A grill table is the most useful, versatile outdoor cooking setup imaginable for everything from smoking a rack of ribs to grilling summer vegetables.
The Grill Table
Using a grill table is the most bare-bones way of smoking meat and the most reminiscent of the barabicu of the West Indies. This is still the preferred technique for smoking meats in most Asian and South American traditions. It is one my favorite ways of smoking, and the one I rely on the most. I had a friend build me a grill table to my preferred specs, and I use it all the time. The grill table is one of my favorite cooking tools, and I would highly recommend building one or having one built for you. But you can also use almost anything. I have seen pictures of grill setups made from random grates (from old ovens, refrigerators, shelving units . . . you could use anything that’s food safe) propped up on some rocks or cinder blocks. I like to have my grate a foot above the coals. I’ve even seen images of someone who built a fire under an old shopping cart and grilled in the cart.
Because you’re doing this out in the open, you are not going to get the level of smokiness that you would in an enclosed space, like the kettle grill, or in the rest of the smokers. But with a properly managed fire, you do get a really nice, subtle smoke level on your meat. You also can’t control the temperature very well with this method; a gust of wind can quickly change the fire, either feeding the flames or blowing them out. But with the right tools and experience, these issues become very manageable.
I like to use a grill table for pork ribs, chops, steaks, poultry, fish, and vegetables. I will often cook a large amount of sausages and burgers on my grill table to impart a wonderful smokiness on them. This same technique can be used for spit roasting a whole animal: just remove the grill from the setup and replace it with a spit. In Argentina they do something similar to spit roasting called asador. A whole animal (usually a lamb, goat, or pig) is butterflied and splayed on a large metal rod with two crosspieces. This cross is then placed at an angle over the coals to slowly roast the meat as it is infused with smoke. You then can add more charcoal as needed, or change the angle of the metal to bring the animal closer to or farther away from the heat. It is a dramatic and fun way to feed a crowd.
One of the things I love about the grill table setup is that you can grill and smoke over it, and then when you’re done cooking, you can move the grill off the firepit, throw more wood in, and get a big campfire going to stay warm by and watch the stars and fireflies. At our house, our grill table is the center of almost all activity from May through September.
1. Build a fire, log cabin style. Start the fire at least 1 hour before you want to start smoking to ensure that you’re cooking over hot coals and not flaming logs. To get a good bed of coals, build a large fire with split logs, four tiers high in a log cabin style. The longer you want to smoke, the bigger the bed of coals you will need.
2. Rake the coals. Once your logs have burned down to a bed of hot coals, you’re ready to get smoking. Rake the coals to create an even bed.
3. Keep feeding the coal bed. Keep a fire going with split logs to one side of the pit so that you can keep feeding the pit with hot coals. Be sure to keep whatever food you are grilling away from the direct flames of the burning split logs. Once you have an even bed of hot coals in your firepit, place your grill table over the coals. Now you’re ready to cook.
Try out your grill table with Jake Levin’s recipe for smoked bluefish — perfect for a quick, easy weeknight meal.
TEXT EXCERPTED FROM SMOKEHOUSE HANDBOOK © JAKE LEVIN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Levin demystifies the process of selecting the right combination of meat, temperature, and wood to achieve the ultimate flavor and texture. Detailed step-by-step photos show the various techniques, including cold-smoking, hot-smoking, and pit roasting. A survey of commercially-available smokers critiques the features of each one, and for readers with a DIY bent, Levin includes plans and diagrams for building a multipurpose smokehouse. Featured recipes include specialty brines and rubs along with preparation guidelines for all the classic cuts of meat, including ham, brisket, ribs, bacon, and sausage, as well as fish and vegetables. With in-depth troubleshooting and safety guidelines, this is the one-stop reference for smoking success.