A few years ago, when my ancestors and your ancestors were quite a bit more hirsute, stank, wore animal skins, and sported names like Gork and Zhug, one Albert Glackstein figured out that if you surrounded burning wood with a ring of rocks, it then became easier to cook your mastodon than just laying that 40 lb rib steak directly onto a burning tree branch. Glackstein’s innovation became the first BBQ cooker, the evolution of which has continued unabated to this very day.
Thanks to Albert Glackstein, I’ve been blessed with the privilege of preparing some wonderful, and some not so wonderful, chow now and then on some of the latest iterations of his invention, all those many years ago. The following is a short description of many of the various cookers I’ve owned over the years, and why I have them,
Currently I have seven grills/smokers in my inventory. Don’t gasp; I have a friend who has over 20 cookers in his backyard! Each cooker has strengths in some areas and other areas in which they are lacking, much like a Crescent wrench used on nuts versus a wrench that’s used in a pinch to beat a bolt into submission. The wrench will work as a hammer, but not all that well.
Kamado (two in my inventory)
My go-to grill nearly 7 days a week (really!) is a Kamado Grill. I have two. Probably the most well-known Kamado grill is the Big Green Egg, of which I own only one, a Big Green Egg Mini (a strange combination of words much like the term “Jumbo Shrimp”). There are lots of on-line forums dedicated to recipes and use of this particular brand, but there are lots of other brands on the market as well such as Primo, Cypress, Kamado Joe, Komodo Kamado, Broil King, Grill Dome, Saffire, Char-Griller, Vision, and Louisiana Grills, just to name a bunch. All of ‘em burn charcoal, however, recently a pellet-burner made by Black Olive has come onto the market as well.
Kamado grills are a ceramic grill with sides up to an inch thick and shaped somewhat like a big egg (guess the color of Big Green Eggs??). Charcoal sits at the bottom and the top portion of the egg is hinged where a cooking grill sits over the charcoal. They hold heat extremely well and tend to be very economical with fuel. All Kamado grills are air-tight and have dampers top and bottom for air to flow upwards through the grill. The ability to precisely regulate air flow through the grill, controlling the burn rate of the fuel and hence the temperature of the cook, is what enables Kamado grills to do such a great job on most, but not all types of meats.
There are a few drawbacks to Kamado grills. Number one is that they’re heavy! Some tip the scales on the far side of 550 lbs meaning you have to be careful when moving the thing or you’ll end up with a pricey big Green, Red, or Black Humpty Dumpty all over your patio. Fortunately, most grills come on casters to facilitate moving them around, albeit carefully. Second, they’re expensive; that same 550 lb grill will set you back over 6 grand, but most are a grand, or less. Still really expensive compared to a Weber, however, the purchase of a Kamado is pretty much a once in a lifetime investment. If the grill is well cared for, you may need to eventually replace the cooking grill, but that’s about all you’ll ever have to do unless the ceramic shell develops cracks.
Of all the brands of Kamado grills, the Big Green Egg is probably the best known due to their widespread advertising, availability in lots of BBQ shops, and local dealers hosting events called EggFest. They also seem to have the widest and best selection of accessories including some that are really essential to Egg cookery such as Plate Setters. Plate setters are ceramic disks with legs that cover most of the entire charcoal mass under the grill so that one can cook with indirect heat, essentially turning the Egg into a charcoal-fired oven.
I’ve had the pleasure of cooking, “competing” and winning People’s Choice multiple times at EggFests in northern CA over the last several years. I won that Mini Egg at one of these events a few years back. EggFests are great events for folks who are thinking of buying a Big Green Egg and want to learn about them. Unlike hard-core competition BBQ events, attendees stroll around and get a chance to talk to the cooks there, ask questions, and see the Eggs in action, which they can purchase at a discount after the event. Plus, they get to EAT; all kinds of fresh off-the-grill goodies. I get asked all the time about temperatures for this or that item on the grill. I’m not much good at that question because I’m old-school so I don’t really pay much attention to what that thermometer says unless I’m doing a long smoke. If the grill is too hot, then turn that meat or fish more frequently. Cook it until it’s cooked to where you want it to be. Not a big deal.
At EggFest, I stick to very “traditional” and most importantly SIMPLE BBQ fare such as grilled mushrooms, grilled pineapple, jalapeno poppers, salmon, fatties, chicken, shrimp etc., however, there are folks who cook up some really outrageous goodies such as cookies, breads, pizza, pies, and paella. I’ve even seen folks grill Twinkies; they were unbelievably, decadently, GOOD!
Kamado grills EXCELL at the long slow cooks necessary for great brisket and pork butts. I can close the top and bottom dampers to a sliver and mine will happily idle along at 250° F for well over 12 hours. After these cooks, there’s enough charcoal remaining in the grill to cook several more nights worth of steaks or chickens before reloading! I put a brisket on at 8PM or so (covered with either our Steak and Veggie Rub augmented with lots of additional granulated garlic, onion, and black pepper, or our Maynards Memphis Rub), and it’s ready the next morning. Briskets could not be any easier. Kamado grills also work well for steaks and just about all other typical grilling fare. With the ability to open up the bottom and top vents and get lots of air to the burn, you can get the temperatures up over 700° F, searing heat that Albert Glackstein couldn’t dream of, back in his day.
What I’ve found that Kamado grills do not do well is impart much of a smoke flavor to the meat. Folks will dispute me on this topic, but when you compare pork butts from a Kamado to those from an offset pit smoker, there is absolutely zero comparison. Even my brisket, on the grill for 10-12 hours does not have much of a smoke flavor despite the addition of large chunks of almond or even oak wood to the top and to the bottom of the charcoal load prior to lighting the grill. The brisket comes out great; moist, tender, with great bark, and it looks like you’d expect it to look after 10 h on the smoke, but it just does not have the flavor one would expect after that long over coals. My buddy, the one with the 20 cookers (most of which are Kamado style), mentioned to me, after he had his offset pit smoker built, that the flavor from his pit is far superior to that from the Kamado. I’ve done whole turkeys, chickens, pork butts, and brisket on both, and the offset pit is far superior. The Kamado is FAR easier, however, and I do really like my sleep come 2AM when that brisket is on the smoker.
Despite the shortcomings above, would I buy another Kamado? An unequivocal YES. The ease of long smokes and versatility of the grill make it worthwhile despite the high cost of admission.
Next….Offset Pit Smokers