Grilling Good Eats
by Mike Thayer
Got a craving for a juicy brat? A rack of baby back ribs? How about a perfectly grilled medium rare rib eye steak? Summer time means grill time whether it’s a backyard BBQ or a picnic in the park. Grill up some real crowd pleasing dishes by following these grilling tips for an easier, tastier, more relaxing grilling experience.
Grilling Tips: Whether you’re a novice to grilling or a weekend grilling warrior, the following thirteen tips are essential to putting you on the path to becoming a grill master.
Grilling Tip #1: Take your chicken breast, chops, and/or steak out of the refrigerator about 20-30 minutes prior to grilling to let them air out. This does NOT apply to something you’ve been marinating. This is for something you’re taking directly out of the package from the store, or something you’ve given a dry rub too. Inspect the meat, you want to make sure there is no excess moisture on it, especially if you‘re going to rub some olive oil or the like on that steak, chop, or breast. Even if you’re just applying salt and pepper, that meat should be dry. Pat the meat down with a paper towel if necessary. Letting chicken/chops/steaks and such air out, gives the meat a better sear when it hits the grill. Leaving excess moisture on your meats can cause unnecessary flare ups and the real benefit to a properly prepped cut of ’aired out’ meat is that it’s going to cook more evenly, locking in that flavor and delivering you a much more tender, tastier mouthful. Ground meats are a different story! They should be cold when putting on the grill. If they’re at room temperature, ground meats tend to fall apart or droop through the cooking grate.
Grilling Tip #2: Oil the grilling surface. After your grill is hot, brush (do NOT spray!) some vegetable oil on the cooking grate. I use a squeeze bottle of canola oil, squirting oil on a folded paper towel - cover it well but not to the point of dripping - then I use my long handled steel bristle brush to move the oiled paper towel over the grill surface. This isn’t to add flavor or to keep food from sticking (Tip #5 below), this is to make clean up much, much easier when the grilling is done. When it’s clean up time, brushing the grill surface clean takes half the time if you pre-oiled the grate.
Grilling Tip #3: Generally speaking, the “Presentation side” of any meat or grilled item (how you’ll see the item on the plate) is the first side you put on the grill. Choose the better looking side of the item to put down first. This is the side that needs to have those beautiful grill marks. And with most meats and fish, you only want to flip once. Yep, you read that right, flip it just once.
Grilling Tip #4: Some people like to get fancy grill marks on their food. In fact, some grill manufacturers are even making their grates fancier in design - to include logos - with their upscale models to sear those fancy marks in. If you ask me that kind of takes the mastery and fun out of it, but kudos to the grill makers and successful marketing nonetheless. If you don’t have a fancy grate, here’s what you do. For simple but still a delicious looking presentation of straight line grill marks, leave the item sit in position for at least two to three minutes. Don’t move it, don’t touch it, don’t rearrange it to make room for something else. Once it’s down it’s down, so pick your spot well, let it sit and sear. Depending on your coal stack and temperature, steaks and thick burgers can go a good five minutes, chicken and pork, slightly less. With fish, stick to two minutes. The key is to not touch the meat once you put it down and not until you flip. If you want the ‘diamond’ look (don‘t try this with most fish), give the meat a quarter turn after two - three minutes. Then let it cook for another couple minutes before you flip.
Grilling Tip #5: If you did your coals right, when you go to flip the meat over and it’s sticking to the grate, it’s not ready to flip yet. The meat literally lets you know when to flip. If it’s sticking, try again in another minute or two.
Grilling Tip #6: When grilling those pre-made frozen hamburger patties, the packaged ‘fresh’ ones from the grocery store and for folks that like their hand made burgers well done, you should only flip your burger once. After putting your burgers on, when you see red juices flowing to the top, it’s time to flip. After the flip, when you see the juices running clear, you know the burger is well done, the burger is cooked through. This is especially important for the pre-made stuff purchased at the store, you don’t want to see a strip of pink running through those. And generally speaking, remember Grilling Tip #3, most all meats and fish should only be flipped once, well done or not. It preserves those great grill marks and delivers a juicier, evenly cooked, more flavorful piece of meat.
Grilling Tip #7: Do not press the meat on the grill! Place your meat on the grill and do NOT take your spatula and press it hard into the grate thinking that helps to sear it or give it better grill marks. It does neither. You’re cooking on a grate, not on a flat top like at the diner or in an electric griddle in the house. Pressing meats down into a grill grate means loss of juice, loss of flavor. OH, and it makes it harder to flip. Seeing meat drop through the grate and onto the coals is a grill crime.
Grilling Tip #8: Don’t cut the meat on the grill to see how done it is! This is a cardinal sin, another grill crime. When you cut it at the grill, the meat’s juices come out, leaving you with a very dry piece of meat to eat and all that great flavor is gone. If you’re following all these tips to the letter, you don’t need to cut the meat to check for ‘doneness‘!
Grilling Tip #9: Do NOT use a fork of any kind to grill! Forks pierce the meat, letting those juices sizzle down into the charcoal and once those juices are gone, they’re gone, leaving you with the same situation as tip #8 - eating a dry piece of meat lacking great flavor. Avoid grill crime.
Grilling Tip #10: If you’re grilling two kinds of meat like chicken and steak for dinner, put your chicken on the grill first. There’s no “medium rare” when it comes to chicken, you’ve GOT to make sure it’s properly cooked all the way through. Put chicken near but not directly over the hot spot of the grill first, get that good sear on the presentation side of the chicken and then move it over to the lower temp side of the grill to finish off. Once you’ve moved your chicken to the lower temp side of the grill, put your steaks on the hot spot. By the time the steaks are done, so is the chicken. This method also works well when preparing meats at varying degrees of “doneness” like steaks or handmade burgers. Put steaks to be well done on the hop spot first, get a good sear and then move them over to the low temp side to finish cooking. You can then put your medium rare steaks on the hot spot and by the time those are done, so are the well done ones. The same thing goes for burgers, some people like a little pink running through the middle of a good home made, hand crafted burger. You want everyone sitting down at the same time to eat, so timing is everything and you’ll come off like a real pro pulling medium rare, medium and well done steaks off the grill, all at the same time. You don’t have to deliver that dreaded line of, “People eating chicken, yours will be done in a few more minutes…… Sorry.” And how do I know that steak is done you ask? Give it the finger. No, not the middle one, well, you can use that one if you want….. Poke the steak with your finger. If the meat is soft to the touch and doesn’t bounce back, it’s still pink inside. If it’s got some give but bounces back a bit, it’s medium. If it’s firm when poking, it’s well done.
Grill Tip #11: When to lid and when not to lid….. Unless you’re grilling in the rain, high winds or in frigid cold weather, you don’t need to use the lid for burgers and hot dogs. The only time you really need to lid is when it’s time to melt the cheese. Burgers and ground meats in general, pick up enough smoky flavor in a no lid preparation due to the high fat content in the meat, absorbing the extra smoke that’s created when those meat juices hit the flames. You can also better monitor flame flare ups with the lid off and there will be fewer of them. Regarding hot dogs, they are a quick cook food, the packaged varieties most folks put on the grill are already pre-cooked from the factory (you can actually eat them right out of the package like bologna but you’d get a scolding from the food police and I’d much rather put them on the fire) and they’ll absorb plenty of charcoal flavor with the lid off. Putting a lid on hot dogs is actually a bad thing. What you’re looking for in the All-American classic are those great grill marks and an even temperature throughout. You want that casing to snap when you bite into it and that bite needs to be juicy. Putting a lid over hot dogs not only fails to deliver more smoky flavor, but can actually shrink and dry out the hot dog because the casing split open spilling all the juices (a.k.a. flavor). Worse yet, a lid-on preparation of hot dogs makes the casing too charred to eat from that flare up you didn’t see going on under the cover. Most folks don’t like ‘blackened’ hot dogs. For other meats and food items, it really becomes a matter of personal preference. How smoky do you like your flavor? Leave the lid on for more smokiness. Fish easily takes on a great smoky flavor in a lid on preparation. Steaks should be lid off to minimize flare ups until you flip them and do the finish cooking on the lower temp side of the grill. Pork chops can be cooked lid on the whole time to get that great smoky flavor and they can handle a lot of it. Chicken needs an almost all lid preparation to ensure it’s cooked all the way through. A key to remember: If that marinade you’re using has a lot of oil in it, that can lead to a lot of flare ups. In that case, a lid is NOT your friend. Bonus tip: If you have a large grill surface and are cooking a variety of meats and don‘t want to cover it all with that one big lid, consider using a smaller lid to cover only those meats that need one. I ‘borrow’ a lid from a small portable grill I use to picnic with, using it on my big grill at home when firing up a batch of meats.
Grilling Tip # 12: Let your meats rest after pulling them off the grill. Yes, really, meat needs to rest before serving and slicing. I know you are tempted to bite into that steak or burger right away, but you want those meats to rest for five minutes after pulling them off the grill to let those flavorful juices redistribute themselves throughout those spice rubbed T-bone steaks, the marinated center cut pork chops, the BBQ sauced chicken breasts or whatever dinner might be. Thicker cuts of meat can rest even longer, up to 10 minutes.
Grilling Tip #13: Don’t wait until the next time you grill to clean the grate. No, putting a lid on things thinking you’ll burn the food off just isn’t enough and if you’re a gas griller, all you’re really doing is wasting fuel. Clean your grilling grate when the grill is still warm. If you’re a gas griller, that would be after you shut the grill off and before you sit down to eat (clean the grate while the meat you prepared is resting). If you’re a charcoal griller, clean the grate after you’ve enjoyed that delicious meal. It’s easier to wire brush the grate clean when it’s warm, vs. trying to brush it clean when it’s cold, when the flame is high or when you just fired the grill up that next time…. And who wants smoke in their eyes right? Besides, a clean grill grate extends the life of it. Leaving the charred remains of burgers, steaks, fish, whatever, on the grate prematurely ages it, leading to rust. Yes, rust, even if you cover your grill or store it in the garage when not in use.
Essential Tools: Assuming you have a gas or charcoal grill to work with, you’ll also need the following items, these are essential, the basics needed for anyone serious about cranking out a great meal from the grill.
The charcoal chimney: For me, there’s really no better way to light charcoal, lump coals or small chunks of wood for the bigger log fire. They’re easy to use and can be found most anywhere grills and grilling accessories are sold. The best chimneys out there are made by Weber and can be purchased for around $15 to $17. Weber chimneys are better quality with thicker metal construction, to include a heat shield and a two handle grip for safer handling. I recommend having two.
Grill gloves: Even if you don’t use a charcoal chimney start to light your coals, you still need a mitt or grill gloves. You may need a mitt to lift a hot lid (some of those handles do get hot to the touch!), lift or reposition a grill grate, move a warming basket of food, or maybe you left a spatula a little too close to the fire and the handle got a bit warm. Get a mitt or gloves that are made for grilling. That oven mitt your wife or mother has in the kitchen with the pretty little flowers on it won’t cut it. Some gas grills can heat up to 600 degrees at grate level with all burners on high and grills equipped with infra-red for searing and my preference - the charcoal grill - can get even hotter. Weber makes an OK mitt with a heat resistant liner for about $10. Good grill gloves go for $25 and up.
Tongs: You can grill without them, but you really shouldn’t. NO grill master is without a good pair of metal tongs. Buy what suits your grilling needs. If you have a small portable grill, you don’t need long handled tongs. It’s not like you’re having to reach through of wall of flame to flip burgers when using a small grill, so buy a size that suits the grill. A 9” pair of tongs works fine for small grills, a 12” pair performs well with medium grills and for larger grills, get a 16” pair, that’s when you’ll need the reach. Anything larger than that can’t be handled well. The smaller pairs of tongs give you greater control than the longer pairs do, especially with big steaks and things like baked potatoes. For added control and gripping power, be sure to buy a pair with some kind of scalloped edge in the tip end, a pair that can grip something as small as a scallop or as large as a rack of ribs. Stay away from ‘scissor’ style tongs with the loopy ends, they’re practically worthless for grilling anything besides hot dogs. Don’t bother with the oversized but fancy looking wood handled varieties - the varnish on the wood wears off from the heat and the soap and water used to clean them…. and who wants that varnish stuff flaking off onto the food? You want locking metal tongs with spring action. When unlocked they naturally stay open to grab items easily and can be locked in a closed position for easy storage.
A good spatula: A metal spatula for the grill is a MUST have. And the same thing applies here for spatulas as they do with tongs. Size matters. Get something appropriate for your grill. You don’t need a 16” spatula for a 15” patio grill. Pay the extra buck or two for quality, a metal spatula with a rubber or silicone grip. Some folks like to have two spatulas on hand, one that’s stiff for things like burgers or to aid the tongs to flip a bigger cut of meat. Having a second spatula that is flexible and with holes or slots is useful when flipping more delicate items like fish or for stacking those all beef patties to create that mouthwatering double cheeseburger on a garlic butter toasted bun.
A basting brush: This is a must have if you like to add a little more flavor to the meat, like a garlic butter sauce for a big thick steak or a BBQ sauce for a chop or a piece of chicken. Stay away from the wood handles and the traditional boar’s hair brushes. The varnish wears off and with use/age the brush hair falls out, most of the time falling out in the food. Get the newest brushes made out of dishwasher safe silicone. They don’t grab as much sauce like the traditional brushes do but they last longer, the brush ‘hairs’ don’t fall out and they clean up much easier. You’ll have to do a little more dipping, but that’s OK.
Meat thermometer: An instant-read meat thermometer is a good thing to have, especially if you want reassurance that what you've prepared for family or guests has hit the right temperature. Safe eats are good eats. Insert the thermometer into the center of the thickest part of the meat, stay away from the bone if it has them. Recommended temperatures are as follows: Beef should be at least 145 degrees; poultry at least 165 degrees; pork at least 160 degrees; and lamb at least 145º. Check the temp near the end of the cooking time and away from direct flame.
A good quality wire brush: It’s simply the best tool for keeping your grilling surface clean. I wrote earlier that a clean grate extends the life of the grate and that bears repeating. Get one made for grilling, one that has a scraper blade on it. Brushes with short, stiff, compact bristles are better than brushes with the longer, stringy type bristles.
A good quality cast iron skillet: It can take the heat, they’re versatile and a well seasoned skillet, like charcoal, delivers another layer of flavor. You can use your skillet to sauté veggies, scramble eggs, make corn bread or create a fantastic grilled dessert like an apple crisp or peach cobbler!
Tools you don’t need:
NO FORKS! I’ve already covered why. Don’t bother with grilling tool sets that include forks, most of them are overpriced for what you get and educate your wife to prevent a bad gifting idea.
Squeeze bottles: You don’t need a squeeze bottle if you’re filling it up with water to put out flare ups. If you stack your coals right all you have to do is move the meat to the lower temp side of the grill and the flare ups cease. Squeeze bottles of water are for rookies and prematurely age your grill. Water and high heat = rust, quickly. If you’re putting oil or marinade in a squeeze bottle, that’s OK.