The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

The Food Lab's Top 10 Tips for Grilling Season

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Spring is upon us, which for me used to mean more excuses to try and get out of work early to start grilling. Luckily, these days, taking the afternoon off to grill fits nicely within my job description (have I mentioned I love working here?), and I plan on doing that regularly.

There's not all that much to great grilling. I mean, it's just fire plus meat (and the occasional piece of greenery), right? But there's some subtlety involved, and a few rules that are worth remembering in order to make the most of your flame.

Here are ten things to always keep in mind.

1. Get Ready Before You Light Up

Even more than with indoor cooking, grilling requires you to be prepared. Mise en place is everything. Have your tools, meat, vegetables, brushes, platter, cutting boards, utensils, sauces, sides, condiments, and hungry mouths ready before you light up the coals. Unlike an indoor burner which you can shut off and restart at moment's notice, with an outdoor grill, once the coals get going, you have very little control over when your food will be ready. Make sure you are ready when it is.

2. Use The Right Fire For the Job

When I was younger, my strategy for grilling was to use one temperature: hellish inferno. It was perfect for thin steaks, burgers, and perhaps melting barbie doll heads, but anything thicker than a half-inch would be rendered into a brick of volcanic rock surrounding a cold, raw center.

To cook properly on a grill, you've gotta know what type of flame to use for which job. Here are the three basic coal/burner arrangements:

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  • Direct Fires are constructed by laying out the coals in an even layer across the entire coal grate, or by turning on all of the burners to the same level on a gas burner. You can build hot or cool single layer fires depending on what you will be cooking. These fires are best for relatively thin burgers, steaks, chops, or vegetables cut into planks in which the interior will cook through at the same rate that the exterior gets some nice browning on it. For thicker cuts, you'll want to consider using a...
  • Two Zone Direct Fire, in which two-thirds of the coals are laid out on one half of the grate, with the remaining third laid out over the rest. For a gas grill, turn half of the burners on high and the other half on low. This arrangement is great for thicker chops, steaks, or vegetables. Cooking over a two-level is a two-stage process that generally involves searing over high heat then transferring to the cooler side to cook through at a more gentle pace.

    With a two-level fire, you can also cook two different items at the same time, so you can, say, feed your friends a couple batches of burgers off the hot side while the chicken and sausage slowly cooks through on the cooler side. This is the most common arrangement of coals for me, because it allows you much greater flexibility and control in your cooking. Steak look like its threatening to burn? No worries—just shift it over. If you're going to be grill-roasting entire birds or roasts, you'll need to use a...

  • Two-Zone Indirect Fire, in which all of the coals are piled on half of the grill, leaving the other side completely empty. There are two basic uses for this arrangement. The first is the cook-and-hold, great for casual backyard get-togethers where people come up for food at irregular intervals. Cook the food over the hot side (and the medium-hot center if needed), then place it on the empty side to keep warm and ready-to-serve.

    The other way to use a two-zone indirect fire is to slow-cook large cuts of meat like a whole chicken or a prime rib. Place it over the empty side of the grill, cover the grill with the lid, and the indirect heat from the coals should cook your food gently, and evenly (just make sure to rotate it every once in a while for even cooking). With this arrangement, you can even do close-to-true low-and-slow, indirect heat barbecue on a kettle or gas grill, giving you smoky, succulent, slow-cooked ribs, brisket, or shoulder.

Those who are ready to graduate to an advanced degree in coal arranging should check out our Grilling columnist Josh's post here.

3. Clean Your Grill Grate!

You should be cleaning your grill grate every time you use it, but after a winter spent in hibernation (or worse, exposed to the elements!), some rust and crud is expected. The best way to get everything sparkling clean for the start of the season is to take a hint from your oven's self-cleaning cycle and super-heat your grill grates. Lighting a full chimney of coals, spreading them out, and covering your grill for 10 minutes will get the temperature up to around 600°F, with the grill grates pushing 650°F or so. This isn't hot enough to vaporize any burnt-on foodstuffs and reduce it to ash. For this, you need temperatures closer to 900 or 1,000°F.

20100425-grill-cleaning-small.jpegTo get there, cover your grill with heavy duty aluminum foil before lighting the fire, making sure to leave a 1-inch border along to opposite edges to allow for ventilation. Place the grill over hot coals (or over your gas burners), cover the grill, and allow it to preheat for 10 to 15 minutes. Uncover the grill, remove the foil, then scrub away with a grill brush. Finally, give your grill a wipe down with a paper towel dipped in oil (hold that with tongs!), and your grill is good to go for the season.

At the beginning of each cooking session after you've preheated your grill (you do allow your grill to preheat before cooking, right?), give it a good scrub down with the brush to remove any remains from the previous session, wipe it down with oil, and that's basically all the maintenance it needs.

4. Have the Right Tools for the Job

You can hack your way through a successful grill session using the same spatulas and tongs you use in the kitchen, but you're better off getting a dedicated set. First things first: do not buy one of those pre-packaged, 34-in-1 grilling tool sets. Chances are, you won't need 32 of them, and the two that you do need will be of an inferior quality. You're better off buying high quality tools a la carte and building up a set yourself.

Here are the three basic tools you'll need for 99% of all grilling tasks.

  • 20110505-grilling-duie-tongs.jpegLong-Handled Tongs. I prefer shorter tongs in the kitchen for the added control and gripping power you get from them, but in front of a hot grill, it's nice to have a sturdy set of tongs that allow you to keep your distance. The OXO Good Grips 12-inch Tongs ($10.99) are sturdily made, have a comfortable neoprene handle, can hang up on a hook, can also be locked shut when not in use, and are inexpensive. I've had mine for years now, and they still feel just as sturdy and snappy as the day I bought them. For those who are really afraid of singing arm hairs, they also make a 16-inch version. Be mindful that you should always make sure to sterilize the ends of the tongs by holding them over a hot part of the fire for a few seconds before removing meats from the grill before serving in order to avoid any accidental cross-contamination between raw and cooked meats.
  • 20110505-grilling-guide-turner.jpegTwo Sturdy Spatulas. One spatula will get you through the summer, but two spatulas become really helpful with flipping delicate items like fish, or for holding a burger in place with one while you slide the other one underneath. I like to have one long, sturdy one like the OXO Good Grips Brushed Stainless Steel Turner ($9.99) or the Weber Style Fish Turner ($15.99), along with one smaller, flexible fish spatula, like the MIU Slotted Flexible Fish Turner ($9.99).
  • A Grill Brush. It's impossible to follow #3 if you don't own a good grill brush. The cheapest, still-sturdy option is the Weber Bamboo Grilled Brush ($6.99), though once it wears out, you'll just have to replace it. Alternatively, go for the more expensive Weber Style Heavy-Duty Grill Brush, which costs $29.99, but features replaceable scrubbing heads.

5. Throw Out The Lighter Fluid

20110505-grilling-guide-chimney-starter.jpegLighter fluid may be fun to play with, but it's got a few major disadvantages. It costs money, it's dangerous, and it leaves a tell-tale gasoline flavor on your finished food, even if you let your coals burn down to gray ash like you're supposed to.

A far better option is to use a chimney starter. Essentially a heavy-duty aluminum can with ventilation holes cut into the bottom, a space for a burning newspaper, and a handle stuck onto the side, it's the most cost, time, and energy-efficient way to get a batch of coals ready to cook on. I use the Weber Chimney Starter ($14.95)

All you've got to do is fill the top portion with coals (a full chimney will hold about 120 coals, which would be the equivalent of high heat on a gas grill—use less coals for less heat), place a piece of newspaper underneath, light the newspaper, and wait. Twenty minutes later, due largely to the awesome powers of convection and combustion, you'll have a towering inferno of red-gray coals, ready to be dumped onto the grill.

6. Give It Time, and Use A Cover

Just like an oven, a grill needs to preheat before you start cooking on it. Although the radiative heat—that's heat transferred via electromagnetic radiation, mostly in the infrared range—coming from the coals is relatively high and constant, the convective heat—that's the energy transferred via hot moving air—is not. The mass of air inside the grill needs time to heat up, as do the metal sides and grates of the grill.

Before you start cooking, cover the grill for at least five to ten minutes with the vents open in order to preheat the air and the metal. Your food will cook much hotter and more efficiently.

Unless you've got a massive amount of coals cooking foods that need constant attention, it's also a good idea to close the lid of the grill after you've placed your food on it in order to help it maintain its temperature.

7. Mind Your Vents

Most grills have vents on both the top and the bottom. When opened, the hot air inside the grill will escape through the top vents, creating a negative pressure zone inside the grill that draws cooler air in through the bottom vent. The fresh oxygen that gets drawn in helps keep the fire hot. It may seem counter-intuitive, but a grill with open vents actually burns hotter than a grill with the vents closed.

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The positioning of the vents also makes a difference since they effect the convection currents inside. You need to take this into account when using a two-level fire; whichever side the top vent is opened on will cook faster than the other side.

So if I've pulled a steak off the hot side of the grill to cook through gently on the cooler side of the grill, I'll position the vent so that it's above the steak, allowing them to finish cooking a little bit faster. If, on the other hand, I'm slow-cooking some ribs, I'll position half-opened vents over the opposite side of the grill. Half opened in order to keep things relatively cool, and on the opposite side of the ribs to make sure that there are no convection currents overcooking the ribs.

8. Stay Hydrated

I recommend at least 40 ounces of liquid per hour. This guide should help with that.

9. Don't Trust Anything But Your Thermometer

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Don't trust you finger pokes, don't trust your timer, don't trust your helpful uncle or neighbor. A thermometer is the only way to guarantee that your meat has been cooked to the correct internal temperature, and it is an absolutely essential piece of kit for anyone serious about meat cookery. I know I've said this hundreds of times now, but I can't stress enough how important this point is.

Meat proteins change their shape and color according to fixed temperatures, so whether you cook over a hot fire or a cool one, whether you start with fridge cold steaks or room temp, when the center of that steak reaches 130°F, you know that it's medium rare, regardless of the path it took to get there (that is unless, of course, it got hotter then cooled down). Of course, other factors are important in getting your meat to cook evenly or developing flavorful browning, but that goes beyond the scope of this article for now.

The best thermometer for the job is the Splash Proof Super-Fast Thermapen ($96, pictured). But for a cheaper, slower, slightly less accurate option, you could opt for the CDN Pro-accurate Quick Read Thermometer ($16.95).

10. Let It Rest

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

As tempting as it is to rip into that hot juicy steak as soon as it comes off the grill, don't do it! As the steak cooks, the muscle fibers on its exterior tighten, squeezing juices out of its surface. This creates an imbalance of juice in its interior, with most of the liquid being concentrated at the center of the meat. If you cut the steak open as soon as it comes off the grill, the juice has only one place to go—onto your plate. On the other hand, allow the steak to rest until its temperature has normalized, and the juices will distribute themselves more evenly throughout its interior. Cut the steak open, and the juice stays put exactly where it's supposed to be: in the meat.

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