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To most of us, barbecue sauce is red and sweet. To those who would rather lunch in back of a shack than under the golden arches, barbecue sauce comes in a rainbow of colors and flavors tied to its area of origin. Here is a 12 pack of authentic sauces, benchmarks of their home town, selected by Meathead and sold by a specialty sauce company.
A good digital thermometer keeps you from serving dry overcooked food or dangerously undercooked food. They are much faster and much more accurate than dial thermometers. The Thermopop (above) is about $30. The Thermapen (below), the Ferrari of instant reads, is about $99.
GrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, keep small foods from committing suicide, kill hotspots, are easier to clean, flip over to make a fine griddle, and can be easily removed and moved from one grill to another. You can even throw wood chips, pellets, or sawdust between the rails and deliver a quick burst of smoke to whatever is above. Every gas grill needs them.
The PBC has a rabid cult following for good reason. It is absolutely positively without a doubt the best bargain on a smoker in the world. Period. This baby will cook circles around the cheap offset sideways barrel smokers in the hardware stores because temperature control is so much easier. Best of all, it is only $299 delivered to your door!
The PK Grill has become one of our favorite charcoal grills. Designed in 1952, the rectangular shape is easy to set up in 2 heat zones, it can easily be used as a smoker, the cast aluminum body is indestructible, airflow is easy to manage, and there is plenty of room under the hood. It is especially good at steaks, chops, and burgers.
The amazing Karubecue is the most innovative smoker in the world. The quality of meat from this machine is astonishing. At its crux is a patented firebox that burns logs above the cooking chamber and sucks heat and extremely clean blue smoke into the thermostat controlled oven. It is our favorite smoker, period.
Made of rugged 1/8" thick aluminum, 20" long, with four serious rivets, Meathead says his shows zero signs of weakness after years of abuse. He uses it on meats, hot charcoal, burning logs, and with the mechanical advantage that the scissor design creates, yiou can easily pick up a whole packer brisket.
Mo's Smoking Pouch is essential for gas grills. It is an envelope of mesh 304 stainless steel that holds wood chips or pellets. The airspaces in the mesh are small enough that they limit the amount of oxygen so the wood smolders. Put it on top of the cooking grate, on the burners, on the coals. It holds enough wood for about 15 minutes for short cooks, so you need to refill it or buy a second pouch for long cooks like pork shoulder and brisket. Meathead says his has survived more than 50 cooks and he likes it better than the smoker tubes.
These are the same knives used at famous steakhouses like Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, and Morton's. Machine washable, high-carbon stainless steel, hardwood handle. Meathead says the ones he uses at home have been through the washing machine more than 100 times and the blade is like new. And the manufacturer has printed the AmazingRibs.com name on it!
Arteflame is an American company with roots in The Netherlands that manufactures heavy steel, wood burning griddles or planchas that have a beautiful, sculptural appearance. They also offer a few related accessories like a rotisserie and vinyl cover. The basic design was first introduced in The Netherlands by another company called OFYR. Arteflame and OFYR are very similar, but have agreed to co-exist.
Arteflame’s Classic 40” is a wood burning griddle or plancha that doubles as a fire bowl with a sculptural beauty rarely seen in the world of outdoor cooking. The cooktop is a 40 inch diameter, one half inch thick disc with an 18 inch opening in the center made of uncoated carbon steel. A round carbon steel “sizzle grate” that covers the center opening is included to extend the cook surface directly over the central fire. The carbon steel cook surfaces must be seasoned and maintained much like a cast iron griddle or skillet. More on this later. The fire bowl and stand are constructed of weathering steel, aka corten steel, a popular choice for outdoor sculptures and architectural applications. This type of weathering steel resists corrosion by forming an appealing, rust-like protective layer and eliminates the need for paint or other coatings, (see below).
Few would deny Arteflame’s compelling presence. On day one, it became the focal point of my deck and I joked about wearing a white toga when firing it up. Guests were immediately smitten and drawn to it. Some were concerned that you could mistakenly set your drink, or worse, your arm right on the hot steel. A fair point, but this issue comes up with any hot object indoors or out, and it’s pretty easy to see that the flaming fire bowl will be hot. An additional flat surface to accommodate plates and drinks would be a welcome utilitarian feature, although not an aesthetic one. Any side table will accomplish the same thing.
The Arteflame Classic 40” is a large capacity griddle. Griddles, aka planchas, are flat cook surfaces, usually steel or cast iron, that are heated from underneath. They are very popular in restaurants for quickly cooking thin meats, delicate fish, chopped vegetables, eggs, pancakes, and pretty much anything that doesn’t need to be roasted, baked, smoked or fried. In his best-selling book, Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, Meathead writes, “The great advantage of griddling is that cooking is fast and you get an unmatched dark sear because you are cooking by conduction, the most efficient heating method. Click here to learn more about conduction and the different ways heat moves to and through food. Arteflame’s open wood fire also adds smoke aroma, and a mesmerizing spectacle day or night. With the sizzle grate installed, (see below), the center of the Arteflame also functions as a grill in addition to a plancha.
Given Arteflame’s unique design with an unregulated live fire surrounded by an 11 inch wide griddle ring, we expected the heat to be concentrated in the center and drop off at the perimeter. However, the heat pattern was much more unruly and asymmetric than anticipated. We got frustrated by the uneven heat and eventually agreed to let an Arteflame rep drop by to show us how it’s done. It turns out that the size of your fire largely determines your cooking temperature, and you have to chase the hot and cool spots around the cooktop as needed. We haven’t fully embraced this premise because temperature control is a hallmark of the best cookers. The best way to control the heat on this cooker is to create an even coal bed around the circumference of the cooktop. Despite this more hands-on approach to temperature control, we believe the Arteflame’s unique and aesthetic design will find a place in the pantheon of outdoor cooking.
How To Fire Up Arteflame
The carbon steel cooktop must be seasoned before first use by coating it with cooking oil and cranking up a fire, much like seasoning a cast-iron pan. This seasoning process quickly creates a dark non-stick surface shown below. To season or cook on the Arteflame light up a large wood fire in the fire bowl. Arteflame recommends starting with a half chimney of Match Light instant start charcoal.
Build the fire by placing several splits crisscrossed over the coal.
Add cooking oil to the cooktop.
Spread the oil with a cloth or paper towel and coat the entire cooking surface.
Push the burning wood under the cook surface and add fresh logs.
How to Cook on Arteflame
Here’s a neat trick: you can cut food right on the carbon steel cooktop (if you don’t mind dulling your knife blade a bit).
Bacon is your friend with Arteflame, providing flavor, lubricant and a rough barometer of where the hot spots are developing on the cooktop.
Some cinders can jump from the fire to the griddle and the food. This was not a big problem during our tests, but it could be on a windy day. Best to keep the coal bed tucked beneath the circumference of the cooktop.
In the blink of an eye, our Arteflame rep had a feast in process.
As foods cooked, he moved them around, finding hot spots to sear meat and cooler, holding spots for foods that just needed to be kept warm.
And of course we had to have….
Bacon and eggs! The cooktop is slightly pitched to the center to coax oil and grease into the fire rather than onto your deck or patio. Nonetheless, protective concrete pavers should be placed beneath the Arteflame to catch wayward drips or splatters. When you are finished cooking, simply scrape any residual gunk into the fire to burn up. Then wipe the cooktop clean like you would with a cast-iron pan. There is no ash removal system, so ashes must be scooped out after each use to avoid plugging up the drainage holes in the bowl.
Before Buying, Consider This
It’s essentially a big griddle. That’s great when you want to griddle a lot and gather your friends around for a feast. Arteflame also offers a rotisserie for the 40 inch model (see below), and you can use pots and pans over the fire much like you would with a campfire. There are lots of culinary possibilities with this cooker. But at nearly 3 1/2 feet in diameter, it is pretty big and not as well suited to just cooking a couple burgers. However, you can make a small fire off to one side of the fire bowl. And Arteflame makes smaller 30 inch and 20 inch models.
The size and aesthetics of the Arteflame are among its greatest strengths. Everyone loves to gather around a gorgeous fire bowl where you can also cook a big feast. But, from a practical standpoint, if you don’t need all that cooking area, you could get by with a couple cast iron skillets placed over your grill or kamado and have greater temperature control. In fact, Arteflame makes kettle grill and kamado inserts for this purpose (see below).
Arteflame touts being maintenance free. It’s true that it has no moving parts, electronics or fasteners and is built of heavy steel that should last for generations. But if you don’t use it on a regular basis, the carbon steel surface can rust. Our readers who own cast iron grates, skillets and Dutch ovens know the cleaning routine. These metals must be scraped, wiped down and oiled, and then burned again (re-seasoned) to maintain the dark non-stick surface. Leave them out on your deck, and before long these metal cooktops will be as bright orange with rust as Arteflame’s corten steel fire bowl and stand. Arteflame recommends rubbing the cooktop with oil periodically when not in use. Worst case, the surface can be sanded down and re-seasoned. A fitted vinyl cover is optional, but it will likely only slow rust down a bit while spoiling one of Arteflame’s main selling points, its beauty! Why buy a statue then cover it with black vinyl?
Impractical or Marvelously Impractical?
As mentioned previously, when we first began Arteflame tests we were frustrated by the uneven heat. With an infrared thermometer, we measured the cooking surface temps in ten places with following results:
Inner edge: 340°, 280°, 440°, 490° and 560°F
Outer Edge: 250°, 200°, 280°, 330° and 380°F
We tried and tried to build the fire just right and even out the coal bed, aiming to impose sheer will on the random heat pattern. But success eluded us. Only after observing the Arteflame rep cook a variety of foods did the advantages of this unusual cooker come into focus. We began to appreciate the Arteflame experience.
It’s not for everyone by a long shot. Even if the $2,450 price tag is within your budget, you have to be drawn to varying heat levels of Arteflame’s live fire. You have to accept that the heat is largely uncontrollable and be willing to maintain the cooking surface. If you can embrace the simplicity and hands-on nature of a fire bowl with a large, built-in griddle, your reward will be a stunning, modern outdoor centerpiece that creates unique and thrilling social experiences. Think of it as a lifestyle decision. Arteflame’s website provides recipes and videos that offer insight to this type of outdoor lifestyle.
The Chef’s Podium
For commercial use, it’s easy to see why some chefs love cooking at the Arteflame podium while chatting it up and hamming it up with guests. It’s almost like cooking on the Olympic flame itself.
In addition to round griddle inserts for kettles and kamados, Arteflame offers a few different sizes shown below.
We tested an older two piece model with a single piece fire bowl and cooktop that weighed well over 200 pounds. Our two piece Arteflame arrived in two cardboard boxes on a pallet weighing a total of 350 pounds. I had to hire my landscapers to schlep the heavy metal pieces onto the deck. The current three piece models have a separate 110 pound fire bowl, 120 pound cook top and 60 pound stand, making them easier to move and enabling owners to take away the cook top and just use Arteflame as a fire bowl.
Some ash and embers fall into the center stand, so Arteflame should be placed on concrete pavers to avoid damaging decking or pavement. Check inside the stand periodically to remove ash and unburnt wood fragments that can collect at the bottom.
Arteflame carries a limited three year warranty for materials and workmanship to the original purchaser of the product from an Authorized Dealer.
We thank Arteflame for providing a Classic 40” for this review.
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