Erik Niel loves his Big Green Egg.
The James Beard Award-nominated chef loves it so much, in fact, that he brought it to Easy Bistro & Bar, his flagship restaurant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to take care of the restaurant’s smoking needs.
“We do have a commercial smoker,” he says. “It gets the job done–but it’s just not as good as the Egg.”
And Niel should know. Having owned one for almost a decade, he’s thrown just about everything you could imagine onto the grill–everything from ribeye (his first foray into grilling with the Egg) to apples and lobster shells.
What exactly is a Big Green Egg? It’s an American version of a mushikamado, a movable southern Japanese wood- or charcoal-fueled stove. Made from high-fiber ceramics that allow for temperatures upwards of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, this baby has a small top vent designed to keep the fire going while containing the heat.
“American servicemen brought it back after World War Two,” Niel says. “I’m just fascinated by it. It is a great piece of technology.”
Traditionally used for smoking and barbecue, there’s not much the Egg can’t do, and it has helped Niel experiment with and perfect his southern-meets-Provencal cuisine that started to take root during his childhood in the Louisiana Bayou.
Niel grew up in southern Louisiana hunting, fishing, and learning from his grandfather how to cook his catches. There were, he says, tons of old-guard restaurants down there that mixed old creole and hefty French flavors. “It was great, but it was a little heavy.” So he looked at books from the south of France and Italy and started to prepare food with a light touch.
“I want fresh ingredients, and I manipulate them as little as possible,” he says. “I want the food to do the talking.”
The Egg, he says, plays a big role in that.
He let The Manual in on the secret to using an Egg to its full potential, and we’ve put together a start-to-finish how-to on using a Big Green Egg.
The Egg, Niel says, is a great way to start learning how to use a charcoal-fueled stove. “Build fires to get to know the Egg. Just practice as much as possible.”
Whether you want low-and-slow or intensely high heat, the Egg does both, but getting the temperature right is a matter of trial and error. Niel says that you should get the heat up high and then bring it down to your desired temp, because it’s easier to bring it down with time than it is to build the temperature in the grill. When you build your fire, wait for white to show up in the charcoal, and then add your wood chips.
Niel says to experiment with different wood chips–hickory, oak, and cherry, to name a few–and figure out which wood chips give your food the flavor you want.
Who doesn’t love bar nuts? Crazy people, that’s who. And now you can make Niel’s rich, smoky, and satisfying bar nuts all on your own. Toss an assortment of nuts in butter and smoke for 1-2 hours. Easy as all get out, and the result is way better than those raw almonds you were going to force yourself to eat before.
Appetizers and Side Dishes
The sky is the limit when it comes to appetizers and side dishes. Niel has smoked pretty much anything he could get his hands on in the past–including mashed potatoes. The smokiness adds an extra dimension to what can be a one-note dish.
You can also make pizza and flatbread on one of these grills. (You just need a pizza stone.) The Manual suggests taking some pre-made puff pastry or pizza dough, slathering on garlic-infused olive oil, and topping it with prosciutto, chopped figs, chevre, and walnuts. Heat the egg to about 400 degrees, and let the flatbread go until the crust starts to bubble, about five minutes.
Niel also suggests smoking greens over high heat–in particular, spinach and kale–to give them a nice crunch. The unexpected texture takes these veggies from boring health-related obligation to delightful side dish.
According to Niel, “Meat is where the Egg really shines.”
If you’re a fan of pulled pork, you can smoke pork butt on the Egg like any other grill. Niel suggests taking it to the next level, though. “Throw some apples on an hour before the pork is done. It’ll give a nice sweetness to the smoke that’s been infusing the pig for the past few hours.”
Niel’s first foray into egging was with a ribeye. He got it “raging hot”–to about 750 degrees–which allowed the steak to get crunchy and crispy on the outside while maintaining a cool temp on the inside. Sounds good to us.
Heck, Even Dessert
We are not kidding when we say you can make molten chocolate lava cake with this thing. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Header photo courtesy of Didriks via Creative Commons.