From the blog May 30, 2013 Wayt

Making your grill (or broiler) shine this summer

BY W. WAYT GIBBS
Associated Press

Compared to other basic cooking techniques, grilling is hard: the temperatures are high, timing is crucial and slight differences in the thickness or wetness of the food can dramatically affect how quickly it cooks.

Bad design choices by equipment makers — kettle-shaped grills with black interiors, for example — make it harder still. But if you’re willing to do some simple arithmetic or break out a roll of foil, you can reduce the guesswork and get better performance from your grill. Similar tricks work for broiling; after all, a broiler is basically just an inverted grill.

Every grill has a sweet spot where the heat is even. You know you’re cooking in the sweet spot when all of the food browns at about the same pace. In most situations, the bigger the sweet spot, the better. One notable exception is when you need to reserve part of the grill for cooking some ingredients more slowly or keeping previously cooked food warm.

If you find yourself continually swapping food from the center of your grill with pieces at the periphery, that’s a sure sign that your sweet spot is too small.

You can get an intuitive feel for where the edge of the sweet spot lies by looking at the heat from the food’s point of view. I mean that literally: imagine you are a hotdog lying facedown on the grill. If the coals or the gas flames don’t fill your entire field of view, then you aren’t receiving as much radiant heat as your fellow wiener who is dead-center over the heat source. If the falloff in the intensity of the heat is greater than about 10 percent, you’re outside the sweet spot.

You can use the table below to estimate the size of the sweet spot on your own grill. The 26-inch-wide gas grill on my deck has four burners with heat-dispersing caps that span about 23 inches. The food sits only three inches above the burner caps, so when all four burners are going, the sweet spot includes the middle 16 inches of the grill. But if I use only the two central burners, which are 10 inches from edge to edge, the sweet spot shrinks to a measly 5.4 inches, too small to cook two chicken breasts side by side. I can use this to my advantage, however, if I have a big piece of food that is thick in the middle and thinner at the ends, such as a long salmon fillet. By laying the fish crosswise over the two burners, I can cook the fat belly until it is done without terribly overcooking the slimmer head and tail of the fillet.

Sweet spots are narrowest on small grills, such as little braziers, kettles, hibachis, and the fixed grilling boxes at a public parks. If the sweet spot on your grill is too confining for all the food you have to cook, you can enlarge it in several ways.

If the grill height is adjustable, lower it. Bringing the food a couple inches closer to the heat can easily expand the sweet spot by 2 to 3 inches. The effect on the intensity of the heat is less than you might expect: typically no more than about a 15 percent increase.

If your grill is boxy in shape, line the sides with foil, shiny side out. Your goal is to create a hall of mirrors in which the heat rays bounce off the foil until they hit the food. A hotdog at the edge of the grill then sees not only those coals that are in its line of sight, but also reflections of the coals in the foil-lined side of the grill.

The foil trick unfortunately doesn’t work well on kettle grills because their rounded shape tends to bounce the radiant heat back toward the center instead of out to the edges. But if you can find a piece of shiny sheet metal about 4 inches wide and 56 inches long, you can bend the metal into a reflective circular ring and build the coal bed inside of it. All food within the circumference of the ring should then cook pretty evenly.

Jury-rigging a grill in this way wouldn’t be necessary if grills came shiny on the inside and we could keep them that way. But, presumably because nobody likes to clean the guts of a grill, the interiors of most grills are painted black, the worst possible color for a large sweet spot. A black metal surface doesn’t reflect many infrared heat rays; instead it soaks them up, gets really hot, then re-emits the heat in random directions.

Someday, some clever inventor will come up with a self-cleaning grill that has a mirror finish inside, and the sweet-spot problem will simply vanish.

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HOW BIG IS YOUR SWEET SPOT?

For grills, measure the width of the coals or gas burners (including any burner caps that disperse the heat). Then measure the distance from the top of the coals or burners to the upper surface of the grill grate. Find the appropriate row in the table to estimate the size of the sweet spot, centered over the heat source. This table assumes a nonreflective grill.

To calculate the sweet spot of an electric broiler — which is the ideal vertical distance between the top of the food and the broiler element — measure the distance between the rods of the heating element. Multiply that measurement by 0.44, then add 0.2 inches to the product. For example, if the rods are 2.4 inches apart, the sweet spot is 1.25 inches from the element to the top of the food.

Width of heat source (inches) Height of the food above the heat source (inches) Width of grill sweet spot (inches)
14 3 8.1
14 4 7.7
14 5 7
16 3 9.9
16 4 9
16 5 8.3
20 3 13.2
20 4 12
20 5 11.20
23 3 16.1
23 4 15
23 5 13.3
29 3 21.8
29 4 19.7
29 5 18.9

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Photo credit: Ryan Matthew Smith / Modernist Cuisine, LLC

Discussion

  1. rickhaha June 8, 2013 Reply

    Re; using an Egg. I recently purchased a Kamado and found it’s pretty easy to control the temperature. I was able to keep the temp between 225-275 for six hours on a single batch of charcoal! If you are able to do that you can do the entire process on the grill (I uses a rib rack, indirect heat, and the “3/2/1 method” In this case you could skip the sauce if you like. Also, as cool as the “Special Edition Steel Plate” is, I was able to get a larger plate (18″ x 24″ x 3/8″ aluminum” from a place called Online Metal Supply for less than $85 (including shipping) This allows me to cook two pizzas at once in the oven. (too large for grill however)

  2. Dave N. June 13, 2013 Reply

    Shiny side out, meaning shiny side towards the outside of the grill ?

    • Wayt June 18, 2013 Reply

      Meaning: shiny side toward the food (in order to reflect the infrared rays from the coals or flames toward the food).

  3. Ralph M. Wright June 25, 2013 Reply

    Grease the grill lightly and place the slices of sweet potato on directly (if chopped) or place the wrapped potato on the grill. Allow the potato slices to stay in one spot after placing it on the grill directly for perfect grill marks, flipping only once.

  4. teddy kinyanjui July 6, 2013 Reply

    wowo! so glad to have stumbled on this great article! I make charcoal convection oven/grills in Nairobi Kenya, (please see http://www.kenyacharcoal.blogspot.com) I love reading this sort of thing – great work! If you ever find a moment please have a look at some pics of the stoves in action (http://www.flickr.com/photos/charcoalstoves/) and let me know what you think!
    cheers!
    teddy kinyanjui
    CEO Cookswell Jikos

  5. Wayt Gibbs June 4, 2013 Reply

    I don’t know enough about the big green egg to comment there.

    As for using the pizza steel, I would definitely recommend setting the rack position to the height that brings the top of the pizza closest to the sweet zone of the broiler. So, take the distance D from one rod to the next (or one flame to the next if you have a gas burner), and position the rack so that the pizza on the steel is (0.44 x D) + 0.2 inches below the element or flame.

    Doing this will ensure that the cheese browns as evenly as possible–although it’s still a good idea to rotate the pie once or twice during baking because even in the sweet zone of the broiler, the back of the oven is usually a lot hotter than the front. Most oven doors leak heat like crazy.

  6. bonamicop June 14, 2013 Reply

    Hi, I got a Big Green Egg for Christmas. It is amazing. When we moved into a new condo I had to give up a 60″ Viking and the BGE has actually given me the ability to do a lot of great things…. Some notes:

    1) I use the BGE pizza stone on top of the plate setter. In order to get your 700-750 degrees you need to let it burn wide open so the natural lump charcoal can all really get lit; I’ve found the best strategy is to give the plate setter and the stone about 20 minutes to heat up once you get to temperature;

    2) I have done multiple smokes at between 150-225 for up to twelve hours with charcoal to spare;

    3) as of late I have taken to high-temp searing and finishing with cast iron pan directly on the grate. This is excellent! A beautiful solution for the last step in a sous vide preparation;

    4) I finished the pressure cooker carnitas recipe found on this site this was… Spectacular

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