I have grilled and smoked breads lots of times. In fact, some of my favorite dishes involve fire and bread. Some of my favorite grilling memories, too.
Alongside steak, for example, I like the Catalan mainstay of pan con tomate, slices of grilled bread painted with olive oil, smeared with tomato and brightened with salt; I devoured it every chance I got during a visit two decades ago to Barcelona. For bruschetta, I normally grill rounds of Italian bread, as did one of the best grill masters I ever met, a Tuscan chef, since deceased, named Giancarlo Gianelli. Perhaps my favorite, though, is to set a slab of rustic bread above a soft fire, then, when browned, dress it with nothing more than a drizzle of olio nuovo (just-pressed “new oil”) and good salt, an unadorned pleasure that takes me back to when I first encountered it more than a decade ago at an olive oil harvest festival in Italy.
Probably because of the casualness with which I have treated it, I have never given grilled bread much thought. (After all, grilled bread is basically just toast made over fire, the original toaster.) So I decided to do it with considerable thought, to extend what I had been doing in new ways.
For inspiration, I decided to globe-hop. I turned first to an old standby: grilled pita. I have long crisped an oiled, split-open round of pita over a calm fire to use as chips for dips like hummus, baba ghanoush and tapenade. Now, I’d include it in fattoush.
Fattoush is the second-most-famous Lebanese salad, after tabbouleh. It is a summery collection of chopped raw vegetables, characterized fundamentally by the use of the faintly sour spice sumac. What defines it, though, is its crunch of crisp pita broken into bite-size pieces. The pita, when put to an open flame, imparts a resonant bass note to the salad’s sunny flavor.
I next borrowed from Mexico, making an avocado salad with homemade corn tortilla chips. This one was trickier. I wasn’t sure whether to smoke the tortillas on the cool side of an indirect fire and then fry them in vegetable oil, or grill them until crusty. I experimented and found that — ain’t it always the way? — I liked both methods. Smoking the tortilla infuses it with depth, and following up with a turn in hot oil gives it a familiar texture. Grilling it, though, lends the tortilla a fantastic char flavor (almost overwhelming) and saves on the calories added by frying. Of the two, I am drawn more to the smoke-fry technique, but probably only because I always seem to prefer the least-healthful option. Either way, when mixed with big chunks of avocado, red onion and juicy, firm tomatoes, all spritzed with lime, the dish was a great variation on guacamole.
I ended in the American South with a cornbread that is all corn, no bread. That is, all cornmeal and no flour, an ingredient common in cornbread recipes. Because I love grilled corn, I wanted to try pulling more of that pure flavor from the bread. I added a small can of hot Hatch chilies for a gentle kick, then poured the batter into a cast-iron skillet, set it over a charcoal fire for 10 minutes and finished it on the cool side of an indirect fire. To be Mr. Showoff, I wanted grill marks, so when the cornbread had finished cooking, I carefully used a spatula to coax it from the skillet and turned it over so that its top side was on the grate directly above the fire. It worked. Everything remained intact, and I got my grill marks. But it was a bit of a high-wire act, and I’m not sure that vanity is worth the risk of the cornbread’s breaking apart. (When I made it again for the Washington Post photo shoot, I pulled the bread off a little too early, so the grill marks weren’t as pronounced as I’d wanted.)
The key to grilling and smoking bread, I’ve learned — now that I am paying attention — is low and fast. Generally, keep the fire medium-hot and be prepared to act quickly. Breads are delicate, and they can go from a nice char to a serious burn in an instant. The good thing is that they are not demanding about how you treat them. If you are unsure how the breads are doing, peek, and turn as necessary. That’s OK.
The breads I grilled functioned as delivery systems for other flavors, which is the way bread generally operates. Whether for fats, such as olive oil or butter, or for acids, like tomatoes, or for attendant flavors like chilis, bread is adaptable and as universal an enjoyment as exists in the food world.
By the way, whatever bread-related dishes you cook in a skillet, you can cook on a grill. A grilled cheese even has “grilled” in the name, for cryin’ out loud. Sandwiches, though, get a little tricky, with different ingredients cooking at different temperatures, stuffings that can fall out when you turn them, or cheese that can melt all over the grates. You might want to cook the sammies in a cast-iron skillet over the fire.