It’s Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer–time to kick off the long, delicious season of outdoor grilling. In an ideal world, we’d all have yards and yards of space at our grilling disposal, with plenty of room for a monster grill, a table full of spatulas and tongs and seating for all of our dinner guests. But here in the city, summer grilling is relegated to the tiny corners of outdoor space possessed by the lucky few: the mini-balcony, the shared patio or rooftop, or those few square feet of concrete in front of your stoop. Because there’s just no substitute for a sizzling burger or dog during the hot, humid days ahead (the sun WILL come out eventually), we’ve put together the ultimate guide for urban grilling. Read on for tips on equipment, strategy and a great recipe.
The Great Debate: Gas Versus Charcoal
If you’re in the market for a grill, there’s one question you have to settle before buying: gas or charcoal? There are advantages to both, and the issue basically comes down to flavor versus ease of use.
There is absolutely no question that a charcoal fire produces better-tasting food than a gas grill. Charcoal creates smoke, which permeates meat (and vegetables) to produce that finger-licking quality we all associate with great barbecue. A few other selling points for charcoal grilling? First of all, a basic kettle grill is much cheaper than a comparable entry-level gas grill, with an 18-inch Weber going for around $80, and a two-burner propane grill costing at least $120. Another point goes to charcoal grills for their size: for urban grilling, they’re just more space-effective than even a small gas grill. We all know someone who has that tiny 14-inch Weber, and it does a darned good job of turning out a few impromptu kebabs or veggie burgers at a time.
That said, gas grills, for those with the space and a few extra dollars in the budget, have one clear advantage: speed. It only takes about 10-15 minutes to preheat a gas grill before it’s ready to go; with charcoal, the coals must be lit (about 20 minutes) and then spread out in the grill to heat the grate (about 5 minutes more). And with gas grills, the heat just keeps going and going, so if you’re cooking for a large crew, there’s no need to break the flow by having to heat round after round of charcoal. The grill is more expensive, and propane tank will run you $30-40, but will last for much of the summer (as opposed to picking up an $8 bag of charcoal every time you want to grill). Plus, there’s no cleanup required with gas grilling, whereas you’ll have to periodically empty your charcoal grill of ashes.
Where to Buy
A home improvement store like Home Depot or Lowe’s is the best place to start for sheer variety, and these stores often offer compelling summer sales. If you want to buy local, you can research your grill at these stores first, then check out your neighborhood hardware store to see if they’re carrying what you want: Leopoldi’s in Park Slope, Crest Hardware in Williamsburg and Hardware 2.0 in Prospect Heights all boast great grill selections. If you’re going super-cheap, dollar stores often carry extremely basic “portable” charcoal grills during the summer, priced at $20 or less. They’re ideal for hauling to the park or setting up once in a while in front of the building, but won’t last as long as a better made grill.
A charcoal chimney will change your grilling lifeIf you’ve purchased a charcoal grill, make sure to pick up a charcoal chimney (also called a chimney starter): it’s the cheapest, most effective option for lighting your coals. Made from stainless steel, a chimney is basically a wide cylinder with a grate on the bottom. I recommend this model from Weber, which costs $15. To use it, take the top grate off your charcoal grill and set aside. On the smaller, lower grate inside the grill, crumple up a few pieces of newspaper and set the chimney directly on top, fitting the paper into the shallow space beneath the chimney grate. Then, fill the chimney with charcoal and light the paper underneath. In about 20 minutes, the coals will be red-hot underneath, with a layer of gray ash on the very top. Carefully dump the coals into the bottom of the grill, replace the top grill grate, and cover for five minutes before grilling.
Supplies and Tools
If you’ve purchased a gas grill, you’ll need to find a source for propane, which has become a little trickier since 9/11. It’s illegal to refill a propane tank within city limits, and it’s also illegal to bring in full tanks from outside of the city, so don’t do your propane shopping in New Jersey or Connecticut. Instead, when you buy your grill, pick up a propane tank, too. When it’s empty, bring it to a location where you exchange it for a full tank: Lowe’s and Home Depot in Gowanus both offer the service. If you’re feeling lazy–or just don’t want to lug the tank around in the summer heat, Big Apple Propane and Manhattan Propane will deliver a full tank in exchange for your empty for $40 a tank.
Give some thought to grilling tools, as well. You’ll want to have a pair of long-handled tongs, for grabbing items without singeing your hands. I like this pair from OXO for $15. Similarly, you’ll need a long-handled spatula for flipping: I like this one, also from OXO, for $13. Don’t pay any attention to all those huge grill tongs you’ll see for sale: the holes they’ll poke in your meat will make all the juices run out. Finally, make sure to pick up a sturdy grill brush: no matter what kind of grill you have, it’s extremely important to give the grate a good scrub-down before each grill session. This brush from Weber does a great job and is a bargain at $8.
Where to Grill
If you’re short on outdoor space or don’t have any at all, consider doing your barbecuing in a public park. The Parks Department website lists locations around the city, including Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park, where grilling is allowed. If you plan to use the park’s permanent charcoal grills, remember to bring you own coals and be prepared to stake your spot early, particularly on holiday weekends. It may be a better idea to bring all your own supplies, including a portable grill.
New York City has a lot of laws about where you can and cannot grill, but most people don’t pay much attention to them. Legally, a charcoal grill must be located 10 feet away from a building, discounting most city dwellers’ balconies, decks and terraces as an acceptable grilling location. But if you use caution and are mindful of your neighbors, you’ll probably be safe grilling on your porch, balcony or patio, or out in front of your building. Rooftop grilling with charcoal is technically illegal in New York City, (gas is okay, but you are not supposed to store the tank on the roof), but lots of buildings with fire-retardant surfaces seem to look the other way. Use your own discretion here, but I recommend following the letter of the law when it comes to fire escape grilling: don’t do it. If you’re caught, fines can reach $10,000.
Where to Buy Meat
Once you’ve invested time, energy and dollars in amassing the perfect grill setup, it makes sense to look for the best quality meat. Luckily, great butcher shops are on the rise in New York right now, with a handful of the best located in our own fair borough. Check out the local, grass-fed meats for sale at Fleisher’s in Park Slope. If game is what you’re after, you can’t beat the old-world service of Carroll Gardens’ Los Paisanos, which offers elk, wild boar, rattlesnake, alligator and caribou, among many others. Two other great options are Marlow & Daughters in South Williamsburg and United Meat Market in Windsor Terrace.
Later this summer, once you’re tired of juicy hamburgers and perfectly charred hot dogs, we’ll be back with some next level grilling techniques and recipes. For now, we leave you with this recipe for Vaguely Asian Short Ribs from Tom Mylan, author of The Meat Hook Meat Book.