Monday, April 14, 2014

Tools You Need, and Tools You Don't

Looking back over the years, I think I've bought, used, tried, tested, and ultimately thrown away more BBQ tools and toys than most people will ever use.  This is not something I'm proud of, but it's knowledge I'm proud to share!

There are a zillion crazy tools out there.  For pity-sakes, do you really need a spatula that says, "MMMmm that looks tasty" every time you flip a burger?  That's the sort of thing that belongs in the garbage, right next to the "Billy-Bass" singing fish that you never should have hung on your wall. Here are the tools that I consider "Essential" and I'll tell you why:

  • Charcoal Chimney
  • Thermapen
  • Remote Temperature Monitor
  • Tongs
  • Seriously... just Tongs
  • Knife / Cutting Board
  • BBQ Grill Mat
  • Non-stick foil

Charcoal Chimneys are awesome!  You can start a giant pile of charcoal in 20 minutes with a single match and two sheets of crumpled newspaper.  Lighter fluid has its place in the world, for lighting bonfires or garbage piles on fire, but lighter fluid should never be used anywhere near food!  Also, avoid the "light the bag" style of charcoal with the briquettes that are saturated in lighter fluid.  The smell of chemicals will permeate your food and that's just bad for all kinds of reasons, chief of which is, "your food will taste horrible."  I burn through a charcoal chimney at the rate of about one per year... They also double as a mini-stovetop if you ever need "jet-engine" heat for Blackening steaks in a cast iron skillet, or if you ever need to sear some sushi grade tuna, rare.

I would be lost without my Thermapen!  The $90 pricetag bothered me, but I thought back and calculated that I'd thrown away at least $200 worth of broken, inaccurate, burned out, and otherwise useless probes and thermometers.  This thing is hyper-accurate and scary fast.  It uses an actual two-wire thermocouple rather than a digital sensor, and the pickup is in the extreme end of the tip so you can literally see what's going on in your food, whether its deep inside a ham near the bone, or just under the skin of a Cornish hen.  Get one.  Most "instant read" thermometers need a minute or two to settle on a final reading.  Any BBQ chef will tell you, you don't want to raise the lid on your pit for two minutes... leaking that kind of heat out will cost you another 20 minutes of cook time on the back end.  This thing will tell you in 3 seconds or less, EXACTLY what the temperature of your food is.  I wouldn't cook without it.

What's so important about a remote temperature monitor?  I believe that the trouble most people have in grill-cooking is knowing when to take the food OFF of the heat.  A chicken breast that is 180 degrees is definitely safe to eat.  It is also dry, tough, and something I wouldn't serve to my guests.  A chicken breast that is 165 degrees is equally safe to eat, and will be super tender, juicy, and talked about long after the meal is over.  For bigger meats, most connective tissues don't completely break down until they reach 180 degrees.  Briskets and Pork Shoulders are done and safe to eat at 140, but they don't reach their optimum textures and "pull-apart goodness" until they touch 190, deep inside the muscle.  The only way to know for sure when your meat is delicious, but not burnt, is to jab a probe into where it counts and to watch it.  My ThermoWorks remote monitor has two inputs for two probes, so I can monitor two cuts of meat at the same time.  It also has alarms to let me know when things are close to being done.  The newer version of this monitor has bluetooth and will talk to your home wi-fi so you can use your cell phone to monitor the grill and food temperature from anywhere in the world!  This is useful for getting you out of the ballet or the opera with your wife... "Honey, the ham is done, I got to GO!"

I use Tongs.  I don't use spears, spatulas, claws, mitts, gloves, forks, or pokers to handle my food while it's on the grill.  There are several reasons for this, but mostly it's because I don't want to poke any more holes in my food than is absolutely necessary.  Nothing will ruin a good link of sausage more quickly than jabbing holes into it to let all of the juice run out!  If your burgers are too "stuck" to the grill for you to use tongs to flip them, then you shouldn't be flipping them yet, anyway, so a spatula wouldn't help you.  Get yourself a nice pair of long stainless steel tongs (NOT silicon, because silicon won't grip your food and that's the whole point) and start using them!

I am just amazed, every time I ever help a friend grill, at the complete lack of cutlery I encounter in most of their kitchens.  Lots of people have "that one big knife we got from our wedding" or from Uncle Fred or whatever, and it's usually in a drawer somewhere with some rust on it.  *SIGH* get yourself a good knife!  Bigger is not better, "Sharper" is better, so spend some money on a knife with good steel, that will hold a good edge, for a long time.  Do NOT get an "eversharp" or other knife that "never needs sharpening!"  If you look closely at these knives, they have serrated edges (like hacksaw blades) that will cut almost anything (even nails and metal), but they'll tear your food up.  You want "slices" of things, not "hacked portions" of food adorning your serving platters.  Spend some time in the store handling different kinds of knives, because every hand and every preference is different.  I like German knives, they tend to be a bit heavier (I like that) and they are balanced well in my hand.  Your mileage may vary.  Also, get yourself a good, heavy, stable, cutting board.  You don't want it slipping around your counter while you have a sharp knife in your hand, and you want it big enough to hold that 18lb brisket.  Get a nice one and you'll be surprised how often you use it.

I find a new use for my BBQ Grill Mat almost every time I use it.  Here it is in action, with a mess of sliced onions in oil, salted, and smoking away in the corner of my BBQ pit.  These mats withstand some extreme temperatures, they're non-stick, and they keep food from falling through the cracks.  How versatile are they?  I've "fried" chicken wings on mine, cooked bundles of asparagus, mushrooms, fajita peppers, and I've even smoked corn casserole and other food that you wouldn't ordinarily plop onto the hot grill grates to cook.  Mine just "lives" in the grill.  I don't take it in for washing, simply because it heats up to 500 degrees every time I use it.  Wipe it down once in awhile.  You can also cut it down to a small size or "round it off" to match your grilling surface, if you want to.  Find them on Amazon.

Last on my list is non-stick aluminum foil.  Grilling usually means "sticky."  Whether tis a dry rub with brown sugar or a bbq sauce that you mop onto your food, most things that come off the grill like to stick to other things.  Aluminum foil that has been treated with a non-stick surface is a miracle of modern technology!  Use this one time on a stubborn sticky food and I promise, you'll never buy regular foil again!  Want to bake/smoke your bacon on the grill?  Non-stick foil.  Don't want to leave your Salmon skin stuck to your grill-grates so that food from your cooker tastes like fish for the next week?  Non-stick foil...

Do you have a favorite tool you think I should be using?  Leave you comments here!  I'm always up for more!


  1. Great list, Ken! I need to clear out some of my grilling junk I've collected over the years. The only thing I would add is a set of sharp-pointed, wide, thin skewers for kebabs. Kebabs are the closest thing to caveman food and are a great way to cook cheaper cuts of meat quickly.

    You need to make a follow-up list of essential BBQ (aka Smokin') tools.

    1. Too true, Paul! I use flexible Fire-Wire grilling skewers. They hold more stuff and you can snake them all over the grill, choosing how hot a spot to lay the food over. Amazon has them...


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