- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer, but it’s hardly the last chance to chow down on grilled steaks and vegetables.

Grilling once evoked visions of charcoal-stained hamburgers and hot dogs bursting out of their skins in the summer heat. Today, grilling is pretty much a year-round affair in many climates, particularly the District’s warmer winters.

Richard Stuthmann, a chef and director of instruction for the Baltimore International College, says grilling also is becoming a more versatile way to cook.

“We’re becoming less afraid of the grill. The grill was thought of as picnic-type stuff [in the past],” says Mr. Stuthmann, who whipped up some crab cakes on his own grill recently. “Just about anything you can cook inside you can grill.”

Grilling means using either a gas- or charcoal-powered grill, a division over which purists continually bicker. Gas grills light up instantly and offer an even heat source, but charcoal grills delight the fire-lover in us all and imbue food with a flavor some say gas grills never can match.

“The die-hards tend to use the charcoal. There’s more technique involved,” he says.

A top-flight gas grill can run around $2,000 and last for many years, but even a $200 grill can serve for a decade or so if properly cleaned.

“Spending more doesn’t mean you need more [accessories or frills],” he cautions. Savvy shoppers should try to find grills with porcelain-coated burners, which last longer, and temperature controls.

Grill owners should brush away burned-on food regularly with a wire brush and keep the grill covered to protect it from the elements. A sprinkle or two of rust can be scrubbed away, but a significant amount of rust means a new part is in order.

Grill heat often is measured in BTUs or British thermal units. Grills with a higher number perform better. An average output for a grill’s combined burners is about 36,000 BTUs.

Today’s grills offer plenty of flexibility, but don’t make the mistake of using the terms “grilling” and “barbecue” interchangeably when discussing how the food is prepared.

“Barbecue is more of a stewing; it’s a whole different cooking process. You’re literally taking a tougher kind of meat or poultry and simmering it in a sauce,” Mr. Stuthmann says.

John David, store manager of Barbecues Galore in Gaithersburg, says people are grilling more in the fall than ever before and even well into the winter.

“You can get gas smokers, electric smokers — they maintain a steady heat,” Mr. David says. A first-rate gas smoker can run up to $2,000, but a kettle charcoal grill also can smoke meat like its gas peers. Charcoal grills, on average, come in much cheaper, though a high-end charcoal model can run up to $800.

Smoking isn’t just to bring new flavor to juicy meat. Nuts and cheeses also can be smoked on the grill.

Different woods provide different flavors to be added to the meal. Some woods, such as apple and cherry, go better with lighter meats such as poultry, Mr. David says. Oak is preferred by many for cooking red meat, while hickory is more of an all-purpose wood.

Steven Raichlen, author of “How to Grill,” “The Barbecue Bible” and “BBQ USA,” says the level of grilling sophistication is greater now than during the past two centuries. The change, Mr. Raichlen says, is thanks in part to the sophisticated new grills on the marketplace.

“Now, you can spend many thousands of dollars [on a grill],” Mr. Raichlen says, which, combined with a smarter grilling public, adds context to the cooking.

The grilling guru credits “the globalization of the American grill.”

“We’re using flavors from India, from Japan… and incorporating them comfortably in their cuisine,” he says.

Mr. Raichlen says his best-selling books, along with the flood of television cooking shows, are helping educate the neophyte griller. Today’s griller has heard all about direct and indirect grilling, smoking the food and what to look for in a new grill.

That doesn’t mean the consumer has to dig deep into his or her pocket.

“A simple charcoal kettle grill is an awesome, powerful machine,” says Mr. Raichlen, who hosts “Barbecue University” on PBS.

Those who have a bit more cash to burn can try a Weber Genesis gas grill series for less than $500, he suggests.

No matter the grill, Mr. Raichlen recommends keeping the cooking surface uncluttered.

“Don’t overcrowd your grill,” he says. “I never fill it up more than a halfway up.” He also creates a variety of hot and cold zones on the grill where food can be maneuvered around for the best cooking.

Katherine Alford, director of the Food Network Test Kitchen, says gas grills appear to be winning the grilling war with consumers, at least for those with whom she speaks regularly.

Many avid grillers, though, won’t give up their charcoal burners, Ms. Alford says.

Outdoor grilling can vary quite a bit from the burgers and franks staples of yore. That burger sizzling on the neighbor’s grill might be a lamb or tuna burger, she says.

Weekend cooks are preparing more fish and vegetables on the grill these days, part of an effort to make grilling a healthier cooking method.

One way to prepare vegetables without searing them a darker shade of charcoal is to place them in a cast-iron skillet away from direct heat and let them heat up slowly.

Cooks also are slow-roasting bigger cuts of meat, from whole chickens to turkeys, on the grill.

“More people are doing it as event cooking,” she says.

The end of summer might seem to mean less grilling-friendly afternoons, but she knows people who are planning to grill their Thanksgiving turkeys come November.

“Grilling season now is 11 months a year,” she says.

Capitol Hill resident Aaron Dennis began grilling in earnest six years ago and this past April bought a Jenn-Air gas grill to keep the home fires burning.

His technique has evolved from simply cooking meat to marinating his choicest cuts and grilling vegetables to balance his meals.

Mr. Dennis has no intention of putting the grill in storage as the calendar pages turn.

“I’m gonna stretch it as far into the winter as I can,” Mr. Dennis says of his grilling. “I like that [grilled food] smell in the wintertime.”

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