Kitchen Basics: Grilling 101

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Grill.

My friend Christa recently posted on TES's Facebook page asking about advice on grilling, specifically how to grill beef, chicken, and fish. And thus I shall answer the question here.

First of all, there's so much to know about grilling that I could write a book on it. Many have. So this is an extremely compressed version. If you grill often or are planning to, I highly recommend investing in some grill books. Not only cookbooks, but ones that explain the art of grilling. Because it really is an art. This post will hit the main points on grilling and offer some tricks of the trade; for more comprehensive information check out the end of the blog where I list my personal favorite books on grilling. And please add some suggestions for reading in the comment section if you have one you like!

First of all, it's important to understand what it means to grill. Grilling is not BBQ, despite the misappropriation 99% of people use when desribing this culinary skill. They think they are BBQing when in fact, they are grilling. BBQ, as I've said before, requires the use of indirect heat via smoke to cook the proteins over a long period of time, over a slow and constant temperature. By contrast, grilling is direct heat applied to the food item by way of charcoal or gas (if you have an electric "grill" then please stop reading this blog -- I cannot help you). You must know what you have and how to properly use it if you're going to cook anything decently.

photo from:
So what does a grill look like? They vary. You can range from a very primordial grill -- a hole dug in the dirt, surounded by rocks with wood and/or charcoal in the middle lit on fire with or without grate on top -- to the super fancy schmancy stainless steel "minivans" rich people like to have on their manicured patios. Either is fine. And p.s. -- the hole in the ground is probably gonna make better-tasting food than that $1000+ minivan you've got. But that too is another blog entirely.

You must decide first if you're going to use a gas grill or a charcoal grill. Both are fine, but the charcoal grill will enable you to get beautiful char marks on your foods (especially steak!), add smoky aroma and flavor to your foods which you can never achieve with gas, and gets you in touch with your ancestors. Conversely, the gas grill offers you temperature control which is particularly nice if you're a novice griller, easy start up and clean up (you turn it on and off), and you don't have to wait to heat the brickets in the smoke stack first; you can just preheat the grill and move on in 5 minutes. Personally, I love both for different functions and requirements during the week. Charcoal is great for weekends when I have more time; gas is ideal for a weeknight meal. Either way, the cooking aspect is basically the same...

Now, assuming you have an appropriate apperatus to grill your food, let's talk about some cardinal rules with grilling.

1. Food must be at room temperature prior to placing on the grill.
This. Is. Huge. This is the difference between evenly cooked meat and the random piece of still-mooing cow in the middle. This ensures great grill marks on steaks and fish. This enables you to properly flip and otherwise move your food, especially fish, more easily and keep it all intact and not have it fall into pieces. This is massively important, which is why it's the first rule. Simply take out whatever it is you plan to grill at least 15 minutes prior to placing on grill and leave it out on the counter to come to room temperature. Don't defrost it in the microwave -- you will cook it and end up with dogshit to eat. Simply plan ahead and take whatever it is out a little early. It won't spoil; I swear to you. I've successfully eaten many a piece of chicken or steak or fish that have been on the counter, uncovered (gasp!) for more than 2 hours even and look -- I'm still alive. But in all seriousness, make sure it's all at room temperature. Same goes for grilling veggies!

2.  Your grill must be pre-heated properly.
Another massively huge tip. Cold grill = shit will stick to it and not cook properly. Preheated grill = sexy salmon filet flipped with ease. Much as you would preheat your saute pan before adding oil and food, you have to pre-heat your grill. If you're using gas then it's super easy -- turn the grill burners on, put the cover down, let it heat up on high for about 5 minutes, then scrape the crap off (more on this in a second), and now you're ready to cook. If doing charcoal, turn your brickets over into the pan, place your grate on top, let it heat up uncovered a good 5-8 minutes, scrub and cook. Pre-heating will ensure proper cooking, reduce the liklihood of the meats and especially fish sticking to the grill, and will give you those desired marks.

3.  Clean your grill prior to adding the food.
Seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many people skip this step. It's quite simple -- dirty grill = dirty food. And no one wants to eat dirty food, no matter how much that guy says "it adds flavor." No, it doesn't. It adds carbon and bullshit to an otherwise gorgeous piece of steak. To clean your grill properly, all you need is three things: high heat, a good brisle brush, vegetable oil. Simply heat your grill as stated in Rule #2, then take your handy dandy grill brush (the one with the long handle and bristly spiky stuff) and brush the shit out of your grill. You'll notice the black char will come straight off and fall down into the bottom of the grill where it will become obliterated. Very easy. Then, wad up a paper towel or two into a softball sized wad. Dip it in some vegetable oil -- not too much but don't be shy either -- then taking a pair of tongs and holding the wad with them, brush the grill with the oil. This will not only clean the grate, but also create an instant non-stick effect for the food coming on it. If you're watching your diet no worries -- the fat in the oil will burn off and not throw off your calories. Following this rule will greating improve your grilling by 1000%.

4.  Use the right amount of heat and place appropriately.
This was a rule I learned in a book that I've found invaluable. Especially when using a charcoal grill, heat will be displaced differently depending on how you spread out your charcoal into the pan. If you concentrate the charcoal in the middle for example, you're creating a far hotter area there in the middle of the grill, with a border of cooler spots to allow food to rest or stay warm but not necessarily cook. If you place the charcoal all on one side of the grill, you've created a place to cook and a place to rest. I like using this technique when cooking burgers: the patties cook on the hotter side and I can toast the buns simultaneously on the cooler right side so they're all done at the same time. Or, you can spread the charcoal all out evenly into one layer if you're cooking all vegetables or all fish for example; foods that require the same level heat. Obviously, the more charcoal you put in the hotter it will be; the less you use the less hot it will be. It's always better to use more than less and just wait a few minutes for the heat to die down if it's too hot to cook with.

Know what you're cooking. Different meats and fish require different levels of heat to cook optimally, and even within their category -- when "doneness" is a factor as in with steak for example -- you'll want to manipulate your heat source to cook it properly. A grill is actually extremely versatile if you know how to work with it. You can use it to sear a food, roast, cook it like an oven even, all with just manipulating how much charcoal you use, where you place it, and gaging how hot the heat source is. Working with a gas grill makes all of this obviously extremely easy; you want a lower heat you lower the dial. Using charcoal requires much more skill and patience to learn to use properly, but the rewards are amazing if you can commit to a serious handful of attempts.

5.  Place it and leave it. Just. Walk. Away.
Mistake number 2 that people do when they grill badly is they keep moving the stuff on the damn grill, not giving it a proper chance to cook and develop the requisite crust to keep the stuff moist and juicey! Popular culprit is burgers -- notorious for people constantly moving them about, until finally you get a crumbled formerly-known-as-patty sheepishly slid onto a bun, then just covered mounds of melted cheese to cover the faux-pas. I know you people who do this. And you can never get me drunk enough to ever not notice it. Instead of this, simply place the damn room temperature food on the grill, and back the fuck away. Let the grill do its job; stop micromanaging the grill and let it do what it was born to do. The way grilling works is if you've properly seasoned your food items, when the heat from the grill is applied to said seasonings it will cause them to melt, creating a protective crust that will become flavorful in its slightly burnt state. The inside will be moist and tender and full of flavor. If you keep screwing with it, moving it around a hundred times, then this important crust can't form and you'll end up with a drier final result devoid of all deliciousness. Plus, the more you move it the more you run the risk of breaking the thing you're cooking. This is especially true with vegetables, patties of any kind, and fish (the exception is shellfish of course). Most food items grilled should be handled 3 times during the course of cooking -- putting it on the grill, flipping it once, then removing it. The only exception to this rule is chicken and sausages! Chicken has to be cooked thoroughly or else it's inedible. This is a big time exception for the larger pieces of chicken, especially bone-in and skin-on pieces. They don't have the fat on there to protect them as much as beef does for example, so they have to be constantly moved around and more "grill-roasted" rather than grilled to get them fully cooked and not burnt. Similarly, sausages and hot dogs need to be rotated constantly to achieve even and full cooking. A good rule I use is "2 minutes then move a turn" -- meaning, cook at one position for 2 minutes then turn it slightly, cook 2 more minutes, then turn again and repeat until the whole thing is cooked right. Vegetables don't have any natural fat to them, but they are smaller and thinner and full of water usually so they will cook much faster -- naturally they need to be placed, flipped, and removed or else they burn.

Those are my top 5 rules of grilling. Now, let's talk about some seasoning tips, marinades, and ideas to make it all taste good.

Beef Tips...
If you're grilling beef it's usually going to be steak or hamburger. If it's steak, I'm a huge fan of a good cut, good salt, coursely ground pepper. That's it. On the grill, generally fattier cuts of meat will serve you better than leaner ones because the fat in those cuts will keep the cut moist as it melts away on the grill. This is really important as well if you like your steaks more done -- medium well to well done -- so you don't end up eating shoe leather for dinner. The rarer the meat in my opinion, the leaner you can get. Which is why filet mignon for example is just fine for a nice grill (although my favorite is still the pan saute with oven finish). Don't skimp on the cut you choose to grill, and aged beef is the holy grail of steaky goodness. If you "season" your grill properly (i.e., oil it prior to placing food on during the cleaning process described in Rule #3 above) you won't have to add any additional oil to the steak itself when you season it. In terms of salt and pepper, I love a good course salt like sea salt and freshly ground black pepper set to a course grind is perfection.

If you're doing burgers I highly recommend forgoing the 90% lean cut of meat and saving that for meatballs on another dish, and rather going for the fattier but far more flavorful and grill-friendly 80% lean mix. This means 80% is lean, and there's 20% of fat mixed in. This in turn means more flavor and having a moist delicious burger. Nutritious? No. But it tastes good. And on occasion I'd rather have one amazing burger than many shitty ones.

Regardless of what beef you're grilling, you don't move it when it's on the grill. The steak will tell you when it's ready to flip over -- it will be very easy to pick up and flip over. If it sticks to the grill that side is not done yet and it's not ready to flip. Same goes for the burger. I go simply by this rule now and don't even bother timing my steaks for doneness, but if you're nervous about it then you can certainly go by a doneness chart according to your steak's size and thickness or even use one of those electric measuring tools that gages doneness. I've found them to actually be pretty accurate.

Notes On Chicken...
As stated above, chicken is the exception to the grilling rule: it needs to be rotated on all sides every couple of minutes in order to create that desired crust and prevent drying out. Also, chicken fares better going on a medium level of heat rather than high-medium to high. If using a gas grill this is extremely easy to control, and you can get some pretty spectacular chicken on a gas grill if you keep the heat medium and keep an eye on it. For charcoal it's a bit tougher. You need to really gage the temperature of the coals and place your chicken on when the temperature is right. Or, disperse your coals properly to create a lower temperature surface area as opposed to a concentrated heat more suitable for steaks. A good rule I use myself is when you can hold your hand to the coals -- about 8 inches away from the grill -- for 4-5 seconds before you feel it's too hot and you have to move your hand, then that's optimal for cooking chicken. If you have to pull your hand away before 4 seconds then the grill is too hot; if you're holding it there comfortably longer than 6 then it's too cold.

Keep in mind too chicken can have bone-in or bone-out, and the meat around the bone takes longer to cook. So if you've got bone-in chicken breast make sure to add the appropriate grill time and you'll want to turn it even more often than a boneless chicken breast to prevent it from burning. Chicken skin also is super high in fat but it's very thin, unlike it's thicker fat beefy counterpart. Chicken skin tends to burn on a grill which can be actually tasty, but you don't want the whole thing black either. If grilling with skin-on then keep an eye on it and turn it more often. Wanting a lower maintenance chicken? Go for skinless and boneless breasts. And remember: dark meat takes a couple minutes longer than white meat to cook!

Fish Pointers...
Many people freak out at the idea of grilling fish. Like freak the fuck out. Vividly I remember my mother just butchering beautiful and expensive filets of halibut on my grill back in California, turning them constantly until most of the thousands of pieces fell through the grate and we had like literally 1/2 cup of cooked fish left, the rest on the coals. So sad. Fish, unlike chicken and beef, needs to be oiled prior to placing on the grill. Always. No exception. Nope, not even for that. Always. Fish is extremely watery and when introduced to the hot grill the water evaporates, creating that notorious sticking effect. Many a fish filet I've literally inadvertantly glued to the grill. Then cried. Insteaid, a properly seasoned grill together with a lightly oil-rubbed filet is all you need. AND DON'T MOVE THE DAMN THING TOO MUCH! Fish is idiot-proof for the grill -- it will change color as it cooks and texture, so you can gage off of that. Once the bottom isn't sticking to the grate and can be picked up quite easily, it's ready to flip. Gather it all up on a larger spatula, then with one fluid and confident motion -- flip it over and onto the other side to finish cooking. Once the fish is firm to the touch and the other side removes easily, it's ready to be taken off the grill.

Shellfish are even easier to cook on the grill. If doing mussels, clams, or oysters then you know they're ready when the shell pops open. And no need to turn them over. If working with shrimp or lobster in the shell, when the shell turns bright orange it's ready. Squid (aka calamari) and octopus are slightly harder to work with -- they need to be cooked either a really, really long time or very quickly like on the grill.

Some Proper Utensils to Help You...
For the grill you basically need two utensils: a good pair of steel tongs that you can easily open and manipulate, and a good sturdy steel spatula. Obviously you're not using plastic here or even half steel/half plastic because it's going to melt on the grate and grill. So go for the steel. A huge mistake I've seen people do is use massively large, hard to hold and manipulate BBQ equipment. You want to be able to use the tools easily -- if your hand hurts working with the tongs then they're too big for you or not maleable enough. It's going to create problems while cooking and increase the chance of you dropping the food, not properly moving or removing it, and just be annoying. Choose your utensils carefully and specifically to your hand and strength level. A good flat and sturdy spatula is also a must, especially if you're planning to grill a lot of fish.

As stated above, you can also invest in a meat thermometer to gage doneness with steaks. They range anywhere from a basic stick-in kind to a fancier electric reader. If you're really concerned about doneness then invest in one. They have plenty in all price ranges at various stores from your local super market to professional stores.

A Note On Charcoal...
I love doing charcoal grills. They had immense flavor and texture to grilled dishes you simply can't get any other way. If you choose to do the charcoal, I highly recommend investing in a smoke stack. You place your brickets in this smoke stack along with newspaper, light the paper, then heat the coals this way. When they're ready you simply pour out the hot coals into the base of your grill and place the grate on top and you're ready to go. Some people like using lighter fluid and starter brickets; I'm not a huge fan. Both leave a peculiar gasy taste and smell in my opinion that totally overtakes the food you're eating. Plus it feels unhealthy. So do the smoke stack.

Some Extra Reading...
This post just barely scratches the surface of grilling. For more in depth analysis I suggest the following books:

Anything written by Steven Raichlen. He's a grilling and BBQ god and has some great tips. Check out one of this many books here.

Weber (who also makes bbq's) puts out a few books that are great as well. Especially if you have a Weber grill, it's worth a read.

And for some easy and delicious introductory recipes that will wow, check out Bobby Flay of course and his many cookbooks.

Happy grilling!

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