Grills will be fired from sea to shining sea this weekend.
Americans love to grill and it’s as part of the Independence Day as fireworks, but some of us love it a little more than others. Many people approach grilling as a means to an end. Get the darn meat on the stupid surface and lets eat for crying out loud, because there’s stuff I’d rather do.
If you’re a person who prefers fast cooking, don’t worry about this blog — these tips are not for you. If you’re a person who wants to spend some serious time outside next to a smoking grill, this is for you. If you like starting a fire, stoking a fire, adding wood and sitting outside in a lawn chair with a good book or a stereo—now I’m talking to you.
If you’re new to the game, this will give you a good overview. I’ve long loved to grill — it gives you some time outside so you can battle the elements and put your learned skills to the test. I’m not the best griller, there are plenty of people who write blogs and articles who’ve competed all around the country for decades, but I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.
I’ve also messed up a lot of otherwise good food over the years, as I tend to pound beer whenever I grill. I’ve hardly ever started a fire without a beer in my hand, so I’ve had to learn some of these lessons multiple times. If you’re not a drinker (and certainly if you’re not a drinker anymore) you’ll probably learn quicker than I have.
Here are some grilling do’s and don’ts:
1. Dry brine – Some people insist on wet brining, but that only seems to make a difference on pork chops. Sprinkle your meat with regular salt an hour before you cook. If you must do it the night before, fine, but I haven’t found much difference. If you have a dry rub, slather your meat with olive oil and apply it before you cook. Again, the dry rubs don’t seem to add that much when you apply it days in advance, but you’ve convinced yourself otherwise, I won’t stop you. I used to insist on applying rubs days before, but I did a lot of stupid things in my 20’s.
Also, skip the marinade. Many cooks use the marinade as some kind of insurance policy to ensure their meat tastes good; I used to. Spend a little more money on the meat, save money on the marinade and you’ll be fine.
2. Don’t use lighter fluid – It adds a chemical taste to the food and you should avoid it. Also skip those ridiculous easy-light briquettes for the same reason. Instead of buying lighter fluid, buy one of those chimneys that you can find in every store for $15. Fill it with briquettes, roll some newspaper in the bottom of it, light the paper on fire and leave the chimney alone for about ten minutes. When you come back, the coals will be ashy and that’s all you need. Dump those into the grill and get started. I dump a small amount of lit bricks onto a pile of unlit ones so the fire never gets too hot.
3. Cook over indirect heat – This applies to almost every food item on your grill. Push your small mound of briquettes to one side of the grill. This means your meat will cook slowly, which is important for good barbecue. If you want extra credit, place a small drip tray filled with water next to the coals and position your food over the tray. It will keep your meat moist and impress that girl you invited.
If you’re using a gas grill, turn on some of the burners and set your food on the cold side of the grill. I don’t bother gas grillers with this information, because most of the gas users I’ve met want food as soon as possible and two zone cooking takes too long for them. But if you have a gas grill and want to cook over indirect heat, that’s how it’s done.
4. Don’t use too much wood – I had this problem a lot in my early grilling days. My steaks tasted like they’d been run through a carburetor. I insisted that more smoke was better. Again, I’ve done a lot of things wrong. One or two pieces or a small handful of slivers will do just fine. (You can skip the wood. I’ve found that it can hurt more than it helps, as it makes the grill too hot. If you’re experienced, add wood, because you know how to control your temps.)
5. Shoot for 225 degrees (unless you’re cooking chicken, then go with 325) – Grills are basically ovens, and you want to keep an eye on your temperature. If you have some extra cash, invest in an oven thermometer that clips to the grill grate. The temp gauge on grills tends to be several degrees off, because they tell you what the temperature of the lid is instead of the grill surface. If you insist on using the grill gauge, just keep the temp under 275 degrees.
6. Don’t apply the sauce until the meat is done – When your meat is cooked to your liking, and I suggest using a digital meat thermometer, brush on the sauce and move it to the hot side of your grill. Don’t leave it on very long, don’t even close the lid or walk away. You’re only doing this to caramelize the sauce. When the sauce starts turning a little brown, flip it over and do the other side.
7. Don’t try to start the world’s biggest fire – I used to do this. Much of this was fueled by frustration and the aforementioned beer — it’s a bad idea. You either undercook or overcook your food. Less is more. If you need to add heat (and really—you probably don’t) just add a few more bricks.
8. Don’t “sear” your meat – It adds nothing. This can start fights, because a lot of experienced cooks feel like this is necessary. They’ll tell you it retains the juices, but it always drys out my food. Try cooking the meat and searing it at the end to give it the right look, and see if you can tell a difference.
9. Don’t put sauce on everything – Don’t put sauce on steaks unless you’ve burned them. Eat the chicken with a dry rub. Serve warm sauce on the side for your guests.
10. Don’t worry about recipe measurements – This is for people with a little more experience, but don’t get too mathematical about it. Use your instincts — cooking isn’t math; it’s jazz. A cup of this, a teaspoon of that — don’t worry too much. Add a little and adjust to taste.
11. Don’t drink whiskey when you grill – Trust me, stick to beer, and better yet, stick to cheap beer. High alcohol stuff like Bell’s have gotten me in trouble, too. Save the bourbon for after dinner.
12. Don’t EVER have more than one cook – One cook over one grill. This rule is iron clad.
Have a clear delineation of duty before the party is planned. I go by this simple rule: if it’s your grill, it’s your job. Only use someone else’s grill if they ask, and if you’re not familiar with their grill, turn them down. If you’re at a party and someone else is cooking, don’t inspect their work. Start the bourbon early, eat those dry brick burgers and keep your opinions to yourself. If they ask your opinion, nod and tell them how great they are. It will save you a lot of grief and you can laugh about it later by yourself.