I’m not going to lie: This drought has really thrown a wrench in my summertime plans. I’m not trying to be selfish or anything, but I was really looking forward to a summer full of camping, hiking, and paddling around at the lake. Not only that, but I was hoping to host a few backyard barbecues and party it up around the fire pit! Instead, the forest has been closed, there’s a looming tower of smoke up north that prevents me from opening my windows at night, and I wouldn’t dream of lighting a cigarette, much less a campfire.
No matter what happens, I’m determined to think positively about this. I WILL celebrate summer this year! Luckily, things seem to be improving and we all have high hopes for monsoon season, but I already came up with a plan for how to move the party inside to save the 4th of July. Just because you can’t fire up the smoker doesn’t mean it’s impossible to enjoy your favorite barbecued food. Here are some tricks I’ve picked up along the way to create great grill flavor without creating any sparks.
Use the BroilerYou know that setting on your oven that you never use, except maybe to melt cheese on a casserole, or toast bread if you’re feeling lazy? You probably forgot it was even there, but allow me to let you in on a little secret: It’s actually an upside-down grill (and now you know why restaurant chefs call the grill the “broil station”). On a grill, the food sits on top of hot charcoal or propane, but the broiler cooks the food directly underneath the heat source.
That means you can cook almost anything in there that you would cook over direct heat on a grill. Whole fish, seared steak, or my favorite: vegetables. The high heat gives the veggies a nice char (just like the grill) without overcooking them. The best way to use the broiler is to use a perforated pan with a drip tray (which probably came with the oven and is sitting, unused, in that useless bottom oven drawer). You should also prop the oven door slightly so you can check your food and keep it from burning under the hot heat. Finally, you’ll want to flip your foods over halfway through, just like you would on a grill.
Don’t be Afraid of Some CharWhat makes grilled food taste so good? That tiny layer of char created by the hot coals. I’m not talking about food that’s burnt to a crisp, either. You’ll find char in those perfect grill marks on a steak or the dark flecks on the outside of a jalapeno popper. It’s easy to char food on a grill, but you don’t actually need one to achieve that flavor! To make tacos taste grilled, I’ll heat the tortillas directly on the flames of the gas range (or, if you don’t have gas, look to that broiler). And, you can char anything in a cast iron pan or a super-hot oven, if you’re not afraid of smoking out the house, of course.
The Secret Ingredient: Smoked SaltPlease, please, please – for the love of God – do not use liquid smoke. I’m sorry, but that stuff is just gross. I know many labels contain the word “all natural,” but I just have a hard time saying yum to a bunch of bottled-up carcinogens. Skip the liquid smoke and opt for smoked sea salt instead. Finish your cast-iron-seared steak with a sprinkle of this flavorful salt, and you won’t miss the grill at all.
When In Doubt: BaconIf you’re not into finishing salt, we probably can’t be friends, but there are other ways to infuse smoke into your marinades, sauces, or rubs. Bacon is the clear choice for adding a smoky flavor (and also making everything taste better), but smoked paprika is another great option. That ground up pepper is my go-to bacon replacement for cooking vegetarian foods, so why not use it to mimic the charcoal grill? You can also add a few smoked chiles like chipotles to add some depth, or swirl some rye whiskey or Lapsang Souchong (an aggressive, smoked black tea) into your barbecue sauce.
Use an Instant Pot or a Slow CookerThere’s something magical about a slow-smoked pork shoulder or a 12-hour brisket. The smoker is certainly the best way to make whole-meat barbecue if you do it right, but I’ve had plenty of shredded pork in the slow cooker that tasted almost as good. Pop it on a sesame seed bun and smother it in barbecue sauce and your guests will never know you took a shortcut! Just make sure to add some of those smoky ingredients we just talked about to the mix.
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected].