Grilling stones are important pieces of equipment for any outdoor chef who progresses beyond the novice stage in his grilling. Stoneware allows the chef to use the grill for a host of new applications previously impossible with only the grate.
The pizza stone is perhaps the most popular stone item used for cooking. Pizza stones are ideally suited for the round charcoal grill because of their compatible shape. Many companies now offer square and rectangle cooking stones to accommodate the shapes of a variety of grills. In addition to this, specialized stoneware can now be purchased. Bread pans, pie pans, even muffin pans can be found that are made of stone. Many of these specialized shapes are not useful with the grill. In fact, because of their shape, these specialized stoneware pans do not take advantage of the unique properties of stone as a cooking method.
Why use cooking stoneware rather than just placing food on the grill grate? In many situations, cooking your food directly on the grate is the best method. The stone is no place for a steak, chicken breast, or pile of vegetables; these foods benefit from exposure to the flame. However, if some foods were placed on the grate, they would immediately fall through the cracks and meet a fiery end. Anything involving dough, especially, is best cooked on a stone. With the exception of the flatbread style grilled pizza, where the dough is stiff enough to hold its shape without the stone, breads are almost always cooked on the stone.
When selecting your cooking stone, be sure to get one that is thick and heavy. Some stoneware will indicate on the packaging how hot the stone can get without cracking. This is an important factor to consider because some stones cannot withstand exposure to the harsh flame of the grill. If a stone is too weak, it will crack when the cool dough hits the hot surface of the stone. The temperature differential causes stress within the stone, causing a crack that can be explosive.
A number of stone alternatives exist. At their core, they do the same thing: store heat and transfer it to your food. Some stoneware alternatives are made of cast iron, they are thick and will not crack under stress. However, cast iron is heavy and tends to be expensive compared to typical cooking stones.
Another stoneware alternative is made of lava rock. The advantage of the lava stone is that it is lightweight and can be seasoned to impart unique flavor to your food. Because of its natural lightweight internal structure, it is less susceptible to cracking. Lava stone also is quite expensive when compared to typical stoneware.