Crash Course: The 6 Major Types of Grills
There are many ways you could categorize the world’s dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different grills. You could group them by fuel, for example: charcoal grills, wood-burning grills, gas grills. You could organize them by region of origin—the grills of South America, for example, or Southeast Asia. But the most useful way, from a griller’s point of view, is by the configuration of the fire and where to place the food for cooking. This is what determines at what temperature and how quickly the food will grill. Understanding and controlling these variables goes a long way toward determining your success as a grill master.
The simplest of all grills: a metal or stone box with the burning charcoal, wood, or propane at the bottom and the food positioned directly over the fire. The grill grate is optional.
- Includes: North American and European table grills, South American parrillas, the Italian fogolar, the Balkan mangal, Indonesian saté grill, Asian bucket grills, the Australian flattop grill, and so on.
- Used for: High-heat direct grilling
- Foods Best Suited: Small, tender, quick-cooking foods like satés, kebabs, steaks, chops, fish fillets, vegetables, and so on
Add to an open grill a tall lid you can raise and lower and you get a covered grill. This may sound like a simple innovation, and yet the covered grill enables you to add two additional important methods of live-fire cooking to your repertory: indirect grilling and smoking.
- Includes: The kettle grill, gas grill, and 55-gallon steel-drum grill
- Used for: Direct grilling larger or thicker foods. Indirect grilling and smoking (the latter done primarily on charcoal-burning grills)
- Foods Best Suited: Thick steaks—both beef and tuna—as well as double-thick pork and veal chops. Larger or fattier cuts of meats, like whole chicken and duck, pork shoulder, and baby back ribs.
A name I coined to describe deep, thick-walled, ceramic grills that rely on the radiant heat of the side walls, as well as the direct heat from the coals, to cook the food. Sometimes the food is cooked directly on the walls (breads) or on a vertical spit positioned inside the firebox instead of on a grill grate.
- Includes: India’s tandoor, Iran’s tanoor, and closer to home, kamado-style cookers, like the Komodo Kamado and Big Green Egg
- Used for: High-heat roasting. With the kamado cooker, roasting, grilling, and smoking.
- Foods Best Suited: Flatbreads, like Indian naan, which are cooked right on the walls of the tandoor. Kebabs, chicken, fish steaks, small legs of goat and lamb, peppers, paneer cheese—all cooked on a vertical spit.
The rotisserie adds motion to the static process of grilling. The slow, gentle rotation of a turnspit evens out the cooking process, basting the meat, melting out fat, and browning the exterior. Spit-roasted foods come out crisp on the outside and succulent within.
- Includes: The wood-burning rotisseries of Tuscany and Germany, the gas wall rotisseries of France, the charcoal-burning chicken wing rotisseries of Malaysia and Singapore, not to mention the infrared rotisseries built into most high-end American gas grills. In the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East (and elsewhere), grill masters use vertical rotisseries to make Greek gyro, Turkish doner, and Middle Eastern shawarma.
- Used for: Combines the virtues of direct and indirect grilling. As in direct grilling, the food faces the heat, but as in indirect grilling, the food cooks next to, not directly over the fire.
- Foods Best Suited: Cylindrical and/or fatty foods, like whole chickens, chicken wings, ducks, rib roasts, and whole hogs
Smoking is one of the world’s oldest methods of cooking and preserving foods, but the smoker as a portable backyard barbecue grill is a North American invention of the 20th century. All the world grills, but not all grill cultures smoke.
- Includes: The offset barrel smokers of Texas; the upright water smokers and box smokers of North America, Europe, and China; and the pellet/sawdust smokers (like the Bradley and Traeger), also of North America.
- Used for: Smoking; low- to moderate-temperature indirect grilling with wood smoke
- Foods Best Suited: Traditionally used for tough, flavorful cuts of meat, like brisket and ribs. (The low, gentle heat melts the collagen, making these ornery cuts tender enough to cut with the side of a fork.) Note: When smoking poultry, I prefer to use “smoke roasting”—indirect grilling at a higher temperature to crisp the skin.
Open Pit and Campfire-Style “Grills”
In the beginning, grilling (make that cooking) wasn’t done on a grill, but over or next to a campfire. This primal method still enjoys wide popularity—especially in the Americas.
- Includes: Open pit grilling is epitomized by Argentina’s asado and Brazil’s fogo de chão—meats roasted on stakes in front of a fire. Campfire grilling includes the salmon “bakes” of the Pacific Northwest; Connecticut’s planked shad; and the roasting of marshmallows on sticks to make that American scout favorite: s’mores.
- Used for: Radiant-heat roasting
- Foods Best Suited: Whole lamb, goat, pig, and salmon, rack of beef ribs, and skin-on fish fillets