The Tools & Toys Guide to Backyard Cooking

backyard cooking

In this guide to essential grilling equipment, we aim to list the best gear needed for grilling and smoking meat. Alas, we don’t have any suggestions for a security system that will keep the neighbors away during dinner time.

Below is the list of everything you need along with our corresponding recommendations for the best gear for your backyard cookouts of hamburgers, steaks, chicken breasts, bratwurst, salmon, turkeys, kabobs, and more.

Updated for 2014.

Gas Grills

Weber Genesis

Though nothing beats a charcoal grill for flavor and versatility, it’s hard to argue against the convenience of a gas grill. If your only grill is a gas grill, get the best you can afford and try to buy something bigger than what you think you need (you’d be surprised how quickly a few hamburger patties and cobs of corn will fill up a whole grill).

When it comes to gas grills, you really do get what you pay for. There are a lot of components to a gas grill (hoses, pipes, starters, lids, thermometers, adjustment knobs, etc.) that charcoal grills just don’t have. Weber is hands down the king of the gas grill (as you’ll see below, we recommend them not only for gas grills, but for charcoal grills and smokers). Cheaper, generic brand grills are cheaper because they’re built with less quality parts (thinner steel, less reliable starters, etc.). These parts don’t hold up well over time, and most commonly give way to rusting through, among other issues. And rusting in your grill’s pipes can mean fuel leaks which can be seriously dangerous. For something you keep outside and heat to temperatures as hot as 500 degrees, the wear and tear on a cheap gas grill can add up quickly and come back to bite you in the long run.

For your basic, entry-level gas grill we recommend the Weber Spirit. It’s a high-quality grill to be sure, it’s just low on the bells and whistles. The Spirit comes in different sizes depending on how many burners you want. As mentioned above, get the biggest one you can afford.

For the step above that, the Weber Genesis can’t be beat — it’s Weber’s flagship grill line. The Genesis line runs bigger than Spirit line and includes a few more bells and whistles. Basically, if you’re looking to buy it for life, get a Genesis gas grill.

And to ensure the longevity of your gas grill, be sure to get the corresponding cover.

Charcoal Grills

Sure grilling with gas is easier, but it can never fully replace the purity and sheer awesomeness of grilling over charcoal. Charcoal is the best when it comes to flavor, versatility, and the purity of the craft of grilling.

For charcoal grills, there’s pretty much just one: the Weber One Touch Gold.

Weber One-Touch Charcoal Grill

Weber grills are built with thick, high-quality steel that will literally last for decades. The One Touch comes with just enough bells and whistles to make your grilling experience as easy as it should be (without turning your backyard into a restaurant-grade kitchen). The “one touch” in the name refers to the cleaning system inside the bowl — there is a “fan” of blades that scrape out the charcoal ash into the bottom catcher.

Now, for those who’ve been turned off by the inconvenience of using charcoal, in all kindness, it’s likely that you’re simply doing it wrong. Read the section on Charcoal below to learn how to easily get charcoal briquettes red hot every time with little hassle and zero lighter fluid.

Charcoal

For the best flavor, you want to use natural charcoal. Avoid MatchLight at all costs, and no you don’t have to go around with that “soak your charcoal in lighter fluid for 20 minutes before lighting” silliness either. The reason you want to avoid using MatchLight and/or soaking your charcoal in lighter fluid is that the chemicals that help get the charcoal burning stick around for awhile and add some “extra flavor” to your food.

A bag of Kingsford charcoal briquettes does the trick just fine. You can pick these bags up at just about any grocery store or hardware store.

For some folks, getting the charcoal lit is still a mystery. But with a chimney starter and a FireStarter Cube you’ll be the king of the grill in no time.

Charcoal Chimney Starter: We all know how frustrating it is when you’re trying to get your charcoal ready to grill over and it simply won’t light. Fill this thing with your charcoal briquettes, light a fire cube underneath, and in 15 minutes you’ve got red hot coals ready to cook with. The effort is minimal and you haven’t spoiled the taste of your food by using lighter-fluid flavored MatchLight.

FireStarters Charcoal Lighter Cubes: These bad boys are the greatest invention since the above mentioned chimney starter. Actually, you’re supposed to use them in conjunction with your chimney starter. You place one underneath your chimney starter, light it, and you’re done. In 10 or 15 minutes you’ve got a chimney full of hot coals ready to cook with. They Firestarter cubes are cheap ($9 for a pack of 24) and they save a ton of time and energy to get your charcoal going. Alternate methods include using shredded paper soaked in cooking oil instead of the lighter cube.

And one more advantage to using the chimney starter: in the long run it’ll be cheaper than buying MatchLight all summer long.

An Instant-Read Thermometer

Instant-read thermometer

The best way to know when your meat is cooked (and not overcooked!) is with a thermometer. You’ll use it to check chicken breasts, whole turkeys, steaks, pork briskets, and more. Cooking to temperature is far safer and more accurate instead of assuming something is done based on time, look, or gut feelings (if you get it wrong, you’ll be having those gut feelings later and they won’t be too pleasant).

Trust me when I say you want an accurate, instant-read thermometer.

The very best instant-read is the ThermoWorks Thermapan thermometer. It’s accurate and gets a reading within 3 seconds. But it also costs $100. Which is why we recommend the RT600C from ThermoWorks instead. The RT600C is just as accurate, takes 5-6 seconds or less to get a temperature reading, is dishwasher safe, has a 5,000 hour battery life, and costs only $19.

Smokers

One of my great joys of summer (and spring and fall) is getting up early while the air is still crisp, brewing a cup of coffee, walking into the backyard, and starting up a chimney full of charcoal for a day of slow-cooking some smoked BBQ.

Depending on which part of the country you’re from, there are various opinions regarding the best way to smoke your meat. I live in Kansas City where the offset smoker reigns. But unless you’re willing to spend a decent amount of money (more than $500), you’ll be hard pressed to get an easy-to-use, reliable offset smoker.

For my own backyard BBQ I prefer a vertical bullet smoker. Bullet smokers are generally less expensive, they have a smaller footprint than an offset smoker, they can be more versatile, the interior water pan helps keep the meat juicy and tender for those times when you could use a little bit of help with your cooking, and since heat and smoke like to rise up by default, they’re a bit more fool-proof than an offset smoker.

The Best Vertical Smoker

Weber Smokey Mountain

And the best vertical smoker for the money is, hands down, the Weber Smokey Mountain. Surprised?

Like all of Weber’s products, the Smokey Mountain is built with the best materials — it’s a high-quality smoker. But what also makes the Smokey Mountain so great is that it’s a very functional and easy-to-use smoker.

The most important factor in buying a smoker is having one in which you can control the temperature. Assuming you’re not using an electric or gas smoker, your smoker’s temperature is steadily controlled by being well insulated and sealed and having a proper air vents and dampers so you can control the oxygen flow going to the wood or charcoal. The WSM (especially the smaller, 18.5-inch model) does an excellent job at maintaining steady temperatures in the 225-degree range for hours and hours.

Best Budget Smoker

Truth is, there’s not a “best budget smoker”. But there are options for those who don’t want to afford the $300 – $400 price tag of the Weber Smokey Mountain.

One option is to watch eBay and Craigslist for a deal on a used WSM.

Another option is to buy an inexpensive smoker and modify it. With a few tools and a Saturday afternoon, you can actually end up with a pretty trustworthy smoker for around $100.

In fact, this is what I’ve done. The smoker I currently use is a modified Master Forge bullet smoker I bought from Lowe’s a few summers ago.

The Master Forge has most of the foundational elements needed for a decent smoker: a good sized fuel box, thick steel, handles, door, and dual racks. With a few modifications to help with airflow control the Master Forge can be turned into a formidable smoker.

Following similar mods as found in the infamous “FrankenBrinkmann“, I’ve been able to get my Master Forge to stay mostly steady at 225 degrees for at least 10 hours. While not ideal, it’s also not bad for a smoker which cost me $60 plus some scrap metal parts.

Smoker Accessories and Tools

In addition to the smoker itself, along with the above-mentioned Charcoal Chimney starter and FireStarter Cubes, there are a few essential tools you’ll need when smoking your meat.

  • Natural Lump Charcoal: When smoking your meat, th flavor of the charcoal and wood chunks you use can significantly influence the flavor of your food. You do not want those ribs you slaved over for 8 hours to taste like lighter fluid now do you? That’s why natural lump charcoal is the only charcoal you should use. It’s all natural, so the flavor it imparts is the flavor you want it to impart. And it burns longer than normal briquettes which is kinda the point in slow cooking.

    I suggest you read up on the Minion Method as it is probably the way you want to go about lighting your smoker’s charcoal.

  • Leave-in, Wireless Thermometer: This is your new favorite toy. The Maverick Wireless Thermometer has a dual thermometer output: one line for the temp of your smoker itself and one line for the internal temp of your meat. You then plug each probe into the base station and leave it clipped to the side of your smoker. Then, with the receiver in your pocket you can go about your day by watching the game inside, taking a nap on the hammock, or playing catch out front with your boys, all the time knowing exactly what temperature your smoker is. And, on the receiver you can even set high and low temp alarms (tell me when the turkey gets to 155, or tell me if the smoker gets below 200).

    The Maverick wireless thermometer has a range of 300 feet. Which makes it 10-times more useful than one of those fancy Bluetooth thermometers that works with an app on your iPhone. Bluetooth has a range of about 30 feet, so step too far away from your grill and you’ll lose the connection to your leave-in thermometer.

  • Meat Claws: These are standard equipment in any BBQ King’s castle. They come in great for handling meat during three types of occasions: (1) when you’re dealing with raw meat and don’t want to wash your hands every time you need to move one slab of ribs to marinate the other; (2) when you’ve got an enormous freshly-cooked turkey, pork shoulder, or brisket that’s too heavy for tongs; and (3) when it’s time to pull apart that slow-cooked pork shoulder for those pulled pork sandwiches.

Shawn and a Thanksgiving Turkey smoked on the smoker

Me, Shawn, with our Thanksgiving Turkey smoked on the smoker. It was delicious.

See Also

For smoking recipes, tips, equipment reviews, and more, be sure to check out AmazingRibs.com. Meathead is the definitive master when it comes to the science and the art of backyard cooking, and his site is a favorite of ours.

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