In Part I of this series I discussed the pros and cons of charcoal vs. gas grills. Now that you have your grill, the next step is learning how to use it. Sure you can just “fire it up” and probably get some pretty good results. Let’s face it, that’s what most people do and they all produce an edible if forgettable product. Hopefully, you are reading this because you want to rise above the masses and create a meal that makes your friends stand back and take notice. I’m here to help you do that.
The first thing we need to discuss is the difference between grilling and barbecuing. Here, in the US, many people tend to use the two terms interchangeably. True, both techniques take place over live fire but that is about where the similarities end. Grilling, in general, is a high heat method of cooking. It works well for more tender cuts of meat that would tend to dry out in long, slow heat. Barbecuing on the other hand is a slow and low cooking process in which tougher cuts of meat are turned into tender, tasty morsels. Rarely do temperatures, while barbecuing, rise above 250°F whereas with grilling, temperatures at the grate can exceed 500°F. I will talk more about barbecue in Part III, but for now it is enough to know that grilling and barbecuing are two different beasts, and in some areas of the States using the incorrect word can get you into serious trouble!
Those of you that have gas grills can skip down a few paragraphs as these first few discuss the preparation of a charcoal grill.
When discussing charcoal, the very first thing to discuss is the difference between lump charcoal and briquettes. For the vast majority of world lump charcoal is the fuel of choice for cooking, while in the US briquettes are the most popular form of charcoal, and just as with the gas vs. charcoal debate there are good arguments on both sides as to why each one is best. When it comes to availability, at least in the US, you can’t beat briquettes. Every grocery store and hardware store sells briquettes. Lump charcoal can be much more difficult to track down and is much more expensive than the briquettes. Another advantage to briquettes is their uniform shape and size making it much easier to create even cooking conditions. Lump charcoal, on the other hand, comes in varying sizes, within the bag, from large pieces to chunks so small as to be almost unusable. While lump charcoal tends to burn hotter, it also loses its heat more quickly than briquettes. The up side to lump is the fact that you know what you are getting; pure wood. With briquettes you might be getting wood, sawdust, and various chemicals and binders that can contribute off flavors to your food, especially if not fully burnt down before cooking over. While I prefer lump charcoal, the reality is oftentimes it is easier to source briquettes and it makes less of a dent in your wallet. Use that extra money to upgrade your quality of steak.
Once you have chosen which type of charcoal to use it’s time to prepare the grill. First off, please get rid of that lighter fluid and either make or buy yourself a chimney starter. These contraptions make relatively quick work of your charcoal without the added chemicals, plus using one with a grate at the bottom makes it easy to move the charcoal around (an important consideration when cooking items that may take a number of hours). Fill your chimney with enough charcoal to cover, in a single layer, an area 3” larger, on all sides, than the food you are cooking. Place a couple of sheets of wadded up newspaper under the charcoal, in the chimney and light it. In about 15 minutes you will have red hot, blazing coals.
Dump these out, into the bottom of your grill and spread out into a single layer. Place the cooking grate on your grill and allow the charcoal to continue burning until uniformly covered with a thin layer of gray ash (about another 5 to 10 minutes).
This is where those of you with gas grills can jump back in. For gas grills, turn the gas to high, light and allow the grill to preheat for 10-15 minutes. Right after you start your charcoal burning, it’s time to remove the food you are going to grill, from the refrigerator. This gives the food a chance to warm up slightly which will help promote even, consistent cooking. If you have been marinating your grill item, gently pat it dry. It is at this point, also, that you want to season the food. It can be as simple as salt and pepper or as intricate as a complex BBQ rub. No matter what seasoning you prefer make sure you apply it liberally as much of it will get dislodged during cooking. Do not skip this step! I’ve eaten many a steak that fell short of its culinary destiny all because a cook didn’t take time to season the meat before cooking. Unless you have marinated your food and unless that marinade contains oil do not oil your food at this time.
After your grill grate has preheated for 5-10 minutes, take time to brush it down. Don’t be done in by those people that say that a nice “crusty” grill grate adds flavor. It doesn’t, and besides foods are more likely to stick to a dirty grate than a clean one. In recent years I have changed my grilling habits. I used to oil the food that I was going to grill, now, instead, I prefer to oil the grate. I do this simply and safely by dousing a small towel with oil and using tongs to rub down the grate. I find doing it this way is less likely to create flare ups when the food is added to the grill, though for foods that have a tendency to stick to the grill or fall apart I do oil both the grate and food as added insurance.
Another common error that many people make is wanting to start moving and flipping their food almost immediately after they place it on the grill. Don’t succumb to this temptation. Meats will often stick to the grill immediately after placing them on the hot grate. If you have properly prepared your grill, and your meat, it will eventually (within a few minutes) release on its own. If you move the meat too quickly you risk tearing the meat, or pulling off the skin on items such as chicken. If the meat wants to stick when you try to lift it from the grill give it a couple more minutes and it should release on its own letting you know it is time to flip it.
When it comes to telling when your food is done, there are a lot of “rules of thumb” and “guidelines” for you to follow. Unfortunately, most of them are pretty bogus. The best way to tell when food is done is by using a thermometer. The web is full of helpful hints to tell you when your steak is done, the only problem with those is that each cut has a different feel to it, and will respond differently to cooking. I’m not saying that you can’t learn to tell when food is done just by feeling it, cooks and chefs do it all the time, but it is a difficult task to master. Do yourself a favor and purchase a cheap instant read thermometer if accuracy in doneness is important to you. By all means use these other methods but double check yourself with a thermometer until you get the feel of telling doneness by touch. For most steaks 1-1 ½” thick it will take approximately 6 minutes per side, over a hot fire, to get medium rare, 7-8 minutes per side for medium and 10-12 minutes per side for well done. Pork will generally follow the same time rules as most steaks while chicken, bone in pieces, normally take about 20-24 minutes to cook all the way through.
The final step in grilling is the one most often overlooked by most backyard cooks, and that is allowing your meat to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. This step is also one of the most important. When your meat first comes off of the grill all the protein strands are contracted nice and tight due to the effect of the heat on them. Cutting into that juicy steak now will just result in it losing all its juices to the plate and no matter how little you cooked it you will end up with a dry piece of meat. As the meat rests the protein relaxes and the juices, which had been driven to the center of the meat, have a chance to redistribute throughout the steak leaving you with a tender, juicy cut.
These simple rules and guidelines, which center around cooking over direct heat, will help you take your grilling skills to the next level, but if you want to become the new neighborhood grill master you will need to understand the concepts behind indirect heat and barbecuing. That will be the next and final part of this series on grilling.