Just about everyone loves great grilled food. Cooking in the outdoors and the smokey, rich flavors of food cooked over a hot fire make for both great food and great times. However, most people know very little about how to really get the most out of their grill. Sure, we can all fire it up and cook up a mean hot dog or burger, but grilling is capable of so much more! To really make the most of your barbecue, you need to be comfortable both with the operation of your grill as well as basic grill cooking principles which help to ensure the best results.
The purpose of this article is not to teach you everything there is to know about grilling. Instead, I have chosen five things that seem to be missing from many grillers’ repertoire. There are also misconceptions and misinformation that gets perpetuated about grilling which I want to help correct. With these tips, you can hopefully start to take your grilling to a new level.
Get Your Grill Hot Enough
A basic mistake I see grillers make is not knowing how to manage their grill heat. I’ve seen so many people struggle to get their food to cook right and all they needed was more heat in the first place. Whether you use a charcoal chimney, charcoal iron or even lighter fluid to get your fuel going, make sure you start out with enough briquettes. How much do you need? That all depends on the size of your grill. However, people seem to often underestimate the amount of charcoal they need. Once your coals are glowing red and covered with ash, spread them out on the charcoal grate.
After putting the grilling grate on, your coals should be giving off enough heat that it is very uncomfortable to hold your hand about four inches over the grill for more than a few seconds. If it is not hot enough, simply add more briquettes and wait a bit for them to get started. It is much easier to adjust your heat at this early stage before adding any food to the grill. Later on, you will be struggling with food that simply will not cook or is not developing that nice caramelized surface you are looking for. If you are using a gas grill, many take a while to warm up, particularly those that have lava rocks or ceramic briquettes in them to hold heat. Start your fire early and let it warm up a while with the lid closed before throwing on your food. You should hear a nice sizzle when your food is added. If not, your grill was probably not hot enough yet.
Use Good Fuel
People with nice cars are willing to spend a bit extra for higher octane gasoline. If you are serious about your grilled food, and you have bought some nice meat and other ingredients to cook, you should take the same viewpoint! Don’t skimp on your fuel, it is what is cooking your food and is almost as important to good cooking as is the raw ingredients! Most charcoal grillers use the basic briquette charcoal you can find in huge bags in any grocery store. Sure, they supply heat and light easily, but do you really want that cooking your food? Most of them are not made from real hardwoods so there is no natural wood aroma and flavor imparted to your food.
Also, most of them use chemical binders and kerosene-like petroleum products. All those chemicals can have weird aromas and who knows what they do to your health! Instead, use real, natural, lump hardwood charcoals. The pieces look like real chunks of wood which have been charcoalized. They have no additives and are made only from real hardwoods like mesquite, hickory and oak. They give off good, intense heat. They tend to be more expensive than the cheap briquette charcoal, but it is worth it! Also, for added smoke flavor, consider adding smoking wood chips or chunks to your grill. In either a charcoal grill or a gas grill, smoking woods add aromatic smoke that helps to flavor your meat. Many types such as mesquite, hickory, pecan and apple wood are available in most grilling supply stores.
Use Your Grill Lid
Many grill owners treat their grill lid as if it is just a cover to protect the grill between uses. Rather, the lid is one of the most important parts to the functioning of your grill! For high-heat searing of meats, your grill lid does not need to be on. But for cooking foods thoroughly, leaving your grill open causes several problems. With the grill open, the only significant heat your food is exposed to is the direct radiant heat coming up from the heat source. While this high, direct heat is good for searing the surface of the meat, it is not good for cooking the center.
By the time the middle of your food is done, the undersurface will be charred into oblivion! By closing the lid on your grill, you retain ambient heat and smoke, which swirls around inside your grill, surrounding your cooking food, much like convection heat does in your oven. This allows for more even roasting of larger cuts of meat that you want to cook through. So for everything but the thinnest cuts that you just want to sear briefly, close that lid! Check your food and move it minimally, allowing all that great ambient heat to roast your food to its succulent best!
Indirect Heat Cooking
A similar concept to the using of your grill lid to roast foods is the use of indirect heat. Direct heat is the high heat that foods are subjected to from the direct radiant heat from the heat source just below. But as I’ve said already, this high heat can burn food quickly. Foods that need time to cook through completely, like chicken, turkey or pork roasts, can take quite some time to cook. By the time the middle is cooked, the outside is charcoal! Rather than using direct heat, create a spot on your grill that does not have charcoal (or a burner) directly beneath it. Some people push the charcoal into two piles on either side of the grill, others simply push it all to one side. Your food is then placed in the area that does not have heat directly below it.
Rather than the direct radiant heat cooking your food, the ambient heat which builds up in your barbecue slowly roasts the food without exposing the surface to high direct heat that could burn it. Again, remember to close your lid! You wouldn’t roast a chicken in your oven with the door open would you? With this method, you can cook larger roasts for extended periods of time without burning them. Not only do you avoid burning the surface, you also get more succulent, tender and juicy roasts that don’t dry out as easily! I strongly recommend this method for any larger roasts that you want to cook through to the middle at least somewhat. This includes whole poultry, ribs, pork roasts, leg of lamb and others.
Let Your Meat Rest
This tip is really two in one! Before cooking most meats, particularly beef steaks, it is best to take the meat out of the refrigerator a while before you are going to start cooking. The goal is for the meat to come up to about room temperature before throwing it on the grill. Why? These types of cuts are usually served only slightly done in the middle, as for a rare, medium-rare or medium done steak.
If you throw a cold steak on the grill, the middle will take quite a long time to warm up. In the meantime you may burn the surface. A good thick steak only needs a few minutes per side to get a nice sear with grill marks. But you don’t want the center of your meat to still be cold! By making sure that the meat is up to room temperature first, you can more quickly hit the desired interior temperature (and thus doneness) so that the outside and inside of your steak are perfectly done at the same time. That brings us to the second part of this tip.
After your meat is cooked to your liking, don’t just drop it on a plate and serve! Most cuts of meat will benefit from a rest period, sitting on a serving tray, covered by foil in a warm spot, after taking it off the grill. The larger the piece of meat, the longer the rest it needs. The reason for this is that when you take meat off the grill, the surface is the most hot with the center a bit cooler. For this reason, moisture in the meat is moving toward the surface. Serving right away leads to an inhomogeneous piece of meat, with the texture and temperature varying from surface to middle.
After resting, the moisture and temperature equilibrate so that you have a uniform, succulent piece of meat that is ready to serve and enjoy. The interior will even continue to cook a bit while resting as the heat equilibrates throughout the meat. While small steaks may only need 5 to 10 minutes of rest, a large roast, like a leg of lamb, can benefit from a half hour or more!