From apartment dwellers to the inveterate griller who wants a grill at the ready whenever and wherever, charcoal tabletop grills, like Weber’s Smokey Joe, are ideal for a day at the beach, an off-road adventure, tailgating in a stadium parking lot, or a picnic in the park. They are a practical solution anywhere a full-size grill is impractical.
Small size is a distinct advantage when you’re talking about travel worthiness. However, it’s a disadvantage when you want a fire hot enough to handle searing effectively.
Searing is a cooking method that transforms the flavor of whatever is being cooked on a grill or hot pan. It is the process of cooking over intense heat (600° to 1,200°F or higher) for a relatively short amount of time to achieve a crispy, caramelized crust that seals in all those very tasty juices.
Tabletop grills are best for direct-heat cooking—grilling directly over the fire. However, indirect-heat, or zone-based, grilling presents a specific challenge. Indirect grilling is a two-stage method in which the food is first seared over a high-heat zone then brought up to temperature, or finished, over a moderate-heat zone.
On a full-size grill indirect cooking is easy to set up. You build the fire all to one side for high heat, leaving the other side relatively free of coals, thus providing a warm zone to finish to the desired degree of doneness.
However, when your portable cooking surface has a diameter of only 15 inches or so, trying to duplicate that process severely constricts the cooking surface; it reduces the amount of food able to be cooked at the same time.
So here’s how to replicate a two-stage cooking process on a small grill.
- Build your fire so it covers the entire bottom of the fire bowl.
- Preheat the grill grid for about 5 minutes.
- Just before you are ready to put the food on the grill, sprinkle a couple of handfuls of dry wood chips on the coals and let them begin to flame. Replace the grill grid over the fire, then place your food on the grid to sear. Depending on the size of what you’re cooking, let it sear for 1 to 4 minutes on each side.
- The chips will burn hot and intensely for a few minutes, then die out on their own, which lowers the fire-bowl temperature, thereby simulating two-zone cooking. If the fire is still flaming after the food is seared, put the cover on for a few minutes to tame the flames.
Dry wood chips add a lighter smoky flavor, compared to wood chips that have been soaked in water and give off a thick smoke. Oak, apple, maple, hickory, or pecan chips are all good choices. Mesquite chips, in particular, work well because the wood burns at up to 1,000°F.
It’s best to maintain a temperature in your grill of 350 to 450°F for finishing. Have a grill thermometer handy for checking your cooking temperature, as well as an instant-read thermometer for checking the doneness of your food.
Do you usually cook with direct heat, or with two-zone indirect heat? Have you ever tried this dry wood-chip method of two-zone grilling? What’s your preferred tabletop/portable grill? What wood chips are your favorite, and with which type of meat?