This story was originally published in November 2020.
Grilling is an activity often associated with summertime fun. With a few simple modifications, though, you can start grilling in the winter, even in a frigid snowy place like Maine.
“There is something special about cold weather grilling,” said Spencer Brantley, owner of Wilson County Barbecue in Portland. “It has a sense of adventure combined with a tinge of naughtiness akin to eating breakfast for dinner.”
Here are some tips for setting up your grilling area in the winter and having a successful, delicious experience.
Move the grill
The first thing you might want to do to prepare for grilling in the winter is to move the grill closer to your house.
“It’s nice to be able to open the porch door and stand there with a pair of tongs and not have to be outside in the freezing cold,” said David Nivus, owner of the Good Food Store and Smokin’ Good BBQ in Bethel.
However, you want to keep fire safety in mind when relocating your grill.
“A grill should always be at least 18 [feet] from any combustible structure,” said Larry Pierce, owner of Pierce Furniture and Pierce Outdoors in Scarborough. “If you have vinyl siding, make it further so you don’t melt the siding.”
Nivus added that if you have a gas grill closer to your house, make sure the grill is turned off after you use it.
“If you leave the gas on [and] the gas gets into the house, that’s probably not a good thing,” Nivus said. “I don’t know if there’s enough propane in a home-sized tank to cause anyone harm, but why take the chance?”
Dress the part
No matter how close your grill is to your house, you will have to spend some time in the cold. Make sure you are properly bundled up in warm clothes and layers. Avoid fringe, loose sleeves and certain flammable or meltable materials.
“Avoid wearing nylon or most materials that raincoats are made from, as they can melt,” Brantley said.
Gather helpful tools
Aside from warm clothes, there are a few tools that will make winter grilling slightly easier.
Nivus said that if your grill has a built-in thermometer, the temperature reading might be off in the wintertime. An instant-read meat thermometer will help make sure your food is getting to the right temperature.
Besides that, Pierce recommended having rubber heat protecting gloves to use if you are handling meat, such as “pulling a turkey off the grill.”
“My recommendation is that everyone cook their turkey on the grill,” he added. “You will never go back to cooking a turkey in the oven.”
Choose your fuel wisely
If you do not yet have a grill, you can cater your choice to one that will function optimally in the winter.
Pierce said that pellet grills particularly will struggle to reach higher temperatures, and may even require an insulated blanket over them “so they don’t have to work as hard.”
Brantley said that it is always better to use wood or charcoal for flavor, but sometimes, particularly if it is very cold, there are advantages to the instant heat from gas.
“If you just want to grill some shrimp or char some onions, maybe consider gas, but if you want to smoke a brisket or a pork shoulder, go with wood,” he explained.
Nivus said that the type of grill you choose may impact the amount of time you have to have the door of the house open.
“A gas grill you can light and come back in 10 minutes,” Nivus said. “[For a] charcoal or wood grill, the amount of time it takes for stuff to burn is maybe a little longer if your charcoal is cold.”
Regardless, fuel should be stored properly. If you use wood and keep your wood stock outside, make sure it is covered. Charcoal and pellets also need to be kept dry.
At the scale of most home grillers, though, gas can generally be kept outdoors.
“In a commercial kitchen, we have to keep the snow from building up around the propane tanks because they’ll insulate the tanks to the point where it will cause problems to the gas pressure,” Nivus said. “I’ve never had this problem with small tanks.”
Care for your grill
A clean, well-maintained grill is always ideal when it comes to both the flavor of your food and the functionality of your equipment. When it comes to winter grilling, that regular maintenance is extra important.
Pierce said a thorough cleaning should always be done in the fall before the cold sets in.
“Inspect all hoses and connections and look at the burners to make sure all is working properly,” he added.
Also, make sure you have a grill cover. Brantley said the best cover will come from the manufacturer, made specifically for your grill, but if you do not have that option and are instead choosing one from a big box store, Nivus said that thicker is generally better.
When it comes to clearing snow, Brantley said most grills are made from stainless steel or coated with a heat-resistant paint that will keep rust at bay. However, Nivus said snow can cause such paint to flake off over time. Plus, snow can melt and freeze over, making it more difficult to use your grill.
In general, you are much less likely to use your grill through the winter if you don’t clear the snow off of it, as well as clearing a path between your house and your grill. Keeping your workspace clear is also a matter of safety.
Using your grill regularly will also help maintain it — yet another good reason to grill in the winter.
“If you go eight months without using it, you risk degrading the interior, especially the rack,” Brantley said. “If you need to put your grill in hibernation, be sure to spray the interior with a neutral oil with a high smoke point — I like vegetable oil — to keep from rusting.”
Adjust your technique
For the most part, grilling in the winter is no different than in the summer, however, you might have to adjust your techniques somewhat to get the same quality results. Resist the urge to check on your food constantly to save fuel and make your meal cook quicker.
“[When] you open up the lid in the wintertime, the disparity between the ambient temperature inside the grill and outside the grill is greater,” Nivus explained. “[More heat] from inside is going to escape than in the summer.”
Some foods will also be easier to cook than others. Brantley said he prefers slower cooking in the winter, like hunting game or large pieces of meat like brisket, pork butt and turkey legs.
However, Pierce said that the most important thing is to cook the meals you love to eat.
“Anything you cook in the summer is good to cook in the winter,” Pierce said. “The most important thing is to just grill all year. If you are missing out on grilling in the winter, you are losing out on one of the best times to enjoy a great meal.”