By Mike Stines, Ph.B.
|Because of its versatility as a grill, an oven and a smoker, the ceramic cooker is gaining in popularity with backyard cooks throughout the country. More and more folks opt to purchase a ceramic cooker instead of—or in addition to—a traditional gas-fired or charcoal grill. Ceramic cookers are based on the ancient clay pot cookers used in the Far East more than 3,000 years ago. While those were made of clay and became brittle during use, the newer cookers are constructed with space-age ceramics that resist cracking. (Although frequently called “kamado” cookers, that name is actually a trademark of the San Diego-based Kamado Company.||
Big Green Egg Grill Dome Primo Cooker Kamado
While becoming very trendy, ceramics are not without their disadvantages. Refueling is difficult because the cooking grate and the food need to be removed to add charcoal or more wood chips for smoking. And indirect cooking needs a few extra pieces of hardware to keep the direct heat away from the food. Ceramic cookers are heavy, some weighing nearly 350 pounds, and they are more expensive that traditional grills, ranging in price from $225 for very, very small models to over $2,500 depending on the manufacturer, size and accessories such as stands or tables.
But ceramics can do something other grills can’t: high temperature cooking. Ceramics, because of their thick-walled design and the high insulating factor, can often reach temperatures of 800 degrees F. or more, which makes them ideal for cooking pizza and quickly searing steaks. Because of the thick walls, these cookers will cook food much faster than traditional grills, while maintaining a humid cooking environment. Another great feature is the outside of the cooker remains relatively cool—unlike metal grills and smokers. Use common sense, though, and avoid placing it near anything flammable.
Like vertical smokers, ceramics have vents on the top and bottom. The wider the vents are open, the higher the cooking temperature. The top vent, in addition to limiting the amount of smoke in the cooking chamber, also serves to regulate the temperature as the ceramics only have one bottom vent. With the top and bottom vents mostly closed, there is limited air flow over the charcoal and the cooking temperature is lower. Unlike charcoal grills that burn all the charcoal in the fire box even after the vents are closed, closing the vents in a ceramic cooker smothers the fire, allowing the charcoal to be reused.
While ceramic cookers can be used year ’round—I use mine throughout the year in New England—special care needs to be taken in freezing weather to keep water out of the metal bands around the cooker. If water gets behind the bands and later freezes, it will often cause the porcelain glaze to crack exposing the ceramic shell. Also, if water gets on the gasket between the top and bottom sections and later freezes, the top will become sealed to the bottom.
Primo, Big Green Egg, Kamado and Grill Dome are some of the better-known manufacturers and they all make slightly different cookers. Kamado, for example, covers their cookers with mosaic tile, making the cooker a landscape accent. A unique feature offered as an option for the Primo Oval Extra Large is a firebox divider to allow indirect cooking without other accessories. Other ceramic cookers require a “plate setter” (used to hold plates in a kiln) inside the cooker to keep the direct heat away from the food and to hold a drip pan. The plate setter, with the legs down, can also used to hold a pizza stone. Two manufacturers, Kamado and Komodo Kamado, offer gas-fired burners.
Primo has two models, the “Oval Extra Large” with 400 square inches of cooking space and the “Primo Round” with a 280 square inch cooking area. Big Green Egg offers five models, from the “extra large” with a 24-inch cooking grate (about 452 sq. inches), to the “mini” with a 9 1/2-inch grate. Grill Dome has four models, from the “Large Extra Tall” with an 18-inch cooking grate (about 254 sq. inches), to the “small” with a 13-inch cooking surface.
Regardless of the manufacturer, all of the ceramic cookers perform in a similar manner: fill the fire box with hardwood charcoal to an inch or two above the air holes. Open the top and bottom vents fully and use newspaper, paraffin starters or an electric starter to ignite the charcoal. (All of the manufacturers advise strongly against using lighter fluid, and for at least one of the manufacturers, the use of lighter fluid will void the cooker’s warranty.) Close the cover and monitor the temperature. When the temperature nears the desired setting, adjust the top and bottom dampers to set the temperature.
What size ceramic cooker should you purchase? Contrary to what’s been said, size does matter. Buy the largest ceramic cooker you can afford. It’s better to have extra cooking space than too little and the price differential between the larger and smaller units isn’t overly significant.
Primo is the only manufacturer that offers an oval-shaped cooker and is also one of two companies manufacturing ceramic cookers in the United States; other manufacturers import the units from the Far East, while the Big Green Egg is manufactured in Mexico.
For more information:
Big Green Egg, Georgia: www.biggreenegg.com
Grill Dome, Georgia: www.grilldome.com
Primo, North Carolina: www.primogrill.com
Imperial Kamado, California: www.imperialkamado.com
Kamado, California: www.kamado.com
Komodo Kamado, California: www.komodokamado.com