Every ingredient has a flavor. My favorite part of cooking is learning to understand which flavors are complementary and how different combinations affect the final taste of a dish. With so many combinations, I’m a total advocate of only using recipes for inspiration and making each one your own. Each meal can be a completely new experience.
With most cooking techniques, all you need to worry about is the flavor of the ingredients. The spices, the meats, the vegetables and fruits — everything can be cooked together in pots or on a baking sheet and the flavor remains the same. A grill, however, is completely different. The grill should not only be treated like a heat source, but as an actual ingredient with its own flavor profile. And even within the grilling world, the flavor of each type of grill varies wildly.
Gas grills are stable and dependable, but don’t impart much of a unique flavor. The high heat and direct metal contact with the grates create char and caramelization, which can cause residual smokiness, but any naturally occurring smoke will be mild. If you’d like to get more smoke out of your gas grilling, try creating your own smoke box with a cooling rack and foil tray.
Charcoal grills require significantly more attention than a gas grill, but the flavor of a charcoal grill makes it worthwhile for many. The heat is more intense than with most gas grills and the smokiness is more concentrated. Using lump charcoal, as opposed to briquettes, is even better and releases smoke that smells of the wood it was made from.
Wood-fired grills are primal, both in function and flavor. Each type of wood you burn releases smoke unique to itself. Hickory is deep and rich. Apple is lighter and sweet. Choose your wood the same way you’d choose any other ingredient. Keep in mind that if a fruit would pair well with a meat (apples and pork come to mind), smoke from its wood mostly likely will, too.
Once you understand the impact your specific grill has on the food you cook on it, you’ll find it easier to produce consistently great grilled food. If using a gas grill or even charcoal, try adding different types of wood chips to see what impact it has. You may be surprised at the culinary doors that open up to you.
Apple-Smoked Brats with Apple Butter and Sauerkraut
For the brats
6 bratwurst sausages, uncooked
2 cups apple juice
2 large handfuls applewood chips
6 brat buns
Spicy brown mustard
Soak the bratwurst
1. Put bratwurst in a ziplock bag, add the apple juice, remove as much excess air as possible and seal the bag. Let sit for 3-5 hours.
Smoke the bratwurst
2. Preheat grill on medium-high heat.
3. Fill the bottom of a foil tray with a single layer of applewood chips and cover the tray with a metal cooking rack.
4. Place the foil tray on the grill and add the bratwurst to the cooling rack so as the wood chips release their smoke it will envelope the brats.
5. Close the grill lid and allow the brats to cook for 25 minutes. DO NOT OPEN THE LID!
Assemble the brats
6. Dress each bun with apple butter and mustard. Add a brat to each and top with sauerkraut.