Back to School: Grilling Lessons and Pro Tips
Kids aren’t the only ones returning to school this month. All of us—even the pros—can use a refresher course on the fundamental techniques of barbecuing and grilling. Here are “lessons” everyone should master, as well as some clever tips for upping your game.
Grilling Lessons and Tips
*Let’s start with the basics, such as lighting your grill. Some charcoal grills are equipped with starters; see the manufacturer’s instructions. Electric starters are another option. Personally, I prefer to use a chimney starter, a large upright, perforated metal container (square or cylindrical) with a wire partition about a quarter of the way up. Place a firestarter or a loosely crumpled sheet of newspaper in the bottom of the chimney under the wire partition. Fill the chimney with charcoal—preferably natural lump charcoal—and place the chimney on the bottom grate of your grill. Light the firestarter or newspaper with a long butane lighter or a kitchen match. In 15 to 20 minutes, the coals will glow orange-red. Pour them onto the lower grate, and if needed, use a grill hoe to distribute them on the grate. I like to leave at least a third of the firebox coal-free for a “safety zone.” You can also vary the depth of the coals for multi-zone cooking. The thicker the layer of coals, the higher the heat. Replenish the fuel as necessary. (Expect about 30 minutes of prime cooking time from a full chimney of lump charcoal—and up to 30 minutes longer for compressed charcoal briquettes.)
Pro Tip: By placing a grill grate over the top of the lit chimney, you can sear a steak, toast marshmallows for s’mores, or cook quick-cooking foods.
If lighting a gas grill, always open the lid first. (Failure to do so can result in singed hair or eyebrows, or worse. I’ve seen it happen.) Open the valve to the gas tank or line. Promptly ignite the grill according to the manufacturer’s directions. On some models, the igniter is keyed to a specific tube. Ignite the remaining tubes and preheat the grill for 15 to 20 minutes. If indirect grilling, leave the center portion of the grill grate unlit—i.e., if you have a 3-burner grill, light the 2 outer burners.
Pro Tip: After a year or so, many gas grillers believe the lighters on their grills have failed. Most don’t realize that igniters are powered by batteries, usually AAs. Change the battery, and voila! The igniter works again.
*Whether you grill over charcoal, wood, or gas, know the difference between direct and indirect grilling and when to employ each. Direct grilling involves cooking food directly over the heat source. It is best for small or thin pieces of meat, fish fillets, shrimp, chicken breasts, and tender vegetables. The grill lid is typically left off. Temperatures are typically high, between 450 and 650 degrees.
Indirect grilling means setting up the grill in such a way that the fire is confined to one side (or opposite sides) of the grill with a flame-free zone reserved for the food. The grill should always be covered. The virtue of this method is that it turns your grill into a sort of outdoor oven. It is the proper technique for thicker cuts of meat or seafood (thicker than the palm of your hand) as well as baked goods or dense fruits and vegetables. Temperatures can range from 250 to 375 degrees.
*Learn to control the heat. You can do this easily on a gas or pellet grill with a turn of a dial. On a charcoal or wood-burning grill, an increase in fuel will raise the temperature. (Pay attention to the depth of the fuel. A grill hoe or garden hoe is useful for this task.) Closing the vents will result in a cooler fire; closing the vents completely will starve the fire of oxygen and it will eventually go out. Don’t trust thermometers built into the lids of some grills. A trusty-worthy thermometer that measures the temperature at the grill grate is a worthy investment.
Pro Tip: Many gas grills have hot and cool spots. Identify them before you begin to cook by filling the grate with slices of cheap sandwich bread (lay the bread shoulder to shoulder) after you’ve preheated the grill. Toast both sides before taking a photo. Because of bread’s sensitivity to the heat, you’ll see the pattern of hotter/cooler spots immediately. Save the photo for reference.
*Memorize Raichlen’s Rule: Keep it hot, keep it clean, keep it lubricated. In other words, always clean your grill grate while it’s hot, brush it with a good-quality grill brush, and oil it well with a folded paper towel dipped in vegetable oil and clasped in the jaws of long-handled tongs.
Pro Tip: Fill a spray bottle with water and spray the hot grate before brushing it with a grill brush. The water will loosen any stubborn debris clinging to the rungs of the grate.
*Add smoke to your cook: Even if you don’t own a dedicated smoker, you can add intriguing smoke flavors to the food you cook outdoors. If using a charcoal grill, place wood chunks or wood chips, the latter soaked in water for 30 minutes, then drained, directly on the embers or in a foil pouch pricked with the tines of a fork. There is no need to smoke the chips when applying smoke to quick-cooking foods like shrimp. Just throw the chips on the coals. For a gas grill, place soaked wood chips in a smoker box or pouch, or place wood chunks on the burners. Smoke flavors are generally more subtle on gas grills as much of the smoke escapes through the vents. (Do not block the vents or your grill could overheat.
Pro Tip: Use mild fruitwoods like apple or cherry with chicken, duck, pork, or fish. Oak, hickory, and pecan pair well with pork and beef. Mesquite is one of the strongest-flavored woods, but can be amazing with beef (especially dishes inspired by Mexicco or the Southwest).
*Add flavor: Pros add flavor at every opportunity, whether using brines (soaking the food for a period of time in well-salted water), marinades, rubs, or finishing sauces. My book, Barbecue Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades will acquaint you with all my tricks for seasoning and finishing grilled and smoked foods.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget that a simple seasoning of salt (I love coarse salt, such as sea salt or kosher salt) and freshly, coarsely ground pepper can really bring out the flavor of good meat. Try it on ribs, steak,seafood, or chicken.