Disclaimer: Though I do identify as a male, I am by no means a suburban beef-worshipper with a tacky apron that won’t let anyone else’s spatula touch my holy grates. But as with sautéing, roasting, broiling, braising, and the like, grilling is an essential and obtainable mode of cooking for the home chef. It is, in fact, probably humankind’s oldest, and most misunderstood, method of heat application.
So, whether you’ve got a fancy stainless steel propane monster, or a classic charcoal hibachi, or your cooking meat, vegetables, or even pizza, grilling requires much more than continuous stabbing and boasting.
1. Grill with the lid down.
Whether preheating, searing, or hot smoking, the lid should be down whenever possible. In my neighborhood, keeping the lid open is the original sin of the backyard barbecue-r, and the telltale sign of an amateur. (Shh..don’t tell my brother-in-law). Keeping the lid closed speeds up cooking time, and provide the right amount of caramelization while making sure the food is cooked through. (This is especially important when grilling vegetables). It will keep your fire safer (if using charcoal), and when pre-heating, a closed lid helps get the grill grates hot enough for the initial sear, and wastes less fuel.
2. Turn twice, flip once (or never), and leave it alone.
There’s good reason to grill your meals: grill-marks look awesome. But if you keep fiddling with you food, you’re gonna lose your opportunity for those symmetrical grids of deliciousness.
Don’t worry about your food sticking. If properly lubricated, food will naturally come away from the grates once caramelized. It’s when you start messing with it that stuff starts to stick. Also, to minimize stickiness, let meat hang out at room temperature for 25 or 30 minutes before grilling. (But don’t salt it yet, as the salt will bring out all the natural moisture).
To get perfect cross-hatch grill marks:
1. Sear the first side over direct heat for 2 minutes. (Close the lid)
2. Turn 90-degrees, and sear for another 2 minutes. (Closed the lid)
3. Flip over (this is your only flip), and cook until a desired and safe doneness. (Close the lid)
3. Preheat properly, and monitor your temperature.With the lid closed, be sure to preheat your grill for at least ten minutes before cooking. Turn all your gas burners on high, or make sure your coals are glowing beautifully. Preheating keeps your grill cleaner (it will burn over leftovers from last time), and is essential for developing a proper sear. A pre-heated grill should reach at least 500° F.
If your grill does not have a thermometer, buy one. Right now. (And don’t buy a gas grill that doesn’t have a built in thermometer.) You can find replacement thermometers anywhere you’d buy your grill- hardware stores, home centers, restaurant supply stores, etc. When following recipes or instructions, rely on the following temperaturess.
- Preheat: At least 500° F
- Low: 225° to 350° F
- Medium: 350° to 400°
- Medium High: 400° to 475°
- High: 475° to 550°
4. Let it rest.
When cooking meat, after achieving your perfect grill marks, transfer your delectable to a platter or cutting board, and let them rest for at least 4-5 minutes. If desired, tent them with foil. You’ve just put your dinner through an extreme process, and it needs some time to re-coup, and let the juices redistribute. The internal temperature will also increase about 5° F, so keep that in mind during the initial grilling process.
5. Grilling Vegetables.
It’s the 21st century, people. There’s more to the world than beef. You need at least five servings a day, and a grill is a great way to prepare them. Vegetables benefit from direct contact with the grates, so cut your veg on a bias, or length-wise. 99% of vegetables cook perfectly over medium heat (with the lid down!)
Some vegetables, like eggplant and zucchini, benefit from liberal salting before grilling. The salt draws out moisture and bitterness, and allows the vegetables to caramelize, and not just steam in their own liquid.
Other, like ears of corn, need to soak in water before grilling. Open (but do not remove) the husks, and remove the furry thing. Soak the entire ear in water for thirty minutes, then re-wrap in the husks, and grill over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, 4-5 minutes on each side. You’ll never boil it again.
As whenever cooking vegetables, grill what’s in season!
6. Grilling Gear.
Do me a favor: go to your grilling utensil set, find the fork, and throw it away. Or at least dull the sharp points. A sharp fork point will only pierce the meat, and create holes through which all the moisture will run out. You’ll never miss it.
- Spring loaded tongs: These are the all-stars of any kitchen, and will see the most using upon your barbecue. Avoid scissor-like, center hinged models with looped ends. Get two great pairs of stainless steel, spring-loaded tongs (you’ll never go wrong with Oxo®): one for raw food, and one for cooked food. NEVER use the same pair throughout unless you thoroughly wash your tongs with HOT water and anti-bacterial soap.
- Spatula/Turner: Slots or holes won’t make much difference: just look for a firm, staindless blade with comfortable handle that seems easily to clean.
- Skewers: Use them often. I suggest doing all kebab separately- mushrooms on one, onions on another, pineapple on a third, etc. I know it doesn’t look as cool as a perfectly arranged pattern, but you can control cooking time better, and it’s the traditional approach which has worked for thousands of years. If using bamboo skewers, they need to soak in water for at least thirty minutes before use.
- Timers: Get two. They’re inexpensive, and essential in both the kitchen and on the patio. Don’t let plastic models get too close to the flame.
- Thermometer: Besides a grill thermometer, get an instant-read digital thermometer, and you’ll never undercook, or overcook, your meal. If using large cuts of meet, an probe thermometer set to trigger at the desired temperature can’t be beat. It’ll come handy at Thanksgiving too. (Never rely on those pop-out joints.)
Safe Cooking Temperatures: The USDA has some pretty extreme safety temperatures that guarantee no microbes, and no flavor. However if you know whence you meat comes, you can rely on restaurant standards, and you’ll be safe and delicious. Remember, the temperature will continue to rise while your meat rests.
- Rare: 125° F
- Medium-Rare: 135° F
- Medium: 145° F
- Medium-Well: 150° F
- Well: 155°+ F
- Pork: 150° F
- Chicken: (You really must obey these.)
- White meat: 165° F
- Dark meat: 175° F
- Medium-Rare: 135° F
- Medium: 140° F
- Well: 165° F
7. Marinades and Rubs.
Marinades.Marinades serve two functions: they add flavor and moisture, and can work to tenderize meat by breaking down connective tissues. Marinades generally consist of a liquid- sometimes acidic, oil, herbs, spices, and sometimes aromatics. Dairy products- like yogurt, buttermilk, etc, and adult beverages- like beer, tequila, or bourbon, can also be used.
When marinating, the most important factor is direct contact. Do your marinating in zip top bags, and squeeze any extra air out before sealing. Before careful when using acidic ingredients on tender ingredients like chicken breasts, fish, or expensive cuts of beef. The acid will actually start to cook the food, and make it tough. (I do not ever suggest marinating food in store-bought salad dressings.) Only very large cuts of meat- like a ham, turkey, or pork butt- should be marinated for more than 4 hours. If marinating for more than an hour- or when using poultry or seafood- do so in the refrigerator, and let the food come to room temp before grilling. Wipe or rinse any excess marinade before grilling. It’ll just burn on the grill.
Don’t forget: marinades work equally well on vegetables.
Rubs. Rubs are a combination of spices, dried herbs, and aromatics that are applied directly to the surface of the food. Look for combinations that complement each other- like pugent garlic, smokey cumin, hot ground chiles, earthy oregano, and sweet cinnamon, and the requisite salt and pepper, for example. Look here for more ideas.
A note about sauces: most barbecue sauces contain a great deal of sugar, and wouldn’t you know- sugar burns. So, if using a wet barbecue sauce, do NOT apply it until the last few minutes of cooking.
So, there you have it. Approach your grill humbly, and with a desire to learn. Shut the lid, turn once, don’t over do it on the sauces, and enjoy your summer. Cheers.