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Great Introduction to Outdoor Cooking.
on June 13, 2005
`The Cook's Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue' by the editors of `Cook's Illustrated' magazine may be the very first book you should get on the title subject. Unlike the charcoal only coverage of the excellent `The Thrill of the Grill' by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, this book gives equal coverage to charcoal and gas, although it does not address grilling with raw hardwood.
The first thing which impressed me about this book is that early in editor in chief Christopher Kimball's introduction, the point is made in no uncertain terms that good grilling and barbecue is hard to do. Doing it right requires both book learning and experience. The second thing that impressed me about the book was that I found lots of very good general information on techniques. I was expecting not much more than an anthology of grilling and barbecue recipe articles from the magazine as I see in many other `Cook's Illustrated' books. I was not surprised with the quality of this information, as `Cook's Illustrated' always provides reliable, albeit somewhat uninspired advice.
One thing I find true of the `Cook's Illustrated' books is that they are fun to read. Every other page seems to have a sidebar of interesting opinions about everything from Santoku knives to catsup (Heinz is the best). I suggest you take opinions on ingredients such as vinegars or olive oils with a grain of salt, as there is a good chance that a minority of available brands were tested and their testers tend to play it safe. When they say they were surprised by their results, it's time to sit up and take notice! The best thing about their opinions is that they give the reasons behind their recommendations and when the reasons are sound, there is little room for argument, as when they describe their experiments with the heat distribution in a kettle grill measured from five different points in a comparison of two different methods of creating a high heat zone and a low heat zone in the same grill.
A second big distinction between this book and `The Thrill of the Grill' is that `Cook's Illustrated' gives us recipes for all the standard dishes that appear on 90% of America's grills. It may be great to find out how to grill octopus, but it's a lot better to exercise one's grilling technique with hamburgers, steaks, and chops until you have the basic techniques down pat. As with most `Cook's Illustrated' recipes, I have a bit of a problem with the ones in this book. While I totally trust their opinions and findings on general grilling technique, I will probably adapt their recipes with a certain caution. Their recipes for hamburgers and London Broil have lots of good information about shaping the patties and choosing the meat, but the actual recipes are, I believe, not as good as my favorite methods acquired from Julia Child and James Beard respectively. I would be inclined to read what they have to say about the recipes, but use my own experience in seasoning or marinading. The other side of the coin is that many recipes give separate instructions for how to handle the same recipe on gas and on charcoal. My best suggestion is that if you have a favorite saute recipe you wish to move to the grill, look up a comparable recipe in this book and transpose your favorite recipe to the grill with these authors' grilling recommendations.
Part of what makes this book so good as armchair reading is that it does an excellent job of explaining the differences between cooking methods for tender versus tough forms of meat. This dichotomy is especially interesting when lined up with the differences between grilling and barbecuing. The former is a high heat method very similar to sauteeing while the latter is a low heat method very similar to braising. It explains the seeming paradox of a piece or beef loin going tough if cooked too long while a piece of chuck becomes tenderer under the right long cooking circumstances.
For those who are not familiar with the `Cook's Illustrated' style of presentation, I have to give a good word about their line drawing demonstrations of techniques. I have always preferred the skillful drawing to photographs as the former illustration highlights what is important and leaves out any extraneous information. On the other hand, when the subject is produce as when you are looking at good versus bad racks of ribs, a series of well cropped photographs is better than the drawing. Here, you don't want to chance hiding any detail of the product being shown. In any case, the illustrations are a lot better than what you get from Schlesinger and Willoughby or Bobby Flay. I will say that in a few cases, the black and white photos are a little weak in that the definition of detail doesn't do justice to the point being made in the text.
This oversize volume has two introductory sections on basic outdoor cooking techniques and outdoor cooking tools. This is followed with seven chapters of all your basic grilled or barbecued proteins, including beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey (and other birds), fish, and shellfish. Vegetables give us an eighth chapter on grilling. The tenth chapter covers grilling breads, especially pizza. If you are pretty expert at pizza making, this is probably really a good thing to try, as your kitchen oven can barely make it above 500 degrees Fahrenheit, while a charcoal grill can easily reach over 750 degrees Fahrenheit, much closer to your favorite pizza shop oven. The last chapters are on side dishes and rubs and sauces.
If I were editing the book, I would have put barbecue techniques and recipes in separate chapters, especially for those who specialize in one or the other, but a little extra reading never hurt anyone, and I am all in favor of the value of serendipity.
Highly recommended first book on grilling and barbecue!