After 45 years or so of standing in front of a great variety of grills and pit smokers, cooking at EggFest events and in competition BBQ, this is my take on what’s needed and what’s not necessary as far as tools for grillin’ and BBQin’. Most of the bells and whistle stuff that’s presented as packaged tools for BBQ are pretty much useless, as far as I’m concerned. I’d never buy most of that stuff.
Grilling is a simple primeval endeavor. It boils down to fire and meat, for the most part. Our ancestors used sticks or perhaps leg bones from last night’s dinner to move meat around in the fire. If the concept is really THAT simple, then why do we need BBQ tool sets that look like Roman weapons of war? Who needs a fork that’s about 14 ft long that would make a Knight of the Templar green with envy, or a spatula that rivals Thor’s Hammer? You’re only flipping patties for the most part.
Some tool sets claim to be super heavy duty, some come in a zippered pouch or a nice aluminum briefcase enclosure (yep, I’m gonna put that greasy, nasty fork back in that nice clean pouch), some come with cool looking wood handles that preclude the tools ever being put into the dishwasher (comments escape me on this topic), and some tools even fold up! In the time I spent researching tools online, I even found one set in which each tool was individually handcrafted by a master cutler. These tools come with rosewood handles and are made in France (a bastion of hard core grilling expertise for sure; how in the world do they grill that foi gras without it falling through the grill?!) and all for only $600! However, you do get a roll up leather pouch and a certificate of authenticity. Well Hold Me Back! It’s clear to me that, like fishing lures, the aim here is to catch people, not necessarily fish.
What I look for in grilling tools is this: is the tool well-made and not some cheapo tool from China or Pakistan? Does it have good heft and is the metal thick and of good quality? Is the tool rigid so it’ll hold up or flimsy? Will the tool stand up to years of abuse and neglect, hanging on the hooks by the grill in rain, snow, or summer heat for years on end? Does it really fill a need, or is it actually a useless doodad; in other words have you ever had to run into the kitchen to get that same tool in order to finish your cook? Can it be put into the dishwasher (VERY important)?
For tools, I’d suggest buying them a la carte from a nice kitchen gadget store. You can pick and choose your spatulas, tongs, basting brush, etc and select the best ones for the money. They won’t match and they won’t impress your BBQ-neophyte friends, but what the hey, they’re better than using that leg bone from last night’s dinner, right?
Let’s start with the basics as I see ‘em. Fork. You really don’t need a BBQ fork and you most certainly don’t need one of those BBQ forks with the digital thermometer. Every set of tools, even that $600 handmade European set, has a fork. Go figure! Get a $20 sturdy set of tongs that have a lock so that they stay closed while they’re in the dishwasher. I prefer really well-made tongs that are about 12-18” long. Check how the grasping part closes together. Does it close so that you can pick up small bits? Is the steel nice and thick? Does the spring that opens the tongs feel too stiff or too soft? Good tongs are one of the most useful tools you can ever put into your hand.
For big hunks of meat like tri tip or pork butts I use a meat hook. A meat hook is usually at least 18” or longer, with a handle on one end and a sharpened, somewhat twisted hook on the business end. Often old golf club handles are used to make meat hooks. Hooks are great for turning large hunks of meat that are too heavy for tongs. Check them out online. Highly recommended!
Spatula. All you really need a spatula for is to flip burgers. Even if it’s a Flintstones era Bronto-Burger, just about any ol’ spatula will work as long as its stainless steel, well-made, sturdy, dishwasher-safe, and over 12” long. One important consideration is to look for spatulas that have flat business ends and are not convex like most spatulas. The reason you want a flat business end is that when you angle the spatula to go under the patty, the end is flat against the grill across the entire width of the spatula, while the curved variety will end up with a very small contact patch in the center of the spatula against grill surface. Not conducive to manipulating sometimes fragile beef patties so that they remain in one piece.
I like to grill fish. On the grill over the coals; not on aluminum foil or on some fancy wooden shingle. Try it! The fish will be the best you’ve ever tasted! The only real He-Man BBQ tool I own is my fish spatula. This thing is a monster; the business end is about 10” wide and the handle is about 20” long. I found it in an upscale closeout store and it originally had a convex business end. After quite a bit of time on the grinder, it is now flat. The way to grill fish is to carefully maneuver the spatula under the entire piece of fish and GENTLY roll it over so the other side of the fish hits the grill as a single flat surface, all at the same time. You have be aware to maneuver the spatula along the wires (parallel), and not across (perpendicular to) the wires that make up the grill surface. Without my wide spatula, you need two flat spatulas, one at each end of the fillet, and two hands to accomplish the same task. I used this technique for years and years before I stumbled across my fish spatula.
Grill basket. This is a really useful item that most grillers forget to mention. With a grill basket, you can grill mushrooms, shrimp, scallops, all kinds of veggies and other fragile stuff. All the stuff you’d normally have to put on a skewer, you can stir-fry in a grill basket. You haven’t lived until you’ve had Camerones al mojo de ajo over charcoal! After those shrimp are done, dump ‘em in a bowl, then drizzle with melted butter and Miners Mix XXX-Garlic. Heavenly! I doubt that a grill basket would work with foi gras, however. Maybe we need to use one made in France.
Thermometer. I have a thermometer that uses two temperature probes, one that you can stick into the meat and the other has a clip to attach it to the grill surface. My unit also has a handy wireless remote that enables you to keep tabs on what’s going on inside the grill or smoker while you’re sucking down that cold beer in the shade of that tree over there. The grill surface probe is extremely useful when you’re doing low and slow pit smoking for long time periods. Those dial thermometers with which all the pit smokers are outfitted are usually inaccurate and/or the air temperature above your ribs is a lot hotter than the temperature on the grid surface, where your meat is actually sitting. If you don’t have a fancy electronic thermometer, get one of those dial thermometer units from a commercial kitchen supply store that professional chefs always have in their white undies pocket. Just be sure to calibrate any thermometer by comparing readings from boiling water and also iced water with ice actually floating in it.
Electric BBQ Starter. For me, this is the absolute best way to start your charcoal. These things are available from Lowes or Home Depot or most any well-equipped hardware or BBQ store. They start fires quickly and, most importantly, they don’t leave a paint thinner flavor on your meat. I even use this thing to start my wood burning stove, it’s that handy! If you’re in a place without electricity, you may need that fire-starter juice, but be sure to let the coals ash-over before spreading them out into a layer and putting the cooking grill over them. Personally, I’ve never used one of those charcoal starter baskets, so I have no opinion about them.
Basting Brush. DO NOT buy one of those cheap paint brush types that have bristles for basting your ribs or whatever. It seems that some to many of those bristles ALWAYS come out and stick to the meat to give an impression of cat or dog hair on your wonderful ribs. YUCCH! Spring for one of those silicone brushes, preferable one with a handle that’s at least 12” long and if you can find it, one with an angled handle. When you’re done with basting, toss the thing into the dishwasher and forget about it.
Squirt Bottle. This falls under the category of useful, but not terribly necessary. I use a squirt bottle of apple juice to spritz my ribs, turkey, or whatever, about every half hour so they stay nice and moist when doing a 4-5 hour smoke, or longer. Not really necessary for grilling though.
Grill lifters. A useful tool. There are several varieties. I’ve found that a pair of pliers or channel-locks, or even that nice set of tongs work just fine for lifting the grill when needed. Don’t use that $600 fork from France though!
Marinade Injectors. I’ve never used them. I know folks swear by them, and they’re used in competition BBQ events but I guess I’m too old school.
Grilling Mats. I don’t even know what those are for…
Grill Cleaning Brushes. I know many of the BBQ gurus talk about cleaning the grill after use, but really?? You put the grill over the hot coals and the grill becomes sterile when it gets hot. All the old grease will burn off, so why bother to clean the grill? I’ve also noticed that foods don’t stick as much on a grubby, black, well-used grill compared to a brand new shiny grill used for the first time. Personally, I think the BBQ gurus just might have a vested interest in promoting clean grills so they can sell everybody their nifty BBQ grill brushes. All the commercial BBQ guys cook over well-seasoned grubby grills; they sure don’t bother cleaning them. Besides, just what chemicals are in that grill degreaser you’re using anyway? Ever think about that? Do I want that residue on my food? NOPE!
In the past, I’ve occasionally cleaned grills with elbow grease. It seems all I accomplished was making the brush incredibly filthy along with myself, and then ended up tossing the hopelessly gummed up and destroyed brush into the trash. A losing proposition! I don’t clean any of my grills besides scraping the goop off the next time I fire them up.