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Choosing a Great Grill or Smoker for Your Backyard

Choosing a Great Grill or Smoker for Your Backyard

You probably don't know it, but the folks at Tucky's BBQ started first as backyard grillers. Owner Gail McFarlane was a partner in her first restaurant at age 24 and broiled filet mignons and grilled Walleye Pike for her customers. Since Gail's father was a chef in the 1933 World's Fair held in Chicago, Il., he naturally taught Gail how to expertly cook a steak and tell if it was a perfect medium rare without stabbing, slicing or guessing. She passed the love of cooking food down to her two sons, Anthony and Kevin Pell. Anthony, who serves as Executive Chef at Tucky's, has a sixth sense about BBQ and all the trimmings that go with it. Kevin has that meticulous attention to detail when it comes to seasoning and prepping all the meats.

Owner Marty Schwartzer comes from a restaurant family; but he became locally famous for tailgate parties on the infield at NASCAR races. He's left that life behind, but one year, received a small pellet smoker as a gift and quickly learned how to smoke the most beautiful ribs you could imagine. 

In addition to the large commercial smokers, Gail owns a professional gas grill with a rotisserie. "The kinds of things I like to cook on my home grill include chicken and steaks mostly, I have a side burner to heat up some sides, and I also love vegetable kebabs."

Marty owns both a grill and a smoker. "I use the smoker mostly and for me, it's usually ribs; but I love a good ribeye steak grilled on the smoker!"

So what's your story? First, you'll need to decide what it is you want to cook outdoors. Who do you cook for? If it's just your immediate family, you may want to use a gas grill. Gas grills heat up quickly and are extremely convenient. Most of them offer electronic ignition and temperature controls, so you're (almost) an instant pro! Foods have a great char and the higher temperatures carmelize the juices and give a great flavor to foods.

Charcoal grills take more time to heat up the coals, but if you use a higher end charcoal, the flavor of your food is outstanding.

Newcomers to the grill market are pellet grills. These relatively inexpensive grills have the convenience of gas grills with the smoky flavor of charcoal. 

Over the years, we've learned a few things about gas grills. The first is, they get very hot and the metals can warp, twist and break! When making a purchase, look for heavy, sturdy grates and parts so your gas grill will last a decade or more. Charcoal grills that are made of aluminum will give good service for a few years, but charcoal is corrosive and eventually they will wear out. Get a good grill.

Pellet grills have moving parts; usually an auger to feed pellets down a slide into the fire box. And an electronic temperature controller that tells the auger to feed more pellets. The higher quality pellet grills (and smokers), have heavier duty parts and will last a very long time when properly maintained. The downside to pellet grills is they don't like to get very wet. If your grill is going to be used out in the open, with no shelter, you'll have to be committed to covering it. They're designed to take some light sprinkles, but beware the downpour. It could ruin your investment. 

The best thing about owning a backyard grill is that you can purchase a smoker box for it. This is a small metal box, usually inexpensive, that you add wood chips to to create that wonderful smoky flavor on your foods. They work the best on gas grills, where you can lower the temperature and cook foods slowly so that the smoke has time to permeate the food. But while most grills can smoke foods, not all smokers can grill foods.

If you want to grill using a smoker, the best kind of smoker is a barrel-type. This type has the firebox directly underneath the grill grate and the controller should allow temperatures of 500 degrees or hotter. This is hot enough to grill hamburgers and some steaks. Some steak aficionados say that this isn't nearly hot enough; and if you like your steak char-rare; they're probably right. Cabinet type smokers usually have an offset firebox designed for indirect heat, and the heat circulates through the cabinet with a fan. Many barrel smokers have an offset firebox as well. You really can't grill on this type of smoker. 

Lately, we've seen dual-fuel backyard rigs that have a gas (or charcoal) grill on one side, and an offset barrel smoker on the other. For under $400, a rig like this won't break the budget or take up too much space; but it will cook BBQ just the way you want it!

We hear the dinner bell a-ringin'!