Hybrid Grills

In another incarnation I traveled the competitive barbecue circuit for a couple of years while researching a book about the delicious craziness of that world. Along the way I witnessed some very strange takes on what grills could be. Creative welders fashioned smokers in the shape of locomotives, they converted airplanes, refrigerators and even school buses into cookers. The one thing they mostly had in common was they were solely dedicated to burning wood to create smoke for the low ‘n' slow smoking conditions that define barbecue.

As much as I respect the purity of such contraptions, for the purposes of cooking outdoors with limited patio space it's impractical to have cookers committed to any one task, be it smoking, grilling or roasting. That's why hybrid grills are so attractive. Check out the Kalamazoo Hybrid Fire Grill (pictured, $11,295 to $25,195). It cooks in a range of temperatures from 150° to 1,200° F. The Hybrid's grilling drawer is what makes it hybrid. It slides between the gas burners and the grilling surface and can be loaded with any smoke producer from charcoal to wood chips to small logs for, say, ribs. Leave it empty, however, and you can sear a steak.

On a more budget-friendly level is the Char-Broil Digital Electric Smoker ($250 to $300). You sacrifice the joy of playing with fire, but get the exacting temperature-setting standards (100° to 275° F) and remote-control options of the electronic age. A probe thermometer alerts you by Bluetooth when the meat is ready. A chamber thermometer regulates the heat in the box for as long as 19 hours (for that overnight brisket). You can smoke by filling a box with wood chips or simply roast (I made my Christmas prime rib in one). The locker-style set up, with multiple racks and available glass door, makes trays easily accessible and lets you cook anything from ribs to turkey, but not whole hog.

The convenience of the first-ever Summit Charcoal Grill from Weber ($1,700 to $2,300) is not so much cooking versatility, but ease of operation. Gas fires the smoking fuel (either charcoal or woodchips) and the Rapidfire lid damper hurries the quick start-up time. The dome's double-wall construction adds insulation, regulates temperature, elongates cooking time and requires less charcoal. A hinged grill section makes it easier to add fuel and a hinged defuser plate allows cooking at lower temperatures.

Visit kalamazoogourmet.com, charbroil.com and weber.com