Grill Basics: The Cook'N'Kettle
We're talking about charcoal and hardwood here. I do have an indoor gas grill but I only use it if there's a howling Northeaster going on, or (more frequently) to finish meats begun on the charcoal for a dinner party. Basically, gas is good for home heating, dryers and cooktops - but for barbeque you need a fire that produces smoke.
My father, William Stanley Smith, was a brilliant surgeon, researcher (he had a hand in some of the basic science that led to hip replacement), and teacher. All of these things about him I know based on reports from others. But I had direct experience with his expertise at grilling and smoking and, though he's gone, I still have that wonderful gift.
Around 1960 a friend introduced Bill to the Cook'n'Kettle, a cast iron kettle grill on a stand. He applied his scientist's mind to the problem of the perfect steaks, smoked turkeys and roasts, and after a few years of taking measurements, timing carefully and keeping records in a notebook, he had it down. While most guys were timidly poking at a burned steak on their grills, he was in the den, watching the Tigers on TV. When my mother asked when the meat would be done, he'd look at his watch and say, "eight and a half minutes," without missing a pitch. The results were spectacular.
About fifteen years ago, after a lifetime of apartment living, I moved to a place where I could grill outside and got a Cook'n'Kettle of my own, and one afternoon I sat my father down to extract the secrets. (My three brothers also have them -- one has two -- and my daughter does too. We're featured in the Cook'n'Kettle marketing literature -- "Three Generations of Cook'N'Kettle." At last count, our extended family owns six Cook'N'Kettle setups.) I'll be revealing Bill's secrets as time goes on in Stephencooks.com, but this post is about the tool.
The Cook'N'Kettle (see below for info on availability) is a cast iron kettle-type grill setup, not unlike the Weber grills. The kettle has tabs to support a fire grate and a grill, and adjustable top and bottom vents. Cast iron "smoke rings" are used to provide room for smoking racks and clearance for meat turning on a motorized rotisserie spit. The smoke rings each have tabs to support a grill, and can be used in multiple to increase smoking capacity.
Charcoal. Bill used Kingsford briquettes all his life, and though I had a brief romance with various hardwood charcoals (see The Thrill of the Grill, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, or any of the hundreds of barbeque fanatics' forums if you're interested hardwood charcoal nuance), I've come back to Kingsford myself. If it was good enough for Bill it's good enough for me, and it's available everywhere (of course, avoid the "match-light" version).
Wood for Smoke. Chunks, not dust or chips, unless you like breaking the whole setup down every hour to refuel. You can get all obsessive about this, with fruit woods, etc., but I've found that any hardwood (that is, not coniferous) is fine, although each adds its own character so experimentation is in order. Sometimes I just grab a log from the woodpile, which has oak, birch and beech in it, and cut it in chunks. After a renovation I smoked stuff all summer with oak and maple scraps the carpenters left when they were done installing a new floor and stair. I've also experimented with other smoke flavorings, primarily rosemary sticks. If you can find the bundles of woody-stemmed rosemary sold in supermarkets as "rosemary skewers" these work, but it takes at least one bunch, and even better, two, to make significant smoke. No matter what you are using, all fuel for smoke must be soaked for at least half an hour in water before they go on the fire.
Lighting the fire. We're making food here, to eat, so no petroleum products or other types of lighter fluid allowed! Use an electric starter (you MUST remove it after 10 minutes or the heat of the fire will melt it) or a chimney-type starter (a wad of newspapers in the bottom of the chimney and some coals on top of that. One Christmas I was all set to roast a turkey on the spit and the electric starter was dead, so I made a chimney starter out of a tall tin can...whatever it takes to avoid lighter fluid, do it! The basic procedure for firestarting is 10 minutes with the starter (bottom vent of the Cook'n'Kettle full open, lid off), then mound some unlit briquettes on top of the lit ones and wait 10 minutes, then give the coals a big stir and let them have another 10 minutes. The fire should be more or less ready at this point. (If you're using hardwood charcoal the process may be a little quicker.)
Smoking Setups. I use the two "hot-smoking" methods: Water Smoking and the Indirect Method, as diagrammed on the right. (I've never done the cold-smoking method, which involves smoldering sawdust at temperatures under 100º - I guess becaue I learned smoking from Bill and he never did it that way.) They are basically the same in that the direct heat of the fire is blocked from reaching the meat, but the water method adds moisture to the process. The pan in the water method can be a galvanized oil change pan (increasingly hard to find) or a large cast iron skillet. I use the water method mostly for smoking whole turkeys, and the indirect method for pork, brisket and fish. (The best procedure for setting up for water smoking is to place the pan on the lower grill and then use a watering can with a long spout to fill it. Remember, if you spill water on your fire you'll put your fire out so be careful!)
Smoking Procedure. I use some charcoal - about half the capacity of the fire grate - and usually about 8 - 10 meaty chunks of wood. Get the fire going with the lid off and the vent open, add the chunks and set up the grills, water pan, etc. (The holes in the rotisserie ring for the spit should be plugged with wine corks or aluminum foil.) Then put the meat on the upper grill, put the lid on and close the top and bottom dampers almost completely. For most smoking you want to regulate the fire so the temperature reading is between 200º and 225º (see "Measuring Temperature," below). With this setup I routinely smoke for 12 hours or more without needing to refuel. You need to check it every hour - if the temperature gets too low, open the bottom vent another quarter inch or so -- if too high, close it a tiny bit more. If you take a long nap and the fire gets really low it's a good idea to take the lid off and open the bottom vent for about ten minutes to get the fire going well again.
Roasting Setup. Roasting can be done with the spit, which is nice because it continually bastes the meat. Normally I put the spit in the lower smoke ring, which allows good clearance betwen the lid and the fire for the meat (which is an issue mostly with whole roast turkey). With the spit the meat is in direct contact with the heat of the fire. Roasting can also be done with the same setup as the Indirect Smoking Method.
When drippings from the roast start to flare up when they hit the fire it's time to put the lid in place, since there is a risk that the fat on the roast itself can be ignited. I once saw that happen to a roast beef Bill was doing. With thirty guests waiting inside for dinner there was a column of flame about eight feet high coming off the meat. Bill calmly put the lid on the grill, which extinguished the flames, and never said a word about it to the guests. The meat had an especially nice crust that night. But seriously, this is a potentially dangerous situation so be careful about letting fat drip directly into a high fire.
Roasting Procedure. I usually use a full load of charcoal and one or two chunks of wood for a little smoke flavor. The startup is more or less the same as the smoking procedure except that when using the spit I let the meat turn over the full-blast fire for a few minutes to sear it before I put the lid on and close down the dampers. Also, I usually roast at around 250 - 300º so the dampers have to be more open than in the smoking procedure. If using the rack method for roasting, I put a grill on just above the fire and sear the meat on that for a few minutes before putting in the foil covered rack and placing the meat on the open upper rack. This is a little more work than the spit method but sometimes (like when the motor dies) it's the method to use.
The Spit-Basket. This is an accessory to the rotisserie spit: a basket in which small items (like chicken wings, thighs or drumsticks) can be tumbled over the fire.
Measuring Temperature. Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, in The Thrill of the Grill, give these instructions: "test by holding your hand about five inches above the cooking surface and seeing how long you can hold it there. If you can hold it there for five to six seconds, you have a low fire; three to four seconds is a medium fire; and one to two seconds means you have a hot fire." When I'm roasting or smoking with the lid on the grill I poke the probe from a remote thermometer though the top vent to get the temperature inside the grill. One thing NOT to do is to put the probe in the meat and close the grill...most probe wires will not survive this. To check the internal temperature of the meat you have to open the grill and poke the probe in the meat each time you check.
The Grilling Zone. When setting up the grill, place it near the kitchen unless you are a grill-only cook (as was Bill). A canopy (to protect the grillmaster, not the grill) is essential if you want to grill in all weather (why not?) and a light is also essential. Power supply, obviously, for the light, spit and starter, should not be too far away. And the surface under the setup should be noncombustible, since sparks will fall there. A hose or a bucket's not a bad idea either, just in case.
Cook'N'Kettle Availability. The Cook'N'Kettle name and operation has been through three or four owners since 1960, and for a while in the early nineties was out of production entirely. It's now owned by Larry Baker, an enthusiast who apparently operates the business as a sideline to his day job. The full rig as described here is about $900, plus shipping (which can be substantial, due to the weight) -- about 3 times the cost of the similar Weber Performer charcoal grill - but the Weber doesn't have the versatility and durability of the Cook'n'Kettle. To buy one, go to the Cook'N'Kettle website, or call Larry at (217) 359-0382. You can also email him by clicking HERE. With a little bit of care these things last decades (Bill's original Cook'n'Kettle is still in use, over 45 years later) but parts do need to be replaced now and then and Larry seems to always have what you need.