For many years, I owned an offset smoker, and as a hard-core barbecue enthusiast I insisted on it as an absolute necessity for low-and-slow cooking. Having a firebox to the side, not under, the meats means you can more easily keep the heat gentle — and replace coals and wood as needed.
Then a couple of years ago, I gave it to a neighbor. It was still usable, but I’d grown weary of its frailties, its leakiness and its creeping Soviet-like empire-building rust. I had intended to replace it with a much better one, but after a road trip to various custom smoker manufacturers, I returned home mired in indecision. Meanwhile, I found myself doing more and more of those big smokes, such as ribs, beef brisket and pork shoulder, on my simple 22-inch Weber kettle instead.
These days, I cook nearly everything on it. And I use almost nothing else. Very little gadgetry. Few accessories. That’s because I know that the key to good barbecue is fire management and that has very little to do with the equipment.
I do use a hinged cooking grate, because it makes adding charcoal and wood to an existing fire easy. On rare occasions, I set up a rotisserie. And of course I employ a grill pan, long-handled tongs and a good pair of gloves.
If I wanted to, I could buy all sorts of items, including special heavy-duty searing grates, rib grates and entire barbecue “systems,” which, as it happens, encourage you to buy yet more stuff. But the more I barbecue, the less equipment I seem to need.
Kettles have long been frowned upon by the ’cue-noscenti as little more than the workhorse of holiday burgers and wieners and the occasional birthday steak. But they can do so much more once you know how to set them up.
The first step is imagining what you’d like to do. Think of the kettle as both stove top and oven. You want to cook something quickly, you can. You want to roast something over time, you can do that as well. We’re not just talking meat, either. Think vegetables and fruit, too.
Don’t get me wrong: As much as I like it, there are downsides to using a kettle for everything. One, volume. You can can’t fit as much food on a kettle as you can an offset or even a bullet smoker. Two, level of stress. You can smoke big food items in a kettle, but using a smoker, which is made specifically for low-and-slow cooking, allows you to feed the fire more easily if needed and will generally turn out more consistent results.
Still, there’s something appealing, in a minimalistic sort of way, about an all-in-one piece of gear, and when you know how to manage the fire, your kettle can be exactly that. Here are some techniques for varying the placement of coals, wood and more to get the most out of it.
The old-school style of cooking, hot and fast. Distribute the charcoal in a layer across the entire bottom of the grill.
Pros: Great for cooking a lot of quick-grilling items, such as those burgers and wieners for that birthday party. It’s the preferred method for searing, as well. Thick, firm items, such as pineapple slices, take well to this method. So do sliced vegetables, such as eggplant, onions and zucchini, which when dressed in olive oil, vinegar and herbs make for a fantastic antipasto.
Cons: You have to be super-organized, because the food is going on and coming off pretty fast. You have nowhere to put items that may need more cooking, but less heat.
Tips: When the fire is hot, you can sear meat and get terrific grill marks on vegetables, fruit and some denser fish, like swordfish. It also does wonders for opening the shells of oysters, mussels and clams. A medium fire allows you to thoroughly cook such semi-dense foods as mangoes and salmon and, yes, even burgers (although you won’t get the char you may seek).
The standard-bearer of the modern grillmeister. Distribute coals on one side and leave the other side empty.
Pros: Allows maximum flexibility to grill and yet, by moving the food over to the cool side, you can cook it all the way through with control, or even smoke it. Excellent for thicker steaks, when you want a good char but you also seek a medium-rare or medium piece of meat. Good, really, for anything that you want charred, then smoked.
Con: Reduces the actual cooking area by about half.
Tips: To add smoke, distribute some wood chips or wood chunks onto the coals. Allow to catch, then put the lid on, with the top vents open anywhere from a sliver (for a very low but dense smoke) to about half (for a quicker, lighter smoke).
This is unconventional and not as useful as a basic indirect method, but fun to experiment with. After the coals are ready, distribute a large pile of them on one side, slope a smaller pile next to it, and leave the last third of the grill empty.
Pros: Allows you to sear, cook and smoke. It also lets you cook over different temperatures at the same time. Say, sear a steak over the hot coals and grill fruit over the medium-hot coals.
Cons: The three temperature zones can limit more than expand what you cook because of the tight space. Plus, it can be challenging to cook over multiple zones at once.
Tips: This one is all about timing. A slice of eggplant over medium heat will take about the same amount of time as a thick burger over a hot fire. Plan accordingly. Use the empty zone as a warmer or as a fail-safe if something is cooking too quickly.
For cooking at low temperature for a long time, a.k.a. low-and-slow. Distribute the charcoal in a ring around the perimeter of the kettle, about three coals wide. Add another layer of coals on top. Top with wood chunks every few inches.
Pros: The fire will burn from six to 10 hours, or even more, depending on the depth and length of the charcoal ring. Ideal for big meats, such as ribs and pork butt. What some consider the summit of barbecue, brisket, comes out incredibly juicy, with a nice crusty exterior.
Con: The entire grill is pretty much devoted to that one item.
Tips: Check the fire about four hours into your cook. There should be spent coals approximately two-thirds of the way around. If you feel you need to add coals to get to the number of desired hours, do so sparingly, only about six coals. You’ll may not need to add any, but if you do, you’ll almost certainly need to add only one time. Be careful not to add too many during the cook because you can cause the edges of the meat to sizzle and burn.
For even cooking of substantial meats that will cook for an hour or two. An electric rotisserie (about $150) fits perfectly inside a 22-inch Weber kettle. The coals should be distributed on both sides of the meat, and the space directly beneath the meat should be filled with an aluminum foil drip pan.
Pros: Great for roasts and whole chickens. A nice crust forms on the roast, and the skin on the chicken crisps up beautifully. Also, rotisserie cooking is effortless. Set it and forget it.
Cons: You must have an electrical outlet handy. It is a minor hassle to set up and, afterward, clean.
Tips: Place some vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots and onions, beneath the meat to flavor them with the drippings.
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.