Grilling 101… Summer school

With summer and hot weather upon us the grill becomes a favorite way to cook lots of what we eat. Plus, it saves dishes in the kitchen!  There is probably not a lot of food that wouldn’t be tasty on the grill. I’ve grilled vegetables, various red meats, fish, poultry, fruit, and even some lettuces. No matter what food you decide to grill there are some basics that will apply.

1 FIRE!

Depending on your choice of fuel this will be easy or a little more complicated. Depending on what you are going to be cooking, and how you are going to be cooking it you will do different things.

I prefer charcoal, personally, but it is up to you. I know some people have grills with a charcoal section and a gas section. That would be nice for quick grilling sessions on a week night  fire up the gas side, and when you have time use the charcoal side. Or if you have people coming over, use both! I have given up lighter fluid, and now use a starter chimney. No more lighter fluid taste! It is easy, and actually pretty fast! You always want to make sure that the coals are ashed over before you start any food. Flames are bad when you are grilling. Flames mean soot, and soot is never good on your food!

Chimney starter loaded with natural chunk charcoal, and lit!

When you grill you have several options for getting heat to your food. You can have direct or indirect heat. Obviously, you can use both in one grilling session, and sometimes that is exactly what is called for. Charcoal grills give you more options, but they can also give you more problems.  With a gas grill you can use the burner or burners to control how much heat and where it is. When you are dealing with charcoal you have to place the fire where you want it. Obviously if you want a nice even heat over the entire grill you need to make sure you spread the coals under the grill evenly.

How you distribute the heat will depend on what you are grilling. Certain things require even heat across the entire grill. This category would include sausages (brats, hot dogs, salsiccia…), burgers, fish (fillets and steaks), veggies, fruits, chicken breasts. In other words, small similar sized items should go over direct heat. Indirect heat would be best for larger items or smoking. So, if you wanted to grill a whole chicken, or smoke a boston butt for example you want indirect heat. In the case of the chicken you could sear the skin over the hot part and move it to the cooler part of the grill to cook through, or cook the bird through and then sear the skin on the hot side.

When you are smoking you generally want a lower temperature, and to use indirect heat.  I do this by piling all of the coals (and soaked wood chips) at one end of the grill, and then putting the smokee at the other end. I am then able to control the temperature by opening the air vent and the chimney. More air flow will give you a higher temperature, but if you close things up too much you starve the fire of oxygen and you end up killing the fire. So you want to find the point where you have enough heat to cook, but you also want to have the fire low so that you can get  nice smoke flavor into the food.

Smoked boston butt after 4 hours in the smoker. That night I used pecan wood chips.

2 Let it warm up!

Before you put food on the grill you want it to get good and hot. This will help the food to not stick. I’m not really sure why this is, but in almost every case you want to put the food on a hot surface rather than a cold one. This will also help keep you from having flames, and it will burn off some crap from the grill.

3 Clean the grill!

Make sure there isn’t a whole bunch of burned crap on the grill. A grill brush will do the trick and it is cheap! This will ensure that all of the crap that was left on the grill the last time and burned on there doesn’t end up in your food.  If you think about it it makes sense.  You don’t want your grilled pineapples to taste like the chipotle marinated pork chops that you had the other night, do you? Clean the grill! (Having said that, chipotle pineapple might be an interesting combo… if you do it right, spicy and sweet almost always works!)

4 Season your food!

This should be a no brainer, but seasoning your food is always a good thing. In grilling, which is a high heat dry method of cooking, if you have a large piece of meat you should consider brining it. This will help you keep your food more moist. You might also want to consider brining things like shrimp which are easy to over cook. Even if all you use is salt and pepper it will make your food taste better when you get through cooking it. I also like to use various marinades and rubs, depending on the meat and the flavor I want.

5 Leave it alone!

Ok, so here is where things get a little more interesting. Whenever you are cooking and add a piece of high protein food to a hot surface it will stick. This is not a problem, just leave it alone! This happens in a non-stick skillet, it happens in a stainless steel skillet, and it happens on the grill. I’ve seen special foil that you can put on your grill to prevent that from happening. I don’t know why you would do that though. A little vegetable oil on the grill before you put the food on it, or a little cooking spray (Make damn sure you don’t get the baking spray that has flour in it, because that would not be gluten-free!) on the food before you place it on the grill will make it not stick. Since you’re leaving it alone you will not tear up the chicken, or steak or burger. What you will end up with is grill marks! (Just like at your favorite restaurant!)

Make sure you have a little oil on the grill, and place your seasoned food on the grill at a 45 degree angle to the direction of the grill grates, and leave it there! After a couple of minutes with your tongs lift the edge of the food very gently, and if it comes up lift it and turn it 90 degrees. If it doesn’t come up easily, let it sit a little longer. Obviously if you are making a burger you should use a spatula, and the angle that you place it is less important. Closing the lid of your grill will help heat the other side of the food, and speed things up a bit. Once you have turned your food and allowed it to sit a little longer you will have nice grill marks on one side of your food.

The second side will go a bit quicker, but with a large piece of meat the grill marks are less important, because it will take longer to finish cooking. If you have a larger piece of meat and you just want the grill marks you can finish it in the oven, and then return it to the grill to essentially remark it. This is fairly common with things like half chickens. You can do them on the grill from start to finish, but it takes a bit of care to not over cook it or burn the skin. It isn’t hard though.

The burger on the right shows what will happen if you try to flip your food too early. I had it over a cold spot on my grill, oops! The one on the left has some nice grill marks though!

6 Eat!

This one is pretty simple! Enjoy the summer, and grilling! There are is almost no limit to what you can grill, and with a little creativity you can really get some great flavors that are much more difficult during the winter, unless you are a serious griller, and then you won’t be hindered by a little snow!

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