Grilling outdoors has become an instinctive part of the human condition for thousands of years since the invention of fire and the dawn of humanity. Today, there are still very few things as enjoyable and satisfying as preparing a meal outdoors using live fire. Unfortunately, grilling is also somewhat of a lost art as many traditions of grilling were lost when industrialized societies adopted indoor kitchens. Our passion for barbecue remains, but we have to re-learn the techniques of outdoor cooking to suit today’s generation of grills.
Here are a dozen tips that you can use to cook like a pro. The first three have been popularized by Steven Raiclen, “The Professor” of the Barbecue University books and television show.
1. Keep It Hot
Always preheat your grill to the highest possible temperature. This burns off all remaining residue from your last meal while generating conductive heat for searing meats.
2. Keep It Clean
After pre-heating your grill, use a wire brush to further prepare your grilling surface. If you have done an adequate job pre-heating your grill, all the leftover material will flake off very easily.
3. Keep It Lubricated
One of the keys to great grilling is to keep your food from sticking to the grates. The simple solution is to lubricate the grilling surface just before using it. Use a folded cloth or a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil. Next, use grilling tongs to drag the oiled fabric or paper across the bars of the grate. Another alternative is to use one of the grilling sprays that are marketed for use specifically on outdoor grills.
4. Get Great Grill Marks
A stunning visual presentation is a surefire way to impress your guests. When cooking meats, rotate each piece 90 degrees halfway through cooking on each side. In this way, you can ensure a beautiful cross-hatched pattern of great grill marks.
5. Use A Liquid Filled Drip Pan
There are two ways to cook over fire, directly and indirectly. When cooking indirectly, always use a disposable foil drip pan underneath the food. Be sure to fill the pan with some kind of liquid. As the fluid boils, it creates humidity that keeps your food moist. The liquid will also catch drippings in order to prevent flare ups. Hot water will work fine, but using beer or wine will add extra flavor to your food. Pre-heating the liquid ensures that steam will be created sooner rather than later.
6. Keep A Spray Bottle On Hand
To prevent flare-ups when cooking under direct heat, keep a spray bottle filled with water nearby. Even a nice water gun will work in a pinch.
7. Smoke Equals Flavor
The ability to use smoke is one of the critical factors that separates outdoor cooking from indoor food preparation. There are several keys to utilizing smoke when cooking. First, find the right species of wood as each variety produces its own distinct flavor. Always use hardwoods such as oak, hickory, or mesquite as soft woods like pine can emit a toxic residue. Other great sources of smoke include fruit woods such as apple and cherry. Next, soak the wood pieces for at least an hour before placing them directly on the coals. Make sure to remember to replenish the wood at least once an hour. Finally, don’t bother to smoke any meats for more than three to four hours as the outer layers will already have absorbed as much smoke as possible.
8. Never Cook Fish Directly On A Grate
Fish cooks great on a grill, but only if you take special precautions. Fish is delicate, so it cannot withstand sticking to a hot cooking surface. To get around this issue, use a fish basket, which is a device that allows you to hold your fish in a separate container away from the grate. When it comes time to turn the fish, you can easily flip the entire basket as the fish is held on both sides. Finally, cooking on a cedar plank is a popular way to grill salmon without having it touch the hot surface of the grates.
9. Go Beyond Meat
Meat is great on the grill, but for some reason, most guests will want something else with their meal. Fortunately there are great recipes out there for grilling bread, vegetables, and even dessert. For example, pita bread cooks up nicely in seconds on a ordinary grill, corn and potatoes are very common, and a rotisserie grilled pineapple makes for a spectacular dessert.
10. Stay Safe
Follow some basic rules to keep your outdoor cooking from becoming a hazardous duty. Avoid using lighter fluid for starting charcoal as newspaper underneath a chimney starter works better and is inherently safer. Never use gasoline or any other type of motor vehicle fluid. Close off the valve to your propane tank when it is not in use. Keep young children away from grills, and always use gloves when handling anything that has come in contact with the grill such as a rotisserie, a skewer, or a fish basket.
11. Don’t Puncture The Meat
Some people test for doneness by sticking a fork in their food, or in the worst case scenario, cutting into it. Never do this, as the juices will drain out of the meat. Instead use an instant read meat thermometer to confirm the proper temperature. These devices can be purchased at any supermarket for under $10 and are essential equipment for any aspiring grill master.
12. Let It Rest
As tempting as it is, never serve your meal hot off of the grill. After your meal is fully cooked, take it off of the grill and let it sit. The thicker the cut, the longer it needs to rest. A nice steak needs about 5-10 minutes while a big brisket might need a half hour or longer. If you want to preserve the temperature, cover the food in aluminum foil and place a folded dish cloth on top of that for additional insulation.
Grilling is an incredibly fun way to cook a meal, but a poorly prepared dish can leave you and your guests disappointed. While grilling is a relatively simple form of food preparation, these few strategic tips can make all the difference.