Planning, tuque and safety key tips to get grilling in winter

Don’t let the cold temperatures dissuade you from using the backyard barbecue to put together a fabulous feast.

Don’t let the cold temperatures dissuade you from using the backyard barbecue to put together a fabulous feast.

“Steaks and anything barbecued always tastes so much better in the winter, maybe because you haven’t had them for so long,” says grilling guru Naz Cavallaro, who thinks nothing of firing up his grills all winter long.

That’s right — grills. The Whitby, Ont., resident has a half-dozen outdoor cooking surfaces that he uses year-round.

“I have a couple of grills that are close to my patio door. I use the smoker a lot during the winter. You set the temperature up and do something that takes a couple of hours or more outside, like ribs. I do a lot of ribs. Definitely slow and low (when) cooking proteins. Pork or a roast — things that I don’t have to go and check it too many times.”

The key to wintertime grilling is to use a digital thermometer. Cavallaro’s device has a monitor he clips to his belt that alerts him when his food is ready — and then he doesn’t have to keep going out in the cold to check on it.

Cavallaro, who is also a spokesman for grill manufacturer Weber, advises keeping the lid down on the barbecue as much as possible. “Don’t open it too much. The more you open it, the longer food takes to cook. In winter every time you open it, it can take five to 10 minutes to get it back to the temperature you want.”

With Super Bowl Sunday right around the corner, many football fans will be having get-togethers and nothing beats hot food straight off the grill, says Cavallaro. “The best part of it is that all the mess, all the smells stay outside and doesn’t linger inside the house for a couple of days.”

When a gang is coming over to watch the game, planning is key, he says. “Set up what you’re going to grill and decide when you’re going to grill it.”

He places everything on platters and has condiments ready. Before guests arrive, chili and ribs are already cooking at a low temperature. During the first quarter he usually does nachos and quick satays. Toward the end of the second quarter, he’ll put on wings that take 20 to 30 minutes. At half-time it’s burgers that cook in eight to 10 minutes.

“It’s very traditional to have a chili at a Super Bowl or football game,” Cavallaro says, and he does his entirely on the barbecue. He grills pork chops and top sirloin, then chops the meat into small cubes. He grills onions and tomatoes for “a nice char flavour” when they’re chopped into the sauce. He adds beer and heats the mixture on a low temperature on the side burner.

“Don’t underestimate the power of the side grill,” he says.

Another popular item is jalapeno poppers. Core and seed the jalapenos, stuff them with a purchased herb cream cheese, wrap them with half a slice of bacon, then skewer with a toothpick. Grill for 30 to 45 minutes. Cavallaro offers some tips:

• Clean snow and ice from the area where you’re going to be working.

• In winter, barbecue hoses might shrink and become brittle. “It’s important to do more checks for gas leaks with soap and water. Make sure that nothing is cracked and there are no leaks on your connections.”

• If possible, situate the grill out of the wind.

• Plan to double the time it usually takes to preheat the grill and increase the cooking time called for in the recipe.

• Keep your eye on the temperature. With a charcoal grill, you’ll likely have to add more briquettes or charcoal. And with a gas grill, “if it’s really, really cold and the recipe says put it at medium for X amount of time, I would raise the temperature, maybe go to a medium-high setting,” he says.

• Choose larger pieces of meat and foods that don’t require as much checking.

• Dress warmly. “I always layer myself too,” he says. “If you’re doing something like steak or chicken that doesn’t take much time, then a hat and gloves, maybe a parka or a nice layer of clothing so you don’t get cold,” he says.

— Have a winter routine of cleanup. “Because it’s cold, people might forget to go back and make sure the gas is off, the grill is cleaned, the lid is down and the cover has been replaced. Clean grills and grease trays so critters don’t come and feast inside there,” Cavallaro says. And if you replace the cover, you won’t have to brush off any snow accumulation the next time you want to use the grill.

— Most important: “Make sure you have a full (propane) tank or you’re done. You’re going to be paying heavy for that pizza or order-in bill.”