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Originally published Friday, April 6, 2012 at 9:00 PM

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Gearing up to grill

The Pragmatist: Three experts offer tips on breathing life into an old gas grill, and outfitting a new charcoal one.

The New York Times

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I'm surrounded by neighbors who grill and smoke meats year round. I like to think it's a coincidence that every time they grill, the wind blows in my direction.

I've long felt a vague sense of shame for not belonging to the meat-fire club, and for having no clue where baby back ribs come from.

My gas grill reflects that ignorance. It sits uncovered on my deck, the lid sloping pathetically from an encounter with an ice-filled gutter a year ago. My grilling tools consist of one pair of tongs that opens only with an unpredictable combination of thumb-fiddling and whispered profanity.

At least that was my grilling status until recently. With spring upon us, I called on three people who could help me breathe life into my old gas grill, outfit a new charcoal grill and perhaps earn my barbecue bona fides.

My panel included Steven Raichlen, the author of "Planet Barbecue!" and a manufacturer of barbecue tools who has contributed articles to The New York Times; Trace Weskamp, director of Weber's accessory business group; and Scott Roberts, the owner of the Salt Lick, an outpost of barbecue nirvana in Driftwood, Texas.

Revamping a grill is easy enough, they said, as long as it hasn't spent too many winters unused and uncovered.

First, look for anything that might render the grill unsafe or ineffective. Look for holes in your charcoal grill, for instance, but unless they're so big that they might affect its performance, keep it around for another season.

Next, Raichlen said, clean the ash catcher, scrape out the firebox with a garden trowel and spray some WD-40 on the grill vents, the wheels and any other moving parts.

When it comes to cleaning a grate, don't bother with soap and water.

"Just get it screaming hot and take a stiff steel wire brush to it," Raichlen said. (A three-sided wire brush from Outset is $17.)

Then soak a tightly folded paper towel in some vegetable oil and, using tongs, wipe the grate with it.

Gas grills require slightly more diligence.

After inspecting for mice or spiders, clean out the drip pan with soap and water, and check the burner tubes that carry the gas across the base of the firebox. If the holes are clogged, reopen them with a push pin.

Next, inspect the hoses for cracks. If anything looks suspicious, brush soapy water over the area and turn on the gas. If you see bubbles or smell gas coming out, Raichlen said, shut down the grill immediately and call a repair service.

If the hoses are OK, turn up the heat and brush the grate clean. My hoses looked fine, but I put off the cleaning until I was ready to cook.

Before gathering food, I replaced my spectacularly annoying tongs with a set of more legitimate grilling tools and supplies.

Weskamp and Raichlen recommended a chimney starter ($22, from Charcoal Companion) for a charcoal grill. For the uninitiated, these ventilated, shoebox-size devices hold enough charcoal for a full cooking session and eliminate the need for lighter fluid.

Unless you want to roast your hand while using one, buy an insulated glove as well (the Williams-Sonoma Pit Mitt is $20).

Weskamp also recommended a rib rack (Charcoal Companion Reversible Rib and Roast Rack, $17), which vastly decreases the amount of grill space used by ribs and saves you the trouble of turning the meat. Grill baskets (Charcoal Companion Shaker Basket, $20), too, are good for delicate cuts of fish and vegetables.

I've made myself look foolish on more than a couple of occasions trying to grill shish kebab. I rotate the skewer in a lame attempt to flip the meat, but everything just spins, so the cooked sides remain facing down.

Raichlen recommends a set of broad, flat skewers to prevent food cartwheels and kebab-based aneurysms (Brazilian-style skewers from Onesource, $27 for six). He also recommends a set of tongs that actually opens easily, and that includes lights for evening grilling (the D&B BBQ Tong is $5).

Forget barbecue forks, my panelists said, since piercing leads to dry meat. If you absolutely must use a fork to lift a heavy piece of meat, insert it at the meat's edge. "If you speared a brisket in the center, my father would slap you in the back of the head," Roberts said.

Old-school purists might also reject some of the grilling luxuries now populating the market, but a few of these items are downright cool.

The Thermapen digital meat thermometer ($89), for instance, is fast and accurate. And some grills, like those from Char-Griller, include grates with removable centerpieces, into which you can insert a wok or other items. Similar accessories are also sold for kettle-style grills.

One of the more interesting new items helps slow-cooking fans address a thorny issue. Namely, that charcoal grills can't maintain consistent temperatures for extended periods because charcoal burns down.

Raichlen said he has heard positive reports from grillers about PitmasterIQ.com's 110 Airflow System ($140). It regulates the airflow to a kettle grill, thereby letting users control the temperature and keep a single set of briquettes burning for up to 12 hours.

Smoking supplies are a much simpler affair. Some grillers mock people who try to smoke with a gas grill. But Raichlen said you can achieve reasonable results by using wood chips in metal containers, placed either beneath the grate or in heat diffusers (like the Charcoal Companion V-Shape Smoker Box, $20).

Charcoal grillers, of course, can just toss chips into the briquettes or place the food on wood planks (Williams-Sonoma's cedar grilling planks are $15 for a package of four). Roberts said his grillers throw wet pecan husks onto flare-ups to control flames and add flavor.

I had no spare pecan husks last Wednesday morning as I set up my gas and charcoal grills, and got ready for dinner that night with a friend from West Texas who knows a thing or two about barbecue.

I slow-cooked baby back ribs — I now know they're from pigs — on my charcoal grill with the PitmasterIQ attached. It worked great, and let me wander from the grill for long stretches.

As the ribs cooked, I noticed my neighbor glance over from his yard. I nodded casually, as if this is what I do all the time when he's not around.

Later, when the ribs were done and the chicken was on the charcoal grill, I prepared salmon fillets with mixed vegetables for the gas grill. It was maybe 40 minutes before the chicken was ready, so I turned my attention to cleaning the grill.

I figured it might take 15 minutes. The process was much quicker than that.

I turned on the gas. Nothing happened.

I tried lifting the propane tank to check its weight, but it was rusted to the bracket. Three Neanderthal tugs later, the rivets popped from the tank's collar, and it lifted out, light as a feather.

Smart griller that I am, I had a backup propane tank nearby.

It, too, was empty.

Instead of asking my neighbor for his tank, I squeezed the salmon and vegetables onto the charcoal grill with the chicken. Since I couldn't fit the grill basket on it, I dumped the zucchini pieces around the skewered tomatoes and hoped for the best.

The veggies burned in the flames of the cedar plank, naturally.

I tossed a few surplus veggies on and watched them closely with the lighted tongs, which were a godsend once the sun set.

The salmon, chicken and ribs turned out nicely; the veggies were passable. My West Texas guest offered positive reviews, and I was proud enough to believe her.

As we ate on the porch, I glanced across to see the neighbor in his yard again. If I wasn't mistaken, the wind was blowing in his direction.

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