Grilled peaches and ice cream

Types of Grills That Are Not Ideal for Making Dessert

If you’ve got a grill on your patio, you probably already know how convenient it can be to have an extra cooking surface when it gets busy in your kitchen. And it’s not just for grilling your meats and veggies — there are so many other ways to make good use of that convenient extra cooking power, such as for desserts. You can cook up some fruits to top with ice cream or put in a cobbler, or you might even be able to use your grill like an oven for a dessert you’ve prepared in a pan. But there are many types of grills, and some are just not cut out for baked desserts: namely, open pit grills and Santa Maria-style grills. If you’ve got one of these, you might be better off leaving your dessert baking to your oven.

Of course, you might still be able to prepare some dessert elements on an open pit or Santa Maria grill. Fresh fruits are delicious with a little smoky flavor from the grill, and they can be roasted over either indirect heat away from fire or directly on the flames for a quick char. But cast iron pan cobblers and cakes — and any other dessert that was designed for an oven — need a grill with a top that will close over the embers to create even heat, or you risk scorching the bottoms. Unfortunately, open pit or Santa-Maria style grilling won’t provide what your baked desserts need.

Open pit grilling

Open pit cooking

An open pit grill can be exactly what it sounds like — a pit dug into the ground with a spit or set of grates above it to hold the items being cooked. Barrels and other grills without a closing cover are also open pits. These grills specialize in direct flame heat; if you’ve gone out for Korean barbecue where you grill the food in the middle of the table, you’ve experienced the essence of an open pit. A campfire is another a simple version of open pit cooking, where food is cooked above the heat or wrapped and placed in the coals when the fire dies down.

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But if you’ve ever had a campfire hotdog that’s charred on the outside and cold in the middle, you know it’s very difficult to get even heat from direct flames or coals; the heat comes from one direction, rather than all around like in a closed grill or oven. For baked goods such as cakes, where precision and even heating are essential for a reliable result, an open pit situation would be a big challenge at best. If an open pit grill or campfire are your only cooking options, you may be better off steering away from your favorite cake or brownie recipes and sticking with treats like s’mores — or possibly trying cast iron Dutch-oven dessert recipes that have been specially designed for a campfire. 

Santa Maria-style grills

Santa Maria grill

Santa Maria, California, is cowboy country, renowned for delicious open-fire grilling with native red oak. Succulent tri-tip beef roast and smoky roasted artichokes are some of the specialties cooked over these grills made in Santa Maria, which are similar to open pit-style grills but feature a cooking grid that can be raised and lowered over the fire. This makes them great for outdoor cooking, especially for barbecue that needs a little more temperature control — but it’s still not quite enough to be a reliable tool for grilling desserts.

Much like the open pit grills, all the heat comes from one direction in a Santa Maria grill, and the flames and smoke can be intense. Desserts that would normally cook on the stove, such as puddings and custards, need gentle heat that’s hard to come by on these open grills. Although you can raise the grill surface, the temperature control is still very imprecise, so baked goods that rely on a constant temperature would struggle on a Santa Maria grill. Stick with grilling some fruit to pair with honey or ice cream, and leave the more complex desserts to an oven or an enclosed grill.

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