Summer means different things to different people: surfing and beach volleyball, lazing on the patio, reading a good book or just getting to throw on a pair of shorts now and then. But regardless of your seasonal predisposition or where you’re located, one shared pleasure of summer is and always will be grabbing the tongs, stoking the coals and biting into a lightly charred piece of meat.
That doesn’t mean everyone knows how to do it right. To teach you how to truly master the grill — or even just to bone up the old pros — we’ve compiled a list of grilling tips (along with notes from Russ Faulk of Kalamazoo Grills) to make your sizzle entirely satisfactory. As it should be.
1. Time to Marinate
Aside from helping your food taste better, acidic marinades actually protect against heterocyclic amines (HCAs), carcinogens that are most often caused by cooking poultry, red meat or fish over an open flame. Using vinegar, citrus juice, or even beer as a base, let your meat soak for at least a few hours before throwing it on the grill.
2. Temp Job
It’s pretty stunning, but some people toss cold meat on a cold grill and then fire it up, none the wiser. By letting your steak-maker heat up for about 20 minutes, you’re allowing both the grill and the surrounding metal to come up to an even temperature, which leads to more efficient, controlled and safe cooking.
3. Strike Oil
You cook with oil when you’re making something on your stove, so why would outside be any different? Often times, leaner cuts of protein, like fish, tend to stick to the grates of your grill. Defend against it by using a pair of tongs to rub a paper towel soaked in cooking oil over the grates. An alternative method is to brush your food with olive oil and season it with sea salt before it goes on the grill.
4. Breathing Room
While there are a multitude of effective ways to direct your heat for cooking, full blast isn’t one of them. Whether it’s leaving one gas burner off or simply positioning your coals to one side, always make sure there’s at least one small area that is not over direct heat and that’s not crammed with food. This allows you to move your food around accordingly to ensure nothing gets burned — and gives you a “safe zone” to move food for slower cooking or to rescue the perfect piece of meat from a nasty flare-up.
5. Hands Off
Once you put food on the grill, do your best not to touch it. If timed correctly, meats — especially burgers, steaks and chops — are meant to be flipped just once. After placing something on the grill, let it sit for a few minutes to get a good sear. Once it’s been cooking for a bit, use your tongs to test and see it if pulls away from the grates. Assuming you oiled it, the meat will either stick or “release” when it’s cooked long enough. If there’s any resistance, it needs to be left alone a few moments longer.
EXTRA TIPS FROM AN ACTUAL GRILL MASTER1. Chicken Breasts A boneless, skinless chicken breast can be fantastic off the grill, but its shape is not conducive to being perfectly cooked throughout: either the pointy end is overcooked, or the thicker end is undercooked. The best solution is to pound the breast to an even thickness (the flattened breast is called a palliard), and then grill it over high heat. The thinner and more uniform cross section allows it to cook quickly and evenly.
2. Don’t Burn the Sauce Barbecue sauce is not a marinade. It has a lot of sugar in it, and sugar can easily burn on the grill. Brush it on at the end of cooking and then quickly mark the meat on the grill for a nice, caramelized flavor.
3. Keep the Crust It takes time to form the perfectly browned crust outside something like a burger or salmon fillet, and that crust has all the best flavors in it. If you don’t wait long enough before turning the food, you can see that beautiful crust left behind — stuck to the grill grate. Foods like salmon and burgers will typically release themselves from the grill grate when the time is right to flip them over. If you flip them too early, the food is more likely to stick, and you’ll leave the crust behind. You can help the food cook better by installing a heavier grill grate. The heavier the grate, the more heat it can hold, and the more easily food will release.
6. Just Add Water
Television commercials would have you believe that “flame-kissed” meat is a good thing. It’s not. Flare-ups caused by fat drippings create carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — they’re what create that charcoal taste when you eat something that’s been burnt on the grill. A spray bottle filled with water is the perfect weapon for extinguishing any fires too close to your food.
7. Vent, It’s Okay
Al fresco cooks often don’t realize the importance of their grill’s venting system. Vent openings both above and below the fire aid in controlling not only the temperature of your grill, but the way in which your food cooks. Fully open vents on both sides create more heat, and by rotating your lid to change the placement of your open top vent, you can control the speed of your cooking. Whichever side the top vent is opened above will cook faster than the unvented side. If you want to create a convection effect, like you would a turkey in an oven, place your top vent opening on the opposite side of your bottom vent opening.
A principal rule of cooking anything: it’s always better to be under than over. If you’re uncertain if that salmon has been on for 5 minutes or 15, go ahead and pull it off. You can always put undercooked food back on the grill to continue cooking. The same can’t be said for sockeye jerky.
9. No Rest for the Delicious
Resting meat is perhaps the greatest myth in grilling history. Don’t do it, and for Flay’s sake, don’t tent it. There is no evidence that resting meat allows the juices to redistribute. And allowing it to sit, tented under foil like those fools on Food Network will tell you, actually just makes your food colder and softens that beautiful crust you worked so hard to get on the grill. There’s a reason high-end steakhouses immediately plate and serve a steak once it’s reached the appropriate doneness — it’s because it’s the right thing to do.
10. Check Yourself
We get it. You’ve been doing this for years. But you’re still susceptible to poorly cooked meat. Every professional chef in every professional kitchen in the world uses a thermometer, and you should too. An excellent digital thermometer is the single most important piece of equipment you can have as a grill master other than a grill. We’ve got a few great recommendations below if your kit is currently lacking.