Weather Outside Frightful? Bring the Show Indoors!

Dear Up in Smoke Subscriber:

We’ve been in the deep freeze here in the Northeast. For days, high temperatures have been in the low single digits. (And can’t someone please tell the weather reporters we’d rather not hear about the wind chill factor?) Though I’ve never been afraid to grill outdoors in the wintertime—many of the recipes for Raichlen on Ribs were tested at this time last year in blizzard-like conditions!—the thought of grilling indoors in the fireplace is very appealing. It satisfies our craving for food cooked over live fire, and practically speaking, fireplace cookery is a useful skill to have if the power goes out, as it frequently does here. If you’re new to this method of grilling, Steven tells you below how to get started. If you’re an old pro, you can still learn some new tricks.

Warmest regards,

Nancy Loseke
Features Editor
Up in Smoke

In America, the fireplace has lost its useful purpose. Now akin to a vestigial organ, it was once the literal and spiritual focal point of the home (the ancient Roman word for hearth was focus), providing warmth, light, and hot food. The beginning of the end came in 1765 when the first iron cookstove was cast. During the next century, hearth-cooking became, as did many skills practiced by our forebears, a lost art.

Fireplaces, however, are still integral to family life in Europe; grilling in Italy (especially Tuscany and Friuli), Greece, Serbia, and other countries moves indoors when the weather turns chilly. In fact, winter is considered high grilling season in those parts of the world. Unless your fireplace has been outfitted with gas logs, you, too, can indulge in the pleasures of indoor fireplace grilling.

There are at least five benefits:

  1. It is the indoor grilling method most like grilling outdoors, especially if you routinely grill over wood or charcoal.
  2. You can cook over as hot a fire as you desire.
  3. You burn wood, which gives your grilled foods a subtle, smoky flavor.
  4. It enables you to enjoy grilled food without having to brave the elements.
  5. Best of all, you share in the primal sense of well-being that comes from gathering in front of a fire. In a word, it’s fun.

Special Equipment
Utensils with long handles are essential when fireplace grilling, as are grilling gloves, preferably elbow-length. As any Colonial-era woman could tell you, it gets hot in there! The telescoping fork I designed for my Best of Barbecue line extends a full 28 inches, and my trademarked Luma Tongs are not only long, they have a tiny halogen bulb attached to the handle—useful in dark spots like fireplaces.

A gridiron or cast-iron Tuscan grill increases your grilling options exponentially. The Tuscan grill is a square grate with legs that can be positioned above the embers. With it you can cook nearly anything you’d cook on your outdoor grill.

One of the niftiest fireplace grilling tools on the market is the SpitJack, a fireplace rotisserie manufactured in Italy that is elegantly reminiscent of nineteenth-century cookware. It’s perfect for roasting whole chickens or turkeys or large pieces of meat. Find it at

Another terrific source of fireplace grilling equipment is Lehman’s of Kidron, Ohio, which caters to the large Amish population there. It publishes a large print catalog—afte rall, most of its clients don’t have electricity, not to mention computers—and also sells from its website, You’ll find old-fashioned cast-iron implements such as pie irons, Dutch ovens, fireplace cranes, and corn poppers.

If you’re into low-tech solutions, I’ve seen gridirons improvised with fireproof bricks and an oven rack. Fireproof bricks can also be used as a base for roasting apples, onions, potatoes, peppers, squash, etc. Prop round-ish foods up with Best of Barbecue grilling rings, or aluminum foil twisted into doughnut shapes. Some foods can be roasted right in the coals. This is how we roast “Fireman’s Corn” at BBQ U (see BBQ USA, page 603). I’m also very intrigued by a recipe I heard about in Tuscany—though I haven’t tried it yet—where beans are cooked in the embers overnight in a recycled Chianti bottle called a fiasco (remember the kind with the straw-wrapped bottom?).

Building a Cooking Fire
I can’t emphasize this enough: Always use hardwoods like hickory, oak, alder, apple, etc. Softwoods like spruce or pine give off creosote, which can build up in your chimney and cause dangerous house fires. Also, never burn charcoal in your indoor fireplace as it gives off potentially lethal carbon monoxide and noxious chemicals.

If dripping meat juices and the potential for mess is a concern, line the floor of the fireplace and the apron in front of it with heavy duty aluminum foil, shiny side up to reflect heat.

fireplace.gifThe basic procedure for fireplace grilling is to light a log fire. (Don’t forget to open the damper first.) Split logs that are 3 to 4 inches in diameter work best. Have plenty of seasoned wood on hand (8 to 15 logs per recipe) as well as kindling. Wait until the flames die down—40 minutes to 1 hour. Rake the red hot embers into a pile about 1 inch deep (or for a two-zone fire—make a taller pile of embers on one side for high-heat searing and a shallower pile on the other to provide a more moderate cooking heat).

Position the gridiron over the embers and preheat it for 3 to 5 minutes. If your fireplace is large enough, you can build the fire on one side of the hearth or in the center and rake the embers under one or more gridirons on the side or toward the front of the fireplace.

Feed the fire as needed. My routine is to add a fresh log fifteen minutes after lighting the fire. Then I continue adding logs at the rate of one every five minutes. This way I’m assured of a continuous supply of fresh embers.

Here are some more tips:

  • Andirons or a raised fire grate make it easy for logs to burn down to glowing embers. If you have the room, place the andiron with the logs in back of the fireplace.
  • To reduce the risk of chimney fires, have your chimney cleaned by a professional chimney sweep at the beginning of cold weather. You need a fireplace that draws air well.
  • Let the fire burn out completely before removing the ashes. Make sure they are no longer warm and douse the ashes with water. Place the ashes in a metal ash can or trash can (not a plastic one), even if you believe they are cold–such as the day after cooking. It’s amazing how long embers can burn and spark.
  • Have a dry chemical fire extinguisher on hand. Take it to your local fire department once a year to make sure it’s fully loaded and operational. Minor flare-ups can be doused with a handful of salt. Keep an open container of it nearby.

And now, here are two new recipes for you to try in your own fireplace. Find 270 others in Raichlen’s Indoor Grilling.

Coffee-Crusted Porterhouse
Method: Direct Grilling
Serves: 2

1 porterhouse steak (1 1/2 to 2 inches thick)
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons Best of Barbecue Java Rub (see Note)

1. Place the steak in a nonreactive baking dish. Rub the steak on both sides with the olive oil. Sprinkle 1 to 2 tablespoons of the Java Rub evenly on the steak. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours, or as long as overnight.

2. About 40 minutes to 1 hour before you’re ready to cook, build a fire as directed above. Rake the red hot embers under the gridiron and preheat it for 3 to 5 minutes. You want a medium-hot, “4 Mississippi” fire.

3. Arrange the steak on the hot grate at a 45 degree angle to the bars of the grate and grill until cooked to taste, 7 to 10 minutes per side for rare (about 125 degrees F on an instant-read meat thermometer), rotating the steak after 3 to 4 minutes to create crosshatch grill marks.

4. To serve, I defer to the late James Beard, who in his 1953 book on outdoor cookery advised, “Carve the bone completely out of the steak with a sharp knife and hide it for yourself, then cut the meat in diagonal slices as thick as you wish. Slice right across the filet and the contra filet so that everyone gets a fine piece of each part of the steak.” If desired, drizzle a good quality olive oil over the meat before serving.

Note: Java Rub is available in my store. A similar rub can be made by combining 3 tablespoons of ground coffee, 1 tablespoon each of coarse salt and dark brown sugar, 1 teaspoon each of sweet paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and cumin. You’ll need 2 tablespoons for the steak. Store the remaining rub in an airtight container.

Smoky Eggplant Dip with Red Pepper and Feta
Method: Grilling in the embers
Serves: 4

2 long, slender eggplants (about 1 pound each)
3 red bell peppers
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons parsley, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, or more to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more as needed
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Coarse salt (kosher or sea)
Freshly ground black pepper
3 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced
Pita chips or plain pita bread for serving

1. About 40 minutes to 1 hour before you’re ready to cook, build a fire as directed above. Rake the embers into a pile. Pierce the eggplants in a few spots with a fork. Place them directly in the embers and grill until the skins are charred and the flesh is very soft, 5 to 8 minutes per side (20 to 32 minutes in all).

2. Transfer the grilled eggplants to a plate to cool. Char the peppers in the embers until the skins are charred. Remove to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 20 minutes.

3. When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, scrape any really burnt skin off the eggplants, but leave some of it on; the dark spots will add color and character. Coarsely chop the flesh. Scrape the charred skin off the red peppers (don’t worry if you don’t get it all), removing the seeds and stems. Coarsely chop.

4. Add the eggplant, red peppers, garlic, parsley, and red wine vinegar to the bowl of a food processor and finely chop the vegetables, running the machine in short bursts. With the motor running, add the oil. Stir in the feta cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or vinegar as needed.

5. Transfer the dip to a serving bowl. Sprinkle the scallions on top and serve with pita chips.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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