Simple techniques to take the guess work out of grilling
For all you guys out there who are already grill masters, read no further. But for the rest of us mere mortal home cooks who would like a few tips about grilling, read on. I have to warn you: when researching the technique of grilling, I found so many differing viewpoints that I decided to provide those tips that were in general consensus or made the most sense to me.
And be sure to check out my 8 Grilling Tips To Grill Like A Pro
The Right Way to Grill
From what I learned from reading and experimenting, the right way to grill is what works for you, and the only way to get really good at grilling is practice. I sometimes ask my wife when out for dinner, "How come when I grill fish it isn’t perfect like this?" The answer is I may grill a piece of fish once every two weeks and professional chefs grill a lot of fish everyday. I guarantee if you grilled as much fish as one of these pros, your fish would be perfect too.
I could do a whole article (and maybe someday I will) on the different cuts of beef which are best for grilling steak. You could write a book about how to use various rubs and marinades to enhance flavors. Also, we often use the terms grilling and barbecuing interchangeably, but they are different. Traditional barbecue is done slowly with low cooking temperatures and a lot of smoke. Grilling depends on a higher temperature to sear what you are cooking to keep the juices in. So here are some tips and ideas for grilling.
First of all grilling is a lot like broiling. Both use direct heat, but when grilling the heat source comes from below and when broiling the heat source is from above. Both methods are great when cooking tender cuts of beef, chicken, fish and vegetables. Make sure whatever you are cooking isn’t too thick or it will burn on the exterior by the time the inside is done. Although grilling is considered a healthy way of cooking because much of the fat will drip into the fire, be careful to avoid flare-ups from the fat. Not only will you potentially burn what you are cooking and give it an acrid flavor; you can create a nasty fire hazard.
When I was growing up my father (the self-appointed grill master) only used charcoal as a fuel source. (I’m not even sure they had gas barbecues back then.) He made the common mistake of not using enough charcoal at the start or replacing it when it burned down. Result, the food never seared properly so the juices were released and the meat dried out.
He also used the self-starting charcoal briquettes that gave the food a funky chemical taste. I’ve been told you can buy real lump charcoal with no additives and it makes a big difference, but I’ve never been able to find it so I opted for a gas grill. Easy to control the heat and even easier to maintain. I’ve even experimented with adding some pre-soaked chunks of Hickory wood to give an additional boost of flavor.
It’s critical you start with a clean grill. There’s nothing worse than grilling a beautiful Filet Mignon and having it taste like red snapper. The time to remove all the residue with a wire brush is right after you finish cooking while the grate is still hot. If you wait until it’s time to start cooking, some of the scrapings can fall into the flames and cause a flare-up. Before you begin heating the grill, brush it or spray it with a little vegetable oil to prevent food from sticking. This is especially important if you are using a sugary basting sauce.
It’s also vital that your grill is hot well before you start. Many of us, especially with gas grills, wait until right before we start cooking before we crank up the heat. Mistake. Preheat that grill 15 to 30 minutes before you intend to start cooking. Have all your cooking tools ready and standing by. This not only includes apron and utensils, but seasonings and basting sauces as well. And be sure to have a spray water bottle on hand in case of flare-ups.
Know thy Grill
Every grill is different and will have different hot and cool spots. It’s important you learn where they are and use them to your advantage.
If you’re grilling up a steak you may want to cut off any excess fat and season with a little salt before you start. However with chicken, you may want to pre-cook it in the microwave or oven to cut down on cooking time and give you more control of browning. With fish filets, I like to place them in a zip lock bag with a little olive oil and herbs but you can also prepare a glaze to coat them just before grilling. Remember to bring items to room temperature before grilling.
Marinades are great for adding flavor to what you are grilling. Check your cookbooks for which marinades work best for your ingredients. The longer you marinate the better. It’s best to marinate overnight in the refrigerator and if you are going to use it for basting, make sure you boil it first to kill any bacteria that may be present. Also be sure to pat dry the meat, chicken, or fish before grilling so the marinade doesn’t cause flare-ups. Barbecue sauce is used to baste what you are grilling and although commercial barbecue sauces are a big business, the essential ingredients are: tomatoes, vinegar, onion, mustard, and brown sugar. So experiment and create your own special sauce.
How Long Do You Cook It?
I guess the most frequent questions I’m asked are "how long do you cook it for?" and "how can you tell when it’s done?" Although every cookbook you pick up has guidelines for each ingredient, it once again comes back to experience and touch. I would suggest you follow your favorite cookbook guides to grilling but start touching the foods at different intervals to get a feel for firmness and texture.
For example, as a general rule, I like to cook a 1 1/2-inch New York Strip steak for a total of ten minutes. I start by grilling for 2 1/2 minutes, then turning it 90 degrees and cooking for another 2 1/2 minutes, flip the steak over to it’s other side and repeat the process thus giving the steak the classic grill marks. At the same time I test the steak with my finger to feel for various degrees of firmness. Medium cooked feels like touching your cheek. If you really want to get specific, you can use an instant thermometer.
For steak, 115 – 120 degrees is rare, 125-130 degrees is medium rare and 135 – 140 degrees is medium. Don't forget, the meat will continue to cook once you remove it from the grill to rest, so you may want to remove it before hitting your target temperature so you don't overcook it.
Everyone seems to have their own favorite grilling techniques, tools, marinades, family recipes ....often secret. And if you like gadgets, you'll love grilling since there are a plethora of great tools to enhance your grilling experience. Check out my Grilling Tools for a few examples.
This only touches the surface of what there is to learn about grilling as a cooking method. The best advice I can give any home cook is practice as much as you can. It’s a great way to cook without a lot of mess, especially in the summer when it’s too hot to cook inside.