It’s Big Green Egg season, so get cracking

We made pizza on our Big Green Egg, and it wasn’t bad. I don’t think the grill was as hot as it should have been, and we made the rookie mistake of transporting the pizza to the grill on the stone, rather than preheating the stone. Nonetheless, the dough rose well and crisped on the bottom, while the farmers market tomato sauce and toppings melded into the bready puff. I think we ended up with super-cheesy focaccia rather than pizza, but no one was complaining.

At this time of the year, everything goes onto our Egg. I know we can grill year round in Atlanta’s mild climate, but I generally take a break until that day I notice that spring pollen has turned the heavy cooker on my back deck a queasier shade of green. I’ll take a wet towel to its glossy enamel and then keep going. Before long I have removed the residual charcoal, wiped down the ceramic interior and scooped out all the collected ash in the bottom. Grilling season is hereby declared.

Atlanta’s gift to outdoor cooking has captured the world’s imagination. It is sold in more than 40 countries, and top restaurants — from Smyrna’s Muss & Turner’s to Copenhagen’s top-ranked Noma — use it.

So do many Atlantans who have been caught up in the cult of the Big Green Egg. We may not all be the sorts who post obsessively on the Big Green Egg message boards about flame starters or beer-can chicken marinades. Nor do we all go to the annual EGGtoberfest, held each fall in Atlanta, armed with recipes for cold-smoked vanilla beans and coffee-rubbed brisket.

But more than a few of us have espied that 162-pound large-sized Egg (big enough for a seven racks of ribs or a 20-pound turkey) in an ACE Hardware showroom and saw just the place on the patio that needed a little green lovin’. Sure, this grill cost a not-insubstantial $750, but it took just one pork butt, cooked overnight at a steady, low temperature, to made us see our grilling/barbecuing game had changed forever.

The Big Green Egg (along with its competitors, which include Kamado Joe and Primo) use a Japanese design, called the kamado, that draws in air from the bottom and then circulates it under a domed lid, letting smoke escape through an opening on top. By controlling the air intake on the bottom and the smoke release through the daisy wheel on top, it is possible to regulate temperatures up to 750 degrees.

I figured that enough people have kamado cookers now that we could all use a basic refresher course. So I called the company and soon had a nice, long conversation with communications manager Rob D’Amico, who offered these tips for every user from the newbie to the most seasoned of Eggheads.

For the new user:

  • Never cook with the grill’s lid open. It is designed to reach and hold temperatures with the lid closed and hot air circulating above the food. “If you’re lookin’ you ain’t cookin’,” says D’Amico.
  • If you invest in only one accessory, get the ceramic convector, called a “plate setter” in Egg-ese. This disk partially covers the live charcoal, sending the hot air around the periphery of the dome, allowing for indirect-heat cooking. Gone are the days of briefly-neglected chicken with burnt skin and that special flavor of flare-up. I cook more often with the plate setter than without it.
  • Get used to cooking at lower temperatures before you go for the big guns. “It helps break the Egg in, and you get used to cooking on it,” says D’Amico. Once the Egg hits 450 or 500 degrees, it needs to be be “burped.” In other words, you have to hold the lid open a crack for about 10 seconds to allow the red-hot coals to adjust to the increased oxygen. If you open it all at once, kablammie. Granted, this works as an alternative to expensive depilatory cream if you’re into perfectly hairless forearms, but it can be scary.

For the experienced user:

  • Remember to tighten the bolts periodically. Heating and cooling down will cause the metal bolts to expand and contract, eventually loosening them and potentially letting air escape.
  • Make sure the air holes in the bottom of the grill’s firebox are open and unclogged with ash. “Without the airflow, you’re not going to get a precise temperature, and it’ll take longer for your grill to heat,” says D’Amico. Such was my problem on pizza night. Afterwards I gave the charcoal in the firebox a good stir with a spoon and made sure to get all the holes unclogged.
  • Clean it out at least twice a year if you don’t want all your food to taste like smoke. D’Amico likes the “self-cleaning oven” method of getting the grill above 500 degrees and letting it heat without food for an hour. “Some guys like to take a Shop-Vac to it,” he says. Of course, there are folks who let the residue build up on purpose. “They might like the smoky flavor from their marinade. Whatever you do, just make sure all the holes in the bottom are clear.”
  • Keep your charcoal in an airtight plastic bin during the summer. In Atlanta’s humid climate, the charcoal can absorb a lot of moisture and then take much longer to heat.
  • Keep experimenting. “You can really cook anything on the Egg,” says D’Amico, who says he just prepared a lasagna the other days. Now all the folks on the message boards at eggheadforum.com are talking about the “reverse sear” method for steaks. They begin by cooking the steaks at a very low temperature, removing them, then cranking up the Egg to over 600 degrees to give the steaks a hard sear. Others are adding just a tiny amount of charcoal and wood chips to cold-smoke chocolate without melting it.

Wow. It looks like some modernist cuisine techniques have come to everyone’s favorite backyard grill.

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