Tips for Cooking on a Grill or Barbecue
Cooking on a grill is fun and a great way to enjoy the outdoors while making some delicious food. Most of us have cooked basic burgers or hot dogs but grill cooking is versatile and there are many ways to cook on a barbecue. I thought it would be good to cover some basics of barbecue cooking that may not be obvious to all of those who are beginners to outdoor grilling or who haven't yet gotten creative with their grill cooking.
Here are a few basic tips to make your cooking on a grill easier and the foods you grill better.
- Appropriate utensils - The cheapskate in each of us may think we can get along cooking on a grill with using just any utensils on the grill. I myself have tried turning steaks or burgers with a regular fork or knife. And I have singed off my arm hair to show for it! Don't sell yourself or your cooking on a grill short! The proper utensils will make cooking easier and will even be safer, preventing burns. They can also ensure that your foods are turned and handled properly. It would be a shame to drop your prime dry aged steak on the floor because you don't have the proper utensils!
So what do you need? At least a barbecue fork, spatula, basting brush and tongs. You can get away with less but it is nice to have them all.
Tongs - If I had to choose one, it would probably be the tongs. They are the most versatile and effective for adding food to the grill, turning food and removing food.
Spatula - The spatula can be particularly effective for lifting and flipping foods which are flatter and more delicate. For example, grilled fish does not do well with a tongs, they often tear the delicate flesh and it falls apart. Burger patties, because they are made from ground meat, also can fall apart if handled too roughly and a spatula is ideal to scoop it up and flip it.
Fork - A fork can help to skewer items to move them or turn them but is also great for piercing meat to observe the fluid that runs from the holes. A chicken or pork cut which is done will run clear, without any pink or red in the liquid.
Basting Brush - Finally, a basting brush is required to baste your meat while it is cooking on a grill. Don't try doing it with a short kitchen brush, you'll burn your hands! Get a nice long barbecue basting brush.
- Marinating and Basting - Cooking on a grill is cooking with dry heat. The hot air, radiant heat and hot smoke can all dry out your food.
Marinating - Marinating meats before cooking on a grill helps to add flavor and juices to your meat. It can take a bland piece of meat and turn it into a rich, flavorful meal. Generally, foods that are leaner and have less inherent fat in the meat will require marinating. Very fatty cuts like prime beef rib eye, porterhouse or New York cuts have "marbling", strips of fat running through the meat. This melts as it cooks, infusing your food with rich flavor and juices. Lean cuts can dry out though because they don't have this built-in flavor and juice machine! Chicken and turkey breast, pork chops and pork loin, and veal are all very lean and have less inherent flavor. These really benefit from marinating. There are many options for marinating, from dressings to wine and herbs, garlic, olive oil, mustard and many other flavor adding ingredients. For some meats that are very prone to drying out, like larger cuts of pork and turkey breasts, brining is an option to help seal in flavors and kept the meat tender, juicy and succulent.
Basting - While cooking on a grill, whether you marinated or not, basting helps to keep your food moist and adds flavor to the surface. As the basting fluid on the surface cooks, it helps form a rich, golden glaze on your food which caramelizes and adds tremendous smokey flavors. Generally, start basting, with a basting brush, a while after the meat has been cooking and repeat periodically as the surface browns and gets caramelized. Basting can be done with simple olive oil but also benefits from other sauces and marinades. You can use the drippings from your marinade to baste, but remember that it touched your raw food so allow ample time or the surface to cook after basting for the last time. Basting with richer sauces with a high sugar content should be reserved for the last several minutes of cooking. Sauces like barbecue sauce and teriyaki sauce can burn and get too caramelized if left over high heat too long. Rather, start the meat without the sauce and baste with the sauce only for the last 10 minutes or so of cooking, giving it time to thicken and caramelize, but not burn.
- Charcoal - Cooking on a grill with charcoal is a great way to add great, aromatic, smokey flavors to your food. While basic pressed, processed charcoal (like Kingsford briquets) are widely available, I recommend finding some real hardwood lump charcoal. It is without chemicals and is made from whole chunks of real hardwood firewood. Therefore, its flavors are better and it has no chemical additives.
Starting your charcoal can also be tricky for the beginner cooking on a grill. Make it easier for yourself by learning the different types of charcoal starter. My personal favorite is the charcoal chimney which makes starting any charcoal easy, fast and chemical free!
- Flavoring with Smoking Woods - You can get even more distinct, smokey flavor into your grilled foods with smoking woods. A gas grill has no smoke flavor and therefore needs smoking woods (in a metal smoker box) to add this type of barbecue flavor. You can also use wood chips or chunks in a charcoal grill, throwing the woods right on your hot coals.
How do you do it? Soak your smoking wood (mesquite and hickory are the two most common types you'll see, both widely available as chips or chunks) in water for about half an hour before barbecue cooking on a grill. Drain and simply spread your wood on your hot coals (or put them in a smoker box and put it in your gas grill). As they heat, in about 10 to 15 minutes, they will start to smoke, giving off a savory rich smokey aroma and flavor. Be sure to close your grill lid to let the smoke swirl around and envelope your food, infusing it with flavor. If your smoking wood chunks catch fire, you probably didn't soak them in water long enough.
- Let Your Meat Rest! - This is an often overlooked part to cooking on a grill. In fact, it applies to any larger cuts of meat no matter how you cook it, stove or grill. After finishing cooking, remove your meat and place on a platter. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and set in a warm place to rest. This lets the heat and juices redistribute. They are in a state of flux while cooking over the high heat of a grill, so you want them to calm down and distribute themselves evenly throughout the meat. How long you rest your meat depends on the size of the roast but it should be done for at least 5 to 10 minutes, much longer for larger cuts of meat like a whole leg of lamb, chicken or turkey. These can withstand 30 minutes of resting and will not be harmed by even longer. Remember that the interior of your meat will continue to cook a bit as it sits (especially for the larger roasts) so you can take them off the grill when they are just shy of being perfectly done.
For more information and tips on grill cooking, see my Types of Barbecue Cooking, Advantages to Cooking on an Outdoor Grill, and even the All About Charcoal pages.
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