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The Zoomer Edit

The Best of the Barbecue: How to Amp Up Your Grilling Game

BY Dick Snyder | July 11th, 2022

Backyard cooks looking to amp up their grilling and barbecue game have no shortage of resources to turn to, from specialty outdoor cooking gear shops to the plethora of social media “experts,” along with books, magazines and TV shows — all focused on this most elemental of cooking methods. The lure of the open flame and the smouldering ember cannot be denied. Still, there’s nothing like the advice of a real expert, so we turned to grill masters Maddie and Kiki Longo, who regularly tour the country as travelling barbecue and grilling gurus. They are based in Port Hope, Ont., where they run Maddie & Kiki’s Grill Studio, ground zero for their educational YouTube videos that often include reviews and demonstrations of grills, smokers and all sorts of related equipment — not to mention some killer recipes and ideas. Here, they offer some tips and tricks for the grill-curious. 

 

Gas Versus Charcoal … Can’t We All Get Along?

As Maddie and Kiki like to point out: “This is the age-old question in the barbecue community — which is better, gas or charcoal? That’s like asking which is better, a pickup truck or an SUV? They both get passengers from one location to another, but with nuances that make the experience in getting there vastly different.”

Gas

Gas grills are great for beginners because they require little skill to operate and are easy to fire up. “We refer to them as great weekday grills because you can fire them up quickly and they are not associated with mess, like charcoal,” they say. “With just the turn of a knob, you can dial your temperature in easily. There are also so many bells and whistles that typically come with gas grills like rotisserie back burners, side burners for stove-top cooking — and some gas grills even have zero-gravity roll top lids.”

However, the Longos say that gas grills are definitely not ideal for the low-and-slow type of cooking and they do not provide a lot of flavour, like a charcoal grill does. As well, they point out that gas grills usually come with a pretty hefty price tag — the cheapest gas grills are usually a couple hundred bucks. Not to mention they are typically big and clunky, making them less than ideal to pack up and go for your next camping adventure. 

“But the biggest … the absolute hugest … con of a gas grill is the lack of smoke ring,” say the Longos. “The smoke ring is the beautiful, stunning, magnificent, gorgeous pink ring that shows up on the edge of meats that have been prepared on a charcoal or pellet grill. While the smoke ring does not impart any flavour, it basically just looks sooooo cool and is a true calling card of the barbecue world.”  

 

BBQ Zone
Photo: DDN Productions

 

Charcoal

Charcoal grills require knowledge, research, commitment and … a certain comfort level with wood-based fuels and the extra level of effort and skill that this demands. According to the Longo sisters, “Charcoal grills are for a more advanced type of griller, one who prides themself on licking their finger, holding it in the air to test which direction the wind is rolling in, and knowing if their charcoal grill vents need to be opened more or less.”

Charcoal grills also provide that nostalgic aroma of summertime barbecues that a lot of people grew up with, the Longos note. “The charcoal provides that unmistakable taste to all food that is cooked on it and, you guessed it, charcoal grilling makes awesome smoke rings come to life.”

Their advice when it comes to using lighter fluid to fire up your charcoal? Just don’t do it. 

“It is toxic and unnecessary. Invest in a $20 charcoal chimney or one of those fancy charcoal lighter guns.”

Of course, charcoal grilling is also loved for the portability factor: most charcoal grills are light and easy to pack along for camping adventures or cottage hangouts. “Plus, an entry level charcoal grill can start as low as $20 — cheaper than the steak you’ll cook on it!”

There are a few cons to charcoal, according to the Longos, but that’s also part of the commitment. First of all the charcoal plus the ash pan can make for a dirty, messy experience. Also, typically, more time is required when charcoal grilling, when you factor in preheating your grill for the recommended 10-12 minutes. And then there’s the fact that with charcoal grilling there’s more room for error. “The entire process is just up to the griller and the weather conditions. No buttons or dials to rely on … just skill.”

 

BBQ Zone
Photo: DDN Productions

 

Focus on What You Want to Eat

Think food first, equipment second. You need to consider what result you are after, say the Longo sisters. “For instance, people who are interested in adding wood flavour to their food, whatever they are making, need to get themselves a charcoal grill or a smoker. Grilling foods on a gas or electric grill does not add wood flavour. If people are just interested in achieving those luscious grill marks that we all know and love, you just need a grill that gets hot, hot, hot!”

 

Wood Chips Add a Whole New Element

Think about the flavours that wood and smoke can bring to a dish — consider this technique as an added ingredient. “Crème brûlée is a delicious recipe, but wood-fired crème brûlée is even better with the added flavour of pecan wood. Wood flavour makes anything taste better, whether it’s sweet dishes, savoury recipes, or even beverages. Just remember that certain woods create a stronger flavour than others. We recommend fruit woods, which have a gentle, subtle flavour, over stronger woods like mesquite or hickory wood, which can have overpowering flavours.”

 

One Grill Is Never Enough

One grill can’t do everything. And it’s unfair to ask it to do so. Getting to the next level of barbecue and grilling requires the proper tools. “We are the type of grillers that believe more is more! To us, the more grills you have, the more fun you can have. Someone who has one grill and has fallen deeply in love with the art of grilling will benefit — and fall deeper in love — by adding a smoker and a griddle to their lineup. Grills are great for hot and fast cooks (that is, steaks, eggplant, burgers), smokers are for low-and-slow cooking (brisket, pulled pork), and griddles are for those diner classics like smash burgers, pancakes, and hash. Griddles are the outdoor cooker of the moment — everyone wants one!” 

 

Keep It Simple, but Stretch out a Bit

When you have great ingredients and great equipment, you really don’t need to get too flashy. “Some of the best recipes to make on the grill are the simplest. If you want to impress your guests at your next backyard BBQ party, try making our bacon-wrapped perogies, pickle and cheese stuffed sausages, or even apple cider dump cake. Yes, all of those tasty recipes were made on the grill. Anything and everything can be made on a grill, you are only limited by your own creativity.” To see these dishes in action — and more — visit Maddie & Kiki on YouTube.

 

BBQ Zone
Sisters Kiki and Maddie Longo, Canada’s favourite female grill masters, located in Port Hope, Ont. Photo: DDN Productions

 

 

You Need a Meat Thermometer

The precision of a meat thermometer cannot be overstated, especially with charcoal grilling, as the temperatures can be more variable. “Meat thermometers allow you to cook your meat to the exact internal temperature of your preference (medium, medium-rare, etc.). With meat prices being so high these days, it’s imperative that you get yourself a good meat thermometer so that you don’t over or undercook your meat and end up ruining it.”

 

Grills Are for Vegetarians, Too

As the world moves to more acceptance with plant-based cooking, it’s important to note that everything tastes better — or at least different — on a grill. “It’s a shame that grilling and barbecuing is still a meat-dominated industry. Tofu, vegetables, plant-based burgers and tempeh are all tastier when they are made on the grill. We have transformed many tofu haters into tofu lovers by marinating and grilling tofu for them.”

 

Be Brave

“Do not be afraid of messing up! We fire up our grills every day, 365 days a year, and we still learn something new every time. Be brave by trying a new recipe or embarking on the journey into charcoal grilling,” say the sisters. “Just remember, every time you fire up your grill, it’s an opportunity to learn.”

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