Step Away From the Oven and Grill Your Desserts This Summer

You had us at smoked whipped cream.

peach cobbler in a white cast iron pan
Photo: Photographer: Greg DuPree, Prop Stylist: Caroline Cunningham, Food Stylist: Torie Cox

When it comes to grilled desserts, most people immediately think of grilled fruit, like peaches or pineapple. Yet grills are a highly underrated tool for making sweet treats, especially during a heat wave.

Danielle Bennett, aka "Diva Q," a world-champion pit master, cookbook author, and barbecue expert based in Florida, is here to encourage you to step away from your oven this summer.

"When it's super hot, the last thing you want to do is turn on your oven to 400 degrees," she says. If you have a grill capable of indirect heat or can learn to manage a two-zone fire, you can whip up almost any type of dessert outside, from cookies to cheesecakes to bars and more. Here's what to keep in mind.

1. Use indirect heat.

When you're making a juicy steak or burger, you want high, direct heat to get a nice char on the outside. The opposite is true for making grilled desserts, however.

Lower, slower, indirect heat (meaning the flame is not directly touching the item you're cooking) is the way to go, to avoid burning. Using a smoker, like a Traeger pellet grill, is an easy way to achieve this, but if you only have a charcoal grill, you can still achieve indirect heat by establishing a two-zone fire.

"You want one side of your grill to be completely unlit, and that will allow you to control the heat a lot more," says Bennett. Many modern grills, like Masterbuilt, now come with built-in technology like fans to help regulate temperature, which comes in handy for desserts, she adds. The only type of grill to avoid in making desserts is a flat-top grill, as you won't have a way to achieve indirect heat.

2. Choose the right cookware.

Think sturdy, heavy-duty pans that can stand up to heat when grilling desserts.

"This is not the time to be going to the dollar store to pick up flimsy stuff," says Bennett. Her go-to is a cast iron skillet, which can easily withstand time on the grill (just remember to bring your potholders). It's a good idea to stick a piece of parchment paper in the bottom before adding your dessert batter, to avoid a mess at cleanup.

Any oven-safe, metal pan that you'd use in the oven (like cookie sheets or cake pans) will also work on a grill, but avoid glass.

3. Increase your recipe's baking time.

A general rule of thumb is that desserts take about 10 percent longer to "bake" on the grill than they would in the oven, so if something typically bakes for 30 minutes, leave it on the grill for 33 minutes, and so forth.

The key is to keep a close eye on it, though. Give yourself some grace, too, as you try making desserts on the grill, as various grills will vary in temperature and cook times and require different adjustments, says Bennett.

4. Start super easy.

Aside from basic grilled fruit, a great place to start if you're new to grilled desserts is the classic s'mores skillet. Made by layering a cast iron skillet with good quality chocolate and marshmallows on top, it's the ultimate treat that's hard for anyone to turn down. Start with low heat, and watch it closely, pulling it off the grill when your marshmallows puff up and get toasty.

5. Experiment with all your favorite desserts.

Nearly any type of dessert recipe can be tweaked slightly to work perfectly on the grill, says Bennett. Aside from cook time, here are a few more pointers to keep in mind:

  • Cookies: Indirect heat is paramount here. Even if you'd bake them in the oven at 400 degrees F, you can't put a pan of cookies directly on a 400-degree fire, says Bennett. (The bottoms will burn rapidly, while the top will be undercooked.)
  • Cakes: Bundt cakes (like this one by Bennett) do especially well on the grill, with a slightly adjusted baking time. For an even easier grilled cake dessert, buy a prepared pound cake or angel food cake, cut it into squares, and make grilled cake skewers. (Pro tip: Top them off with whipped cream and berries.)
  • Bars: Try a variation of your favorite bar recipe by smoking one of the components. For instance, make lemon bars, smoking the lemon filling for 30 minutes on low heat before adding it to your crust and "baking" on the grill.
  • Cheesecakes: Bennett says these are among the easiest desserts to make on the grill, with a little pre-planning. You can set up a water bath beneath your cheesecake springform pan just as you would in an oven. If your cheesecake happens to crack, don't worry: "You can literally cover up any mistakes with caramel," says Bennett.
  • Pies: Adapt your go-to pie recipe to fit in a cast iron skillet, or double it to make a rectangular slab pie on a flat baking sheet instead. The latter is an easy way to whip up dessert for a crowd.

6. Don't sleep on smoked whipped cream.

This quintessential topper for strawberry shortcake or banana splits is made even better on the grill (who knew?). "Because it's water soluble, whipping cream takes in smoke flavor really well," says Bennett.

To try it, pour a pint of heavy whipping cream into a grill-safe pan and smoke it anywhere from 180–225 degrees F for about an hour, she advises. Once it's done, chill it completely in the fridge (about 2 to 3 hours) before whipping up and serving.

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