Hill Country's Elizabeth Karmel on Hill Country Chicken, Gas vs. Charcoal, and Why Girls Need a Guide to Grilling

Elizabeth Karmel of Hill Country, and soon, Hill Country Chicken.
Elizabeth Karmel of Hill Country, and soon, Hill Country Chicken.

Chef Elizabeth Karmel grew up in North Carolina, raised on barbecue and good Southern cooking. She worked for Weber Grills for years before launching her grilling and barbecuing website, Girls at the Grill. She has authored three grill-centric cookbooks and often writes on the subject for cooking magazines and newspapers. She recently partnered with St. Francis Winery to put out an online guide to pairing grilled dishes with wine called the St. Francis Girls' Guide to Grilling. She is the executive chef of Hill Country, as well as the soon-to-open Southern restaurant Hill Country Chicken.

We caught up with Karmel about her plans for the new restaurant, gas grilling versus charcoal, and why she thinks "girls" need particular help with firing up the grill. Tune in tomorrow for the second half of the interview, in which Karmel gives expert grilling tips and talks about the blossoming barbecue scene in New York.

Tell us a bit about your new Southern restaurant, Hill Country Chicken. What will be on the menu, and when will it open?

We're not ready to talk about it just yet, but we should be open sometime this summer. We're chugging along. We'll be in the space in about a month, so at this point, the opening will be towards the end of summer.

You've recently collaborated with St. Francis Winery to write a "Girls' Guide to Grilling" and your website is called Girls at the Grill -- do you feel like women somehow need particular help with the grill? I'll tell you how it started. Basically, I fell in love with the outdoor grill. I just took to it, and experimented, and every time I would make something on the grill, nine times out of 10, it was better than any other cooking technique. So I always say: If you can eat it, you can grill it ...

When I moved from North Carolina to Chicago, I met all these women who bemoaned the fact that they couldn't cook. Growing up in the South, learning to cook is like learning to tie your shoes -- it's not big deal, just something you did. My momma and grandma cooked all the time. But now I had all these girlfriends bemoaning the fact that they couldn't cook. And I realized that if I could get them to buy a gas grill, which is super-easy to turn on, and teach them just one or two things, all of a sudden, they'd be giving dinner parties in a month's time. Women can embrace the outdoor grill as an everyday cooking appliance. We are the primary food providers in this country. Regardless of whether it's from the microwave, from scratch, or ordering takeout, it's our responsibility, as women, to get people fed.

So I had this gut feeling that I could get women to use the grill as an alternate heat source, to embrace it. And it's not about pushing him out of the way. Do you know why men kept the grill for themselves all these years? Because it's a lot of fun! So that's how I started Girls at the Grill ...

And I do think women need a nudge to the grill. Traditionally, it's a male-dominated hobby, not an everyday way to cook food. It used to be about fire management: building a fire, hard, messy and dirty. But most gas grills out there are better than home ovens.

How so?

In terms of heat consistency and ease of cooking. And because you really only need to know a few things to be a great grill master. To that end, I'm all about the tips and mantras. I've taught a lot, and I've noticed that people like small amounts of information that they can really get their heads around. So one of them is: Grilling is really 10 percent skill and 90 percent the will to grill ...

It's so much about confidence. If you know the difference between direct and indirect heat and when to use them, all you need to make great food is olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper. And the pepper is really optional. That's assuming you get the highest-quality raw ingredients you can find. Because even though I write cookbooks and want everyone to buy them, what I really want people to do is to learn to cook intuitively. A beginner can get intimidated by recipes. Even if it's simple, they look at that list of ingredients and their eyes glaze over.

 

Gas is certainly easier to light, but how do you feel about the results of charcoal versus gas grilling? That's one that people ask a lot. I'm an equal opportunity griller. When I've got the time ... I use a charcoal grill. I love the hands-on experience of charcoal. But when I don't have time, I can flip a switch and have that gas grill preheated in 10 minutes and have a full meal in less time than it takes to order pizza. I think everyone should own both if they can and they have room.

In terms of flavor, everyone has the perception that charcoal tastes better. But I've done a lot of blind taste tests, and I have found unequivocally that if you give people two hamburgers, two piles of asparagus, one done on charcoal and one on gas, and ask them which one tastes better, they will always pick the ones done on the gas grill, and they will always think it was grilled over charcoal.

Why do you think that is?

I'll tell you why -- and this doesn't have anything to do with barbecue; barbecue has to be scented with wood smoke, that's very distinct. We're talking grilled now. And with grilled, the real flavor comes from the fat and juices dripping down into the fire, vaporizing, and turning to smoke. And the food absorbs that smoke. ... I think that just because of the way a gas grill is set up, even if it's indirect heat, it's smoking hot, and that juice instantly vaporizes and turns into a lot of smoke, kind of a clean smoke. ... Food is really a sponge that absorbs whatever is in that cooking box.

Once you introduce wood chips, that's a whole 'nother story. And I love, love, love using wood chips even on unexpected things. I do a smoked gazpacho where I smoke all the vegetables first. It's so good. Sometimes instead of thinning it out, I serve it as a smoked salsa.

What woods do you use to smoke the meat at Hill Country? Do you recommend certain wood chips for home smokers?

I love all kinds of woods. I have a line of products called Grill Friends, and I just came out with wood chips and smoker boxes. ... It can be hard to find woods other than hickory and mesquite. ... So [in my line] I have hickory, apple, cherry, pecan, and mesquite chips, and they come in little cups so that you don't have to buy the five-pound bag -- if you just want to try it out, you can get just what you need for just one cook-out. ... Pecan wood is unbelievable for steaks. I also have wood planks. I created method I call sear-and-plank: Sear the steak over high heat and then finish cooking it over a wet pecan wood plank. You get the nice grill marks and the smokiness of the pecan plank ...

At Hill Country, we use post oak. That's indigenous to Central Texas, the Hill Country area. It makes a beautiful, sweet smoke. We actually truck the wood in because we want to have that authentic flavor.

The one thing I want to say about wood, now that barbecue has been elevated, it's very in vogue, but the true roots of barbecue are that people took meats that were almost discarded, the tough cuts, and cooked them for a long period of time over a slow heat to get them meltingly tender. To melt the connective tissues, to make it palatable. They used wood fire originally, and used whatever wood grew indigenous in the area, so that's how the original wood pairings came to be. It was just what grew there. We've made it a little complicated now. It was super-simple at its essence.

 

Do you feel men and women have different grilling or barbecuing styles?

There are nuances. And once again, I'm talking in gross generalizations, because there are always exceptions to the rules. I'm an exception to all these men in barbecue, so I feel I have to say that.

Women tend to be more interested in grilling the whole meal. They have a tendency to think about the whole meal. My theory is that they're used to thinking about the whole meal, so they're just taking their inside thoughts outdoors. Men are much more focused on cooking by live fire, meat. That said, I've done surveys on my website, and chicken is the No. 1 everyday food that people cook on the grill. But steak is the No. 1 favorite thing, for women and men.

As executive chef of a barbecue restaurant, has your gender helped or hindered you in your career?

I'd say 100 percent it's helped me. I have not ever felt like I was discriminated against. I feel like it's helped me along the way because when I was first getting interested in barbecue, I'd ask the old salts about their secrets and they'd tell me the answers because they didn't think I'd do anything with the information! They're very proprietary with other guys.


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