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For Grilling Like a Pitmaster, You Need the Right Tools

All the accessories you need for a smoky summer of outdoor eating

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Pok Pok Thaan Thai-style charcoal at work

So you think you can grill? You might have the grill itself — that’s the easy part. Now comes not the hard part, per se, but the fun part: outfitting your grill with all the tools and toys to turn you into a true grillmaster. From tools to help get your fire started (briquettes, blowpokes), to things to put on there once it’s going (grill baskets, cast-iron pans) to oh-so-chic apparel to outfit yourself (a headlamp!), here’s what pitmasters and seasoned outdoor chefs recommend to become the master of your fire-cooked domain.

The fire starters

For the charcoal itself, you could go with standard Kingsford briquettes. Or make like chef Brenna Sanders of Effervescence in New Orleans, who loves Pok Pok Thaan charcoal, which is made from rambutan fruit wood and bound with tapioca starch. It’s an eco-friendly alternative to the popular Japanese binchotan charcoal (which requires a specific kind of grill, generates “the kind of hellish heat imagined in the pages of Milton or Dante,” and is in such high demand that the white oak it comes from is nearly endangered).

“I love Thaan charcoal not only because it burns hot and clean, making it great for searing in the true flavor of your ingredients, but also because it’s all-natural and sustainable,” Sanders says.

To start your fire, unless you’re using a gas grill, you’ll need charcoal chimney and probably some firestarters. (There’s also lighter fluid, but it’s typically discouraged by the pros.) Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest of J&E Small Goods recommend this handsome Japanese-style charcoal starter pan, intended specifically for binchotan charcoal.

Veteran pitmaster Pat Martin of Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in Tennessee and South Carolina favors a classic Weber chimney with perforated holes all the way down.

Nagatsuka Charcoal Starter Pan (left); Weber Rapidfire Chimney Charcoal Starter (right)

Once your fire is up and running, you may still need help getting the flames to the level you want them. That’s where a blowpoke comes in. “They’re super helpful on a really hot day when you don’t want to get too close to the fire but you very much need to introduce more oxygen,” says Guest. “It’s like a big straw — it pushes oxygen in a pointed way to a specific area in your fire or embers to ignite it more, so you don’t have to squat down and trying to blow it in there yourself.”

The grill accessories

Of course you’re putting burgers, steaks, veggies, and more directly on your grill. But what about all the foods that could benefit from that smoky, fire-kissed flavor but don’t fit neatly on its surface? Katrina Zito of St. Anselm in Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. takes advantage of fine-mesh grill baskets that rest directly on the grates. “You can grill all kinds of smaller things that might fall through the grates, like shishito peppers, chopped cauliflower or brussel sprouts, snap peas and more,” she says.

Don’t forget pots and pans. Cast iron can go directly on a grill, and Nakamura and Guest also keep a small stainless steel pot on the less-hot part of the grill for basting purposes. “It’s nice to have the sauce warm so you don’t mess up cook times when you slather it on the meat, or to just dunk individual items and keep them moving,” says Guest, who also uses it to warm butter for grilled clams. “If you’re smoking meats, you can use a little pot as a place to keep ice or water to ensure you’re adding humidity, or to keep the temperature down if you’re cold-smoking.”

Walden Blow Through Fire Stoker-Poker (left); Outset Grill Basket and Skillet (right)

The hand helpers

Nearly every chef name-checked one simple accessory as their must-have: tongs. “I like to have two, a long and a short pair,” says Guest. “I like the locking ones because it gives me something to fidget with while I’m waiting to flip steaks, and I like just plain stainless steel ones, because the wooden ones get super grubby.”

Martin prefers a smaller six-inch model. “I like them to be an extension of my fingers,” he says. “I don’t even use a spatula unless I’m flipping something really delicate, like fish.”

One notable alternative is moribashi, a Japanese tool resembling metal chopsticks, traditionally used for plating sushi and other precious ingredients. “The very fine tapered points give you so much control for small, deliberate actions,” says Effervescence co-chef Evan Ingram. “The ergonomic design also provides a lot of feedback, so you can feel the items you pick up and don’t crush or put unnecessary pressure on delicate foods. The beauty of the design is that the stainless steel stands up to the heat from an open flame (as opposed to wooden chopsticks that would catch on fire), but the handles are made from nice materials like rosewood or ebony wood that don’t overheat.”

That said, chopsticks can be tough for some. “Full disclosure, the learning curve is a bit steeper than regular chopsticks, so you won’t look super cool using them at first,” says Ingram. “But once you get the hang of it, tongs will seem far too clunky.”

Chubo Moribashi Plating Chopsticks (left); Oxo Good Grips 12-Inch Tongs (right)
Chubo Moribashi Plating Chopsticks (left); Oxo Good Grips 12-Inch Tongs (right)

The fashion statements

Outfitting yourself can be as important as outfitting your grill when it comes to outdoor cooking. “Heat gloves are great for feeling cooked meat without burning your fingers, allowing you to check your meat for longer and get a more accurate feel for doneness,” says Dylan Taylor of the forthcoming Goldee’s Barbecue in Fort Worth. “Just put a nitrile or latex glove over the top and you’re good to go!” He recommends this machine-washable version.

Two more extremely high-fashion suggestions: “A headlamp is perfect for cooking in the dark, allowing you to check up on how your meat is coming along and for checking temperature gauges. It’s also one of the more stylish clothing accessories in barbecue,” says Taylor. And, because it’s important to stay cool: “A bandana! Roll ice cubes in it, tie it around your neck and behold: the Ice Collar,” says Guest. “An old BBQ guy trick and super helpful in late August.”

The non-negotiable

Last but not least, every experienced griller knows the importance of a good thermometer to check for internal temperature and doneness. Thermapen, with its super-fast read and backlit, rotating screen is considered top of the line and is the thermometer of choice for Nakamura, Guest, Taylor, and plenty of other chefs. For something more affordable, Zito recommends this petite pocket version.