Year-end holidays mean thinking of gifts. If you've been stuck, here are suggestions for some great outdoor cooking.
That means for anyone at any time, whether it's hot or cold. Gifts that will get used for years to come. Manufacturers sent equipment for me to test, which I did. Here are some of the choice picks.
Smoke, bake, and roast with a Traeger Timberline
If someone you know likes to smoke foods, slow cook, and wants the flexibility to even roast and bake outdoors, then a Traeger Timberline (the model 850 is $1,699.99, while the 1300 is $1,999.99). I tried the 850 in warm and cold weather, doing things like smoking fish and ribs. The results were great.
Hardwood pellets go into a hopper, with electronic ignition and a slowly-spinning arbor that feeds the pellets into the fire box. The temperature control is much more accurate than any outdoor cooker I've used before. You can run it at 165 to 500 degrees. I've done both easily. Three layers of shelves lets you adjust how much heat the food gets and also provides plenty of room.
Use your choice of different types of hardwood pellets, like apple and hickory, to change up flavors. You should keep the level of pellets up during use as that helps them feed in correctly.
You can buy online or, probably a better bet at this point, check on the Traeger site for local stores that carry them. Assembly is required and when you read that it takes two people, believe it. These units run close to three hundred pounds. Wheels keep them portable. A display screen and controls make it easy to use. The assembly process, while it takes a bit of time, is about the best I've seen. The instructions are clear, the parts solid, and the fit and finish great.
One aspect I wasn't crazy about was the app and ability to connect the unit to a Wi-Fi signal. I couldn't get it to work, got on the phone with product support, and was told that Traeger really needed to be within about 30 feet of the Wi-Fi device, or you'd need to get something to extend your signal. That wasn't workable for me, although I found it easy to use without being online.
The other thing that was a little disappointing was the performance as a grill. Although the unit gets hot, the indirect heat approach doesn't get the lowest cooking surface hot enough to really sear well and get strong grill marks on food. But it's hard to fault them, as it does so much else that is right.
Mr. Steak for grilling
Speaking of grilling, that's what the Mr. Steak 2-Burner Portable Grill ($329.99) that I tried does really well. There's also a single-burner portable model ($229.99) and a number of multi-burner versions meant to stay in place at your home.
Like the Traeger, remarkably well built and heavy. The 2-Burner is close to 50-pounds. The fuel is a 20-pound propane tank that you have to supply. The legs fold for easier transportation, but they are short, so either plan to put them on a picnic table, tailgate, or other surface. (Or squat or sit by it at the beach.)
The cooking approach is the opposite of the Traeger. Crank the heat up all the way and you get nearly 1,000 degrees to sear things on each side. Then you turn the heat down low, lower the cover, and let the steaks or chops or burgers or what have you finish off.
I regularly cook steaks inside by searing in an all-steel pan and then putting the pan into an over sitting at about 450 degrees, so the approach wasn't novel for me. If you aren't use to this approach, it will probably take a little practice to get the timing right. But it's worth the effort. You get the seared surface and, if you do it right, an interior done to your taste.
Oh, and with this form of cooking, get a really thick steak. It actually makes the cooking easier to control.
Pizza with Ooni
I love pizza. Actually wrote a cookbook about pizzas and paninis. And it was a pleasure to test the Ooni 3 (formerly called Uuni) wood-fired pizza oven ($299).
Unlike the previous products, this is made of sheet metal and delightfully light in comparison. It goes together quickly and it's worth admiring the engineering and how the pieces slip together to create the oven.
The unit I tested ran off cooking-quality wood pellets. (I used some of the ones that powered the Traeger.) Apparently there is now an adapter that lets you run it off gas.
Also, the unit I tested lacked a built-in thermometer. Instead, they sent an infrared thermometer that they used to sell for $35, but don't seem to anymore, which is a shame, as I'll explain in a minute.
You fire up the oven by putting pellets into a hopper, lighting them, and waiting ten minutes, add more as they burn through. Eventually you're up to about 900 degrees. They say that it cooks a pizza in one minute. I found it took closer to two, with a midway point where you take the pizza out, spin it halfway around, and put it back in.
The back of the oven is where it gets hottest, and that's why an infrared thermometer that checks surface temperatures is so useful. You can easily see how hot the back of the oven is compared to the front and know when you're up to heat. That's also why you spin the pizza halfway through, so as not to burn the back part. But this is similar to how pizza ovens in Italy work: really hot and fast.
Your pizzas need to be very thin. Too thick and they are done on the top and bottom but raw on the inside. As we found out on the first one. Don't overdue the toppings and remember that with the amount of heat, you can think about things a bit differently than usual. For example, take tomatoes, drain the liquid out, and crush them onto the surface. You don't need to prepare sauce in advance.
My daughter had come over for a test and came up with a great dessert pizza idea: thinly sliced apples on a crust and dusted with sugar. I added some cinnamon and allspice. The result was an apple pizza with the sugar having caramelized.
Get the flames out with a Mini Fire Fighter
Sometimes you need to kill off the flames after you started them and they decided to keep going. The Mini Fire Fighter (about $21 for one or $70 for four) is something to have on hand and hope you won't need to use it.
It's exactly what you might expect: a small fire extinguisher. The foam puts out many types of fire, including a pan of burning cooking oil.
You have to expect a can to be a one-shot deal. You're not going to use this to casually extinguish flames after cooking, because it would be too expensive and you wouldn't know if there was enough left in the can to take care of the next problem. But, still, a handy thing to have around in an emergency.
Keep your drink cook with a BottleKeeper
Finally, if you're indulging in a bottle of beer, you probably want to keep it cool. The BottleKeeper ($34.99) is like an all-metal cozy intended only for bottles, not cans.
It's a clever idea. Unscrew the bottom of the device, slide the beer bottle in, screw the bottom back on, and then drink. A screw-down cap lets you keep the beer cool. Plus, if you drop the bottle, there's a lot less chance of it breaking.