PITTSBURGH — If there was a small silver lining to this pandemic year, perhaps it’s this: We got back in our kitchens.
With restaurants temporarily shuttered, most of us did (and are still doing) a lot more cooking. More than a few have used their time cooped at home to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients and/or try different cooking methods. (Remember those flour and yeast shortages caused by the sourdough bread frenzy?)
As a masked-up spring stretched into a socially distanced summer and fall, we also got back to our grills.
Over 14 million grills and smokers were sold between April 2020 and February 2021, according to The NPD Group. That was a 39% increase over the same period a year before and boy, did we pony up: We spent nearly $5 billion on grills, smokers, camping stoves and accessories in 2020.
Tim Hillebrand, co-owner of Don’s Appliances, is among Pittsburgh-area retailers that saw a rise in outdoor kitchens last year.
“The barbecue business in general was crazy,” he said, with many manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand.
Specialty items like smokers and pizza ovens were particularly popular, and Hillebrand said his business also sold a lot of outdoor refrigeration units and burners. “People wanted true outdoor kitchens, where in the past they just bought a grill.”
He expects a repeat performance in 2021, and not just among carnivores. Eating Well magazine saw a 51% year-over-year increase in views for articles and recipes for grilling vegetables.
“Americans are coming back home, which is a good thing because it allows us to slow down,” said Kimberly Stuteville, national sales director for grill manufacturer Napoleon, which saw a double-digit sales increase over last year.
A grill, she added, “brings you to your core, your center, whether it’s with neighbors or your nuclear family.”
Grills with infrared cooking technology are really big, she noted, and smoke continues to trend in all forms, including pellet grills. Accessories like pancha skillets, rotisserie baskets and charcoal trays — which allow you to cook with charcoal or wood chips on a gas grill — are also increasingly popular.
Doug Satterfield, owner of Rollier’s Hardware in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., agreed that 2021 is shaping up to be a hot year for grill sales, especially now through July 4. The most popular price range is $500 to $800.
“People are still spending money to stay at home instead of vacationing,” he said. “They want to spend more time in their backyards.”
So far Rollier’s has been able to keep ahead of the pace. “But some companies are running short, and inventory is not quick,” he noted. So if you’re in the market, you might want to buy sooner rather than later.
Rollier’s had its best year ever for pizza ovens and Satterfield thinks 2021 will offer more of the same. “People want something on their back deck that’s more unique.”
New this year is the Burch Barrel, a portable charcoal grill that also can be used as a fire pit or smoker. It retails for around $1,000.
Mike Murphy, a former investment banker who owns Carson Street Deli on the South Side, was ahead of the curve on outdoor pizza. He got his bright yellow Forno Bello pizza oven several years ago, and has become an expert at making thin Neapolitan pies on his Pittsburgh-area patio.
He was originally going to build a pizza oven from scratch, but there were zoning issues and “I was too impatient to wait,” he says. Backyard Brick Oven came to the rescue with a stainless-steel model that can reach 1,000 degrees and cook a pizza in 60 seconds. It cost around $2,600.
“It’s stunningly well-insulated,” Murphy says. “The arch is perfect.”
Yet the name of the game when it comes to pizza, he says, isn’t the oven. It’s the dough. Some recipes can take up to four days to create.
“I think it’s fun,” says Murphy, “but I have an idea that some people who bought these beautiful ovens didn’t realize there is work involved.”
He always starts with quality Caputo 00 flour, which is higher in protein than all-purpose flour. That gives the dough stronger gluten strands, which makes it stretchier and more elastic and results in a crisper pizza.
“Do you see the bubbles? That means the yeast is happy,” he says on a recent weekday, as he demonstrates how to stretch a batch of dough that has fermented for three days.
His bible is “The Elements of Pizza” by Ken Forkish (Ten Speed Press, $30). He also draws inspiration from the thin and crispy free-form pies served at Figs by Todd English in Boston.
Along with Neapolitan-style Margherita pizzas, Murphy creates what he calls his “Fenway Red Sox” pie. It starts like all stellar pies with a homemade red sauce crafted with canned San Marzano tomatoes. Toppings include ground sweet Italian sausage, caramelized onions, roasted red pepper and a tangy lemon aioli.
“And I’m an after basil person,” he quips, referring to the fresh herb garnish.
Murphy says he’s always experimenting with different fermentation techniques, and that every day he’s learning.
“There’s a lot of steps, and you have to keep track of your time,” he says. But the rewards are plenty.
“You can’t do a Costco crust at 800 degrees, or you’ll end up with a cracker.”