bon appetit blog
Posted by Julia Bainbridge
Filed under: Cooking Tips
With the Fourth of July right around the corner, pretty much everything you’ve been searching for on our website has the word “grill” in front of it. (We know this; we keep tabs on you.) But grilling can be intimidating: What charcoal should you use? For that matter, what kind of heat? (Yes, there are different kinds of heat.) Today we turn to Elizabeth Karmel, executive chef at New York City’s Hill Country Barbecue, teacher at the Institute of Culinary Education, writer of Girls at the Grill, and all-around grilling know-it-all, for tips. Attention!
Thou Shalt Season–and We’re Talking About the Grill
“Barbecue grills are like cast-iron skillets: The more you use them, the better your food tastes,” says Karmel. A new grill that hasn’t been touched by any kind of flavoring will make your food taste like…a new grill that hasn’t been touched by any kind of flavoring. So season it. Here’s Karmel’s method: Fill the cooking grate with link sausages (not the bulk breakfast variety, but Italian or really any uncooked fatty sausages). Grill the sausages slowly on a low-medium heat until very brown. Remove the sausages and let the grill burn off the residue for 20-30 minutes. Clean the cooking grates with a brass-bristle brush. Congrats: You are seasoned.
Thou Shalt Be Prepared
You’ve invited friends over, you’ve shopped for all of your ingredients, you’ve stocked the cooler, and you’re ready to cook. But head to the deck and what do you find? A nearly empty bag of charcoal, and that’s not going to get you far today. “This scramble at the end is typical,” says Karmel–people forget to re-fuel. “If it’s a charcoal grill, always have an extra bag of briquettes on hand. Even if I have a whole bag, I get another for backup. Gas grillers should have a spare tank because it’s not always easy to get one at a moment’s notice.” Think of your grill like a car: Always have a spare.
Thou Shalt Buy a Good Thermometer
Sure, there are other cues for doneness, but a good thermometer takes the guesswork out of the equation, and most home cooks–and even pros–need that. “We have lots of fancy thermometers available to us in the market today, and I’ve tested every one out there–people give them to me as gifts all the time,” says Karmel. “I have found that the best is the old-fashioned analog thermometer.” Why? 1. It’s less expensive; 2. It doesn’t rely on battery; and 3. It can be re-calibrated. To re-calibrate, which you only need to do every other year if you use it often, submerge it in a glass of ice water to test that it reaches 32 degrees F. Get more instructions here.
Thou Shalt Just Learn to Build a Fire Already
The number one rule of successful grilling, says Karmel, is knowing the difference between direct and indirect heat. When using charcoal, arrange the briquettes so that one “zone” of your grill that isn’t directly above coals (an “indirect heat” zone). Here are our tips on setting up a CHARCOAL GRILL with INDIRECT heat, setting up a GAS GRILL with INDIRECT heat, setting up a CHARCOAL GRILL with DIRECT heat, and setting up a GAS GRILL with DIRECT heat. Finally, if you want to keep the fire burning, keep the vents open.
Thou Shalt Oil the FOOD, Not the GRATES
“Many grilling people say to dip a paper towel in oil and then rub the grates with it,” says Karmel. “But the grates are hot! That rag is just a torch waiting to happen. And because oil burns at a low temperature, the minute you put it on that preheated grate it will burn, get tacky, and act as a glue to your food.” To get those beautiful grill marks and to prevent those natural juices from escaping your steak, oil the meat.
Thou Shalt Not Extinguish Flare-Ups Using a Water Bottle
No brainer: Grill grates are really hot. So the minute you hit them with water, you create steam that can burn you. The only way to extinguish a flare-up is to reduce the oxygen–meaning close the lid of your grill. And in case that flare-up turns into something bigger, have a fire extinguisher on hand at all times.
Thou Shalt Work Clean
Wash your hands and your platters between raw and cook stages to prevent cross contamination. Use two sets of tongs, one for raw food and one for cooked food. Karmel color-codes hers with red and green duck tape: “Red means stop, raw food has touched these. Green means go, only cooked food has touched these.” Finally, keep the grill clean by using a brass bristle brush. Brush those grates twice every time you use the grill: once after pre-heating and once after all your guests have left. (But first, put the burners back on high for ten minutes, which will burn off any stuck-on food, and then brush away.)
Thou Shalt Not Stab Your Food
Use tongs instead of a fork. That way you don’t pierce the meat and let all those yummy juices fall into the ash, never to be tasted. Karmel goes for 12-inch locking tongs. She finds that the length and the locking capability help prevent hand fatigue (and she’s done a LOT of grilling), plus locking makes them easier to store.
Thou Shalt Be Patient
Don’t open the lid while cooking. “You’d never bake a cake with an oven door open, would you?” says Karmel. Well, no. You want to allow the hot air to surround your meat so that it cooks through in a reasonable amount of time. And, as tempted as you may be to slice right in, allow the meat to rest for 5-10 minutes. This way, the natural juices get re-absorbed before slicing and serving. Translation: Your meat will be tender and juicy.
Thou Shalt Not Overthink It
In other words: have fun. “People get nervous and tied down to a recipe,” says Karmel. “So just buy what want to eat–or go to the farmers’ market–try something you’ve never eaten before.” Then, just grill it! “If you know the difference between direct and indirect heat, all you need then is olive oil, salt, and pepper and you’re ready to grill.”