Some folks tell us they leave the grilling to the experts. They say they can never get the temperature right; the food is burnt or raw — or both! They say the meat and chicken turn out dry and tough and can only be cut with an electric saw. They say their vegetables burn or fall through the grates. They say their food sticks to the grill and they end up losing half of it every time.
We say, don’t give up quite so easily! With just a few simple tips and some handy ideas and tools, grilling can be enjoyed by everyone in your family; even the one who ends up standing at the grill.
1. Gas or charcoal?
The answer will depend on a few factors. The first is convenience. A charcoal grill will get your food on the table faster, but what you get in speed you may lose in taste.
The authentic smoky, off-the-fire taste of grilled foods is strongest with the original heat source, wood. But waiting for hardwood or even charcoal to heat properly takes time.
Another factor is taste. However, in a recent taste test, groups of tasters were presented with burgers and steak cooked on gas and charcoal units. No one could tell the difference between the charcoal and the gas when it came to the hamburgers, but they could tell the difference with the steak. The charcoal-grilled steak had a distinct smoke flavor.
Finally, there is the issue of cost. Gas grills are generally more expensive than charcoal. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money, then charcoal might be the answer. However, charcoal is the more expensive fuel. You can easily spend $5 per cookout on charcoal, while gas might cost around 20¢ per cookout. So you’ve got to decide which one is right for you.
And we mean REALLY hot. The best way to do this on a gas grill is by turning all the burners to high for at least 20 minutes. On a charcoal grill use plenty of coal, piled in a pyramid shape or in a metal chimney fire starter. Light the coals with an electric lighter or use lighter fluid and let them burn until there is a generous coating of white ash. The only drawback to this method is that if you are cooking for a crowd you will have to add more coal to keep the grill hot long enough to cook everyone’s food.
3. Use a good quality grill brush.
A grill brush is necessary both before and after cooking. Once your grill is hot, use the brush to clean the grates of any missed spots from your last barbecue. Bits of ash on your food are both unattractive and unhealthy. Food will stick to grill grates that are not clean. After you are done grilling, use the brush to clean the grates while they’re still hot. This keeps the grill in better shape longer. It also keeps away animals because food residue is the number-one attraction for uninvited creatures.
Even on a clean grill, lean foods may stick when placed directly on the rack. Reduce sticking by oiling your hot grill rack with an oil-soaked paper towel: hold it with tongs and rub it over the rack. Remember: never spray cooking spray on a hot grill. If you are preparing large batches of food, oil the grates again during cooking to keep your food from sticking.
5. Keep it safe!
Food safety is a top priority, so keep these simple rules to avoid cross-contamination: use separate cutting boards, utensils and platters for raw and cooked foods; refrigerate foods while marinating; and never baste with the marinating liquid. Make extra marinade just for basting or boil your marinating liquid first.
6. Marinate and rub for flavor.
Rubbing spices on your meat or chicken and brushing vegetables with olive oil and spices will give you excellent flavor without lots of work. Marinate steaks or chicken cutlets in a variety of barbecue sauces, either homemade or store-bought. Thirty minutes is usually enough time to flavor most foods.
How can you tell if your food is ready? The best and most professional way is by using an instant-read thermometer. The internal temperature of the food will tell you if it’s done to your liking. Chicken parts should be about 165° for the breast and 175° for the dark meat, while steaks should measure 140° for medium and 150° for well done. Ground beef burgers should be 160° on the thermometer before they are safe to eat. If you are not using a thermometer, use these approximate times for cooking:
Chicken breast: 3–4 minutes per side for thin cuts; 7–8 minutes per side for thick cutlets.
Chicken thigh: bone in — about 50 minutes in total; boneless — about 35–40 minutes.
Steak: thin cuts will cook in 5–6 minutes per side, while thick cuts need about 18 minutes in total. In general, it’s easier to tell when thin steaks are done.
Beef burgers: about 5 minutes per side. You should see beads of sweat on the burger; that is a sign the meat’s cooked inside.
These times are approximate and will always vary with the thickness of the cut. If you are not sure, you can make a small cut in the center of the meat; it should be vaguely pink. Pink is good — it shows you the food is not overcooked. Too much pink, however, means it needs a few more minutes. Remember, food continues to cook even after it’s removed from the grill due to internal heat.
8. Use a two-level cooking method.
On one side of the grill, crank the heat up high; keep it low on the other. This way you have a really hot zone for searing beautiful grill marks in your food while the cooler side, or indirect side, offers gentle heat to ensure meat or chicken parts are cooked internally before the outside burns. On a gas grill this is easily done by setting one burner at high with the other at low or even off. On a charcoal grill, pile the coals higher on one side to give you high heat and lower on the other.
These simple tips and techniques will help you become a grilling expert, too!
Next week: our favorite grilling recipes.