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The Fine Art Of Grilling  

Welcome back to class. I hope that you have been successfully sautéing after last class session.


As we learned in our last class, there are several broad categories of cooking methods--dry, wet, and a combination of both dry and wet. Sautéing is classed as a dry cooking method. Grilling also falls in the same category, in that it utilizes dry, intense heat to cook the product. During the summer months, grilling is the quintessential cooking method as it is done outside, thus not further heating up an already hot kitchen!

While most people own a grill and use it somewhat regularly, grilled items are not always 100% successful. Perhaps you have seen some common mistakes--fish or meat that sticks to the grill, is overly charred (burned, despite what someone may rationalize as "New Orleans Cajun" cooking!), or perhaps shows no char marks at all-- looking almost steamed. As with other cooking methods, grilling is both an art and a skill which is only mastered by practice and by following some basic pointers.

DEFINITION: Grilling is defined as cooking an ingredient over very hot heat on a metal grill of some sort.

TYPES OF GRILLS: Most of the time, food is cooked quickly, due to the heat radiating from a charcoal, gas, electric, or wood heat source. Gas and electric grills are the easiest to use and produce nice results. They burn hot enough to make distinct char mark and flavor the finished with smoke produced from the drippings that fall to the bottom of a hot grill. Some of the new electric grills are almost as hot as gas grills and are very user friendly, especially for cosmopolitan dwellings.

Wood is the oldest grilling fuel and remains an excellent heat source since it perfumes the grilled item with desirable smoky flavors. But wood requires practice. Generally, when grilling over wood it is advisable to let the wood burn down to hot embers before placing the item on the grill. It is very challenging to grill over a live roaring fire. Small flames can work but need to be carefully monitored to avoid over-charring. Hard woods, like fruit woods, hickory, and mesquite give the best results. Avoid resinous woods which produce a thick, black turpentiney smoke.

Wood can also be combined with other heat sources to give foods a smoky taste without the difficulty of cooking over a pure wood fire. Simply soak a few pieces of wood in water and then place them on a gas, electric or charcoal fire. The wet wood will smoke for a long time. If you don't have your own source for wood, numerous varieties of wood "chips" are available where grilling supplies are sold.

Charcoal is a common hot heat source used frequently for picnics and camping. It burns hot and is excellent for grilling. Avoid the self igniting briquettes which can give the food a petroleum flavor. Perhaps the best charcoal is natural chunk charcoal which burns very hot but for a shorter period of time than the more common briquettes.

WHAT TO GRILL? Which ingredients are best suited for grilling? Just about anything--including meats, poultry, fish , vegetables, and fruit. The best meats for grilling are the most tender since grilling is a fast cooking method that does not allow time to tenderize tougher cuts of meat. Choose tender cuts of meat (from the loin or rib) , or slightly tougher cuts that have been tenderized with an acidic marinade or been pounded or chopped (i.e. hamburgers). Chicken and small poultry are also great for grilling. Leave the skin on the bird as this will not only be delicious, but will keep the meat from drying out. Be extra vigilant if grilling boneless, skinless chicken breasts since they dry out quickly!

Fish is another excellent option for the grill. Traditionally, oily fish like swordfish, salmon, blue fish, mackerel, and fresh sardines were destined for the grill. Their oily character keeps them from sticking to the grill and keeps their flesh moist. Today, it is common that almost any fish and shellfish is routinely served grilled. But lean fish pose extra problems. They tend to stick to the grill and quickly lose their moisture once cooked. To prevent lean fish from sticking to the grill, brush them well with oil before grilling. To keep them moist, be careful to remove the fish from the grill as soon as it is "just" done. Also, be sure to turn the fish gently. Fish is much more delicate than meats and poultry and needs a little extra TLC.

Vegetables such as tomatoes, summer squash, mushrooms, peppers, eggplant, and asparagus are perfectly suited for the grill. Toss them in a flavorful (fresh herbs and garlic are perfect flavor boosters) and seasoned oil prior to grilling. Fruits can also be successfully grilled. Firm fruits like apples, pears and pineapple are delicious and easy to grill. Softer fruits like mango, papaya, peaches and nectarines require special attention since they cook quickly, and if overcooked, will reduce to a mush. These fruits need only to be heated and not "cooked".

BASIC GRILLING TECHNIQUE: The general technique for grilling is as follows: First make sure that the grill is very hot. If the grill is not very hot, it will be difficult to develop the caramelized smoky flavors of properly grilled meat. In addition, food sticks to a grill that is anything short of "smokin' hot". The next step is to clean the grill with a wire brush, and then with a clean towel remove what the little burned bits the brush has loosened up. Place theitme to be grilled on the clean grill. Be sure to put the presentation side down first on the grill in order to take advantage of the intense initial heat which will then guarentee beautiful grill "marks" on the side the customer will see first.

As the item cooks, move it around so that it does not burn, and turn it when it is cooked half way. This is where the art of grilling comes in. The goal to perfect grilling is to give the item delicious dark brown (not black) grill marks on both sides while making sure that the item comes off the grill at just the right moment of doneness. Also, each grill has its own idiosyncrasies--spots where it is particularly hot or cool. As an item cooks, learn to take advantage of these hot or cool spots to speed up or slow down the cooking time. On some grills it is also possible to regulate the actual heat source. Closing the lid speeds up the cooking time and increases the smoky flavor, but also increases the likelihood of a small fire which can char your item in no time.

Grilling is a hotly debated topic --especially when it comes to smoke, marinades and BBQ sauces. There are many excellent recipes for these in lots of excellent grilling books. Try as many different ones as you can. BBQ sauces in particular run the gamut of flavors--some firey hot, others acidic, and still others almost sticky sweet. It's best to experiment and find your own preferences.

That's all for class today. Enjoy the summer and may lots of tasty treats come off your grill! In the next class we will explore a wet cooking method: poaching. Till then--keep cooking!!


ChefTalk.com › Articles › The Fine Art Of Grilling