Charcoal grilling makes an elegant comeback

18 Jun

The Performer charcoal barbecue is easy and convenient to use, thanks in large part to its propane starting system. (Geoff Meeker photo)

June 18, 2012

I last wrote about barbecues in 2008, while explaining the new infrared searing and cooking system.

In that same review, I spoke highly of my new Fiesta grill, which I said offered solid value for $300. Alas, the months were not kind to it, and my opinion of Fiesta has changed. Many components wore out during the warranty period, and their replacement parts continued to wear out after the warranty expired. Last year, the drum rusted away from the frame. Not good at all, for a grill that was kept covered.

So this spring, I scouted about for something new and different. In a quick online poll, nine out of 10 friends recommended Weber grills, so I started there. Weber makes some fancy and expensive barbecues but it was the modest-looking Performer ($400) that caught my eye. I emailed the company and requested a demo unit, for review. It arrived a week later.

The Performer offers a clever innovation that differentiates it from other grills, and elevates it above most, in my view. The fuel source is charcoal, widely considered to be obsolete because it is messy, expensive and takes too long to light.

However, the Performer is a hybrid – its propane starter system has the coals ready for cooking within 20 minutes of lighting. The charcoal is contained in two half-moon shaped baskets, placed above a small propane burner. When lit, the burner shoots out an arc of flame that lights the coals in about five minutes. After that, it takes 15 minutes for the coals to turn white and ready for cooking. (That’s not bad, considering it takes 5 to 10 minutes to heat up a propane grill.) And propane imparts none of the chemical taste you can get with commercial charcoal starters.

The charcoal is placed in two semi-circular baskets (above), above a small but very effective propane burner that brings the coals to a hot flame after just five minutes (below). The coals are ready for cooking within 20 minutes of lighting (further below). (Photos by Geoff Meeker)

When ready, you can leave the grills in their baskets or spread them evenly on the grate. I prefer to keep them in the basket, because it offers a concentrated heat source ideal for browning. After that, I place the food on the perimeter – away from the direct heat – to finish cooking. (With the lid on, the performer works like an oven.)

Other smart design features include the air vents in the lid and on the base of the grill, which give full control over the fire. When you close down the intake vent on the bottom – about 80 percent shut – the coals burn more slowly and drippings from the food will sizzle and smoke, rather than flare up.

If you also stop down the exit vents at the top, the smoke inside becomes highly concentrated. It is this smoke, more than the coals themselves, that lend that unique taste for which charcoal is renowned. As an added bonus, you can toss wood chips on the coals and turn the barbecue into a smoker.

So far, I have done steak, chicken breasts, wings, burgers, sausage, hot dogs, vegetables, garlic toast, and more on this grill. All are delicious, though my favourites are the steak and chicken breast. A thick, nicely marbled striploin is ideal because of the fat drippings, and it caramelizes so perfectly on the outside. Chicken breast also gives up plenty of drippings while the skin roasts to a crispy brown, when cooked with the bone side down.

The Performer does an excellent job on everything from prime rib roast (above) to chicken wings (below).

Until now, charcoal was wasteful. The coals always seemed at their best just when cooking was done. It took them hours to burn out, and dumping the tray later was messy and a bother. With the Performer, you can close off the vents when finished, smothering the coals immediately. The next day, you shake the basket to remove the dust, and the coals are ready for relighting. Charcoal costs more than propane, but this feature reduces that cost. The air venting system takes some getting used to – I smothered at least one fire prematurely – but you will adjust in no time.

Another convenience: The Performer has a built-in ashbin. The lower vent covers double as cleaning arms, which scoop the ashes through the holes and into the receptacle below, which you dump after six or eight weeks of use.

The grilling surface is 22” wide, so there is plenty of room to cook for a crowd, and the tabletop is enormous. The lid slides to the left, into a handy holder. There’s even a flip-out charcoal bin at the other end, which keeps your fuel dry and within easy reach.

Finally, the Performer looks nice. The construction is solid with an elegant design and great finish.

I observed one downside. If you lift the lid on a windy day, the updraft stirs a cloud of white ash, some of which inevitably sticks to food. It’s harmless to consume, but I’d rather avoid it for esthetic reasons.

The barbecue is designed to work with a one-pound disposable propane tank, but these can be expensive. I recommend the optional adaptor for connection of a 20-pound tank. Also, Weber barbecues have a great reputation for longevity but to protect your investment, I suggest you purchase the fitted cover.

I never expected to grill with charcoal again, not on a full-time basis like this. However, the Performer has given charcoal grilling a modern twist that will make it highly attractive to today’s backyard chef.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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