A regular charcoal grill works perfectly well for grilling steaks and burgers, but some cooks have grander ambitions. For them, preparing old-school, long-cooked brisket or pulled pork requires a smoker with a large charcoal capacity and good temperature control. One option for home users is the Big Green Egg, a thick-walled ceramic cooker that's immediately recognizable from its shape and color. With an Egg and a bit of practice, a dedicated enthusiast can turn out competition-quality barbecue right in the backyard.
Fundamentally, a Big Green Egg works like an oversized version of a chimney-style charcoal starter. Air enters the Egg through the sliding steel draft door at the bottom and exits through a daisy-wheel vent on the metal top. The wider you open the draft and vent, the more air that passes through, turning up the heat. With experience you'll learn to adjust the airflow delicately enough to maintain almost any temperature you choose, from as low as 200 degrees Fahrenheit to 800 F or more.
Low and Slow
That fine temperature control makes the Big Green Egg a superb tool for traditional, low-and-slow barbecue cooking. This typically calls for temperatures of 225 to 250 F, which provides ample time for tough brisket, ribs or pork shoulder to absorb smoke and soften to a lush, rich texture.
Start the coals with an electric or chimney-style starter -- not a petroleum-based firestarter -- and leave the draft open until they're burning well.
Put a drip pan or the optional ceramic "plate setter" over the fire, to diffuse the heat so it's not reaching the meat directly. The plate setter rests on rim of the fire ring, above the coals.
Place the Egg's grill over the plate setter, arrange the meats on the grill and lower the lid.
Keep a close eye on the Egg during the first hour of cooking, adjusting the draft and vent to maintain a steady temperature. Once its temperature stabilizes you'll only need to check it occasionally.
Depending on the cut you're barbecuing and its size, a "cook" might take as few as 2 to 3 hours or as long as 18. For quick-cooking items, scatter a few pieces of hardwood atop the fire for smoke. With longer-cooking foods, layer hardwood into the charcoals from the bottom of the firebox all the way to the top. This will provide consistent smoke throughout your "cook."
The Big Green Egg company itself, and some aftermarket manufacturers, offer microprocessor-controlled fans to fit the draft door opening of an Egg. They automatically adjust airflow to maintain whichever temperature you set, making long, slow cooking easier and more predictable for novices.
Although the Egg's reputation rests largely on its ability to slow-smoke, it also makes a very good charcoal grill. With the lid open, it's a deluxe kettle-type grill, and with the lid down and vents open, it can create restaurant-grade heat for searing.
How you grill depends in large part on what you're cooking.
- For relatively large or easily burnt items such as chicken halves or quarters, you might opt to leave the plate-setter in place and cook with indirect heat.
- For steaks and chops, taking out the plate setter and using direct heat is a better option. You'll generate the most intense temperatures, matching those of steakhouse grills, by closing the lid, opening the draft door and pivoting the daisy-wheel vent out of the way entirely. If your fire is already well-established, you can reach temperatures in excess of 750 F in just moments.
A Superb Oven
An often-overlooked side of the Egg is its prowess as a baking tool. It's essentially a scaled-down version of the wood-burning clay or brick ovens used by artisanal bread-bakers and pizza-makers the world over, and like its kin it can turn out exceptional baked goods.
Invert your plate-setter so its legs face down, and place a pizza stone on top of it. Heat the Egg to an appropriate temperature -- 350 F or so for most breads, 750 to 800 F for pizzas and some flatbreads -- and slide your creation onto the hot pizza stone. The finished breads and pizzas will be deeply crusty, faintly charred and offer a delicate wisp of smoke flavor.
The Importance of Burping
Temperature control in the Egg works by restricting the flow of oxygen to your fire. When you open the Egg to check on your food, oxygen will flood in and cause an alarming -- and potentially dangerous -- flashback. That's a split-second flash of flame that bursts from beneath the Egg's lid, often leaving the unwary cook's arms hairless and slightly scorched.
To avoid this, you'll use a technique Eggheads call "burping." It just means opening the lid an inch or two and waiting a moment, so air enters in a controlled fashion rather than all at once. Then, you can safely open the lid the rest of the way.