Saturday, August 11, 2012

Gadgets: Three for the Grill

Ah, summer. Time for grilling. Is it time to think about getting a few new tools to make the job easier? Or more fun? Or just because you love showing off your array of amazing barbecue hardware to the neighborhood?

I've got you covered.

One tool, many jobs

You'd think there's nothing new in grill tools. Technically, the Stake Multi-Tool ($29.99) isn't new, but it's a new combination of three familiar tools - tongs, spatula, and a fork. What else do you need?

If that's not enough, there's a serrated edge on one side of the spatula. I don't know if I'd use it as a knife on a regular basis, but it would be handy when I'm already at the grill and want to make one simple cut.

It's an ingenious idea - the fork slides in and out of one of the spatula blades. The spatula opens up so you can use it like tongs. The slide that moves the fork in an out also locks the tongs closed, with the fork extended or fully retracted.

Speaking of tongs, we're not talking about precision tongs that would pick up something small - the tongs are the size of the spatula blade. Great for gripping something big and flat, like a burger or steak, but not as useful for grabbing smaller items or round ones like potatoes or chicken legs.

One issue was that the fork was difficult to slide in or out - I have no idea where it was sticking, but it didn't move smoothly and it sometimes took a little extra encouragement to get it to budge. That's fine if you want to work with just one tool and don't need to switch back and forth a lot, but if the point of the tool is to replace several other tools and use them all for the same grilling session, then that slide action should be easier.

The other flaw with the idea of a three-in-one tool is that you're probably not going to be using all three options for the same food. I might want to flip a burger with a spatula, grab the barbecue chicken pieces with tongs, and poke at something else with a fork. Even if there's no worry about cross-contamination in terms of health issues, there's the problem of getting barbecue sauce on the burgers and beef drippings on the grilled vegetables.

I could see the value in something like this if you don't grill often or you don't have storage space for a lot of different tools. It would also be handy if you're taking to tools along with you. Instead of three separate tools, you can grab just one. But if you spend a lot of time cooking on the grill, you might want separate tools, and perhaps even several of each, depending on what you're cooking.

To be honest, I don't use a fork often when grilling, so the difficulty in getting it to slide easily wasn't that much of a big deal. I would have been happier without the fork and with locking mechanism working a little easier so I could switch quickly from spatula to spatula-tongs and back again.

Skewer this ...

The Sliders ($24.99) are double-pronged sliding skewers from Quirky. They're are a great idea, with a couple of caveats. First, the idea of a double-skewer makes a heck of a lot of sense, because when you put your food on two parallel skewers, they don't slide around, so you can turn the skewer to cook all sides of the food evenly. I usually use two skewers to get the job done, but this makes it just a tad easier.

The "sliding" refers to a slider mechanism at the handle end of the skewer that you can use to push the food off the skewer without having to use a fork or other implement to get the food off the stick an onto the plate.

Whether that works or not depends on what you're trying to extricate from the skewer. A firm food, like chunks of beef or beefy mushrooms, will survive that sort of unskewering. Something soft, like fish or delicate vegetables, will be much less successful. For those, it's much better to grab a fork and remove one piece at a time. It's not a flaw of the design, just that trying to push a whole row of softer food all at once is going to squish some of them a little too much.

The way the skewers are designed the pusher device can't come off, which is great for me. I hate it when I find some little widget that obviously belongs to something else, and I can't figure out where it belongs.

Another slight flaw is that the handles are a plastic-like material. Not plastic like a milk bottle, but plastic like the handles on some cookware - it's heat resistant, but there are limitations, and a grill can get awfully hot. There are no temperature recommendations (just the "heat-resistant" comment on the packaging, so I checked with the manufacturer and was told that it would be best to keep them safe from too much heat.

I was going to test the melting point, but wasn't particularly enthused about cleaning melted plastic out of my grill, so instead I left the handles dangling outside the grill with the business end inside. The upside to the handles being kept away from that direct heat was that they stayed cool enough to handle, so I could flip the food over without needing mitts.

If you use skewers a lot, these might be a welcome addition to your arsenal.

Tenderize that!

A meat tenderizer isn't technically a grilling tool, but the truth is that my meat tenderizer gets the most use during grilling season. In winter, tenderizing is usually about long, slow cooking. In summer, it's about fast cooking, and sometimes that means coaxing a tough piece of meat into being more tender.

There are a couple types of tenderizers - there are the ones that tenderize by pounding, and there are those that tenderize by piercing. The Microplane Meat Tenderizer ($16) is the second variety. And woah, is this thing sharp!

If I ever needed to fend off an intruder in my kitchen and required a close-combat weapon, this is what I'd choose. Nice hand grip and plenty of pointy, razor-sharp teeth would keep me safe from any marauding flank steak that needed to be taught a lesson.

I have another piercing-type tenderizer that has rows of thick needles that can stab an inch or two into meat, and that in fact will go all the way through the average steak. The tenderizer from Microplane has shorter, and very sharp, triangular teeth. There's not much pressure needed to pierce a steak or hunk of chicken, and if you apply a little force, those little razor-like teeth can dig in pretty deep.

There's a clear plastic guard that snaps over the teeth when the tenderizer is in storage, and it snaps in on the opposite side to make a nice place to grip the tool when you're teaching your steak who's boss. Then it's just a rocking motion to pierce the meat.

Besides using this on a flank steak, I gave it a try with a larger roast, using it to coax a rub just a little bit deeper into the meat. It worked like a charm.

Cleanup wasn't difficult, either.  A quick rinse with the sink sprayer dislodged a few bits, and then it went into the dishwasher. Hand-washing would require a brush - this thing would tear up a sponge or dishcloth in no time, and I wouldn't want my fingers getting too friendly with those teeth.

Although I haven't tried it (the idea just hatched), this tool would be great for docking dough. Now I can't wait to try that.