BBQ in Winter: 6 Tips for the Die Hard
Hey gang. Chances are it’s cold out there no matter where you may be reading this blog post. It’s winter, get used to it! I’m writing this post from the Florida office in the middle of January and its 34° F outside. So we get it. Is it colder in Wisconsin? I’m sure it is.
But we’re all faced with the same dilemma. Do we throw in the towel, hang up our tongs and retire our grills for the season? No! Instead of staring out the window with big puppy dog eyes as we look at our BBQ smokers and grills, let’s remember our pioneering heritage and make a pact to buck up, look Mother Nature in the eye, put our BBQ gear back on and respectfully tell her she can’t keep us away from our passion: Grilling, BBQin’ and spending time with friends and family.
As John Belushi’s Bluto from Animal House, states in the inspirational pep talk to his fraternal brethren:
“Hey! What’s all this laying around stuff? Why are you all still laying around here for? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it ain’t over now. ‘Cause when the goin’ gets tough…The tough get goin’! Who’s with me? Let’s go!”
Now that we’ve fired you up a bit, here are a few winter grilling tips that the GrillJunkie team has learned and shared over the years. Below you will find our tips, techniques and overall advice for Grilling in Cold Weather and firing up the BBQ in Winter. What we provide is advice for both, acknowledging that there is a great difference between the two techniques, Grilling vs. BBQ, that widens even deeper in the winter months. No matter What Fires You Up, the advice still applies.
BBQ in Winter: The Prime Directive
Keep your BBQ hot enough to smoke, no matter how cold it is. Smoking in cold temperatures presents several challenges. When operating a charcoal, gas or wood fired backyard smoker, weather is always something you need to pay very close attention to. When temperatures are very low you need to be especially careful. Reaching and maintaining ideal smoking temperatures can be difficult at best, and very hard if the wind is blowing. Metal smokers are particularly challenging because the metal acts to conduct the heat quickly away from your BBQ, grill or smoker.
- Temperature: The first thing to imagine is the temperature difference. On a nice warm summer day you might find that your smoker, sitting in the sun, has an internal temperature around 100° F. without a fire in it. Open the lid to get things ready and maybe it cools down to 85° F. If your target temperature is 225 degrees F. then you need a fire that will increase in smoker temperature by 125-145° F. If, on the other hand it is a cold, overcast day the internal temperature of your smoker could be 35° F, meaning you need to increase the temperature by 190° F. This is near twice the temperature difference. This means that you will have to have better temperature control, a hotter fire, and more fuel than usual on hand.
- Wind: Now we need to take into account the wind. The most important thing about wind is the direction relative to your smoker. Some smokers, like the large offset smokers have a definite airflow path. Air comes into the smoker through the firebox and moves across the cooking chamber and out the stack. If the wind is blowing in this direction the increased airflow will burn your fuel faster and can cause high temperature spikes. This means keeping the vents closed down more than normal. If the wind is going in the other direction it can stop the airflow entirely and keep the heat out of your cooking chamber. It is best to let the wind add to the airflow and not stop it so if possible position your smoker so that the wind is blowing in the direction of the natural smoker airflow. It is very important to keep an eye on the wind as well as your smoking temperature.
- Precipitation: Of course it’s very difficult to smoke in heavy rain but cold weather also brings the occasional unanticipated light rain or snow. When water hits your smoker it is going to evaporate. Evaporation pulls heat from your smoker. If, during the course of a smoke you find some rain or snow falling it is time to open up the vents, getting things stoking, and bring up the temperature to offset this heat loss. Keep a close eye on it and you should be okay.
BBQ in Winter: Strategies and Safety
Of course, the ideal smoking environment is a warm and calm one. But we’re talking atypical, cold winter conditions here that require some good old ingenuity. Anything you can do to provide this environment will help you maintain good temperatures and have a successful barbecue. By positioning your smoker in a sheltered (but not enclosed) space you can reduce the effects of wind.
Some people have gone so far as to build wind breaks to set around their smokers to keep the wind away. This can be a good strategy but make sure you are not putting flammable material in close proximity to your smoker. Wind can make sparks jump a good distance.
6 Cold Weather Barbecue & Grilling Tips
Winter Grilling Tip 1. Find a Good Spot
If possible, place your grill or smoker where there’s as much protection from the wind as possible. We take our grills or smokers up as close to the test kitchen gable wall as possible without getting too close to the siding on the non-windy side or hit the corner of the rear deck with two sides providing some wind blockage. Do be safe though. NEVER grill or smoke in an enclosed porch area or in the house. If you don’t burn down the house, the fumes will do you in. And just think of the embarrassment as the fire department arrives, and there you are with your tongs still in hand wearing your “World’s Best BBQ’r” apron.
Winter Grilling Tip 2. Fuel Up!
Cold temperatures will impact the heat in the grill especially those made with thinner metals. Ceramics like the Big Green Egg and cast like the PK outdoor cooker have more insulation so owners of these products will experience fewer issues with keeping the temperatures up. However, not all of us are so lucky, so be sure to compensate for heat loss. A general rule of thumb is to consider the amount of fuel we’d typically use in the summer and add about half of that amount for cold weather grilling or smoking.
For instance, if the GrillJunkie team would use about 30 chunks of charcoal on a typical meal, then we would increase our load to 45 chunks in cold weather. On gas, it’s a bit more difficult to measure, but be sure to have a full tank and a full spare as grill-warm up times are longer in cold weather. Typically we’ve found that we are using 35-50% more fuel when grilling in the winter months. One interesting thing about cold temperatures is that you can actually see how much gas you have. The lower part of the propane tank with gas will cover with a thin coat of ice, clearly marking the level. With organic fuels such as wood chunks, charcoal, lump hardwood or even pellets it’s a matter of experimenting and experience. Again, up your fuel on hand by 35-50%.
Winter Grilling Tip 3: Adjust for Warm Up
It stands to reason that it will take longer to warm up a grill or barbecue smoker when it’s cold outside. And, the grill pre-heating and warm up is very important. Foods stick on cold grates. Also, if you like a sear, you won’t get that if your grates are not hot. With charcoal, fire up the coals (a chimney starter is a huge help) and then put the lid on the grill with the vents open. This keeps the fire going but allows the grill to get hot. With gas, turn it on and put down the lid and watch the temperature gauge. Or, plan on approximately 15 to 20 minutes of pre-heating rather than the warmer weather rule of thumb of 10 minutes.
Winter Grilling Tip 4: Real Quick or Real Slow
If we’re grilling or smoking food in cold weather, either for a family meal or Grilling Product Review, we tend to go for foods that grill up quick. Fish, brats, and hot dogs are real quick. We will do hamburgers and steaks but go thinner than usual if doing them while standing out in the severe cold, and grilling does require close attention. Barbecue (or smoking), on the other hand, is low and slow. It may get a bit cold on the set up – getting the fire right and the smoker up to temperature. But, after that, if you have a good quality smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain Bullet, then maintenance is low. You just run in and out every couple or few hours and make sure everything is cranking along.
Winter Grilling Tip 5: Offset or Low Heat
When we grill in cold weather, we offset the charcoal which is simply having hot coals on only one side of the charcoal grill or heat one side or portion of the gas grill to high and the other side to low. What this does is allow for some variation in cooking times on the food. If one steak gets done quicker, we shift it to the cooler area to rest and stay warm while we finish off other steaks or vegetables. If doing this, then slightly under-cook items, since they will continue to cook along a bit on the cooler side.
Winter Grilling Tip 6. Keeping Things Warm
Another tip is that we will have a cast iron pan with a lid warmed up – either on the grill or inside. Cast iron really holds the heat well, although we do recommend a good grill glove if working with cast iron. As foods are coming off the grill, like hamburgers for example, we just put them in the warmed cast iron pan and put the lid back on. Again, we cook a little less done than we want in the end as the burgers or other foods will continue to cook a bit more in the warm cast iron holding pan. Those are the cold weather grilling and smoking tips that come to mind. Feel free to add your own. We’re always learning and sharing, so chances are we didn’t think of everything, but those ideas will hopefully get you out in the cold and grilling up some good dinners for yourself and/or the family. Man up!
BBQ in Winter: Let’s Wrap it Up
If the weather is bad you have a few options to fire up some good barbecue. We’ve pulled 20 hour smoke-a-thons in sub-zero temperatures with great success. The secret to operating a charcoal or wood burning smoker is vigilance. When the weather is bad you have to be extra vigilant, but it is certainly doable. Simply because the thermometer has dropped doesn’t mean you need to forget the smoker or grill. After all, the best cure for the winter blues is a great barbecue.
It has been COLD here, indeed, and if you didn’t catch this in the opening paragraph, we are writing this blog from the Florida office at 33° F, so cold is cold. But, we are GrillJunkie brethren, we’re addicted and we’ve got charcoal smoke in our veins. Going a day or two without barbecue or grilled food, is just not bearable. Nor should it be tolerated. So, fire up those grills, kick the snow off those smokers and get out there! Your family and friends are counting on you.
What are your thoughts on this GrillJunkie blog post? What Fires YOU Up? We welcome your comments, healthy debate, and the inevitable disagreement. Leave a reply or comment. It’s OK. Bring it on!