Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Grilling 101

One of the things I really enjoy is preparing food on the grill. I know I'm not alone in that - grilling is very popular. It would be a rare sight to find a house that didn't have some kind of grill out back. Over the years, I have learned a lot about using a grill, most of it through trial and error. In the beginning, there was a whole bunch of error! I was one of those guys who fired up the grill, turned the burners on high, threw the food on the bottom rack and then wondered later why stuff was burned on the outside and not cooked on the inside. Things have been different for the past decade or so after I understood how to properly use a grill.

I am not an "expert". Truthfully, I don't much like that word - too many people throw it around. What I know has come from years of hands-on doing. I've stood on the deck in the snow grilling food. That's how much I enjoy it. I've also seen how other people use a grill and some of the mistakes they've made. I've made every mistake you can think of, I promise. What I want to do is just share some tidbits and pointers I've picked up over the years. No doubt many of you (at least the 2 or 3 who actually read this blog) already have the grill mastered. But maybe I can provide a tip or bit of info that someone hasn't tried before.

For the purposes of this post, I will only be covering gas (propane) grills. Some of the information will apply to charcoal grills, but cooking over charcoal is a different animal. Many people prefer charcoal to gas. They each have their pros and cons. Rather than trying to cover too much, though, I will limit myself to gas grills.

Grill Prep
It's important to make sure your cooking grates are clean before use. Each time you use your grill, grease and food particles build up on the grates. If you don't keep them clean, not only is it harder to turn the food, but eventually the build-up will catch fire which creates flare-up's and makes it difficult to control the temperature. That's one way food gets burned.

If your grates already have a lot of build-up on them, one way to clean them is to start the grill, turn the burners on high and let the inside get hot. After a few minutes, turn the grill off and let it cool slightly, but don't wait too long. Use a stiff wire brush and clean the grates while they're still warm. And the goal here isn't to make the grates sparkle, but you want to get as much build-up off of them as possible. Ideally, the best time to clean your grill is after you've finished using it before it cools down. Then it's ready to go for the next time and you don't have to fool with cleaning it first.

Now that the grates are clean (or cleaner), take a paper towel or basting brush and wipe a coat of cooking oil on the grates, to include the top rack if your grill has one. The oil will keep food, particularly meat, from sticking to the grates and make it much easier to turn. A non-stick spray would probably work, too, but I prefer to wipe oil on mine so I don't have spray getting on the burners below. You could always take the grates out and spray them if you want to fool with that. Just don't spray into the grill while it's on, for obvious reasons.

Now that the grates are clean and oiled up, we can talk a bit about the actual cooking process.

Using The Grill 
I like to start the grill and turn all of the burners on high to let the grill get good and hot. When I'm grilling some kind of meat, I want that initial searing. Once the meat is on, I adjust the burners accordingly.

A full grill makes for happy bellies!

If you don't remember anything else from this post, please remember the following:

Low heat and time are your friends.

That is so important, I'm going to say it again:

Low heat and time are your friends.

Remember I said when I first started grilling I would turn the burners on high and put the meat on the bottom rack and then wonder why everything burned? Back then I didn't understand you don't cook with the flames, you cook with the heat. The flames will burn your food every time. It's the heat you want to control and it's the heat that cooks the food. 

I promise if you will cook on low to medium heat you will get great results. After I get that initial searing on the meat, I immediately turn the burners down. This is where low heat and time work in your favor. Using low heat keeps the meat and other food from burning and it also prevents it from drying out so much. If you enjoy chewing on a piece of leather steak, by all means crank up the burners and incinerate your food. I prefer my steak, pork, chicken, venison, or other meat to be evenly cooked and as juicy as possible. 

Steak ready to sizzle

Here's another point to remember that goes along with low heat and time:

The top rack is your friend.

The top rack of a grill is one of the best places to cook your food. In fact, I wish grills had larger top racks - most are pretty narrow. One of the easiest ways to keep food from getting too done is to move it to the top rack before it's completely finished. Remember, it's the heat that cooks. The heat is circulating around the lid of the grill and your food is going to get plenty of good heat on the top rack. There are many instances when I will start my food right on the top rack. The top rack can also be used to keep finished food warm while your other items are cooking. 

Be sure to turn your food regularly so it cooks evenly on both sides. And don't be afraid to make adjustments on the fly. If something is getting too done too quickly, turn the heat down more or move it to the top rack. Don't be so rigid in how you do things that you won't make adjustments. One little trick for cooking food slower or keeping more fragile food like vegetables from burning is to use indirect heat. Let's say you've got some meat on the left side of your grill and some veggies on the right. To keep the veggies from burning, turn the burners on that side off. Yes, I said off. The burners under the meat will provide the necessary heat to cook the veggies without them getting too done. Remember, the heat cooks, not the flames. 

Let's talk about how to plan out your grilling time so all the food is ready at the same time. In the very first picture above, you'll see burgers, brats, steak, corn on the cob, peppers, and mushrooms. Do you think I fired up the grill and put all of that food on there at the same time? Nooooo would be the correct answer. Here's the order the food was put on the grill:

1. Corn
2. Steak
3. Burgers and brats
4. Peppers and mushrooms

The corn went on first because it takes the longest to cook. Once I was satisfied the corn had a sufficient head start, I put the steak on. After the steak had time to get going, I put the burgers and brats on. Last, but not least, the peppers and mushrooms because they take very little time to finish. Obviously, this can change depending on how you like your meat - if you like it rare, you would want to put it on near the end. You need to decide which food will take longer to cook and plan your grill time accordingly.

Speaking of corn, I grill my corn right in the husk. The husk will protect the corn while still allowing it to cook thoroughly. Before I fire up the grill, I will often soak the ears of corn in a sink full of water. This allows the husks to soak up water and keeps them from drying out as quickly. I also keep a spray bottle of water on my grill and I will spray the corn periodically to keep it wet. The outer portion of the husk will burn and turn black. It's too thin not to. Don't worry about it - the corn itself will be just fine. I know some people will shuck the corn and wrap it in aluminum foil for grilling. I have done that, but I have found the corn will burn more easily in foil than it will in its own husk. Corn comes with a natural wrapping - there's no need to waste foil. After the corn is done, only shuck those ears that are going to be eaten immediately. Leave the other ears in their husks as this will keep the corn warm for quite some time. If you've never had corn fixed on a grill, you are missing out, I promise you! 

One method for grilling corn

The way I prefer to grill corn

You may be able to see in that first photo that the mushrooms and peppers are on a separate tray. I use a grilling tray for items like vegetables so they don't fall between the grates or get stuck. The holes in the tray allow the heat to flow through. I like to brush olive oil on my veggies before putting them on the grill. Everybody has their own little seasoning techniques and favorite flavors so I'm not going to get into that too much. I don't normally marinate my food prior to grilling. This is especially true for thicker marinades or sauces. What typically happens is the marinade will burn long before the meat itself is done. If I want to use a marinade or sauce, I will wait until the food has had time to cook and then I will brush the marinade on while the food is still on the grill. 

Mushrooms and peppers are great on the grill

One thing I never do is cover my grates with aluminum foil. I know people who do that, but I detest using foil to grill on. There is no reason to do that. The only time I use foil for grilling is when I'm fixing fish. But even then, I'm not covering the grates. I put the fish and other fixings inside a foil "pouch", if you will, and add water. The foil pouch keeps the moisture inside and allows the fish to cook without burning or falling apart. Aside from that, foil has no place on my grill. 

Misc Tips
I use a propane gauge that attaches directly to the line to let me know how much propane is left in the tank. This little gadget can be a lifesaver. It's no fun to be halfway through a grilling session and run out of propane. I've gone an extra step, though, and actually started this several years ago. I have two propane tanks and the one on standby is always filled. When the one on the grill is empty, I replace it with the standby and go have the empty one filled and it becomes the standby. 

Some people use a timer to help them keep food on the grill for the right length of time. I personally don't use one. I've grilled so much and made so many mistakes that I just know when things are done from experience. If you're not comfortable with that, a timer or time chart can be a valuable aid. All of that kind of info can be found on the Internet. The same goes for a meat thermometer - I don't use one. There's nothing wrong with using one, though, particularly on larger pieces of meat. 

You say you don't like your burgers getting plump while they cook? Before putting them on the grill, take your thumb and make an indention on one side of each burger. Put the indention side face down on the grates. You won't have to worry about your burgers swelling up like an Alabama tick on a hound dog. 

Hopefully, you have a good, sturdy spatula (mine is Pampered Chef - LOL) and not one made out of plastic. If you occasionally coat it with cooking spray, it will make it much easier to pick the food up and turn it. 

Grill Care
I mentioned earlier that you should keep the grates clean. It's also a good idea to clean the inside of the grill from time to time. The bottom of the grill will be a collection of food and grease. If you are a seasonal griller, you could clean it before putting it away for the winter. If you grill year round like me, a good cleaning a couple of times a year will help prolong the life of your grill. 

Speaking of prolonging the life of your grill, the worst thing you can do is leave it exposed to the elements. If your grill sits on an open deck or patio like mine does, it's important to keep it covered when you're not using it. I don't care if the box said your grill was stainless when you bought it, it will rust if you leave it exposed to moisture. This is especially true of the internal parts. I owned a grill once that was so large I couldn't find a cover for it and had to use a tarp. Use whatever you need to, but keep it covered. That alone will greatly prolong the life of your grill. 

Grilling is a highly personal thing and preferences vary widely. We don't all like the same thing (thank goodness). That being said, there is a right way and wrong way to cook with a grill. I promise if you do it the wrong way your food will turn out terrible. The opposite is true if you use a grill correctly. 

Remember, low heat and time are your friends! Memorize it, live it, grill it! 

Do you have any grilling tips of your own? I know I haven't covered everything, so share yours.

Happy grilling!


Nancy @ A Rural Journal said...

Low heat and time are my friends. Got it! Oh, and the top rack is my friend too. (See, I was paying attention.)

Great post, Brian. Your photos are excellent. My only question is, when do we eat? :)

texwisgirl said...

i actually prefer my meat to be on the dry side (hubby calls it chicken jerky). do you take requests? :)

the grill shot looks really yummy! straight out of one of those better living magazines i don't read.

nice post, mr. grillmaster. perfect prose and photos to go with it! (okay, repeat after me: Blogging is my friend...) said...

Great tips, Brian! I see you have a JK Handmade knife...he makes a nice blade at a great price!

The Hunter's Wife said...

I have to ask the same - When do we eat! lol And I'd have to agree ... slow and low. It doesn't take much heat to burn your food.

Gretchen Steele said...

Thanks for this great post! I've just made the transition from charcoal to gas.. I need all the help I can get and this was very helpful! Thanks again!

LB @ Bullets And Biscuits said...

Hey! Did my invite get lost in the mail? That grub looks slamming!

We grill with the husks on too but my brother this year started peeling the husks back, brushing on BBQ sauce then tying them back up before grilling.

Our newest treat is to cap out a vidalia onion so there's a little indentation on a boullion cube on top then a big slap of butter...wrap it in tin foil and grill. YUMMY!

darlin said...

Excellent post, I had to read the entire thing to see if you missed anything! lol Just kidding, I want to know if I can learn something from you and I did. I didn't know about putting the indentations on burgers to avoid the plump, I'm going to try that one for sure. Thank you.

I have husked the corn and wrapped it in foil but what I've done is saturate a few layers of paper towel and then wrapped it around the corn, then wrapped in foil. I've done both in husk and without and I prefer without...personal preference.

I'll admit that I learned to BBQ the same way you did, trial and error and I'm still learning new tricks of the trade so to speak. I LOVE BBQ's but rarely use mine, it's not worth the effort to cook for myself, but lookout when the kids come over for a visit!

Have a fantastic day and excellent post, thank you for sharing your methods for BBQing, so what time is dinner? ;-)

Ian Nance said...

You can put together a spread! And wonderful post!

Will Jenkins said...

Great Stuff! I love grilling and smoking. For a while I worked at a Marina in Maryland and cooked anywhere from 200 to 1400 pounds of beef along with chicken, burgers and sausage most every Saturday during the summer on a giant charcoal pit. Great advise on here. If you haven't already you MUST try pizza on the grill it's awesome!

Passinthru Outdoors said...

Great post and perfect timing. If I'm not using the gaser, then I have a lumpo charcoal fire in the weber kettle and if not that the smoker is going strong.

Damn I'm hungry now.


I am so glad I stopped by! A lot of good ideas...thx!

Anonymous said...

Wow, good tips on the grilling. We're hoping for a nice grill for a wedding present this October. Right now I'm on a small propane grill, but it works pretty dang good!

heyBJK said...

Any of you are welcome at my grill if you're ever in Kentucky! The door is open.

LB: I'm going to have to try the onion thing - that sounds great!

darlin: I've never heard of wrapping the corn in wet paper towel. I bet that would help prevent burning in the foil.

Oh, yeah...blogging is my friend. :-)

texwisgirl said...

Yay! :)

Dawn said...

Would you ever consider coming to live in Canada over the summer months? I'm hiring a Grill Master. We have great hunting here too...;))