10 Tips for Grilling in Inclement Weather

Grilling year-round is increasing in popularity, but it takes fortitude to pull it off. See more pictures of extreme grilling.

When we think of grilling, we think of relaxed folks lounging in the backyard in perfect summer weather. They share conversation. They sip cool drinks. Their mouths water at the aroma of the cooking food. Occasionally, the chef flips, bastes or checks the food on the grill.

Americans love to grill. When it's done right, grilling doesn't just produce tasty food: Because the fat cooks away, grilled foods tend to be healthy foods. In addition, grilling seems to turn cooking into a social event.

Despite the sad fact that it's not always summer and the weather is often far from perfect, people are grilling in all seasons. Market research shows that nearly 40 percent of American households say they grill year-round. That's nearly twice as many as 20 years ago [source: Cascade Cattleman].

Maybe you want to be prepared in case a shower threatens your planned summer cookout. Maybe you're just a hardy soul who's determined to grill come snow, sleet, cold or rain. But whether you find yourself grilling in inclement weather by choice or misfortune, don't despair. You can minimize the discomfort and maximize the pleasure. Read on for some useful tips on how to do it.

Wimp Out and Grill Inside

Here's a word of caution right out of the gate: Never move the outdoor grill into the house. Don't try going under a tent, either. The heat and open flames are fire hazards. Fire prevention and consumer safety organizations say burning grills should be at least 10 feet (3 meters) from any flammable structures.

Charcoal grills and hibachis pose the added hazard of poisoning by carbon monoxide (CO), a gas that's colorless, odorless -- and potentially deadly. Every year in the United States, about 30 people die and 100 more are injured by CO fumes from indoor charcoal grilling [source: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission].

But grills made for indoor use can produce tasty food safely. Many people swear by electric countertop grilling machines. They cook quickly and drain away fat. Marinades and rubs can enhance the flavor of the food. Starting these grills is a snap and it's easy to regulate the temperature.

If you have a fireplace and wood, try a fireplace grill, also known as a Tuscan grill. These consist of a metal frame with an adjustable grilling grate. You can improvise one by removing the grilling surface from an outdoor grill and setting it on bricks inside the fireplace, over the coals [source: Rombauer].

However, if you're determined to cook outdoors, read on for tips about making roughing it not quite so rough.

Stand Under an Umbrella
It may be terrible outside, but grilling is easy if you're under an umbrella.
It may be terrible outside, but grilling is easy if you're under an umbrella.
© iStockphoto.com/Darkcloud

An umbrella isn't going to be much help if extreme cold, snow, sleet or high winds is your weather woe. But if your main worry is keeping the grill (and the griller) out of the rain, it may do the trick.

There are umbrellas made especially to shelter grills. You can find various designs of grill umbrellas on the market. Typically, they clamp onto the grill's table or fit over it and rest on the ground. Some larger styles have fancier names like "veranda grill canopy."

Grill umbrellas started as a way to provide shade for the fair-weather summer chef. They're also a great way to keep a sudden shower from spoiling your party. They can work well in an extended rain -- as long as there's no wind blowing the water sideways.

If the rain isn't too cold and the guests want to chat with the chef, standard umbrellas can help with the socializing.

No grill umbrella? If rain starts, improvise with the ordinary kind, preferably a large one. Enlisting a friend to hold the umbrella over the grill for the cook can ensure that the inclement weather doesn't end the socializing.

Think an umbrella's not big enough? Keep reading.

Think Bigger

As the popularity of year-round grilling has grown, so has the range of products designed to make it a more comfortable experience for everyone. Elaborate canvas-covered grilling islands are available, but they're a bit pricey.

Less expensive steps can also help when inclement weather threatens. You can buy a relatively inexpensive "parking structure" for your gas grill. These structures typically hide the grill's wheels, frame and propane tank, but leave the grill portable. The structure looks more expensive than it is, and it provides storage space and a counter for food preparation and serving.

If you set up your cut-rate grilling island wisely, you can protect your grill against rainy weather in a few minutes. All you need is an easy-to-pitch canopy tent, a roof-and-metal-poles structure, with no sides. Often used by sports teams and at tailgate parties, such canopies are widely available.

Unlike an umbrella, the canopy won't need anyone to hold it, unless it's really windy. But it will bring people together, so the cook won't have to grill alone. Of course, you can use a canopy while you cook over any grill. A low-cost island isn't required.

A little rain won't stop your grilling. But what about wintry weather? Keep reading.

Gather 'Round
A gathering around a beautiful fire pit like this one would make anyone forget the cold.
A gathering around a beautiful fire pit like this one would make anyone forget the cold.

One great way to deal with the challenge of grilling in extremely cold weather is to turn the temperature deficit into an asset.

Rather than having one lone person hover around a closed grill while others wait inside, cook on an open fire pit and let everyone gather around. The chef and the guests can savor the warmth of the fire, the aromas of the cooking food and the company of others.

People with the space and inclination can build a permanent fire pit into the ground. There also is a variety of durable but less permanent structures available.

Chimeneas, with a pot-belly fire pit and a chimney, are designed for cooking as well as warming. They are made of ceramic or of steel, copper or cast iron.

Other popular designs include fire bowls, rings and pits made of various metals. Some have screens; others are more open. Some are quite large. You can cook hot dogs or marshmallows on a stick, like on an old-fashioned campfire. Many models come with grill inserts for more elaborate cooking.

If you're sticking with a more conventional grill, there are ways to adjust to bad weather.

Face Reality

Snow covers the ground and it's so cold your breath freezes as you exhale, yet you're determined to grill outdoors. You'll be fine if you acknowledge that grilling in wintry conditions isn't just like summer grilling with a warm coat added.

These preparations can help deal with the realities:

  • Clear a path: If there's snow on the ground, clear your walkway from house to grill, and a space around the grill. Otherwise, you may have slush that will become ice when the temperature drops or the sun sets. One slip, and you could hurt yourself and ruin dinner.
  • Clear the grill: If there's snow on the grill, get rid of it. It will lower the temperature inside the grill. Cold-weather grilling takes longer. Don't make it worse.
  • Check the grill: In the fall, spiders might see the gas lines, jets or burners of your grill as the perfect place to hunker down in cocoons. They can clog the gas flow.
  • Dress appropriately: It's cold outside, but you're still dealing with fire. Avoid flowing scarves, flapping coattails and floppy sleeves. Go for compact layers, thermal fabrics, turtlenecks and snug jackets and caps.
Know Your Grill
Different grills can make grilling in bad weather easier.
Different grills can make grilling in bad weather easier.

The prime consideration when grilling in rainy weather is to keep your grill lit and the food dry. But those who grill in cold and windy weather should consider different grill types.

The increased interest in winter grilling has prompted the rise of "infrared" grills that run on propane or natural gas. Their high-tech burners can reach temperatures as high as 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit (849 degrees Celsius) [source: Fletcher]. Infrared grills can cost several thousand dollars, although you can find less expensive varieties available.

Infrared grills can overcome the cold-weather problem of prolonged grilling, but they're not the only way to grill well in frigid temperatures.

More familiar gas grills can do well. In fact, many people prefer gas grills to charcoal in wintry or windy weather because they start and heat up more quickly.

Charcoal lovers don't have to give up their grills in bad weather. They should, however, use one with a cover that closes and has easily controlled vents and dampers.

Whatever your grill, and whatever your weather issue, there are tricks that can help you grill as painlessly as possible. Read on to learn about them.

Try Some New Cooking Strategies

If you're making your bad weather part of the party by gathering under a canopy or huddling around a fire pit, that's great. If not, a major goal of bad-weather grilling is minimizing the time the chef needs to tend to the food.

Try these strategies:

  • Start early. In bad weather, the grill takes longer to preheat. Charcoal takes longer to start.
  • If it's cold, raise the grilling temperature by about 20 percent.
  • Close the dampers on the bowl of a charcoal grill. If it's cold, more oxygen will feed the fire inside, raising the temperature. Keep the lid vents open.
  • Is it windy out? If possible, turn the grill so that the wind is perpendicular to the flow of gas [source: Weber] If there's snow, jam something such as a plastic sled into a bank to make a wind break [source: Johnson]
  • Guesswork is bad for grilling. Use a meat thermometer.
  • Keep the lid closed. The more you open the lid, the longer the food will take to cook.
  • Even if you're not constantly at the grill, keep a close watch, especially if it's windy.

Read on for suggestions of good foods to grill in bad weather.

Try Indirect Grilling
You can cook large cuts of meat in bad weather by trying indirect grilling.
You can cook large cuts of meat in bad weather by trying indirect grilling.

The weather's nasty. You want to grill outdoors, but you'd rather not suffer too much. What can you throw on the grill that won't require a lot of attention?

It helps if you keep in mind the difference between direct and indirect grilling. Direct grilling means cooking foods quickly close to a hot fire. In bad weather, choose quick-cooking basics such as steaks, hamburgers, sausages or fish for direct grilling. Flip them only once or twice.

Indirect grilling is really grilled roasting. Larger cuts of meat or other foods are roasted slowly by the indirect heat in a closed grill. Barbecuing is a variation of grill roasting. The sauce can be added as a finishing touch. There's no need to open the grill and baste every few minutes [source: Rombauer].

Good choices for indirect grilling in bad weather include large cuts of meat that can cook on their own for long periods without constant basting. This may be the time to try grilling a beef roast, pork tenderloin, whole chicken or leg of lamb. Some people even like to grill meatloaf. Stew, chili and hearty winter vegetables also can do well in a closed grill.

Cheat a Little

There are two easy ways to cut down on the time and attention you'll need to devote to grilling in bad weather.

One method involves wrapping the foods in foil. Once you're done with the wrapping, place the food on heavy-duty aluminum foil, and then add seasonings, oil, cheese, sliced onions or whatever your recipe calls for. Fold the foil into neat, tightly sealed packets. Place on the grill over medium heat, close the lid and wait. For dishes such as meats, turn once or twice. Others won't need turning. All kinds of foods can be cooked this way: summer squash with onions and butter, eggplant with tomatoes and basil, drumsticks, fish, garlic bread and more. By using this method, you can cook everything with a minimum of fuss and be ready to come off the grill at the same time [source: Gandara].

You can also try microwaving your food first. Start cooking the food in the microwave while the grill is heating. Cook until it's nearly done, then finish on the grill. The food will be done, it will be moist, and it will still have the taste and look of grilled food. This method cuts the grilling time by about half [source: Betty Crocker].

All these tips are good, but there's one very important one left.

Have Fun!
A great attitude can cure a variety of weather-related grilling woes.
A great attitude can cure a variety of weather-related grilling woes.

Whether you're cooking in inclement weather by choice or necessity, the biggest key to success is a good attitude. Don't complain. Laugh. Make the adversity part of the fun. It's sure to be part of the story later.

Try to draw your guests or family members into the adventure. Share the bad weather under an umbrella or canopy or beside an open fire pit. Or solicit help in the challenge of figuring out ways to grill against the odds.

Don't let all your hard work go for naught: If you're grilling in rainy weather, use that umbrella to get the food quickly to the dry place where you'll be eating. If your problem is extreme cold, warm a platter ahead of time so that your perfectly grilled food doesn't chill while you're carrying it to the table.

If you're wet or the temperatures are frigid, substitute a hot drink for that tall cool one in your idealized image of grilling.

And always keep in mind that grilling is about more than just the food. It's also about the relaxation and the camaraderie. That's true whatever the season or the weather -- as long as you use your head.


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