Grilled food always holds so much promise.
We go to a barbecue (for, I don’t know, Memorial Day?), and we’re excited about the charred and juicy meat goodies to come. The grillmaster comes outside, platter of protein in hand.
Combustion happens. Stuff is cooked.
Chewy, bland, blah. And you are disappointed.
Don’t let this to happen to you.
Grilling is a mix of science and art. No one can tell you how to do it right. It is something you only learn from experience.
But with some good fundamentals under your belt, you will be well on your way to being the badass grillmaster you were born to be.
Gas vs. Charcoal
There is as much contention around the use of gas vs. charcoal grills as there is around Cubs vs. Sox fandom in Chicago.
As in, someone’s gonna get cut. Just try walking into Wrigleyville in a Sox hat on gameday. I promise you, it will not be fun.
And I say this speaking as one who cares as little about baseball as my father cares about finding a pair of non-dad jeans.
While gas grills are fine for quick cooking, and they are certainly more convenient, there is a reason real grillmasters use charcoal. I am all for time savers, but I will only employ them when they do indeed improve the finished product, and I am not convinced that gas does it.
I like things old fashioned sometimes.
Grilling is like getting’ down. If you don’t get a little dirty, you’re not having enough fun.
Gas grills are also expensive as all hell.
If you can have only one grill, make it charcoal. But feel free to have one of each. I do.
For the cleanest burn, pick up some natural lump charcoal. Not that there is anything wrong with standard briquettes, but natural charcoal is absent the nitrates, sand and petroleum necessary to make those neat little briquettes.
Want some smoky flavor with your meat? Add some smoke!
All you need is some good hardwood sawdust (check your local hardware store, but make sure it is from UNTREATED WOOD. Nasty chemicals do not make yummy food). Dump a couple of handfuls of sawdust in the middle of a big square of aluminum foil, wrap it up and poke some holes in the top.
Park it on top of the coals, and voila! Smoke!
If your grill is not clean, your meat will stick. More delicate meat (like fish) will tear and break apart. Scrub that grate clean, and oil it with vegetable oil. This is all much easier to do before you cook, and not after.
I know how entertaining it is to dump charcoal in the grill, douse it with lighter fluid, and set it ablaze. This is wholly unnecessary, and honestly makes food taste weird. You’re cooking with charcoal and not gas for a reason. Let’s do this right.
A charcoal chimney is your best friend.
Find a safe spot for it (I use a round, flat stepping stone from the garden). Lay out a sheet of newspaper and give it a quick spray of Pam. Ball it up, stick it under the grate, and light. You will never have to use a second match.
Meat is delicious. It does not need much help to be so.
Dry your meat. Salt liberally (no pepper, it will burn on the grill). Wait a few minutes for the salt to work its molecular magic. This will produce a great char, and prevent it from sticking (provided your grill grate is clean and oiled).
Grilling a single-serving piece of meat (burgers, steak, fish, chops, etc.) involves at the least, three grill steps and at most five. If you are not executing at least the three required steps, do not touch your meat.
What I’m getting at here is this: do not keep flipping and moving the thing. It will not get a good char, and it will dry out. I’m serious, leave it alone.
- (Required) Place meat on grill.
- (Optional) Halfway through cooking the first side, rotate ¼ turn for nice grill marks.
- (Required) Flip.
- (Optional) Repeat step 2.
- (Required) Remove meat to a clean platter (you’re not putting it back on the platter that held the raw meat, are you?)
How do you know when your meat is done? Cut into it and look?
Oh hell no.
In the next section, we will get into why that is a bad idea.
To accurately tell when your meat is done, an instant-read thermometer is your best friend. But how are you to know what temperature is done?
I’ve got you. Just check out this handy dandy chart that tells you everything you need to know:
- The temperature at which to remove various meats from the heat.
- The ideal doneness temperature (not the same as USDA recommendations)
Why take the meat off the heat before it’s done? Because it is hot enough that the internal temperature will continue to rise for a time. This is called carryover, and it will depend on how big and what shape the meat takes.
So pull your meat before it is done, and let carryover do the rest of the work. Unless of course, you like your steaks well done, and put something like ketchup on them.
In that case, I humbly suggest this may not be the blog for you. In fact, I’m not entirely sure we can be friends anymore.
But if you respect your meat enough to treat it right, keep reading, because this next step (which works simultaneously with carryover), is where the magic happens.
This is perhaps the most important step of all, and the one most likely to be skipped by novice grillers (and cooks in general). Resting can make the difference between a dry and chewy piece of meat and a moist and tender one. Here’s why.
Fire and water do not like each other. When the hot grill is in contact with the surface of the meat, water runs for the center and hides.
Have you ever taken a piece of steak off the grill and cut right into it? Your plate was a juicy mess immediately, and your steak was dry, wasn’t it?
That’s because the juices are all over the plate, instead of inside the meat, and then your belly, where they belong.
When the meat is removed from the heat source, the water (juices) in the center of the meat relax, and figure it is okay to go back to their homes. As the meat rests and becomes a uniform temperature throughout, the juices spread out as well.
When the juices are evenly redistributed, they are trapped. Trapped and terrified juices make for a seriously tender and juicy piece of meat.
With eleventy billion grilling cookbooks out there, obviously we have only scratched the surface of grilling. But with these basics packed away in your brain, you will be well on your way to being grand ruler of your grill.