It's the first weekend in April, and although the "official" grilling doesn't start for another 7 week with Memorial Day weekend, I'm sure that there are plenty of people out there pulling out their grills already. For us hardcore, year round grill jockeys this weekend is pretty much like any other weekend as we don't allow a little cold or bad weather keep us from our grills. To help start the season out properly I thought I’d offer up some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years. To some people many of these tips might be second nature, but for others, it might help them up their game and become the neighborhood Grill Master! And please, if you have any great tips you’d like to share please don’t hesitate to share it with everyone in the “Comments” section. I always love to hear what my readers have to say, and I’m sure they have a few tricks that I would love to learn.
-This may sound like a “no brainer” but if you have a gas grill please make sure you check your tank before you start cooking. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been at a cookout only to have the host finish the food in the oven because he ran out of gas. It’s not the worse thing in the world but it sure makes you feel stupid. I know, I’ve been there!!!
-If using charcoal try to get lump charcoal, if you can. It burns hotter and cleaner. And you know exactly what it is made of-wood. Can’t say the same about briquettes. If you have to use briquettes (and I do often) make sure they are well burnt down before cooking over them to avoid off flavors. They should be fully coated in white ash before they are ready for cooking.
-Get rid of the lighter fluid and buy yourself a chimney starter. They’ll save you money, in the long run, and you don’t have to worry about off flavors or odors. Of course, the downside to this is you don’t get to play pyromanic or arsonist. Women don’t understand, but the guys know what I’m talking about!!
-Give your grill grates plenty of time to heat up and make sure they are clean. Brush them down to get any leftover food off of them and then oil them down by rolling up some paper towel tightly, dipping it in oil and quickly brushing it over the grates (don’t go slowly or you run the risk of the whole thing catching fire which might a good thing for you pyros out there!). Don’t listen if anyone tries to tell you that that a crusty grill grate is now nonstick or adds flavor. A clean grate will release food much more easily and who the hell wants to eat crusty bits leftover from last weekend’s cook out?!
-Those vents on the bottom of your grill are there for a reason-use them. They help control the airflow over the coals and thus help to control your heat. Further open=more air=higher heat. Closed down=less air=cooler temperatures. For most grilling I leave them open somewhere between 1/2 & 3/4s open.
Meats & Poultry
-When grilling steaks start them over high heat. After they have a good sear to them move them to a slightly cooler part of the grill to finish cooking, and don’t forget to allow your steaks to rest for 5 minutes, off the heat before serving them or slicing them. This allows the meat to relax and retain more of its moisture.
-Speaking of moisture, that old wives tale about searing meat to keep in the juices is false. It does nothing to seal in the juices and actually can drive off more moisture than not searing the meat, but the up side is that searing provides a great depth of flavor that you can’t get with non-seared meats and the moisture that you do lose is not noticeable.
-When it comes to burgers, don’t overpack the meat. Just pack it enough that it will stand up to a couple of flips. Also, to avoid your burgers turning into “meatballs” as they contract in the heat of the grill, make a slight indentation in the middle when you form them.
-Here’s something I state just about everytime I write a post about grilling, but it is worth saying it again and again-Don’t Play With Your Meat (keep your snide, juvenile comments to yourself). Let the grill do its job and sear the meat. By constantly flipping and turning it you lose out on the chance to develop a really good sear. Once you place your meat on the grill leave it alone for 3-4 minutes (unless it is burning), turn once, leave for a few minutes, flip, leave for a few minutes, turn, leave until done. That’s it. No more. This isn’t a juggling contest. This will help keep you from tearing your meat. When the meat first hits your grill it will want to adhere to your grate, even if properly oiled. Trying to flip too early will tear your meat as it wants to stick. As it cooks and gets "crusty" it will eventually want to release on its own, most of the time. So, if you are having problems with sticking just give it a few more minutes.
-When it comes to sauce, don’t put it on too early. All it is going to do is burn and taste like crap. Wait until your meal is just a few minutes from being done and then apply your sauce. This will give your sauce time to glaze the meat but not enough time to burn. This doesn’t apply to doing real barbecue and using a “mop.” A “mop” or mopping sauce is used to not only flavor the meat the meat but help keep it moist during the long cooking process, as such they rarely contain sugars and thus don’t have a tendency to burn.
-Here’s a trick I learned while living in Vermont. I’ve never seen it anywhere else so if some else has heard of this please let me know. When grilling skin on chicken at the last minute they would sprinkle on powdered sugar, to the skin side then flip it over to come in contact with the heat. This gave the skin a slight caramelized crust and just a hint of sweetness.
-Fish can be difficult to grill. Do yourself a favor and stick with thicker, meatier fish that won’t fall apart easily. It’s best to stay away from flounder, sole and cod, all of which are quite delicate and flaky.
-If you are trying to cook more delicate fish use the 2 spatula method. Place on spatula on top of the fish, pressing down slightly. Use the other like normal. Flip the fish, sandwiched between the 2 spatulas and set back down on the grill.
-Consider grilling smaller, whole fish. They are much easier to move around than fillets and make a great presentation.
-Unless cooking tuna or salmon, don’t undercook your fish. Not only is not appetizing, it can be somewhat dangerous as fish can often host many parasites.
-If you are making kabobs or skewers make sure to soak your bamboo skewers for at least 1 hour. Many recipes call for only 30 minutes but I find this isn’t long enough. Even then do your best to keep any exposed bamboo away from direct heat or flame.
-Pizza on the grill can be a fun and novel idea. Make sure to roll the dough out pretty thin and then grill each side for about 1-2 minutes over medium heat. Remove from the grill, top, return to grill and cover. Allow to cook until done-another 4-8 minutes depending on how hot your grill is. Best to do this step over indirect heat, if possible.
-When making foil packets (or hobo packs as I call them) be sure to double wrap them. Wrap your food in the first layer then place that packet, upside down, on the second piece of foil and wrap. This will help keep the packets intact while you are flipping them.
-Finally, don’t forget the fruit. Grilled fruit makes a great end to a cookout, especially if served over ice cream. Harder fruits like pineapple can be grilled directly over the heat. For softer fruits grill at the edges where it is a bit cooler, and keep the skins on to help hold the fruit together.
I could go on for pages and pages but I think there are plenty of tips here to get you started. Again, I would love to hear your tips and tricks when it comes to grilling, or if you have a food that you love to grill, that many people wouldn’t normally associate with grilling please tell us about it!