When it comes to grilling, I am not one for shiny toys. I have my large black Weber kettle grill, a charcoal chimney and a host of techniques for high and low temperature cooking that over time have been honed to create successful summer cookouts.
So when I see gadgets, I am either skeptical about whether they work or just don’t think I need them.
But grilling season is here, and this year I decided to step out of my comfort zone and test some trendy props.
The highlights include a “blow dryer on steroids” that lights charcoal in seconds, an insert that transforms the grill into a pizza oven, a pink salt block, and a bristle-armed robot that effectively serves as a Roomba for a crusty grill grate.
Himalayan Salt Block
Pink salt blocks are the new cedar plank. In this case, think a 1 1/2-inch-thick slab of rosy-colored salt, usually from the Himalayan mountains, that reaches a temperature upwards of 500 degrees when placed on the grill (gas or charcoal), adding hints of salt and mineral to everything it touches. I have used salt blocks in the oven to roast meat and cold in the fridge to cure seafood, but never on the grill. We tested one from Williams Sonoma, though there are plenty on the market. The key is to find one that is at least an inch thick and works for grilling. Like a cedar plank or a plancha, the porous salt block heats evenly making it a great vehicle for searing. The block takes about 30 minutes to heat on the grill. Once ready, it works for everything from steaks to a spatchcock chicken. I found the block made fast work of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and added a nice crust to skewered shrimps, while keeping the center buttery and tender. Bonus: The salt block proved to be a great conversation piece and it’s blush color made it a centerpiece on the backyard table. Cleaning can be a little bit of a hassle.
The Kettle Pizza
I am surprised it has taken someone this long to develop a pizza insert for a kettle grill. Kudos to Al Contarino and George Peters, two inventor-types from suburban Boston, who spent several years perfecting this kettle grill insert, and, in turn, are gaining a worldwide following. The KettlePizza is a fairly simple and effective tool that converts the dome on your grill into a scorching hot, wood-fired pizza oven capable of churning out perfect Neapolitan pies in a way that is nearly impossible to do inside your home oven. The trick here is a lot of practice. I burned about five pies before I got one right. It’s OK. Once you master a couple of steps you will be a champion backyard pizzaiolo. Through trial and error, learn what it takes to keep the oven at 700 degrees or higher for an extended period of time, and then get the timing down for how long it takes to cook a pie (it happens fast). We found that large wood logs worked better than smaller ones. Placing them on top of charcoal embers in the back of the grill helped the oven reach and maintain the necessary temperature while creating the flames needed to give the top of the crust that bubbly char. A baking steel is a nice addition, allowing you to easily check the bottom of the crust for doneness and swivel the pie so it cooks evenly. One of the drawbacks: The window through which you slide a pie onto the grill can feel a little small. KettlePizza kits also come in gas-grill versions (from $209.95) and a growing host of accessories include a baking stone designed for the grill, pizza peels and a traveling case.
This sleek fire starter looks like a curling iron and acts like a hair dryer on steroids. The ignition lights charcoal in less than a minute, and the blower heaves air that creates heavy flames to spark those briquettes with little effort. The story behind Looftlighter is almost as fascinating as the gadget itself. It is the brainchild of an inventor with a bizarre vision. Richard Looft, a Swedish theater and film director wanted a faster way to light charcoal. He began with a toaster, filled it with charcoal, and reversed the air flow from an old vacuum cleaner. Drawback: It needs a plug. But it’s fun to play with, takes some of the difficulty out of getting a fire going when you want to grill in a hurry, and was a big help when I wanted to bring the KettlePizza to temperature quickly. Looftlighter can be used to light a fire pit or a fireplace, too.
An electric rotisserie may be one of the more worthy gadgets for your grill. One of the biggest problems with takeout rotisserie chicken is what happens to it in the time it takes to get it home. The skin loses its crispness. This is where the battery-operated rotisserie comes in. Tether a bird or two, attach the rotisserie to your grill, and relax as your bird cooks, basting itself for moist meat and crispy skin. Also works with ribs and that Thanksgiving turkey.
I have never understood the need for a fancy grill brush. I find that if you get the grill grate hot enough, all those leftover crusty bits should just fleck off with the flick of a plain old hard bristle brush or even steel wool and a pair of tongs. So I thought it was a bit ridiculous when I came across the Grillbot, which is essentially a Roomba for your grill: charge it, turn it on and let this robot clean as you tend to other tasks. It leaves the top of your grill flawless and the grill brushes can be cleaned in your dishwasher. The main drawback: The Grillbot is not great at cleaning in between the grooves. At nearly $100, whether you need one or not is debatable, but it is sort of hilarious to watch this Transformer-like robot race around the grill, and it’s one great conversation piece.