Update: Now beyond six years and this is one of the most popular articles on my site! Glad it has helped so many. I upgraded the gasket and fire grate in my BGE and it is well worth doing so.
Update: After more than a year of Big Green Egg ownership, I have learned a few things. Article corrected, updated, and otherwise edited. Thanks to MacDude (Jeff Hoover) for reminding me to go back and look at this.
As anyone who reads this weblog knows, I’m having an absolute blast with my Big Green Egg. A number of folks have expressed interest in purchasing an Egg and were curious what suggestions I might have. So, here goes…
The Big Green Egg is effectively a ceramic oven with a firebox below the cooking surface. It has top and bottom vents, both of which can be adjusted to control both temperature, humidity and smoke concentrations.
The big advantage to a ceramic cooker vs. a gas or metal kettle grill is that you have amazing control over the temperature while burning fuel surprisingly efficiently. The ceramic acts as a heat ballast and the BGE is both super efficient and extremely temperature stable. Because of the design, it also tends to use burn less fuel, drawing less air and, hence, loses less moisture during the cooking process. While this also means less smoke production, the smoke tends to stay in the cooking area longer and at lower temperatures.
Kamado also makes similar cookers; more expensive but likely worth it if tiles are your thing (the amazon reviews are very negative, but not exactly a huge sample size). If I had known about the Kamado prior to getting the BGE, I would still go with the BGE for reasons of practicality. The Kamado is beautiful, no doubt, but the BGE is simply much more practical when dropped into a table. Primo makes ceramic cookers with a very similar design to the BGE. I like the oval shape, but I don’t like that their marketing materials imply competitor’s do not have certain features or capabilities that they clearly do.
The BGE comes in several sizes. I have a large BGE that features a 18″ cooking surface, stands 30 inches high, 21 inches wide and weighs around 140 lbs (yes. 140 lbs. It is hard to move). The large and extra large eggs have spring assisted lid lifters. While it can kill you if you don’t follow the assembly instructions, it ensures smooth operation while in use.
To give an idea of how large of a grilling surface 18″ really is, the large egg just fits a 21 lbs turkey standing upright. It could fit a larger bird that isn’t propped on a can of Fosters, but not much larger. I have successfully cooked 40 lbs of pork butt and a 27+ pound turkey, but it was cramped. It is also large enough to handle a whole 8.5 lbs salmon with head and tail removed.
The key to success with a BGE is patience and never opening the lid during cooking unless you have to apply a baste or adjust something. Seriously. You should never have to open it to check for “done” unless visual inspection is the only way to tell. A properly tuned BGE will happily maintain a particular temperature for hours as long as you don’t open the lid. As soon as you open the lid, the inrush of air will cause the fire to rapidly change profile, typically getting a lot hotter and changing the burn pattern such that you are going to have to retune the vents to whatever temperature you need.
Or get a Stoker. Which brings us to the list of the accessories you will need….First and foremost, you will need at least two digital probe style thermometers. I use a couple of Polder thermometers, though it isn’t because I find them to be better than any other model. I will probably move to Taylor as their probe replacement policy is more reasonable (the probes die with any flare up — rare on a BGE, but it does happens — or if the cable is damaged, which can be easy to do where it enters the probe).
The BGE has a little hole through which one probe is inserted to monitor the interior ambient temperature while the other probe is inserted into the thickest part of the food to determine internal temperature. Ambient and internal temperature control are the key control variables when cooking meats and fish. The BGE comes with a typical probe style analog grill thermometer. I knocked mine out of calibration the first time I used the BGE because I didn’t know what the helL I was doing. In particular, I lit the egg with both vents open and didn’t close them until the internal temperature shot through 1,000 degrees. This fried the included thermometer and the felt seal on the egg. Stupid me. Both are cheaply replaceable, but having a probe thermometer with hi/lo alarms is incredibly useful.
Alternatively, go with a device like the Stoker. It is a little computer that can control a fan attached to the BGE while monitoring a probe installed within the BGE to maintain a particular cooking temperature. A Stoker can also monitor probes and control multiple fans, including monitoring probes inserted into food. Awesome device. The combination of a Stoker and a BGE enables one to easily slow cook meats for upwards of 20 hours at a temperature around 200 degrees without having to intervene, add fuel or otherwise worry about it.
When ordering your BGE, get it from a local dealer if at all possible. The BGE site has a list of dealers though you’ll likely want to call around to appliance places to see if they can order it for you. We got ours through University Electrric (Bay Area) at a significant discount versus other sources.
Other useful tools. Many links lead to Outdoor Home. They seem to have reasonable prices on an awesome selection of tools and, better yet, are from my home state. I have ordered from them a few times and never had a problem.
In the first picture, the BGE is sitting in a large Big Green Egg cart. It is a raw cedar cart that I sanded and used a redwood stain deck sealer on. You really want some kind of cart or stand for the BGE. Given the Egg’s weight, it is relatively stable on its own. Having the egg in a nest is much much better (I used it for a couple of weeks without the table) as a BGE will break if it is knocked over. The work surface adjacent to the grill is critical when lifting in/out things like 20+ lbs turkeys. I dropped a couple of screw hooks into the end to hold other tools, of which you are going to need several.
You will want an electric coal starter. Any other method requires that you burn the coals a bit to eliminate any starter remnants and a chimney starter inside the egg just gets really really hot and wastes fuel. The linked product is funny — box says “extremely safe” and instructions say “don’t leave it plugged in for more than 10 minutes ’cause it might ‘splode!”. Alternatively, use a chimney starter externally to the egg with newspaper coiled underneath as the starter fuel. Never use lighter fluid. Not in the egg or externally on charcoal.
My BGE came with an adjustable metal top along with the traditional green ceramic top. The adjustable metal top is critical to achieving perfect temperature/humidty/smoke control. Frankly, the green ceramic top is useless for all but keeping rain out. My ceramic top broke recently (knocked it off a table) and I doubt I’ll replace it.
You will likely want to pick up a grid lifter as it makes it possible to lift in/out the entire cooking grid, food and all. Some foods — fish, for example — tend to like to stick to the grid and being able to pull the hot grid out and deal with it outside of the BGE is critical to removing the food intact. Likewise, anything — like whole salmon butterflied — that has piles of stuff on top is much easier to simply assemble on the grid and later place into the BGE. Two grid lifters is even more useful in that trying to lift a cooking grid with 20lbs of pork on it is damned hard with one hand.
For cooking bread and/or pizza, there is a baking stone. Given that the grilling grid is inserted in the egg a couple of inches below the hinged lid, I would also suggest getting some refractory bricks to boost the height of the stone. I am likely going to pick up a second baking stone as the first one is now thoroughly gunked up from using it to block direct heat while slow cooking meat. Works really well, but totally trashes the stone.
You will also want a long handled tong. These are 12" tongs from Amazon (no idea of the quality of that one). 18″ is even better. Longer the better. Solid construction critical. You’ll need this for dealing with the BGE when cooking at high heat. Reaching into it is exactly like reaching into a hot oven — very hot!
I also have an ash tool. It really isn’t necessary save for that it is perfectly shaped for scraping out ashes and kicking things around. It also fits in between the fire box and the outside wall of the egg which is quite useful for scraping out all the ashes without having to take everything out of the egg. Your firebox will likely eventually crack — mine has not yet (that I have noticed) — as it expands and contracts during cooking. While it makes it hard to take out and put back, such a crack does not impact cooing performance.
As for fuel, I use Lazarri’s Mesquite or Lump Charcoal. For smoke, I’ll use a combination of store bought hickory chips (I miss having a forest full o’ hickory trees like I did in the midwest!) and green fruit tree wood. Usually Apricot as my Apricot tree is growing like a weed and constantly needs to be trimmed back. For any relatively fast cooking — less than 2 hours — the type of wood doesn’t make a huge amount of difference (unless you are using rosemary which imparts one hell of a lot of flavor quickly). For longer smokes, wood type can impart distinctive flavors.
As I have learned, the above was crap. I now exclusively use hardwood chunk charcoal. I typically by either BBQ Galore’s store brand or BGE brand chunk charcoal. In any case, I never use Lazarri’s Mesquite Charcoal as mesquite imparts way too much smoke to be useful for anything but very short, high heat, cooking sessions. If I could find Lazarri’s chunk hardwood, I would use it. Lazarri’s quality is excellent, it is just that mesquite is useless to me.
For smoke production, I typically choose a relatively mild wood like Apple or Alder. I will often soak it in red wine and water, with maybe a bit of bourbon. For slow smokes, you really don’t want to use more than several lumps of smoking wood — big lumps, not chips — spread throughout the coals so they burn at different times. Trust me, you’ll get plenty of smoky flavor.
It is quite easy to produce truly obscene quantities of smoke and a really sour / disgusting smoke flavor. Start light. Ramp up as you gain experience.
I will often smoke with rosemary wood. Yes, rosemary wood. It grows like a weed around here and our neighbor has a slew of rosemary shrubs — woody branches and all — around the corner. Nothing like a rosemary smoke so intense that the chicken meat turns pink 1/4″ below the surface! But, again, “intense” does not mean “rosemary wood based fire”.
Oh, and you’ll need some good beer. Until you are comfortable with your temperature control skills, you’ll be spending a lot of time hovering over the temperature probes monitoring and adjusting constantly. Or tequila. A nice sipping tequila over ice with a touch of fresh meyer’s does one good.
Now that I have gained confidence, I use the Stoker for any cook longer than 2 hours and will commonly let a cook run overnight and through the workday with nothing but an occasional check of a web page. I sleep with confidence through cooks at this point — very different than the every two hour checkup when I was first starting. For sub 2 hour cooks, I just use a probe thermometer, set the vents, and let it go. The BGE will maintain a steady temperature quite nicely without having to do anything more than slightly adjust a vent ever 45 minutes or so.
Unless it is a cook where internal food temp just isn’t an issue (like a 20 hour pork butt — after 20 hours at 220 degrees, the food will be safe to eat and it will be delicious!), I always cook with one or two probes in the food. The best way to produce an incredibly juicy steak or turkey is to bring the internal temperature up to about 8 or 10 degrees below the target temp, then cover it for 10 minutes.