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Enthusiasts embrace winter grilling
By Deborah Pankey | Daily Herald Food Editor


Courtesy Weber Stephens Products


Courtesy 'Weber's Real Grilling'

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Published: 2/24/2010 12:00 AM | Updated: 2/24/20 10:33 AM

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Mother Nature recently dumped more than a foot of snow on us, blanketing backyards and covering outdoor decks with cold white powder. Then the winds blew, creating drifts that blockaded sliding glass doors and made the path to the grill treacherous.

But that didn't stop Scott McCadam from strapping on his boots, pulling on his coat and grilling prime rib for dinner.

"I really don't know why I do it," says McCadam, of St. Charles. "I know it's crazy... everything just tastes better on the grill."

According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, 56 percent of grill owners use their grills year-round... but you have to figure a good many of those live in places where the mercury rarely drops into single digits. So here in the Midwest with our unpredictable blizzards and teeth chattering wind chills, winter grilling takes a certain kind of mind set, or lack thereof.

"With some people grilling is an obsession," says grilling guru Jamie Purviance. "If it's in you, it doesn't matter what time of year it is." Purviance has written a number of books on grilling in collaboration with Palatine-based Weber-Stephen, maker of Weber Grills.

"There's a certain amount of pride in beating Old Man Winter to produce something with that charred, smoky flavor."

Purviance lives north of Sacramento, Calif. these days, but survived many a winter growing up in the Northeast. In order to be successful at grilling in winter you need to keep several things in mind, he and other experts say.

Time and temp

The grill will take longer to get up to temperature, Purviance says, whether you're cooking with gas or charcoal.

"Preheat with the lid down," he stresses, "and count on a little extra time for cooking."

On especially cold days Dan Davis of Wauconda says he cranks his gas grill to 500 degrees to get it to hold around 350; McCadam puts his oven thermometer on the grill so he can monitor the heat.

An instant-read thermometer, or, better yet, says Purviance, a model with a probe and remote read out, are required equipment so you can be sure the meat on the grill reaches the correct internal temperature.

"The grill loses so much temperature so quickly every time you open the lid," Purviance says. "You have to hold yourself back from too much peeking."

With that in mind, Purviance says cooking over indirect heat (not directly over the heat source) is his preferred winter technique.

"I recommend recipes that are low-maintenance - roasts, whole chickens, ribs, hard winter vegetables, like squash," he says, "things that will take a while."

Location, location

While it's tempting to want to put the grill close to the door to lessen your exposure to the elements, don't.

For safety, "it should be a least 5 feet away from the house," Purviance says. If possible, position a gas grill so wind can't blow directly on the burner tube. Use decking or an overturned picnic table as a wind block if necessary.

Don't forget that you'll need a table or platform of some sort for your ingredients and gear. A shovel and flashlight also come in hand this time of year, he says.

Gas v. coal

The great debate is just as heated in winter as in summer, yet gas was the clear preference of the winter grillers I polled.

Yet, Purviance maintains, "inherently, I think charcoal is the way to go. The charcoal flavor is irreplaceable. But yes, it is more effort."

He said the wind and cold compete against each other... the wind makes charcoal burn hotter white, but the cold air brings the temperature down.

"It's the variables charcoal grillers love; it's a challenge to adapt to the conditions," he says.

He says you should start the grill with about 25 percent more coal than you would in warm weather, and have the grill vents only partially open to slow the flow of air.

Adding fuel to the fire is best done with coals already going in a cylindrical chimney starter so the temperature doesn't drop dramatically.

The Jones of Palatine are faithful year-round gas grillers who have been left out in the cold this year. The couple didn't plan well before a cold snap hit and their grates have sat empty this season.

"Our propane tank ran out and the connection froze; we haven't been able to replace it," says TerrieAnn Jones. Holiday turkeys and roasts traditionally cooked on the grill came out of the oven.

She says they look forward to grilling in winter as much, or more, than in summer.

"It's easier to grill in the snow than in the rain," she says.