I just love more light in the evening … milder weather … the smell of hickory … sometimes even in the morning. Ah. It’s grilling season!
Everyone who knows me knows how much I love to cook outside. I think the food tastes better, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun.
Now, I understand that your grill might be a bit “rusty,” as well as your skills. This is a great time to brush up on a few things that will make your grilling season successful. Let’s start with a review of grilling basics.
Your grill is a very flexible cooking tool. Think of it as an outdoor version of your stove. And just like your stove, you can use it to cook different ways. The two primary ways are “direct” and “indirect” grilling.
“Direct grilling” is cooking directly over the flames. Think of this like cooking on your stove top. This is what people do 90 percent of the time, and in my opinion, you’re really missing out on what your grill can do for you. You wouldn’t cook only on your stove top.
“Indirect grilling” is cooking on the cooler side of the grill, meaning that you put the food on the side of the grill opposite of the heat. This is like cooking in your oven. Put some wood chunks on the coals to create smoldering smoke. Then, when you put the lid on the grill, make sure to put the vent over the food on the cooler side of the grill — this draws the smoke from the hot side/wood chunks over your food and out the vent. This is the secret to imparting beautiful wood smoke flavor to your dishes. Probably 80 percent of my grilling is done on indirect because I can get a nice even heat on the food and a little more flavor.
Now, here are some easy tips to make your grilling season great.
Tip 1: Don’t use lighter fluid if you have a charcoal grill.
Do you like how lighter fluid smells? Yeah, me neither. Don’t use it. That smell can get into your food and clothing. Charcoal is made from wood and is a great cooking fuel. You really get the natural flavor of wood smoke infused into your food. Use a charcoal chimney starter to get your fire started. It’s clean, fast and smell-free.
Tip 2: Build a two-zone fire.
A two-zone fire means having heat on one side and no heat on the other side. If using a charcoal grill, put all of your lit charcoal on one side and nothing on the other side. If using a gas grill, just ignite one side. NOTE: Some gas grills light front to back versus side to side. In that case, light the back half of the grill and keep the front half off.
There are two reasons for this.
▪ Direct grilling: When grilling directly over the flames and there’s a flare up, a two-zone fire allows you to move food to the cooler side and let the flare up subside.
▪ Indirect grilling: Allows for more even cooking and you can impart more smoky flavor to your meal. Most people don’t do this, but they should. It gives you much more finesse and control.
Tip 3: Clean the grates.
This should be a given, but some people still think that they don’t have to clean the grates, saying it imparts extra “grilling flavor” to your food. It doesn’t. Believe me. It just allows gunk to build up that will make your food stick and taste nasty.
So every time before you put any food on the grill, the grates should be heated and cleaned using a grill brush. Here’s how you do it: Once the grill is lit (coals lit and in place, or your gas burners fired up), close the lid and wait for five to seven minutes. Then, use a grill brush to clean the grates and remove all of the old food particles. Clean grill grates keep your food from sticking to the grill.
Tip 4: Cook with the lid closed.
I’m not sure why it is, but I see a lot of novice grillers cook with the lid open. I’m sure it has something to do with the primal instinct of fire and wanting to watch it. However, for outdoor cooking, it’s not a good idea at all. You need the lid off/open only when putting food on or turning it over. That’s it. You’re not filming a beer commercial in your backyard. With the lid closed, the food gets cooked faster and more evenly because the heat is kept inside. Now you’re really the star of your own commercial — a grilling commercial. Which leads me to my next tip.
Tip 5: Use a timer.
The timer is the most underutilized tool in the outdoor cooking arsenal. Once you shut that lid, there’s nothing to do for a while, right? So you might wander off, grab a beverage, maybe start chatting with the neighbor … then all of a sudden it hits you. Oh no! I need to check on the food! And now you have to rename the main course as beef pucks instead of hamburgers. You get the idea. The timer can save your meal as well as your sanity.
Tip 6: Get good grill gloves.
This is crucial to your safety. My favorites are inexpensive leather welder’s gloves. Sometimes I can find a three-pack of these cheaper than one set of branded “BBQ gloves.” Always, always, always, use your gloves if you’re going to handle anything that is remotely hot. Trust me on this. I have the scars to back up this advice.
So there you have it. Just a few of the basics to get you started on the outdoor cooking season. I hope that you start cooking more outside. Remember, your food is going to taste better and personally, I think it’s a lot more fun.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a master student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.