So you want to start grilling? The internet is swimming with tips, which can be as confusing as they are helpful. But it’s a good idea to click around, do some research on how to grill everything, and maybe even read a book, before heading outside to cook.
First thing’s first: will you be grilling on charcoal or gas — or maybe even wood? There are people who have opinions on which is best, but really it’s just about what you have access to and how much time you have. If you don’t have a lot of time, gas is going to be your friend. If you do have time to build a fire, then go for charcoal (the real stuff, not the petroleum-derived, lighter-fluid infused stuff which isn’t good for you and may impart a chemical flavor to your meat). Make sure your grill is clean — good clean grates will keep your meat from sticking.
Next, you’re going to want to think about heat zones. A common mistake beginner grillers make is to stick a piece of meat directly over a flame. Not everything cooks well over one kind of heat – you want areas of high heat, moderate heat and low heat. This is super easy to create on a gas grill — just adjust the burners on various parts of the grill. With charcoal and wood, you create heat zones by building the fire up on one side of the grill. Then you’ve got direct, high heat right over the fire and indirect, lower heat on the other side.
The key to grilling, like most cooking techniques, is practice. Until you really know what you’re doing, a meat thermometer isn’t a bad idea. Neither is a cookbook. But when you grill enough, eventually you will be able to cook with your senses. As Mark Bittman recently said in an interview about his new book, How to Grill Everything, “Time is the least reliable way of telling you how to cook.” A recipe may say that a certain cut of meat needs to be cooked for 10 minutes, but, as he points out, that really just means the recipe in the cookbook for that specific cut of meat on that specific day it was tested took 10 minutes. There are always variables. The goal is to grill something until it’s done. And the more you grill, the more you will be able to tell if something is done. You’ll start to recognize visual cues of doneness, and how different cuts of meat feel when you poke them when they’re cooked the way you like it. You’ll trust yourself.
Until then, it’s always a better idea to undercook rather than overcook what you’re grilling. Bittman says not to worry about taking stuff off the grill too soon: “You can always put stuff back on, but you can’t uncook it.” Wise words.
Grilling and marinating seem to go hand and hand, but be careful with what’s in your marinade. Even traditional barbecue sauce, which contains a lot of sugar, can create flare-ups and burning. To keep this from happening, let most of your marinade drip off a piece of meat before you grill it, or try brushing sauces on at the tail end of or even after grilling. Or opt for a spice mix or a dry rub; they won’t flare up.
Of course the most important thing to do is to start with a really good, flavorful cut of meat so you won’t need to overdo marinades or rubs. That will go a long way to making you look like a pro.
There are a million other tricks to learn and techniques to play with, but the important thing is to not worry too much about it. Jump right in, learn as you go, and have fun. In the end, that’s what grilling is all about.