With the forecast tomorrow calling for the first 70 degree day that Chicago has seen in over 6 months, I figured a post about grilling would be appropriate. Grilling is one of the simplest and most effective cooking methods and when done properly, can turn good food into great food. Unfortunately, a lot of people screw it up. Charred hot dogs. Over or under-cooked chicken. Burgers that taste like lighter fluid. We all have been an accessory or witness to these crimes. So, make this grilling season different. Follow these simple tips below, rise above and become your neighborhood grill master.
- Perhaps one of the most important things to remember: grilling is the simplest, oldest and one of the most basic forms of cooking. Don’t bother with fancy equipment, bottled rubs or marinades. Anything that comes in bottle can be simply made from a decently stocked pantry…and it’ll taste 10 times better. The key to grilling, like all cooking, is freshness. Freshness matters in everything you do on the grill. Fresh meat, fresh herbs / spices (dried spices are great; they just have to be less than 6 – 12 months old), fresh buns, etc. Don’t overlook this component of grilling.
- There is much debate between charcoal and gas grilling. Grilling purists find no room for gas grills in their world. However, I believe both have their positives and negatives. Gas (natural or propane) is easier to control and light. Charcoal is more work, but the flavor charcoal imparts can’t be replicated with gas grilling. The choice really is yours. I like gas for its convenience and use it for most weeknight meals. I also have a standard Weber charcoal grill that I’ll use when I have a bit more time – usually weekends or for clients. I also have a smoker. I use all three. And all three offer something the others can’t. They all have their time and place.
- Speaking of charcoal. If you choose to grill with charcoal, by all means, please do it right. I have two rules for charcoal grilling: get a chimney starter and no freaking lighter fluid! I repeat – no lighter fluid! If you have a chimney starter, you won’t ever need lighter fluid. And, if you have a chimney starter, your food won’t have a strange, unintended, petroleum flavored glaze.
- Prepare your grill. One of the most important steps of grilling is what they in the business call, “seasoning the grill.” No salt or spices needed here; just an oil with a high smoke point; I stick with vegetable or canola. It’s a really easy process and keeps food from sticking to the grates. Get yourself several paper towels, tongs and about a 1/4 cup of vegetable oil. Turn your grill on high and let it heat up. When it’s roaring hot, fold the paper towel multiple times, grab it with the tongs and dip it in the oil. Quickly rub the oil-dipped paper-towel over the hot grates, dipping back into the oil as needed.
- You’ve got your chimney starter. Get some long handled metal tongs, a wide metal spatula, an instant read thermometer and a good grill brush. That’s about all the equipment you need for great grilling. The rest is just fluff. And please don’ t buy one of those “flavor injectors” you saw on the infomercial. They’re weird and watching that guy inject meat with herbs and spices just creeps me out.
- Once you finally get your grill rip roaring hot and slap your food on the grates, let it do its thing for a bit. Too often I see people trying to flip a burger 30 seconds after putting it on. Please don’t do this. The beauty of grilling and well, any high heat cooking, is when the meat has developed a beautiful crust, it’ll move freely on its own and that’s when you know it’s time to flip. If you’re scraping that chicken breast off the grates in an attempt to flip, you’ve already messed up. Same goes for those of you who want to take your metal spatula and press down on whatever you’re cooking. What are you trying to accomplish? Dry, over-cooked, overly charred outside? If you answered yes, then by all means, keep pressing on that meat.
- One of the most frequent questions I get is, “How do I know when it’s done?” And I never answer with, “Well, just take a big old steak knife and cut into it.” Here’s how I do answer: instant read thermometer or finger touch method. Finger touch – excuse me? Rule of thumb – the more done meat gets, the firmer it gets. Read this post and you’ll understand.
- Always let whatever protein you’re cooking rest before cutting into it. I’m not going to get all Alton Brown on you, but when you take a piece of protein off a hot grill and cut into immediately, it’s like cutting into a water balloon that you’re squeezing really hard. Except it’s not water spraying onto your face, it’s meaty flavor and moisture that is no longer in your in New York Strip…it’s on your face and counter.
- Mise en place matters when grilling too. Don’t know what the first 3 words of this tip mean? Check out this post. For those too lazy to read the post, just have everything you’ll need by the grill before you start cooking. That means burgers, buns, cheese, toppings, etc. The process will go much smoother.
- Earlier I mentioned charcoal vs. gas. Let’s say you choose charcoal. You get everything all fired up and then you realize that there’s no knob telling you what temperature your grill is like there is on a gas grill. No fear. When I worked for a large catering company, we’d often have 5 – 10 charcoal grills going at once. We had to set up each grill according to what we were cooking, i.e., burgers, kabobs, chicken, brats, fish, etc. Sometimes, one grill had to cook multiple items at the same time. Without temperature control knobs, we had to follow this rule of thumb. Get the charcoal lit and white hot. Place your hand, palm side down about 5 inches above the grate. If you can hold your hand there for 2 seconds or less without it getting really uncomfortable, your grill is on high. Or what we called, a burger fire. Able to hold it for 5 seconds? It’s medium. 10 seconds? It’s on low.
- Speaking of catering – on those grills we used to have flare-ups. We cooked so much food, so many days in a row, that grease build-up was inevitable. Flare-ups often happen not because of the food you’re currently cooking, but because of the grease residue on the grates from what you cooked yesterday. Two things we did to combat flare-ups. One, let the grates pre-heat. Get the coals hot and let the flare-ups happen before any food hits the grill, as the fire burns off any existing grease. Two, keep ice or a spray bottle of water nearby. If a flare-up happens underneath a piece of food you’re grilling, do your best to move it to another spot on the grill. If all else fails, toss ice or spray water onto the flare-up.
There you have it. Follow these tips this summer and I guarantee you’ll grill better than you ever have.