Grilling to Perfection: Master the Basics
Our barbecue community is growing. I’m pleased to announce a new series of guest blogs written by some of the top experts in the field—many of them my friends and colleagues—who will weigh in on topics of, er, burning interest. Up first: Andy Husband, Boston restaurateur, multi-barbecue competition champion, and author of several terrific books, who will share his advice on cleaning and lighting your grill and other fundamental techniques.
When it comes to cooking over fire, my barbecue teammate and co-author, Chris Hart, and I might be considered grilling geeks. We take what we do in this area pretty seriously. Because we take the end result seriously and we know that in order to produce well-prepared, delicious grilled food on every outing, you have to master a few basics. Then you can riff away. In our latest cookbook, Grill to Perfection, we explain everything from charcoal selection to different cooking methods, showing how everyone from outdoor cooking novices to grilling masters can create dishes that will appeal to every palate. Here are—in our opinion—some of the most important tips:
Lighting and Cleaning the Grill
Nobody says, “I can’t wait to clean my grill.” We know this. But we approach the chore by looking at why we do it, and that makes it a lot more enjoyable. Without a clean grill you could end up with food chunks from the last time you cooked (gross, no matter how good that food was), your food will stick and/or tear, and you could experience flare-ups or an outright fire—and then you’re going out for dinner.
The key to cleaning your grill is getting it really hot first, so the best time to clean it is right after lighting it. When the grate is hot, it’s time to clean.
If you are using a gas grill, just turn the gas on, first from the tank, then the unit. Push the igniter to make sure it lights everywhere. You should be able to see the fire under the grates and feel the heat by holding your hand a few inches above the grates. When you’re done, always turn off the gas at the tank. Safety first.
For charcoal, we recommend starting the fire with a charcoal chimney. Begin by preparing the grill. Spread an even bed across the bottom of the grill. (For two-zone grilling, pile the unlit charcoal along one side of the grill.) Then fill the chimney with coal, crumple newspaper, stuff it below the coals and light the newspaper. For a low fire, fill the chimney 1/3 full; for a medium fire, fill it 1/2 full; for hot fire, fill it all the way. Wait about 10 minutes for the charcoal to become fully ignited. Flames should be just starting to peek through the top of the pile and you should not be able to hold your hand over it for more than a second (yeah, that hot). Carefully, wearing heatproof gloves, pour the lit charcoal evenly over unlit charcoals in the grill.
When the grate is hot, give it a good brushing with a hard wire grill brush. We like to spray the grill grates with cooking oil spray or lightly dip a clean towel in a little bit of vegetable oil and rub the grates. Brush the grates again, then rub again. Repeat this process until the grates are clean of all debris. They don’t need to look brand new, just clean. A little seasoning on the grate is ok.
Maintaining Grill Temperature
At my restaurant, Tremont 647, the grill is the centerpiece and if that fire ever goes out there will be a lot of unhappy customers. So cooks are continually feeding it all night. You won’t be doing that for six hours, but maintaining the fire and regulating temperature are key. Only you can get to know your fire, and this takes lots of practice. The good news is that the practice is fun. And the results will be tasty at worst, spectacular at best.
Gas people, you have it easy. Light the gas and turn the knobs to adjust the temperature. You still have to control it, but the process is more similar to working with an indoor unit than with live fire. With charcoal you need to keep in mind that when the coals/fire are at their apex, the fire is about to die. When professional chefs and seasoned grillers are cooking for long periods of time, this is when we load in more coal or wood, carefully removing the grates or sliding them to one side with heat-proof gloves or pot holders and setting grate—evenly spread charcoal across hot coals, being careful not to smother fire. This will make the temperature drop but it will come back full-speed in no time.
The key is not to smother your fire. Instead, either pour the coals next to it or, using tongs or an offset metal spatula, pile the coals on one side and pour the coals next to the hot pile. This way as the fire dies the next pile will be raging. If you are using a low fire, it is best to sprinkle a little bit of charcoal over the hot coals, making sure not to smother the fire or increase the heat too much.
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Andy Husbands is the award-winning chef/owner of Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel. His signature dish “180 ribs” was given the perfect score in a barbecue competition. He has also made several TV appearances, including his run as a contestant in Season 6 of Hell’s Kitchen. Husbands was a semi-finalist in the James Beard Award’s Best Chef category.