Grilling Basics

Summer is here, and grilling for friends and family can be a delightful way to take the celebration outside. If you're a novice on the grill, the following is my crash course in outdoor cooking: Grilling 101! It has everything you need to know about the quickest, easiest way to prepare extraordinary meals in the open air.

Light the Fire: Charcoal or Gas Grill?

Begin by placing fuel cubes or crumpled newspaper on a charcoal grate. Use charcoal to cover, creating a pyramid. Using lighter fluid, soak the charcoal sufficiently. (Be sure to keep the fuel away from the grill after using to prevent fires, and remember never to add more fluid once the fire has been lit!) Once lighter fluid has been poured and stored away, go ahead and light the charcoal. You'll know the charcoal is ready when it is covered in light gray ash, usually in about 25 minutes.

Choose Your Charcoal: Charcoal is the carbonized remains of wood that has been burned without oxygen, causing the evaporation of water and resins. This is why charcoal is not as heavy as wood and is easier to ignite. Two types of charcoal are optimal and readily available for grilling: Hardwood charcoal typically contains no additives and is irregular in shape; charcoal briquettes, which are square and pillow-shaped, are made from scrap wood and sawdust that is burned and then compacted with other chemicals and binders that help it ignite and burn evenly. To achieve the best flavor and texture while grilling at lower temperatures, try cooking over a mixture of hardwood charcoal and briquettes that are not permeated with lighter fluid.

Open your grill's lid and tank valve. Put the front burner on high, allowing the gas chamber to fill for about two to three seconds before pushing the igniter button. After you've lit a fire, turn the middle or next burner to high. Proceed down the line of burners until all of them are on and lit, then close the lid of the grill. The grill needs to preheat on high to about 500–550°F before you start putting food on the cooking grate. From there you can set the burners to different temperatures to follow your recipe.

Cleaning the Grill 
Nothing ruins an outdoor meal faster than having your seafood or chicken stick to the grill grate or attach to burn residue. To avoid this, heat the grill for several minutes and clean it with a wire brush before cooking. Certain foods, such as delicate veggies and fish, tend to stick to the grate more easily than others. You can get around this sticky situation by dipping large paper towels in vegetable oil, folding them, and — using tongs to grip the towels — wiping the grate thoroughly. You can also use a nonstick grill basket to cook these delicate foods.

How Hot Is Your Grill? 
Cooking on a grill is not an exact science, so figuring out how hot your grill actually is can be a challenge. Here's an easy tip for gauging the heat: The length of time you can hold your outstretched palm five inches above the grill will indicate the temperature range. Keep in mind that foods cook at different speeds, so while you’re cooking a variety of foods all together, you may be taking them off the grill at different times.

Intensity of Fire vs. Amount of Time 
Hot (over 500°F) - 2 seconds
Medium hot (400–500°F) - 3 to 4 seconds
Medium (350–375°F) - 5 to 6 seconds
Medium low (325–350°F) - 7 seconds

Building the Right Fire for Your Food 
In the same way that you adjust the height of the racks in your oven, you can arrange coals in different levels to allow for different levels of heat. Use these arrangements to find the appropriate temperature for the type of food you will be preparing: 

  • Single level: Arrange the coals in a single, even layer. This delivers the most direct and moderate heat and is ideal for fairly thin foods that cook quickly, such as vegetables, fish, shellfish, ground meats, and kebabs.
  • Two-level fire: Arrange some of the lit coals in a single layer on one side of the grill, with the remaining coals in a tall pile to the side. This allows you to sear foods over a very hot section of the grill and then finish cooking on the other side without charring. This is a great option for chops, steaks, burgers, bone-in chicken legs and thighs, and other thick pieces of meat.
  • Modified two-level fire: Pile all the lit coals at one side of the grill, leaving the other side empty. This is ideal for foods that require a longer cooking time but are easily burned. First, sear the food on the hot side of the grill, then move to the cooler side. Cover with aluminum foil or a pan to trap the heat and create a roasting effect. Try this with chicken breasts, sausage, pork tenderloin, and rack of lamb.

Whether you’re a grill master or a novice, you’ll benefit from using the right grill utensils. Here’s a check list of essential tools you’ll need to help you get grilling:

  • Metal skewers. These are great for cooking small, delicate foods, such as shrimp and onions.
  • Wire-bristle brush. Use this to clean your grill between uses.
  • Take the guesswork out of cooking meat to the perfect doneness.
  • Long-handled tools and barbecue mitts. Protect yourself from the heat of the grill.
  • Grilling forks and tongs. Use tongs to turn foods on the grill; use forks only to lift fully cooked foods from the grill (forks pierce your food and flavorful juices are lost). 

Separate plates and utensils. Remember to use separate pans, cooking utensils, and marinade brushes for cooked and uncooked foods. Once uncooked food has touched your plates, pans, and utensils, they contain raw juices that can contaminate your meals. DO NOT use original marinades as a final basting liquid — these are also contaminated with raw juices.