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By Mike Stines, Ph.B.
Cajun-Style Roast Chicken
Roasted Root Vegetables
Roast Pork Sirloin
This is Part 1 of a Two-Part Series on Wintertime Outdoor Cooking. Part 2 is here.
For those in the northern climes, smoking season ends with the arrival of cold weather. A lot of folks pack up their grills and smokers in October and leave them forsaken until March or April, when temperatures begin their slow climb above freezing. Enthusiastic – or fanatical, depending on your viewpoint – backyard cooks use their outdoor cookers throughout the year, regardless of the weather.
The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association reports that nearly 60 percent of charcoal grill owners and 69 percent of gas grill owners in a recent survey cook out year-round— demonstrating that outdoor cooking is no longer limited to the warmer months. But grilling and cooking barbecue during the winter does require a bit of extra preparation and effort.
First of all, the cook needs to be properly attired for frosty weather: insulated socks (or battery operated hunter’s socks), thermal boots, a warm jacket or insulated parka, and a knit cap make cold-weather cooking almost bearable. Having a propane-fired patio heater, a fire pit or a well-stoked chiminea in the cooking area also helps to moderate very cold temperatures.
Having the right equipment also helps. Ceramic cookers such as the Grill Dome, Big Green Egg or Kamado Joe have thick walls that retain heat much better than a kettle-style steel charcoal grill. If you’re using a bullet- or kettle-style smoker, fashion an insulating blanket from foil-backed insulation available at your local home center or a welding blanket to wrap the smoker. Just be sure to leave the vents uncovered.
Here are some tips for cooking in less than ideal weather:
• The smoker will take longer to preheat when the temperature drops below 45 degrees F. Figure at least 30 minutes for a charcoal grill or smoker and 20 minutes for a gas-fired grill to come up to cooking temperature.
• Adjust the cooking time to compensate for lower temperatures. Figure another five to 10 minutes for every five degrees below 45 degrees F. ambient temperature.
• Add another 15 minutes of cooking time every time you open the lid to add more fuel or wood.
• Shield the smoker from the wind but don’t use it in an enclosed area or under a porch overhang. Wind has a greater impact on cold-weather cooking than actual ambient temperature. The set-up I use works well year-round, as my three primary cookers – a Grill Dome ceramic cooker, a Weber Smoky Mountain bullet smoker and a Broilmaster P3 propane grill – are on a brick patio right outside of the kitchen door. The patio is surrounded by a four-foot hedge on two sides and the kitchen and an enclosed sunroom on the other sides. Although the hedge loses its greenery during the winter, it still provides some protection from the wind.
• If you’re using a drip pan for smoking, fill it with boiling water. The hot water will help raise the grill temperature and help stabilize the temperature. Put the empty drip pan in the smoker and then add water from a tea kettle instead of trying to carry a tray filled with hot water to the cooker.
• Placing ceramic fire bricks in the cooker will add thermal mass and help compensate for the loss of heat when the cover is opened.
• The best foods to cook during the winter months are ones that don’t need much attention: roasts, whole chickens, ribs, pork shoulders and briskets. That being said, use all of the available cooking area by cooking side dishes along with the entrée. After all, you’ve already fired up the grill; you might as well use all of it!
• Make sure the meat is properly cooked. Use a remote-reading thermometer so you don’t need to stay out in the cold. If you have an Android or iPhone, iDevices makes the Bluetooth-compatible iGrill, which will send temperatures to your phone up to 200 feet away. Maverick Housewares offers the ET-732 remote-reading thermometer that will transmit to a remote receiver up to 300 feet away. Both units are battery operated so in very cold weather the batteries will have a shorter life.
• As the meat gets closer to being ready, use an instant-read thermometer (I recommend the Thermapen) to check the temperature. Poultry should be cooked until the thigh meat is 165 degrees F. and beef to a minimum of 125 degrees F. for rare or 145 degrees F. for medium. (Briskets and pork shoulders need to be cooked to a higher temperature to make the meat tender.) Pork roasts should be cooked to 145 degrees F. (Remember, the internal temperature will rise five to ten degrees as the meat rests before carving.)
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