For years I attended backyard cookouts where the company was great, the potluck sides were aces, but the main attraction—the grilled food—left a lot to be desired. I’m talking dry chicken with a generous black crust of carbon, or a dinner stalled for hours because the fire wasn’t hot enough and it took ages for the food to cook.
Owning and using a grill is one thing; knowing how to cook delicious food on it is another. Once I learned those things, sawdust chicken breasts and disappointing, too-chewy racks of ribs were a thing of the past!
Today I’ve put together a guide that will push your grilling game from clumsy to skilled. The very act of grilling is fun, sure, but it’s even better when you sit down to a meal and know at first bite that you just crushed it, thanks to your grilling skills.
TIP #1: HEAT THE GRILL PROPERLY
When cooking indoors on a range, you have control over temperature. The food is in a pan, and the area being heated is clearly defined.
Grilling, however, isn’t about precision. It’s about being flexible, a give-and-take with the flames. There are ways to help bend the flames to your will, and that’s the key to gratifying grilling.
Whether you’re using a gas or charcoal grill, you need to preheat it before slapping your food on there. When planning out your meal, factor in preheating time., and always preheat with the lid down.
- For gas grills: Gas grills heat quickly – about 10 minutes should do it – but you should still get them lit and roaring early so the grates get hot.
- For charcoal grills: A decent fire on a charcoal grill takes more time. Expect at least half an hour between lighting the match and putting food over the coals.
Lighter fluid and self-lighting charcoal are handy for speeding up charcoal grilling, but they smell like the petrochemicals they are made with…and they will make your food smell and taste like petrochemicals. Blech!
I prefer to use a chimney for getting charcoal fires going. This tool runs $20-$40 and is worth every penny. You fill the top with charcoal, stuff the bottom with crumpled paper, light the paper, and in 15 to 12 minutes, the charcoal is red-hot and covered white ash. Then dump the coals into the pit, close the lid, replace the grate, and continue heating for another 10 to 15 minutes. Now you’re set to grill!
TIP #2: MONITOR THE TEMPERATURE
A lot of grills come with external dial thermometers built into the lids, but these can be inaccurate.
What tool can you use instead? One you already own—your hand!
For high-heat grilling (about 500°F), hold your hand about six inches from the grate. Your grill is hot enough if you can hover it there for three seconds or so until your reflex is to yank it away. If you can comfortably keep your hand there longer, keep heating.
You can also use a cheap analog oven thermometer for a more precise temperature reading. I set mine right on the grill grates. These are especially helpful for times when you are cooking low and slow, with target temperatures around 250°F.
The other way to tell doneness is the internal temperature of the food. Instant-read thermometers are invaluable, especially for meat like poultry. I like this one as a budget pick, but you can’t beat the Thermapen for speed and accuracy.
TIP #3: KEEP FOOD FROM STICKING TO THE GRILL
Before you light the grill, make sure the grates are clean. Brush off with a metal grill brush. If you don’t have one of those, you can wad up a ball of foil and clean the grates with that. In any case, you don’t need to go to town. Just get off any food residue.
To prevent food from sticking to those clean grates, you can do one of two things:
- Oil the grates: Spray the grates with cooking spray (aim away from the flames!) or oil them with a paper towel doused with the cooking oil of your choice. If you do this, make sure to oil the grates when they are hot, right before you put the food on.
- Oil the food, not the grates: Some cooks oil the food, not the grill. This is my preference since by oiling the grates you’re creating unnecessary deposits of carbon all over the place. For example, if you’re grilling sweet potatoes, just toss them in oil before setting them on the grates. The possible exception to this is if you’re barbecuing. Chef Adam Perry Lang recommends not oiling meats for barbecuing, because they stick to the grill and become “charred and scruffed” or slightly torn, which increases surface area for more searing and smoke absorption.
TIP #4: SET UP DIRECT AND INDIRECT HEAT ZONES
Not all foods have the same grilling needs. Setting up a grill to have two zones of heat – one high, one low – allows you to continue cooking some foods on the grill without torching them to a crisp, or the kind of artless grilling I confessed to earlier.
Direct heat grilling is cooking right over the coals or high flames. This is best on tender foods that cook quickly: burgers, pre-cooked sausages, small, thin cuts of meat like pork tenderloin, or vegetables like asparagus. These are ideal foods to grill when you’re just starting out.
When direct grilling, don’t rely on red-hot heat. Those black grill marks are very come-hither, but they can also lead to poorly cooked food—over-charred on the outside, dry and tough inside. Every grill is different, though; some grills can get really blazing. You’ll get a feel for it. You can always use your hand quickly to test the heat, and tweak from there.
Indirect grilling is cooking on the side opposite the direct grilling spot. Indirect grilling is your friend! Things that take longer to cook require more of a strategy, and that’s where indirect grilling comes in. To cook foods like bone-in chicken, a beef brisket, or a cobbler in a skillet, set your food on the side opposite the direct heat source.
Here’s how to do indirect grilling:
- On a gas grill with multiple burners, shut off one burner or turn it as far down as you can. Have the other burner still going but move the food opposite to the cooler spot and lower the lid. The grill will act like an oven, so the center gets cooked without further drying out the exterior. You can direct grill meat first to get a nice sear, then move it to the cool side to finish cooking much more gently by indirect grilling.
- On a charcoal grill, when the chimney of coals is ready, turn them out so they are banked on one side of the grill. Now you have two zones: a hot, direct heat zone one over the coals, and a cool, indirect heat zone next to it.
TIP #5: CONTROL THE TEMPERATURE OF A CHARCOAL GRILL WITH VENTS AND DAMPERS
You can’t adjust the temperature of a charcoal grill with knobs, but you can fiddle with the fire by changing the position of the vents and dampers. These allow or restrict airflow. By feeding the fire oxygen, it burns hotter. Lessening that flow gives you a low fire that’ll burn for a long time.
Refer to the manual that came with your grill, as every model has vents and dampers in different spots.
TIP #6: GRILL WITH THE RIGHT CHARCOAL, WOOD CHIPS, AND PLANKS
A charcoal grill can’t grill without charcoal. You can get lump charcoal or briquettes. Lump charcoal is just wood that’s been burned into carbon. The sizes of the lumps are all over the place, from large to small. Briquettes are carbonized sawdust and wood chips bound together with coal, starch, and other additives. They’re all the same size, so they burn evenly, but they produce more ash than lump charcoal.
Lump charcoal is the more natural of the two, but I prefer briquettes for their predictability and even heat. Don’t skimp and get cheap briquettes. In my experience, discount brands perform poorly. The Kingsford brand has always worked for me.
Wood chips add specific smoky flavors to food, and the type of wood dictates the flavor. Gas grills use a smoker box, but for charcoal grills, you’ll need to toss chips directly over the coals. You can also make a foil packet or use a foil pan folded up taco-style. Some people presoak wood chips, but it’s really not necessary.
Unless you know the wood is from a safe source (no chemicals or pesticides), buy wood chips made just for smoking.
Wood planks are also fun for grilling. Soak a thin plank of wood (often cedar), place food on it (often salmon), and then put the whole deal on the grill over the fire. It makes cleanups easy—just throw away the plank—but it does not imbue the food with a ton of smoky flavor.
TIP #7: CONTROL FLARE-UPS
Fatty meats render out grease at they cook. That grease can ignite and create flare-ups. It’s a natural thing that happens, and usually, it lasts just a few seconds. But big ones can be scary and dangerous. They can also lead to off-tasting food.
Follow these tips to combat and minimize flare-ups:
- Don’t use marinades with a ton of oil, or drain off most of the marinade before you set the food on the grill.
- When direct grilling, trim off some of the fat before grilling meat.
- Use indirect grilling for fatty meats so fat does not render onto lit coals.
- Clean the grease catcher from time to time, if your grill has one.
If the flare-up becomes a full-on grease fire, don’t pour water on it. The best thing to do is cut off the fire’s oxygen supply. Close the lid and the vents. If worse comes to worse, smother the fire with baking soda.
TIP #8: KEEP YOUR GRILL CLEAN
It’s important to clean your grill after using it. Buildup on ash and char in the pit and on the grates can corrode the metal, while rendered grease deposits can cause flare-ups and piles of ash hamper the grill’s ability to heat well. Plus, any breeze can blow that ash all over your food!
To clean and maintain your grill, take a metal grill brush and scrape off any burned-on bits of food. If you’re using a gas grill, you can turn the burners to high for a few minutes to burn off any food residue for easier cleanup. (Just don’t walk away and forget to shut it off. Speaking from experience!)
It’s best to empty charcoal grills of ash the day after using them. Extinguishing flames with water is dangerous because it can generate billows of steam that may burn you or gush leaks of very hot water right onto your legs and feet, or worse, little ones underfoot. So just let those coals run their course and save ash disposal for another day.