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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Smoke Signals: Out in the cold

By Jim Shahin
smoker shot_opt.jpg Your grill in winter. (Tim Carman)

What do we talk about when we talk about barbecue? Lots of stuff: wood, sauce, meat. Heck, even the whole American culture thing.

One thing we don’t talk about: the freezing cold, that’s for damn sure.

Grilling is a summertime sport. We play it in shirt sleeves and Bermuda shorts, not a freakin’ parka and ski mask as if we were outfitted to stick up a convenience store in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

It's funny, then, that a lot of folks do not consider barbecue to have an off-season. I Googled “winter grilling” and (0.43 seconds later) received about (I love the “about”) 12,200,000 results. One reason for taking it outside, even in cold weather: necessity.

An acquaintance told me he barbecued throughout last year’s Snowpocalypse. “Our electricity was out,” he explained, “so our oven didn’t work.”

But epochal weather events are undoubtedly in a niche category of reasons for winter grilling. Most folks, I imagine, do it for the simpler reasons: They like the flavor of grilled and smoked foods.

If you're thinking of braving the cold to add a little flavor of summer to your winter table, there are several resources for you. One (unsurprisingly) is the grill manufacturer, Weber, which counsels:

  • In below-freezing temperatures, plan on doubling the time it typically takes to preheat the grill in the summer.
  • For charcoal grills, it may be necessary to add charcoal more often to maintain a consistent temperature when it's cold. Lift the grill lid slowly and to the side to prevent ashes from blowing up on the food. For safety, avoid using your charcoal grill in high wind conditions.
  • Plan on increasing the cooking time slightly when grilling on cold or windy days. It's best to keep the lid down as much as possible to avoid lowering the temperature inside the grill. Large pieces of meat, such as roasts, that are cooked over indirect heat work well in cold-weather conditions as they require less attention.
  • Position gas grills so the wind is perpendicular to the gas flow and not blowing the flame down the burner tubes.

I would add that you should always clear your grill of snow and ice, and make sure that you salt the area around the grill to prevent upending yourself on slick surfaces.

There seems to be two types of winter barbecue advice out there. Some recommend grilling foods that cook fast, such as steaks, to minimize your time in the cold. Others prefer low-and-slow smoking, so you can set it and forget it, which is to say, go back inside till the long slow-roasting is done.

To those two methods, I would add a third: Do both. Standing by a steak for even, say, seven minutes can seem like an eternity in sub-freezing temperatures. And low-and-slow smoking sounds great in theory, but the fire is hard to maintain and may well cause you to have to replenish it more than you would in warm weather, which means constantly dashing back out into the cold.

A good compromise is using thicker meats, such as a pork loin or butterflied chicken, that you can grill for a minute on each side over high heat, then move to smoke over indirect heat for an hour or so. That way, you don’t have to worry about standing in the cold for too long or replenishing your coals.

Whatever you choose, though, make sure you remember the ice-cold beer. Somehow that goes well in every season.

Leave a comment or e-mail me directly about your cold-weather smoking and grilling tips and experiences – or just with general tips, opinions and news.

By Jim Shahin  | February 1, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin  
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