How to Grill
- Select your grill. Two options are common: gas and charcoal.
- On all grills, Consider size, features, and materials.
- Plan ahead, before buying your grill. Will you be cooking "for an army" or just for a family of 2? It's relatively easy to cook a small meal on a large grill, but the opposite is not true. Look for how much "cooking area" your prospective grill has. The average grill has around 600 square inches of cooking space, and will serve a small party fairly well. If you host big cookouts, shoot for 800 square inches or more, if you really only want to toss on a few burgers once in a while, the smallest you'll find without going "hibachi" style is maybe 400 square inches.
- Pay attention to additional features. Do you want a rotisserie? A smoker box? An external burner? Infrared cooking?
- One particularly important feature is the actual grill grates themselves. Cast Iron is the best for conducting heat, but it requires care to keep it from rusting. Porcelain coated metal (steel or cast-iron) grates do well at conducting heat, but must be cleaned with something other than steel (typically, a brass brush is used) to avoid damaging the porcelain and leaving the metal underneath vulnerable to rust. Stainless steel grates are easy to clean, without the worries of cast-iron or porcelain, but can wear out faster than well-maintained cast iron or porcelain.
- Gas grills are the most commonly used grill today. Many find them more convenient than charcoal as they start instantly and fuel purchases are needed less often. When selecting a gas grill, be aware of heat output (BTU's), and construction.
- Heat output is an important consideration. Since most grills allow for fine adjustment of gas flow, it's best to get the highest output you can afford. This will allow you to put a quick sear on food that you don't want to cook through (think of a really good cut of beef, a tuna steak, or scallops).
- There are many aspects of construction that must be considered, from the material the grill is made from to the warming racks. Personal preference will play a big roll in your choices. In general, it's important pay attention to the number of burners, as more burners equals more versatility. Also look for good wheels, preferably larger (not tiny casters), if you're going to be moving your grill around at all. Finally, pay attention to construction in general. If it feels flimsy, you probably won't be happy with it.
- Charcoal grills are still wildly popular, and preferred by purists. Charcoal offers better heat control (which means more versatility), and many find that good charcoal gives food a better "grilled" flavor. Look for heat control, construction, and style.
- Heat control is achieved by charcoal amount, placement, air flow, and level. It's best to find a grill that allows for adjustment of the height of the charcoal tray. Crank mechanisms are the best option, but hook and lever methods also work fine. Look for at least two adjustable vents, as well. Opening them for more oxygen makes for a hotter fire, closing them cools the fire somewhat, and also deprives flames of oxygen, helping to stop flare-ups.
- Helpful features in the construction of charcoal grill include easy access to ashes, be it through a drawer or a dumping mechanism. Also, not often included on charcoal grills (though almost always on gas grills, for some reason) is a thermometer. Thermometers are quite useful for smoking and roasting applications. They can, however, be purchased separately and installed if your grill does not come with one.
- There are two main styles of non-portable charcoal grill: Kettle and traditional. Kettle grills are great for straightforward grilling and small smoking applications. More traditional, rectangular charcoal grills are more versatile when it comes to setting up different zones of heat and smoking of larger products, but also typically take up more space.
- Locate your grill in an area that has a couple of feet of clearance between the hot box and anything flammable. Your grill should not be directly underneath low-hanging trees or a low roof, and it should not be against deck rails.
- Consider safety whenever you start your grill. Keep flammable materials far from the fire. Have a fire extinguisher or hose on hand for emergencies. Don't leave your grill unattended.
- Start your fire ahead of time. Charcoal takes longer than gas to heat up. Shoot for 10 minutes of preheating with gas, 20 to 25 with charcoal.
- Charcoal can be started many ways. It is ready to cook on when the coal is lightly ashed over and gray, not black.
- Ever popular lighter fluid works, but it is imperative that you let it all burn off before cooking, unless you like the taste of petroleum.
- Electric starters are also available, which use a cal-rod style heating element placed under the coals. They work very well, but do require a source of electricity, and cords can present a trip/burn hazard if not carefully monitored.
- Chimney starters use a metal cylinder with perforations to hold the charcoal on top, and a couple of sheets of newspaper on the bottom. They work quickly and are inexpensive. Light the newsprint and the heat flows upward, igniting the coals. Have a place to put the chimney after use, as it will be red-hot. Another benefit to chimney starters is that they can be used to prepare extra charcoal if you need to refresh your pile. Just be sure to do it on top of a very heat-resistant surface, such as a cinderblock or the bottom of an upturned galvanized steel bucket.
- Clean the grill. Use your wire brush to scrub off the bars, and then use a damp or oiled cloth and tongs to do the fine cleaning. If your cloth was wet, not oiled, be sure to use some cooking spray on the grates afterward.
- Close the grill and allow the bars to heat for another minute or so (for nice grill marks).
- Add the food, but don't do it haphazardly. If you're cooking for a large party, try to be deliberate in your placement of food, so that you can maximize the amount cooking all at once. That said, do not crowd the food together, as it needs some space both for better cooking and for you to be able to snatch it out or flip it. Also, pay attention to hot spots. Maybe someone likes their burger more rare than the rest, put theirs on the side that's cooler. If your grill is pretty even, just put it on slightly later than the rest. Once you've added the food, do not flip it or move it (unless you want to turn it slightly for cross-hatched grill marks) until you believe it's halfway done.
- Stop "flame-ups" caused by fatty foods dripping onto the fire by closing the grill momentarily and depriving the flames of oxygen. Dropping the burner temperature or lowering the charcoal may also be wise. If the flames are persistent, use a spritzer bottle filled with water to hit the base of the flames.
- Flip the food, only when it is approximately halfway done. Frequent flipping can lead to uneven cooking, ugly food, and more mistakes (like losing a piece down into the fire).
- Ensure doneness. Experienced grillers don't need to check the food very often, but until you're comfortable, a thermometer plunged into the center of the food is the best method to be sure (instant read for small items, probe style if you're grilling a large item such as a whole chicken or pork tenderloin). Slicing, piercing, or breaking a piece of food in half will make it dry out very quickly, as all the juices will run out of it.
- Burgers made of beef are best done to medium or better, because of the risk of bacteria being ground into the meat. If you grind your own, from carefully trimmed cuts, this precaution is not necessary. Burgers made of other meats should be cooked to at least "medium" as well, except in the case of meats that should be fully cooked such as turkey or chicken.
- Steak is often eaten raw when it's provided by a trusted source. Cook it to desired doneness over a very hot grill.
- Chicken must be completely cooked before eating. If any of the meat is not opaque, it must be cooked further. In the case of a whole bird, a probe thermometer plunged into the deepest part of the breast must register that the bird is done. Another classic way of checking is to pierce the meat and ensure that the juices run clear, but, then, you're losing all of that yummy juice.
- Pork in the USA no longer has to be cooked well done to be safe. A slight pinkness in the meat is both desired and delicious. In other regions of the world, it may be wise to continue cooking until the meat is opaque.
- A myriad of other foods can be grilled, from fish to turkey to leg of lamb and more. Please follow the same basic food safety precautions with them that you would if you were cooking them any other way.
- Remove your food to a plate, platter, or other vessel and cover with heavy-duty aluminum foil (if you don't have starving guests hovering already) for at least 5 minutes. This allows juices to redistribute so that they do not run out as soon as the food is cut or bitten into. In the case of large cuts, taking the food off the grill and covering when the thermometer registers 5 degress (10 for an exceptionally large item) less than the recommended or desired doneness is achieved is a good idea, as resting it will allow "carryover cooking" to finish the job. A large piece of meat cooked to exactly the right doneness temperature on the grill will invariably be overcooked by the time that it hits the table.
- Serve your food immediately after the resting period is over. A successful meal will, of course, have side dishes and beverages that you prepared ahead of time or alongside the main course. Don't forget the condiments.
- General Grilling Tips:
- Brine or marinate your meats before cooking. Brining will especially make for more juicy pork, chicken, or turkey. Basic brine is about 1/8 cup of table salt to 1 quart of water. Make sure you have enough to cover the meat. Broth may be used instead of water (adjust for salt), a little sugar (honey, brown sugar, molasses) may be added if desired, seasonings (almost anything) can also be added for more flavorful meat. If marinating, be sure your marinade does not have too much sugar, else it will burn on the grill.
- Most sauces, especially high sugar ones, such as barbecue sauce, should be added at the last minute, to avoid burning. Baste, give a quick turn baste the other side. Give a minute for sugars to caramelize, if you wish, but do not leave it too long, as burnt sugar is not very tasty.
- Grilling vegetables is a great way to make a hot side dish without heating up the kitchen. Most veggies do just fine on the grill if sliced, tossed in a little oil, salt, and pepper, and grilled. Keep in mind relative cooking times, as, say, carrots will take a lot longer than zucchini. Purchase a perforated metal grill-topper if your veggies are narrow enough to fall through the grates. (or you could use an iron skillet, but you will not get direct heat from the grill that way, or as much charcoal-grilled flavor, if applicable.
- Keeping your grill and grill area clean, dry, and uncluttered is not just aesthetically pleasing, but safer and cost effective. Grills will deteriorate quickly if left wet and out in the rain, especially charcoal ones (because wet wood ash is caustic and will rust through the grill very quickly). Wheel your grill inside as soon as it is cool, or purchase a grill cover.
- Gas Grilling Tips:
- Use Lava Rocks to distribute heat. Since heat largely goes straight up, the heat distribution on a gas grill is naturally uneven (because the gas burner only partially covers of the bottom of the grill). A layer of lava rocks will absorb the heat and redistribute it more evenly to the cooking surface.
- Buy a second propane tank to avoid the headaches of accidentally running out of gas, forgetting to refill, or forgetting to shut off the grill. It is a small investment that is well worth the added expense.
- When done grilling, be sure to shut the propane off at the tank, not just the burners. This will prevent slow leaks, which is both more safe and more cost effective. Be sure, also, to put the cap over the connector for your spare tank.
- Charcoal Grilling Tips:
- There are 2 different types of charcoal, briquettes and chunk. Briquettes are densely packed and formed from very small bits of wood, like sawdust, whereas chunk is naturally created from actual chunks of wood that have had almost everything but the carbon burned out of them. Both have their advantages. Briquettes last longer (so they're probably the best choice for a large cookout), whereas chunks burn hotter (faster grilling, better searing). In the end it's a matter of choice, but it is recommended that, if you are going to use briquettes, use all-natural ones, as they have better flavor and add less chemicals to your food.
- Tips for using your grill in other ways:
- Pizza can be cooked right on the grill. The best method is to stretch the dough and place it right on the (well cleaned and lubricated) grill. Allow it to cook for a minute or so, then flip it (a pizza peel is very useful for this, but not crucial if you are fast with your hands). Quickly add toppings and close the grill. Check often to ensure that the bottom is not burning. Remove from heat when the toppings are heated through and the dough is golden brown. Use indirect heat (i.e. just one burner or charcoal on one side, pizza on the other) to avoid burning the bottom if the top is not fully cooked. Alternately, putting the pizza on a non-insulated pizza pan or cookie sheet, topping it, throwing it on the grill, and closing the grill will yield great results, as well, though without as much charcoal grill flavor (if applicable).
- Smoking and Slow Roasting are a great application of grills, in which indirect heat is used to slowly cook a larger piece of meat, be it a slab of ribs or a turkey. Brining ahead of time will help to ensure moistness. To smoke, soak wood chips for half an hour, and then put them in a heavy duty foil "boat", right on top of the coals or burner. Replenish them often, and spritz them with water if they start to actually ignite. Rotate the meat every few hours to prevent uneven cooking. This process will take 6+ hours if done properly, but the meat will be delicious. Just be sure your fire is hot enough to get the inside of the grill to 200 degrees, else you are risking food contamination.
- Slap a good quality, thick metal griddle on top of your grill and you have a perfect place to cook breakfast. Bacon, eggs, sausage, pancakes, French toast... All are easily cookable on the grill, with a decent griddle. Do not leave a griddle that has a nonstick teflon coating on the grill without food for a long period of time, though, as teflon can release toxic gases if it reaches temperatures in excess of 600 degrees F.
- Grilling involves flames and high heat. Keep all accelerants and flammable materials far from your grill, including lighters and lighter fluid. It is wise to keep a hose and/or fire extinguisher nearby, as well.
- Children should be kept far from the grill when at play, warned about it, and monitored closely. If a child is using the grill (for instance, to toast marshmallows) they should be very closely supervised by an adult. Pets should be left inside or chained up in a manner that the cannot reach the grill.
- Deep Frying is a wonderful way to cook food. However, it is a perilous activity when grilling. If you must do it, it is critical that your pot have several inches of clearance above the oil level, as food raises the level of the oil, and it boils up when food is added. A thermometer should be used to ensure that the oil never gets close to its flashpoint (i.e. less than 400 degrees F, in general), and it is critical that a grease-fire approved fire extinguisher be kept on hand at all times. Do not leave the oil unattended, even for a minute.
Things You'll Need
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- Grill spatula
- Long, spring-loaded tongs
- Wire grill brush
- Nonstick cooking spray
- Heatproof gloves
- Instant-read thermometer
- Probe-style thermometer
- Fire Extinguisher and/or Hose
- Spritzer Bottle