The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association represents a global array of businesses that make their living selling products that depend on fire. I was lucky enough to score a pass to visit the expo for two days when the association’s annual convention came to Nashville, and I discovered that the industry is continuously innovating, especially when it comes to outdoor cooking.
The convention and expo floor showcased the best in bbq grills and smokers, fire pits, indoor hearths and fireplaces, outdoor furnishings and all the ancillary tools and gadgets that go along with controlling fire.
The HPBA comes to my hometown of Nashville every three years, and Music City was a popular destination for those in the flame biz with more than 7500 attendees registering for the conference, up 25% over last year. I spoke with Jack Goldman, the CEO of the HPBA, about some of the top trends in the industry. If you’ve read my work here at Gear Diary in the past, then you know I tend to concentrate on the outdoor grilling and smoking portion of the HPBA membership over the patio and fireplace innovations. The barbecue part of the association was added a few years back as fireplace installers looked for ways to make money during the warmer months when people aren’t thinking often about building a roaring fire.
But year-round grilling and outdoor fireplace use were some of the important trends that Goldman mentioned. He told me that 1 in 10 consumers are planning to add fireplaces and heaters to outdoor kitchens to facilitate use during the winter months. In fact, a survey of grill enthusiasts showed that more than 10% of them actually cooked outdoors over Christmas and New Year’s Eve. If you stereotype Millennials as always staying indoors to play video games or stare at their screens, you’re missing out on another trend. Apparently, the younger generation has discovered the joys of standing around an open fire, even if it’s just to stay warm while you scroll through your social feeds. Regardless, they are installing fire pits behind their homes, apartments and even taking them along on camping and tailgate trips.
The final trend is the rise in pellet-fired grills. The most famous name in the game is Traeger, who advertises the ease-of-use of their grills thanks to a clever design that allows consumers to add a handful of wood pellets, set the desired temp of the grill and basically forget about it until the food emerges redolent of smoke and perfectly cooked from the grill. Now, many other companies are getting involved in the pellet game, and that fuel source is showing up in stoves for heating and ovens for cooking pizzas.
As I walked the showroom floor for two days, racking up a ton of FitBit steps, I discovered a lot of cool new gadgets that I thought would be of interest to Gear Diary readers. I also picked up a few review units that I’ll run through the paces for future Gear Diary pieces, hopefully in time for outdoor cooking season for most of you! In the meantime, here are some other interesting things I encountered:
I got to meet Richard Looft, the inventor of one of my favorite cooking gadgets, the Looftlighter. After a career as a theatre and film director in his native Sweden, Looft left his job after inventing his powerful grill starting technology which combines high heat from an electric element with a powerful fan to create a vortex of flame which quickly lights charcoal in a grill or smoker without having to use any lighter fluid. You can also use it to light fireplaces or bonfires with ease, usually in about a minute, My only quibble with my Looftlighter is having to find a plug near my grill to use it, so I asked Mr. Looft if he was working on a cordless version. He smiled and surreptitiously showed me a photo on his phone, so all I can tell you is to stay tuned!
A whole new product category is emerging in outdoor cooking where “Hot and Fast” is the new “low and slow.” What I mean by that is that instead of using a smoker to cook a pork butt or racks of ribs for hours, more people are buying new devices that cook super hot and fast, like a brick oven in a pizzeria or steak house. On the steak side. I was really impressed by the Beefer, a 1500-degree grill manufactured in Germany and newly-released in the US. The best way to cook a steak that is juicy on the inside and still create a crunchy crust is to cook it at a very high heat for a short time. There simply isn’t an easier way to do this than using the Beefer.
Fired by propane, the Beefer heats up like a jet engine to achieve perfect caramelization in minutes. The grate can be adjusted up or down to regulate cooking offering what they call an “enormous bandwidth” of flexible cooking options. In addition to cooking the perfect rib eye, you can use the Beefer to broil shrimp, brulee vegetables and fruits, sear scallops or even cook a pizza. Because the cook time is so fast, you’ll even save propane over a traditional gas grill. Whenever I build my dream outdoor kitchen, you can bet I’ll carve out a few extra square feet on the countertop for a Beefer!
Outdoor pizza ovens that also depend on high heat (although a slightly less infernal 800-900 degrees in this case,) and I discovered two pellet-powered options that could possibly also earn some space in my kitchen of the future. The more barebones option of the two was the WPP from www.woodpelletpizzaoven.com. Made with stainless steel, the WPP is still easily portable, although you will have to wait until it cools down before moving it. It can burn wood chips, chunks or pellets, or charcoal and lump charcoal, so it’s really flexible. Reaching temperatures up to 900 degrees, it reaches the sweet spot for pizza cooking. If you want to look like a real pizza pro at your next tailgate, check out the WPP.
Snazzier is the Uuni, a line of pellet-fired pizza ovens and tools based out of Finland where the inventor’s family operated a grocery store and bakery. Kristian Tapaninaho figured out that it was the combination of high heat and the flavor of wood that made some pizzas superior to others, so he designed a home pizza oven that could provide both.
The Uuni comes in two sizes, the Uuni 3 and the Uuni Pro. The Uuni 3 runs on pellets and heats up in about ten minutes. Once it reaches temp, you can cook a pizza in just 60 seconds or all types of meat, seafood, vegetables, or flatbreads that work well with high heat. The Uuni Pro can cook using wood, charcoal, pellets and gas depending on the attachments you purchase. Larger than the less expensive Uuni 3, the Pro has two doors instead of one. The regular door has a thermometer to check when you’ve reached the proper cooking temp, and the extra “pizza door” is like a letterbox door that swings down to slide a pizza in and out using an available peel. Thanks to the larger cooking volume, the Pro allows for the preparation of a wider variety of food; large roasted meats, fish, vegetables, bread and more.
When man (or woman) first learned to cook with fire, that was a huge evolutionary step for the species. Given the innovation that I encountered at the HPBA Expo, I’d say that we’re still continuing to evolve in the best ways!