It wasn't so long ago that a midwinter invitation to a barbecue would have been met with skepticism, bewilderment and even a little suspicious hostility. Grilling, after all, was considered a fair-weather activity best suited to long evenings and short sleeves. But that's changing. Nowadays, people have begun to realize that the pleasures of the grill taste every bit as smoky sweet in the dead of winter – maybe even more so, owing to the effort involved – as they do at the height of summer.
"I have been barbecuing seriously for two decades," says recent convert David Hyde, a television director who works in extreme conditions around the world, from the deserts of California to the boreal forests of the Yukon. "But when I started to grill in the winter, I realized what I was missing out on for 20 years, because it is absolutely incredible outside. In Canada, one of the very best and most beautiful seasons we have is winter. Simply being part of the world in the winter and having a purpose to stand there for 10 minutes, drinking a cocktail of some sort while barbecuing, is a gift."
Hyde is far from alone in his enthusiasm for year-round grilling. A recent survey by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, an international trade group based in the United States, suggests that nearly two-thirds of the grill owners polled barbecue year-round. Those numbers may be slightly lower in Canada, where winter can be longer and harsher, but the switch is taking place. Paul Alexander, a celebrity and fashion photographer in Toronto, has always fired up the barbecue when the inspiration hits, regardless of the weather. "Cooking outside speaks to our DNA," he says. "Historically speaking, climate-controlled rooms are a fairly new innovation. When we've got to go outside and put something on the grill, especially if it's cold out, it takes us back to out roots."
Paul Salo, a surgeon in Calgary and long-time grilling aficionado, has a few suggestions for people just starting out. "You have to get some practice in," he says. "The cooking time will be a little longer and you don't lift the lid as much – that screws things up."
"I don't care," he adds, "about rain or snow. I haven't grilled in a hailstorm, but hailstorms tend to be limited to a few minutes, so that's not a big deal – you just wait it out. The worst thing is wind. If the wind is really going, it really carries away a lot of heat and you get this kind of convective cooling. I've even had the damn thing get blown out by a high wind. That's another reason to keep the lid covered."
Personally, I'm partial to low and slow cooking in the winter: gently smoked pork butt with a sweet/spicy rub, a classic beer-can chicken, the juicy rib-eyes in the recipe on these pages. Clams and oysters are also at their peak in the winter months and both love to be popped open on a hot, smoky grill. A generous spread of cilantro chili butter and a squeeze of lime, is a taste of milder seasons. And dungeness crab is at its best in winter (if you're partial to chilled crabs, a quick toss into a handy snowbank after a turn on the grill is a quick and excellent way to cool them down).
Tool-wise, barbecue gloves both protect hands from splatter and keep them warm, while a good meat thermometer is a wise investment whatever the season. And take it from someone who has learned the hard way: Keep your scarves tied up tight or leave them inside – those dangly bits are just waiting to catch fire. Even more importantly, never take the lazy way out and try to set your barbecue up in the garage. The additional warmth provided does not override the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or fire. Having said all that, happy winter grilling!