Crash Course

Back to School: The Raichlen Crash Course on Barbecuing and Grilling

Steven Raichlen's Barbecue University

Say it’s not true! Is it back to school time already? Maybe you’re college bound and want to show off your grill skills for your dorm mates. Maybe this is the year you aspire to smoke the competition on the tailgating circuit. Maybe you survived you first grill season and you want to take your skills to the next level. Or maybe you just can’t wait until the next session of Barbecue University in June.

Well, here’s the official Raichlen crash course on barbecuing and grilling—the essentials you need to rock the grill every time you fire it up. Master the lesson, then practice, practice, practice! There’s still plenty of beautiful weather ahead and ample occasions for autumn grilling. Your textbook for this course is How to Grill. Here are the Cliffs Notes.

First, know your grills (choose your weapon):

Charcoal grills: If I had to pick only one grill for you to buy, it would be a 22-1/2-inch charcoal kettle grill: first, because charcoal gives you the primal thrill of playing around with fire, and second, because it’s well-suited to all five methods of live-fire cooking. (A gas grill is not.) Limited outdoor space? Consider a smaller, widely available, and eminently affordable charcoal grill popular in Asia, the hibachi. Just know that you can’t smoke on a hibachi.

Gas grills have the advantage of pushbutton ignition and turn-of-a-knob heat control, which explains why nearly 70 percent of American households have one. You want a model with at least two burners (so you can indirect grill); ideally three, four, or even six burners. Gas grills are good for direct and indirect grilling and spit-roasting. Not so good for smoking or caveman grilling.

Wood-burning grills (which burn logs). Smokers (which cook “low and slow”—at a low heat for a long time using wood smoke for flavor and heat transfer. Pellet grills (which burn compressed sawdust). Kamado cookers (egg-shaped, thick-walled ceramic grills epitomized by the Big Green Egg), etc. All are in the Barbecue University collection and all are worth investigating for your home.

Next, the essential accessories:

A chimney starter (for lighting a charcoal grill)

A stiff wire grill brush (for cleaning the grill grate)

Long-handled spring-loaded tongs (for handling the food and oiling the grate)

A pair of heavy suede grill gloves (for handling the chimney and other hot items)

An instant-read meat thermometer for checking doneness

A fire extinguisher (not that you’ll ever need it, but better safe than sorry)

Lighting the grill:

To light a charcoal grill: Fill the top section of the chimney starter with charcoal and place a crumpled sheet of newspaper or a paraffin firestarter at the bottom. Place the chimney on the bottom grate of your grill and light the paper or starter: the chimney’s upright design guarantees even ignition in 15 to 20 minutes—which is about the same amount of time it takes to preheat a gas grill. Note: I personally prefer cleaner-burning natural lump charcoal (jagged chunks of carbonized wood) to briquettes (which contain coal dust, borax, and petroleum binders). But the latter have their partisans, as briquettes burn longer and more evenly than lump charcoal.

To light a gas grill: Open the grill lid (this is very important, otherwise you may get a potentially explosive buildup of propane). Make sure your propane cylinder is full (or sufficiently full—not approaching empty) and open the valve. Turn on the burner (some manufacturers specify which burner to use for start-up) by rotating the knob, then press the igniter button. You’ll hear a clicking noise. A whoosh or flame will indicate ignition, but hold your hand about 3 inches above the burner for 30 seconds to make sure it’s really on. One by one, turn on the remaining burners. Note: if ignition fails the first time, shut off all the burners, air the grill out for at least five minutes, then relight. Note: make sure you have at least a quarter cylinder of propane before you start grilling. Better yet, always keep a full extra cylinder on hand. There’s nothing worse than running out of propane halfway through cooking dinner.

Prepping the grill for cooking: To grill well, start with a clean hot grate and keep it properly lubricated (oiled) to prevent sticking. Follow these three simple steps and you’ll grill like a pro every time:

  1. Keep it hot. Preheat your grill to high—what I call a “2- to 3-Mississippi fire.” (Hold your hand 3 inches above the grate and start counting. If the heat forces you to withdraw your hand after 2 to 3 seconds, you’ve got a hot fire.)
  2. Keep it clean. Brush the bars of the grate clean with a stiff wire brush. Put some muscle behind it. It’s much easier to clean the grate when it’s hot than when it’s cold.
  3. Keep it lubricated. Oil the grate with a paper towel folded into a tight pad, dipped into a small bowl of vegetable oil, and drawn across the bars of the grate at the end of tongs. Alternatively, use a grill oiler, like the Best of Barbecue Grill Oiling Brush. This prevents sticking and helps give you well-defined grill marks. It also cleans any debris from the grate before you put the food on.

Master the 5 methods of live-fire cooking:

Direct grilling: Cooking food directly over the fire. Used for small, tender, quick-cooking foods like steak, burgers, chicken breasts, shish kebabs, fish fillets, vegetables, etc. Direct grilling is generally done over high heat (450 to 700 degrees) and the cooking time is measured in minutes.

Indirect grilling: Cooking the food next to, not directly over the fire, at a moderate heat (325 to 400 degrees) with the grill lid closed. Used for larger cuts of meat, like prime rib, whole chickens and turkeys, whole fish, and/or fatty foods, like baby back pork ribs. To indirect grill on a charcoal grill, rake the coals into mounds at opposite sides of the grill; on a gas grill, light one burner on a two-burner grill (the outside burners or front and rear burners on a grill with three or more burners), and cook the food over the unlit part of the grill.

Smoking/barbecuing: Similar to indirect grilling, in that the food is cooked next to, not directly over the fire with the grill or smoker lid closed. But smoking is generally done at a lower temperature (225 to 275 degrees) for a longer period (4 to 16 hours depending on the cut of meat), and it always involves hardwood chips, chunks, or logs to create a smoke flavor. Foods that are typically smoked include beef brisket, pork shoulder, spareribs, baby backs, etc.

Spit-roasting: Cooking foods on a rotisserie next to (not directly over) the heat source. Spit-roasting is well-suited to cylindrical or fatty foods, like whole chickens, duck, beef rib roasts, pork roasts, etc.

Caveman-style grilling: The most primal (and eye-popping) method of cooking. Roasting steaks, tubers, peppers, onions, eggplants, and other vegetables directly on the hot embers of a charcoal or wood fire.

Some other useful grilling techniques:

Build a “three-zone” fire: Configure your fire so that you have a hot zone for searing, a medium zone for cooking, and a cool or safety zone where you can move the food to dodge flare-ups or keep it warm without further cooking. On a charcoal grill, mound the coals in a double layer in the back third of the grill to create a hot zone. Mound coals in a single layer in the center of the grill to create a moderate or medium zone. Keep the front third of your grill coal-free to create a cool or safety zone. Use a grill hoe or garden hoe to rake out the coals. On a gas grill, set one burner to high, one to medium, and leave one burner off for the safety zone.

To smoke on a charcoal grill: Soak 1 to 2 cups hardwood chips in water for 30 minutes, then drain well, and toss on the coals. Soaking makes the chips smolder, generating clouds of flavorful wood smoke.

To smoke on a gas grill: In a word, don’t. Gas grills do a notoriously poor job of smoking—even if they have dedicated smoker boxes. (The smoke escapes out the wide vents in the back of the grill before it has a chance to flavor the meat.) Exception to the rule. If using a Weber grill with inverted V-shaped Flavorizer bars, nestle a few V-shaped foil smoker pouches between these bars. The rising smoke will impart a mild smoke flavor.

How to Grill Perfect Vegetables Every Time
How to Make Professional Grill Marks
The Art of Smoking
Direct vs. Indirect Grilling
The 10 Commandments of Perfect Grilling
Performance-Enhancing Techniques for Your Big Green Egg