Nothing beats the taste and aromas of food cooked outside on a grill. The smell of wood, charcoal, and seared meat brings out the cave person in all of us. What would summer be without cookouts?
Of course, if you are going to cookout, you’ll need a grill (it can be done without one, but it’s much easier and more civilized to use one…). Grills come in a lot of sizes, some big enough to feed the entire local varsity football team, complete with band and cheerleaders. Most people cook in their backyard on grills that are more or less stationary. But what if you want to go to a local park, lake, river, or camp out? Fortunately, there are smaller size portable gills available. That is the subject of this article, so here we go……
|TastyMeat's Favorite Portable Grills||Brand||Cooking Space|
|Char-Griller 2-2424||Char Griller||250-square inch|
|Weber 10020 Portable Grill||Weber||Cooking grate measures 14-1/2-inch diameter|
In The Grill Of The Night
Outdoor cooking is the oldest type of cooking there is. Somewhere around 1.6 million years ago, a careless Homo erectus either dropped a piece of meat into a fire, or set it down too close to one, and the meat started cooking. Meat was a valuable commodity back then, so this proto-human fished it out of, or away from the fire, and ate it anyway, discovering that cooked food is outstanding. So much so that they began to eat all of their food cooked. This continued, so much that modern humans, with exception of some fruits, nuts, and berries, can no longer exist on a diet of uncooked food (sorry, all you raw food advocates, but humans will die without some cooked food….).
Why is this? Isn’t raw food more ‘natural’? If you are a wolf, a cave bear, or a rabbit, then yes. If you are a Home sapiens,… no. We have evolved to eat cooked foods, with smaller teeth, and shorter intestines (a smaller gut). Raw food is very hard on our systems, so much so that if you continually eat raw food, first, females will stop menstruating, then lose the ability to reproduce at all. Males will experience severe abdominal disorders, and both will eventually die. It takes a while, but it is inevitable. It would take about 3 to 6 months to kill you, and you would feel really lousy for most of that time. Modern raw food advocates do not exist completely on raw food, regardless of what they profess.
How can this be? Well, cooking food allows more nutrients to be extracted. It also allows it to be chewed easier. In fact, there are foods that you cannot digest at all unless they are cooked. So it is little wonder that outdoor cooking has so much appeal.
Early humans cooked over open fires, but as they began to abandon the hunter-gather lifestyle, and put down roots, hearths and stoves replaced the open fire. Cooking became more and more sophisticated. The advent of agriculture created more things we could cook. As people began to construct dwellings, cooking moved indoors. Most cultures still cooked outside to a certain extent, but they did it because they wanted to, instead of because they had to. The tradition continues to this day, and an outdoor cookout is as much of a social event as it is a culinary one.
The Evolution of Mobile Cooking
At first, most traveling was done on foot, which limited the amount of gear you could take with you on a trip. The domestication of animals, namely, the horse, donkey, and camel, allowed people to carry a lot more gear, but most cooking was still done on open fires with whatever material was handy. The wheel and the wagon appeared around 3000 BC in upper Mesopotamia, and spread rapidly across the world. It wasn’t long before specialty wagons were developed for cooking…the first Chuck Wagons, used mostly to support military units. Most had a built-In grill, and a simple wood-burning oven/stove. During the westward colonization of the US, and later, the cattle drives, the Chuck Wagon, and the camp cook, affectionally known as “Cookie” were greatly respected. At the same time, the Cookie was also the object of a lot of good-natured ribbing. The cook had to be a culinary and nutritional expert, and also function as a hospital corpsman, a counselor, and at times, even a priest. It was a tough job, and took a tough person to do it. Without the Chuck Wagons, Cookies, and their portable grills, westward expansion would not have been possible. This same spirit lives on in most of today’s professional cooks.
The invention of the automobile revolutionized travel. Now, people live on wheels, and portable grills have evolved to meet the challenge. Today, you can purchase anything from a very simple charcoal grill, to a gas powered heirloom-quality unit…all small enough to fit in the trunk of a small to mid-sized car.
What is a Portable Grill?
A portable grill is the same as a regular grill, only smaller. It works exactly the same way. They are simple appliances, with only 4 basic parts; a body, a grill or grate, a lid, and air vents. You have a choice of two styles, a barrel type, or a pot-type. Here is a diagram:
A Hibatchi can also be considered a portable grill, be we have already covered them in a previous article. A Portable Barrel Grill will be between 1.5 and 3 feet long, and less than 2 feet in diameter. A Portable Pot Grill will be around 1.5 to 3 feet in diameter, and maybe 3 feet tall, with the legs. Portable grills are large enough to cook for about 4 people in 1 batch. Depending on what they are made of, they can weight anywhere from a few pounds to over 40 pounds. They are designed to sit on a table top, tail gate, or other safe place.
It’s pretty easy to see how they work. You just put lit charcoal in the bottom, and your food on the grill. You can use the lid, or leave it off (or open), depending on what you want to accomplish. If you close the lid, you can control the temperature somewhat by adjusting the vents. Clean up is easy. Once the coals are dead, just dispose of them properly, hose or wipe out the inside of the cooker, clean the grill, and you’re good to go again next time. Clean up can be made even easier by lining the bottom with foil before adding charcoal. Then all you have to do is remove the foil with the charcoal in it, wad it up and toss it in the trash (after the coals are completely out). There is really no advantage of one style over the other. They work the same way. It’s mostly a matter of personal preference.
There are also propane gas models available. Instead of charcoal, they have a burner, or burners, hooked to a propane tank. There is one other type worth mentioning…the Electric Portable Grill. They are just like the gas grill except instead of a propane tank and burners, it has electrical heating elements and a power cord. And, there is a new type hitting the market as well, called an Electric Infrared Cooker. I really don’t consider these ‘Portable’ grills because you have to have a source of electricity to use them. This limits where you can cook with one, so I won’t be covering those here. Perhaps in a future article……
Charcoal, Or Gas?
Which model should you choose, charcoal, or gas? This innocent question has started many a fight, and will probably never be answered.
On one hand, you have the purists (myself included), who believe that only burning wood can give you the authentic taste of true outdoor cooking. And there is some science behind that. Burning wood does give off certain organic chemicals that probably effect the taste of your food, especially when you throw on a handful or two of certain smoke-woods, such as hickory, mesquite, pecan, etc… These woods have aromatic oils in them that diffuse under heat, into your food. Also, charcoal burns hotter than gas, so if you need to sear something instantly, charcoal is the way to go. And… it’s just tradition. If you are going to cook primitive, then go primitive. The drawbacks are that charcoal costs a little more than gas to use (although not by much…), charcoal takes up more space, it is messy, time-consuming to a certain degree, and difficult to start (but not if you now what you are doing, and use a charcoal starter can).
In the other camp, we have the techies, who love gadgets, and want things to be easy and instant. They prefer gas grills, for the ease of starting the fire, and not having to wait for coals to get ready. They will swear that you cannot taste any difference between gas-cooked, and charcoal-cooked food. Propane cookers are easier to clean, because you don’t have to dispose of used charcoal. The drawbacks are that gas is dangerous, and puncturing a propane tank can have some disastrous results. More parts mean more things can go wrong. And propane does not get as hot as charcoal. Propane tanks must be filled or exchanged frequently, and it is a good idea to always have a full spare, just in case.
Pricing between gas and charcoal grills is pretty close. They range from as little as $19.00 for a low-end charcoal grill to over $200.00. Gas grills start at around $30.00 and can go to over $200.00.
As to the difference in taste, the claim that there is no difference between gas, and charcoal is questionable. I have tested this myself, and with friends, and it is easy to pick the food that was cooked on charcoal. It has a flair and depth to its flavor that gas-cooked food does not have at all. Gas-cooked food tastes like what you make in your kitchen at home…no worse, but no better. Of course, there are those who will disagree, and that’s OK. Use what you want. It’s your food.
What Is The Best Portable Grill For Me?
Only you can answer that. It depends on what you want. There are perfectly usable grills for as little as $20.00 at places like The Dollar Store, and some grocery stores. I have one I bought brand new for $12.00 at Ingles Food Stores around 12 years ago, and I am still using it. But I also have a Weber Smokey Joe, a Char-Griller tabletop barrel cooker. and a Safari Chef gas cooker. There are even some models that fold to the size of a large computer bag, and could fit easily in a backpack.
The first thing to decide is whether you want gas, or charcoal (and there is no law that says you can’t have both….). Next, decide on how it will be used. Will you be doing any tail-gate cooking? Do you want it for cooking on a picnic table? Do you need one that you can carry on a hike? Or maybe use it on a large watercraft, like a pontoon boat? Once you figure all this out, you can select the model that has the features you like. And remember, you can have more than one, and dedicate each to a specific need.
I’ve reviewed a few of what I feel are the best portable grills for the money. I hope this helps you in your quest for the perfect cooking tools.
My 3 Favorite Portable Charcoal Grills
1. Char-Griller 2-2424
This is one of my all-time favorite portable charcoal cookers. I’ve had mine for many years, and it has proven to be a winner.
The 2-2424 is made from heavy-gauge powder-coated steel (not cheap aluminum), has a full 250 sq. inches pf cooking space, yet it is only 17” x 16” x 18.5” and only weights 35 pounds, easy for anyone to manage. It even has two built-on carrying handles to make it easier to carry. The Char-Griller sets securely on any flat surface, and is high enough so that you don’t have to worry about burning whatever it is setting on. It has a side-loading ash pan to make clean up very easy. There are two levels to set the grills on, and you can use both at once. You can also use the lower one to hold a drip pan, or a metal can of water for wet-cooking. By using indirect heat, you can even smoke food in this unit. I have smoked chickens, pork roasts and seafood in mine many, many times, and it does an outstanding job. It will hold two whole chickens, or 1 small turkey (up to about 10 pounds), 6 chicken leg quarters, 2 to 4 large steaks, or 8 large fish fillets…more than enough for 2-4 people.
The really cool thing about this unit is that if you have a full-sized barrel smoker/grill at home (I do, of course…), you can remove the side panel and attach it to your big smoker to use as a side smoke-box, or for extra grilling space.
2. Weber Smokey Joe 10020
Regarded by many as the King of portable cookers, the Weber Smokey Joe is one of the better bargains available. This cooker can hold 3 or 4 large steaks, 8 burgers, a pack of hot dogs or smoked sausages, 4 chicken leg quarters, a whole chicken. or several fish fillets and seafood. At slightly less than 16” diameter, it holds plenty of food for 2-4 people, and it only weighs 9 pounds. Made from enamel coated steel, you never have to worry about rust. It’s perfect for cooking on the balcony of a small apartment, tail-gates, or any flat surface. It has good ventilation and it is easy to control the temperature. Clean-up is a snap. Once the coals are out, just douse them with water, dispose of the properly, hose and wipe it out, and you;re good to go again. The only drawbacks are that the lid is separate, and can come off during transport. Also, the legs are just screwed on, so you need to check them before each use and tighten as needed, because they do work loose. I fixed mine just by putting some Lock-Tite on the screw threads. The legs will get bent, so you may have to bend them back straight from time-to-time. Other than these things, this is a great little grill. I’ve had mine for over 10 years, and it is still going strong.
3. Picnic Time X-Grill Folding Cooker
If you hike, or move around a lot, the X-Grill from Picnic Time is one of the neatest cookers I have ever reviewed. It very basic, and does not even have a lid, so you can’t bake, or smoke in it. But as a grill, it does a fantastic job. I was able to get one for review from a local sporting goods store, and I have to say, this grill blew me away. I took it to a local lake and grilled some fish, chicken leg quarters, and pork chops. They were all done to perfection. I’ll be using this a lot when I hike, or go light camping. I think you could place a fire-proof cover over it, open up the vents all the way, and use it as a tent heater in the winter, like a Hibatchi. I won’t be able to test that out until this winter, so stay tuned…
The cool thing about the X-Grill is that it folds up, and stores in a polyester tote-bag (included). The whole thing is only around 4” thick when folded, including the bag. It only weighs 10 pounds, and fits easily in my A.L.I.C.E pack. It can even be strapped to the outside, if needed. Unfolded, it is about 20’ x 20’, x 16”…plenty large enough to cook for 2-4 people. It held 6 pork chops at once, and 8 large catfish fillets. I was even able to grill 2 whole sides of a large carp.
The X-Grill is built to last, out of electro-coated iron. I would recommend wiping it inside and outside with food-grade mineral oil to guard against rust. The grill is nickel-plated, so it cleans up very easily.
The X-Grill is a real winner for hiking, or light traveling.
Portable Gas Grills: My 2 Picks
1. Char-Broil Portable Gas Grill 465620011
For a portable propane grill, the Char-Broil is a tough act to follow. Made from steel sheeting coated with a high-temperature porcelain finish, and it’s stainless steel burner delivers a full 11,000 BTUs of cooking power…more than enough for any kind of grilling you want to do. It has over 190 sq. inches of cooking area..plenty for 2-4 people. It measures a compact 15” x 24” x 12”, and the legs fold over the top to hold the lid on while it is being transported. At just 10 pounds, it is light enough to be handled by anyone. It uses standard 14.1 oz. or 16. 4 oz. propane bottles, and has a push-button igniter. Another nice feature is that it has hooks to hold the lid when it is not being used, so you don’t have to worry about misplacing it.
2. Safari Chef Portable Gas Barbecue Grill
The Safari Chef is the only other portable propane grill I own. I am a purist when it comes to most cooking, but the Safari Chef is so versatile, I had to get one. It is around 18” diameter x 14” tall, and only weighs 9 pounds. It is a modular unit. The bottom part, which contains the burner and a standard propane bottle is made from heavy duty powder-coated stamped steel. The burner supplies 1800 BTUs of cooking power…more than enough for anything. It is available as either a high-pressure, or low-pressure unit.
The really cool thing about this cooker is the upper part. It is made from porcelain-coated steel, and has a standard grill, a ribbed griddle, a flat griddle, and the lid, which has a built-in thermometer, can be inverted to use as a wok! No other portable cooker I know of is this versatile. I use mine a lot. It is a little pricier than some other models, but it does a lot more…
Now you should have a good understanding of portable cookers. I hope this article has been helpful. Keep checking back with us for more great articles.