This Tool Pushes the Limits of Outdoor Cooking

The big grilling manufacturers have turned to griddles, which let the backyard chef tackle projects grill grates cannot handle.

Credit…Andrew Purcell for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Carrie Purcell.

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By Steven Raichlen

In the early 2000s, Roger Dahle attended an outdoor pancake breakfast cooked on a commercial flattop at his local Rotary Club, a civic organization, in Utah. “I love cooking breakfast outdoors, but you couldn’t buy an outdoor griddle for home use,” Mr. Dahle said. So the entrepreneur set out to create one.

He experimented with a variety of cooking surfaces, settling on the same material used in woks: carbon steel. He mounted it on a cart like a gas grill, with propane to fire the burners, and named it Blackstone, after a favorite local restaurant.

“People originally bought the Blackstone to cook breakfast,” Mr. Dahle said. “They quickly discovered you could use it to make Philly cheese steaks and smash burgers.”

Recipe: Torrijas (Spanish-Style French Toast)

Stand-up outdoor griddles, which eliminate the unpredictable heat control and flare-ups of live-fire cooking, are designed to take their place next to — or even replace — the barbecue grill. These flattop griddles are enjoying a heyday as more grilling companies jump into the market.

In February, the pellet grill manufacturer Traeger introduced a rugged 34-inch outdoor griddle called the Flatrock, which the company says is geared for cooks at all levels. “It’s perfect for hot and fast meals Monday through Thursday,” said Jeremy Andrus, the chief executive of Traeger, adding “our goal, in a nutshell is, to make cooking fun.”

Weber, whose name is virtually synonymous with the charcoal kettle grill, now sells stand-alone 28-inch and 36-inch griddles, and a number of inserts designed to turn a charcoal or gas grill into a griddle.

Blackstone offers more than 30 different models, including a four-burner griddle with a stainless steel cabinet, a 36-inch griddle with a built-in air fryer, electric griddles, tabletop griddles and portable griddles.

Once you get past the housing, the outdoor griddles are pretty similar. They start with a thick carbon steel slab that is heated by burners connected to the familiar backyard propane tank. The Traeger comes with a gas gauge with an almost-empty alarm and flame sensors to let you know when the burners are actually lit. Weber uses end-to-end burner tubes, which light with a whoosh of flame and an audible click.

So what are outdoor griddles good for? Breakfast foods you simply can’t grill, like eggs, hash browns and pancakes. Any food traditionally cooked on a griddle, like arepas and gorditas. Fragile foods, like flounder or cod fillets. Small foods — shrimp, mushrooms and green beans — that are tedious to grill, and even smaller foods that are impossible to grill on a grate, like fried rice. Even foods you’d never dream of grilling, like noodles and crepes.

Recipe: Shrimp a la Plancha

But what about the die-hard grill fanatic who believe it isn’t outdoor cooking unless wood smoke is involved?

They should turn to griddle-grill hybrids, like the Arteflame. It looks vaguely like a giant mushroom, topped with a large circular griddle with a hole in the center in which you build a wood fire. The fire heats the griddle, but you can also use it for grilling with an included grate.

Those with a grill and a free-standing griddle, like a Lodge or Back Country, or a skillet, can experiment with a technique I call smoke-griddling. Light your charcoal or gas grill and place the griddle smooth side up, in the center of the grate.

Add hardwood chips or chunks to the burning coals to generate wood smoke. Oil the griddle, add the food and cover the grill to capture the smoke. Now you’re ready to smoke-griddle shrimp, scallops, salmon, even tofu.

I used smoke-griddling on a gas grill to cook a Japanese A5 Wagyu, a steak so extraordinarily well-marbled that it looked like white lace over a red tablecloth. The dripping fat would have caused a conflagration on a conventional grill. The hot griddle seared the outside to an audibly crisp crust, leaving the center moist and luscious — no charcoal needed.

It was simply one of the best steaks I had ever cooked.

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