Southern Gentleman

Seven Tips for Winter Grilling

By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of Traeger Grills

Don’t let January’s frigid temperatures deter you from grilling or barbecuing. Just button up your non-flammable coat and get on with it.

I was standing in a sweltering tent in Gulf Shores, Alabama, this past November when I broke out in a pretty bad case of the chills. A Canadian in town for the World Food Championships was showing me a picture of his backyard grill setup (not the big competition rig chuffing away in competition barbecue area, but his smoker, gas grill, and the little counter between them) somewhere far north of the Mason-Dixon Line. His setup was covered – and I mean covered – in what looked like a foot of snow. Just looking at the picture I started to shiver.
“That’s 28 centimeters of snow,” he said. “My son measured it this morning.”
“How do you cook on that in the winter? Where I live – in North Carolina – the whole county shuts down for an inch of snow,” I said.
Across the South we respond to snow or even temperatures in the upper 30s in the same way: panic. If it snows, the county shuts down one day for every inch on the ground. If the temperature dips below 45, there’s a 30 percent chance school is delayed. If there’s a snowflake in the weather graphics, good luck finding bread, milk, or toilet paper in a two-county area.
There’s little I can do to keep a lid on the region-wide panic that snow induces, but I can tell you this: it’s easy to feed yourself, your family, your friends and neighbors when it’s cold out, snow or no snow. All you need is a grill.
Even when it’s cold out, take heart, Southern Gentlemen. Here are a few tips to keep you cooking throughout the winter.

Dress for the job. It’s cold, but you’re dealing with fire, so no scarves, no puffy coat from Patagonia, no fuzzy fleece, nothing that will catch fire or have a hole burnt in it when a spark flies your way. Dress warm enough to do the job without hypothermia, but keep it as non-flammable as possible.

Have your tools at the ready. This is a rule for cooking anytime: keep the tools you need and the ones you might need close at hand. This also means your winter gloves aren’t meant to pick up a hot grate or help you turn a big old pork butt on the grill; for those jobs you still need heatproof gloves, oven mitts or towels.

“Have some bourbon to keep you warm if you’re going to be outside too long,” advises my friend Rodolfo Sandoval, sous chef/pitmaster-in-training/woodsplitter and butt- seasoner at Southern Smoke Barbecue. His boss, Matthew Register, echoed it: “Plenty of bourbon,” as did a half-dozen chefs, pitmasters, barbecue enthusiasts, and other foodies. It’s cold out, so a little nip of something to warm you up isn’t a bad idea. Just keep it between the lines so you can focus on the grill.

Prepare for the cold. If you’re cold, your grill’s cold too, and that means you might have a hard time keeping a steady temperature, which is not so serious when you’re throwing on a steak or a couple of burgers, but when you’re making barbecue, it’s a real problem.

Matthew Register (who offered up that bourbon tip), owner of Southern Smoke Barbecue and author of the forthcoming “Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today” (in bookstores this May), says to use some extra insulation on your grill to keep the temperature steady. His go to – moving blankets. They’re thick enough and burly enough to keep your smoker that much warmer without catching fire. Though have a little something (not bourbon) nearby in case you get a stray spark or two.

“MORE FIRE!!” Bud Taylor, chef-owner of The Bistro at Topsail, offered up this gem, but it’s true. When it’s cold out, you’ll have a hard time keeping your temperature up and you’ll need to cook a little longer. For every five degrees it drops below 45 you should add 20 minutes to your cook time. Now that depends on several variables – wind (we’ll get to that), humidity, what you’re cooking – but add in some extra time, throw a few more coals on the fire, and warm up with your bourbon, you’ll be out for a while.

Move it. Not the meat on the grill, but the actual grill. Keep it out of the wind and you’ll have an easier time cooking.

Lookin’ ain’t cookin’. If you’ve been around barbecue pitmasters enough you’ve heard this said a thousand times, and it’s true. Every time you lift the lid to look at the grill, you’re losing heat and tacking on time to the cook. So, don’t look. The solution can be as simple as getting a remote thermometer. The probe goes in the meat, the meat goes on the fire, you get to go inside and keep an eye on your temperature from afar.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.