from $25.00 to $150.00. If you enjoy smoke flavor, one of these rigs deserves a look, though I would recommend one only as a supplement to a grill because the smokers cook so slowly. Every owner that I’ve talked to swears by his smoker. Even the owners of the charcoal models say the cleanup effort is worth it, something I’ve never heard a brazier-owner say.

In smokers you build a gas, electric or charcoal fire under a pan of water and slow steam the meat up above. It takes 10 to 12 hours to cook a turkey this way. All you have to do is check every three or four hours to see if you still have plenty of water. On the charcoal models you need to add a few lumps about half-way through. If you don’t, the children are going to be awfully testy eating Thanksgiving dinner on Friday. The Mr. Meat brand is said by many to be the best.

($49.95 for the charcoaler, $99.95 for the electric at Sanger-Harris.) Falcon offers a gas heated model for $92.00 plus propane tank ($42.50) or natural gas hookup ($45).

Select your favorite from this lineup, practice a while, and before you know it, you will be the cooking whiz of the neighborhood. Here is a list of utensils that are also handy to have around when using an outdoor grill.

Long handled tongs. This gadget will prevent the loss of precious juices. It’s also great for rescuing baked potatoes.

Long slicing knife. Handy for piercing the edges of wrinkled chops, and for peeking inside meats for clues as to doneness.

Hinged wire basket. A clever invention for turning tender fish and vegetables.

Basting brush. Preferably nylon, for that critical gourmet touch.

Long handled salt and pepper shakers. Experts say meat should be seasoned during the cooking process, not before or after.

Long handled spatula. For turning hamburger patties or cut meat too large or cumbersome for tongs.

Asbestos gloves. So you’ll be able to sign the check when the bill for your new grill comes in.


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