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Grilling 101

When summer hits, it’s time to get outside and grill. Don’t worry. If you’re not a whiz on the BBQ, we’ve got you covered. Here are some simple grilling tips that will make your summer BBQs spectacular.

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When the weather warms up, the outdoors call for outdoor cooking and eating. Perhaps cooking over a fire taps into a primordial urge, or maybe you just don’t want to be inside with a hot stove. No matter the reason, there’s nothing better than a summer evening spent outside with friends and food.

But we’ve all been there – grilling is an art, and it’s easy to end up with hardened lumps of charcoal, burned meat, and veggies that fall straight through the cracks.

We’ve got you.

Read on to get the tips of a grill master and get outside – make some burgers and some memories.

Gas or charcoal?

There are two main different kinds of fuel for grilling, gas and charcoal. They both have their pros and cons.

Propane gas is simple and easy to use. Turn the knob up for hotter heat; turn the knob down for lower heat. Taa-daa! You can think of it just like your oven. And it’s simple – after dinner just rub it down with your wire brush and you’re done. The disadvantage of the gas grill is that sometimes it needs to be serviced and cleaned. Plus, it’s easy to forget to fill your propane tank.

Charcoal barbecues, on the other hand, take a little more time to learn how to get the temperature right, but they also impart more flavor to food. They get hotter than gas grills, which is mandatory for those delicious and crusty sears. There is a bit more clean up required right after grilling, but the more simple design means that there are less parts to break and go wrong in the long run.

Bottom line: You can’t go wrong, no matter which grill you choose.

Wood chips for the win

Wood chips are the grill master’s trick to the best smokey flavor. You can buy these wherever you get your grilling supplies. We love the wood chips that are made from fruit trees because the smoke tends to taste just a little sweet.

Soak them deeply in water (or for even more flavor, beer). The more wet the wood chips are, the more they will smoke.

For charcoal grills, when the coals are hot, just sprinkle wood chips right on top.

For a gas grill, make a little ‘burrito’ from aluminum foil and poke some holes in the foil. Put the foil packet directly on the evaporator plates (the plates that go over the actual flames). Wait until the chips smoke to start cooking.

Tools of the trade

Having everything ready to go before you start grilling will make the process so much smoother. Besides the actual grill, what do you need? We suggest:

  • Long handled tongs
  • A wide spatula for flipping
  • A side table or other level surface close by to keep marinades, cooked food, and a drink for the grill master!
  • A wire brush to help keep the grate clean
  • A long handled basting brush to make adding sauces to meats easier
  • An instant read thermometer – not essential, but the best trick for perfectly cooked meat every time

Now that you have all your tools, let’s get grilling.

Keep it clean

First, make sure the grill is clean. This isn’t just for sanitary reasons, but to prevent food from sticking to the grill.

Getting the grill good and hot will burn off any bacteria and old food, but you also need to use that wire brush (or bunched up aluminum foil) to scrub the grate off. This is easiest to do after grilling while the grill is still warm, but if it didn’t get done last time, make sure to do it now.

If you’re cooking at low and medium temps, oil the grate to help keep food from sticking. Just use the basting brush to lightly coat the rack. If you’re cooking at high temperatures there’s no need for oil because it will just burn off.

Season well beforehand

There is a myth floating around that salting meat before grilling causes the meat to be dry. Not so. In fact, salting meat at least an hour before you cook allows the salt to penetrate the meat more, meaning more flavor. So salt, pepper, and season away.

You can also marinade meat beforehand. Marinades help keep meats moist through the cooking process; however, avoid marinades and sauces with sweeteners if the meat will be grilled over high heat.

High heat causes sugars to burn quickly, meaning a piece of meat will end up being burnt outside and raw inside. Instead, marinades and sauces with any kind of sweetener are better for meats that will be cooked long and slow over medium or low heat.

Getting the heat just right

Getting the heat on a gas grill is simple. The knobs will guide you.

A charcoal grill is a little more challenging. You use the vents on the side to control the temperature. First, wait for the charcoal to get white from the ash. That’s how you know that it’s ready. Your coals will get to high heat in 10 minutes and cool off from there to get medium and low heat.

Here are a couple of tricks to help you know when it’s just right.

  • For high heat, hold the palm of your hand about 5 inches over the charcoal. If you can only hold it there for 1-3 seconds, it’s there. It should take 10 minutes for your charcoal to get to this temp.
  • If you can hold your hand in the same place 6-7 seconds, it is medium heat. It will take 25-30 minutes to get to medium temperature.
  • If it’s more like 11 seconds, you are at low heat.

Different kinds of foods need different kinds of cooking approaches.

Thin cuts of meat, steaks, burgers, and watery vegetables like zucchini and asparagus, are best cooked directly over high heat.

Chicken, sausages, fish, fruit, and most vegetables are best grilled at medium heat.

Slow cooking over low heat is best for large cuts of meat, like a pork shoulder or turkey, for smoking meats like ribs, and delicate fruit like peaches.

Spread it out

When placing food on the grill, make sure to leave plenty of space between each item to allow air to circulate. If you put food too close together, the heat will get trapped underneath, and you’ll end up with one side raw and the other side overcooked.

Lid up or down?

When grilling over high heat, you’ll want the lid up to check the food frequently. Having the lid open on a charcoal grill also provides more oxygen so that the fire burns hotter and faster.

However, when grilling over medium or low heat, or when using indirect heat, keeping the lid down helps create convection heat that cooks from all sides, rather than just high heat coming from the bottom. With the lid down, remember to be patient. Every time you lift the lid, you cool down the ‘oven’ and it takes even longer.

Rest the meat

You did it! Your food has the perfect grilled char and you even used the meat thermometer to ensure the perfect temperature.

Now just make sure it rests before slicing into it. While cooking, the muscle fibers in meat tighten, sending all the juices to the center.

If you cut the meat right away, the juices run out and your meat will be drier. When you let the meat rest, the muscle fibers relax and reabsorb the juices, meaning that your meat will be juicy and delicious.

For thin cuts like steak, five minutes will suffice, but for larger cuts you’ll want to wait at least 15 minutes.

Now that you have everything that you need to get grilling…

Check out our Rosemary Grilled Lamb Chops. They are so simple to make, but you’ll look like a genius.

Emily Bartlett

About Emily Bartlett

Emily Bartlett is the co-founder and CEO of RealPlans.com. She's also a licensed acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese medicine, a published author, a wife, and a mom of two. Emily hopes to make meal planning easier and inspire families to share more meals around the table.

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