Cooks are all romantics, none more so that grillers. Be it some deep-seated ancient energy released by the mere sight of a live flame — humans have been using fire to cook food for some 125,000 years — or the burnt edges it produces, grilling outdoors inspires gastronomical mysticism.
So it makes sense that the ritual itself is rife with paradoxical thinking (mistakenly soaking wood chips in water before trying to burn them), dramatic overestimation of one's abilities (doing the finger test to measure meat doneness) and excruciatingly dull gatekeeping (charcoal zealots). Yet the weirdest take of all is that grilling is a summer activity, something that must be ceased once Labor Day has come and gone.
I would have fallen into this trap myself if I didn't grow up in the Deep South, where the summers are sweltering and the last thing the body wants is to be stationed next to fire. But no matter where you live, confining your grilling experience to one season makes little sense. Just ask the experts.
"A warm, sunny late afternoon should not be the only time you cook out of doors. Cold days, windy days, snowy days, rainy days, dark and cloudy days all have their charms and challenges to the builder of fires and the griller of food. Many chefs take pride and pleasure in making a meal with whatever ingredients are at hand. I am that way with fire and weather. Whatever weather the gods hurl my way, as long as I have wood or charcoal, a place to kindle a flame, and some way to expose ingredients to the heat of the fire, I know I can make a fine meal."
So sayeth the Church of Grilling’s hedonistic high priest Argentina’s Francis Mallmann, whose devotion to live-fire cuisine has made him the most recognizable Latin American chef in the world. The above passage, excerpted from a 2014 Barbecue Bible essay, neatly summarizes his stance on "seasonal" grilling. Considering his living conditions — a remote island in Patagonia — cold weather is no excuse to stay indoors.
If Mallmann’s impassioned challenge isn’t convincing enough, perhaps the science will be. Nothing about lower outdoor temperatures condemns a grill to a bench role.
"The big changes I make are that I dress warmer, and I don’t sit by the grill sipping beer," says Meathead, publisher of AmazingRibs.com and author of the eponymous cookbook on grilling and barbecue.
Likely the most prolific grill tester in the world, Meathead fires up year-round from the Chicago suburbs, which don't feature the mildest of winters. His advice is often simple, but grounded in experience. The most significant considerations when grilling in cold weather are timing and fuel use.
Because the grill itself and the grates are cold, you'll need to lengthen your preheating time accordingly. Grills with thinner, less-insulating metal (like a Weber Kettle) will get hot more quickly, while thicker grills made with heavier materials (like a Big Green Egg) may take longer to heat up. But, as is the case in warm weather, beefier grills hold steady, high temperatures more effectively than their trim counterparts do. The second part of the equation is the outside air itself. Fire feeds on oxygen, but cool air getting into a grill will lower the temperature inside.
According to Meathead, the solution is simple: just use more fuel (coals or wood) than you might on a mild day. More fuel means more heat and less temperature flux; in other words, steaks can come off at the right time. For gas grillers, simply let the grill chamber preheat thoroughly and ensure your tank is topped off. If there's blistering wind at play, roll your grill behind a wall or other barrier. Problems solved.
Oh, and one more thing: all the cool kids are grilling in the winter. According to surveys conducted by marketing firm Acosta, 61 percent of Gen Z and Millennials who grill are doing so year-round, leading 46 percent of all grillers with the same mentality. So the next time you consider hanging the tongs up for the "off-season," remember that Mallmann, Meathead, your kids — hell, most of humankind — will look down upon you.