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It’s the perennial issue that plagues us all around the holidays: not enough oven space. But, according to the latest research conducted by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, 70 percent of households in the United States own at least one grill or smoker—it’s time to put those appliances to use as secondary ovens for the holidays. Here, we spoke with two barbecue experts about the best strategies for using grills to help with Thanksgiving and beyond.
Determine the Best Use for Your Specific Grill
Knowing which type of grill you own—gas, charcoal, pellet-fueled, or wood-burning—will help you understand its specific benefits when using it as a backup heat source on Thanksgiving. If you have a gas or charcoal grill, consider cooking sides like broccoli and corn outside, says Steven Raichlen, author of the Barbecue Bible cookbook series and host of Project Fire and Project Smoke on PBS. These dishes benefit from the grill’s direct heat source and can stand a bit of char. For indirect grilled sides, like stuffed squash or sweet potato and marshmallow casseroles, Raichlen often uses a kettle or pellet grill.
For Consistency, Go Pellet
Some types of grills offer more temperature consistency than others, says Raichlen. “Basically, pellet grills are like outdoor ovens with an added whiff of wood smoke,” Raichen says. “So anything you would bake in an oven, from side dishes to desserts, you can cook in a pellet grill.” The benefit of a pellet grill is that you “basically set them and forget them,” Raichlen says. There are no flare-ups or issues with temperature consistencies.
This also makes them ideal for baking, where a steady and controlled temperature is necessary. “Typically, we want to cook our baked goods between 350 and 400 degrees, and that management is much more challenging in a non-pellet grill,” says Danielle Bennett, Traeger Grills Ambassador, world champion of barbecue desserts, and winner of 24 perfect 180 barbecue scores. She finds that the consistency of a pellet grill makes it ideal for baking bread, pies, and other Thanksgiving baked goods like cornbread stuffing and dinner rolls.
Consider the Smoke
Pellet grills also provide a smokey flavor to your dish, so if there are recipes in your Thanksgiving repertoire you prefer on the less-smoky side, go for a gas grill. It will impart a less smokey flavor, Raichlen says, thanks to its venting: “The smoke just spills out the back,” he says. Gas grills are also what 68 percent of Americans own, so they may be the most approachable option for those looking to find a secondary oven source. A gas grill’s side burner can also be used to make sides like mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce, Raichlen says, which wouldn’t necessarily benefit from smoke.
If you’re going to embrace smoke, on the other hand, consider the source of the wood that you’re working with, Bennett says. “When it comes to doing recipes on a wood-fire grill, the smoke, to me, becomes one of the ingredients,” she says. But while an applewood or cherrywood may pair well, say, with an apple dessert, a mesquite—among the stronger smoking woods—may overpower the dish completely.
Take the Main Event Outside
If you’ve never cooked a turkey on the grill before, it can be a failsafe way to free up the oven.“I think it actually provides a lot of stress relief over the holidays,” Bennett says. She prepares her whole Thanksgiving meal, including the turkey, on a large Traeger grill, which is big enough to accommodate many different sides and baked goods in stages. Plus, turkey and a smoky pellet grill are a natural pairing.
Raichlen agrees that cooking the bird outside is a good way to alleviate the stress put on the indoor oven. It offers countless options for creativity, too. “Last year, I spit-roasted my turkey on a Kalamazoo Gaucho. The year before that, I smoked it on a Big Green Egg. Depends on the grill,” he says. In terms of cooking a bird that won’t disappoint, it must be cooked over indirect heat. “Otherwise, you’d burn the skin, but leave the meat raw,” he says.
Don’t Discount Charcoal
Although charcoal can be a little fickle in terms of heat reliability, it also offers up exceptional smoky flavor, and, as Raichlen notes, can be a lot of fun to cook with. Charcoal grills can be enhanced with hardwood chips and chunks, and dishes that don’t require a ton of temperature stability can easily be cooked on them. Sides that are normally baked in the oven, Raichlen says, like baked squash, scalloped potatoes, and even macaroni and cheese, can benefit from a charcoal grill’s smoke and won’t be impacted much by temperature variation.
Raichlen notes that you’re most likely going to be setting it up for indirect grilling as opposed to direct heat. This requires raking the embers to the periphery and cooking the food in the center, which helps create more precise temperatures, within about a 50-degree window. (That’s still not ideal for baking, but it can be fine for most casseroles and sides.)