Wish you could have great cookouts like your neighbors and friends but don’t have the chops? Help is here. Read on to learn the basics of grills and grilling.
Gas vs. charcoal
Gas grills, which can be powered by either a propane tank or attached directly to a natural gas line, are the most popular for backyard cooking. Their convenience lets you start a fire with the turn of a knob and have a hot grill in less than 15 minutes. The downside to gas cookers is the loss of the nice charcoal flavor obtained with hardwood briquettes.
Charcoal grills can also be relatively easy to use with the aid of a chimney fire starter and lend a woodsier flavor to food. For the accomplished barbecue chef, a charcoal grill provides more opportunity to fine-tune both heat and flame. Use hardwood briquettes for superior grilling.
Techniques, timing and tips
- Make sure the grill is very clean, every time. The easiest cleaning technique is to heat the empty grill to very hot to burn off any pieces of food left behind. Then, use a wire brush to scrape the grill clean. This also sterilizes the grill and removes any lingering flavor or aroma from previous cooking.
- Once the grill is hot and clean, brush cooking oil onto the grill so the food won’t stick or tear.
- Don’t overload the grill with food. If you’re cooking a variety of foods to different degrees of doneness, place on one type of food on the grill at a time (so do all the chicken breasts, then all the burgers, all the rare steaks and then the medium steaks). This is how a professional kitchen manages their grill and it gives you a much more reliable result—plus, it’s less stressful.
- Monitor the grill at all times. Even the best grill may have hot spots. Also remember, it’s easy to overcook food over an open flame.
- Preheat your gas grill at least 15 minutes before you plan to begin cooking.
- When using charcoal briquettes, start the fire at least 30 minutes before you plan to begin cooking. The coals are ready when covered with gray ash.
- A well-laid charcoal fire in a medium-sized (say 22”) grill, will maintain a high temperature for up to 30 minutes.
- Add water-soaked wood chips (from hardwoods like oak, maple or mesquite) on top of the hot coals to imbue your food with a wonderful smoky flavor.
- Never re-use a marinade in which you have soaked raw meat. If you wish to re-use the marinade, you must first bring it to a boil to kill any bacteria left by the meat.
- Whether using a gas or charcoal barbecue, always use a portable oven thermometer placed on the grill (not the coals) to accurately measure the temperature of the unit.
- Keep a spray bottle of water near the grill to douse unwanted flare-ups that may char the food.
- Lay the coals across an area about 10% larger than the food will take up on the grill. Your bed of coals should be about 3” deep in the center and thin to about 1” at the edges.
Barbecuing vs. grilling: what’s the difference?
In America, these terms are often used interchangeably. But to enthusiasts, there is a world of difference.
Barbecue is achieved by cooking meat (usually pork), with or without seasoning, long and slow over very low heat. 225°F is the temperature most experts cite.
Smoke is an essential element of barbecue and is achieved by adding wood (like alder, apple, hickory, maple, mesquite or pecan) to a charcoal fire (although some people use all wood for their fire).
A dry rub is often applied to the meat before it goes in the smoker. Sauces, on the other hand, are never added during the long slow cooking (although flavors may be injected directly into the meat). Sauces are sometimes added for the last half hour or so of cooking to glaze the meat and give it a nice crust, or bark.
Grilling typically involves direct heat, most often around 500°F, and is done either on a gas or wood/charcoal fire.
Grilling is used to cook meats, fish, fruits and vegetables that benefit from being cooked quickly. Grilled foods acquire a distinct roasted aroma.
Marinades are common, and sauces are typically added at the end of the grilling time to avoid burning or sticking.
Don’t be intimidated by large cuts of meat like beef and pork tenderloin. Cooking them is not difficult to master if you follow the tips below.
- Most roasts benefits from an herb rub before roasting or grilling.
- Let meat come to room temperature before cooking.
- Roasting larger cuts whole (not cut into individual steaks) makes it easier to handle and you can control the degree of doneness more easily.
- Don’t guess whether meat is done or not—always use a meat thermometer. You don’t want to overcook your meat.