Images and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.
We’ve come to part three of our 3-part Outdoor Cooking mini-series (find campfire cooking here, and dutch oven cooking here). In this post I’m going to cover some grilling basics as well as a fun menu that can entirely be cooked on the grill — from the appetizers to the dessert!
It’s a good guess that when it comes to outdoor cooking, grilling is the most popular method. Summer seems to be when grilling is at its peak — starting with Memorial Day and ending with Labor Day. But I imagine a lot of us grill year round.
It’s such a great way to cook food — most of the mess is outside, it doesn’t heat up the house, and it tastes fabulous! Plus you can grill just about anything.
Ready to get grilling? Let’s go!
PREPPING THE GRILL
The first thing to decide? Gas or Charcoal.
There’s a bit of a debate over which is better, and I’m still on the fence. Charcoal gives food a smoky flavor that’s hard to duplicate. But it’s also harder to control the temperature and takes a bit longer. Charcoal also requires and additional 20-30 minutes to heat up before cooking. Gas is cleaner burning, quicker, and easier to control the temperature. Secret #1: Really, it’s personal preference. In this post I’m using charcoal because that’s what we use, but I’m including tips for using gas too.
No matter which type of grill you’re using, it doesn’t have to be fancy. Grills with all the bells and whistles, knobs and side burners are great — not really necessary. Secret #2: With grilling, it’s all in the technique. You could even say it’s an art. And that comes with practice. Lots of delicious practice. : )
In addition to a grill, you’ll want to have a few tools handy. Secret #3: When it comes to grilling, look for tools with long handles. It can get pretty hot over the grill! Again, you don’t need fancy tools. There are some really fun grilling gadgets available now, but I stick to a good grill brush with stiff, wire bristles, a pair of tongs, and a spatula. The little brush pictured below is good for getting in between the grates. The flat one covers the top of the grate.
Secret #4: You always want to start with a clean grill. Of course, it helps if you clean the grates after each grilling session. But if you forgot last time you grilled, no worries. It’s pretty easy to do and only takes a few minutes. You can clean the grates when they are hot or cool. Secret #5: I find it’s a little easier to clean a hot grate.
The cleaning can happen while the grill is heating up or after cooking while it’s cooling down. Secret #6: I also clean the grate in between cooking different types of food, too — particularly if I’ve cooked something with a sticky glaze, or something spicy. I give the grill a good scrub with a wire brush and that seems to take care of most of the food residue.
Secret #7: If you have a lot of burnt-on residue, you can even turn the grill up really high and burn it off. As I mentioned, the extra heat seems to help, but elbow grease will also work if you clean it when it has cooled. If you don’t have a grill brush, you can wad up some aluminum foil, hold the wad with tongs, and rub the foil across the grill to clean the surface.
We talked about starting charcoal in our Dutch oven post, but in case you missed it, here’s a quick refresher. You can buy traditional briquettes or hard wood briquettes. Secret #8: We like to start ours in a charcoal burner. You simply put the charcoal in the burner, add a little lighter fluid (totally optional), and light with a match.Self-lighting charcoal is also available and doesn’t require more than a match to get it going. As I said, using lighter fluid is totally optional, but we tend to use a little bit to help things move along more quickly. Though you should be aware, some people feel it negatively affects the flavor of the food. Ultimately, it’s your call.
With gas grills there is typically a button starter, if not, you’ll light it manually with a match. There are valves and knobs to control how much fuel you let in, which in turn creates a bigger or smaller flame. Bigger flames=more heat, smaller flames=less heat. Some gas grills are very large and have several burners. Secret #9: This is advantageous, because you can easily create a hot side and a cooler side. You can do this with charcoal too, by piling up more charcoal on one side and less on the other. Or, you can pile the coals in the center for direct heat and use the outer part of the grill for indirect heat. (Read on for more about this.)
Secret #10: Once the grill has heated up, you’ll want to oil the grates well with a paper towel soaked with a little vegetable oil. This helps keep food from sticking. Avoid using nonstick cooking spray which can cause dangerous flare-ups.
PREPARING THE FOOD
Before we get to the actual cooking part, let’s take a little detour and talk about preparing the food.
Secret #11: Practically anything can be grilled. Grilling itself provides a lot of flavor, but you can further enhance the flavor of grilled foods through marinades, glazes and rubs, or by smoking the food using wood chips or planks. (I’m of the opinion that simple is better. If you start with good food and season it simply, then it will always be good. That being said, I have a hard time saying no to a good marinade!)
Secret #12: Grills are good for things that don’t need to be cooked for a long time, think: steaks. But you can also use them for longer periods, think: ribs. Grills are also great for smoking food. That means longer, slower, lower cooking temps. We love to smoke fish using wood chips or cedar planks. But you can smoke other meats, and even vegetables.
Secret #13: When cooking meat, a lot of good flavor comes from fat. So look for cuts with good, even marbling. If the steak feels tender when raw, it will likely be tender also when cooked. Making friends with your butcher or fishmonger will be a great help when deciding which cut of meat, poultry or fish to buy for grilling.
For a really good steak (the one above has been dry aged), all you really need is some coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. You don’t want to mask the flavor of the meat.
Secret #14: Some cuts of meat are leaner or tougher — they require a little tenderizing and benefit from marinating and long, slow cooking.
Secret #15: Marinades and spice rubs are done before grilling. They infuse flavors into the food before it cooks, which can be nice for leaner cuts of meat or foods that require a little extra seasoning. Secret #16: Marinades contain an acid (vinegar, wine, citrus juice), salt, and oil and sometimes a little sugar.
Secret #17: Dry rubs consist of a blend of spices, salt, and sugar, that are applied to the outside of the food. They are good for food that cooks quickly on the grill and won’t become more tender when it cooks — such as steak, fish, shrimp, and chicken breasts. Secret #18: Wet rubs are dry rubs mixed with a liquid ingredient such as yogurt, buttermilk, beer, mustard, tomato sauce, oil/butter, etc. Both kinds of rubs help create an irresistible crust on the food once it’s grilled.
Secret #19: Unless a recipe instructs otherwise, meat and chicken should be marinated at least 30 minutes or up to several hours prior to grilling. Though marinating for too long can affect the texture of the food. Secret #20: Fish and other seafood should only be marinated for a brief amount of time or it can actually “cook” the food.
Speaking of marinades, some fresh fruit juices like pineapple and papaya contain enzymes that are good tenderizers, but if left too long will make the meat turn spongy. Either use cooked juice or marinate for a short time.
One last thing, there is also a method called brining. We talked about wet brining in the Turkey 101 post. Dry brining is done by heavily salting meat, placing in the fridge for a few hours and then rinsing the salt off and patting dry before grilling.
Secret #21: When using dry or wet rubs, be careful not to press too hard into the meat. Just rub on the surface, you don’t to be too rough or it could damage the texture of the meat. Secret #22: Also, trim any excess fat before marinating or seasoning. This will help prevent flare-ups on the grill.
Secret #23: Glazes are added at the end, or near the end of cooking time. This is because glazes tend to be sweeter and thicker — like BBQ sauce. Jams, jellies and other prepared preserves also make great glazes. But if the food is glazed too early, the sugars in the glaze can caramelize and burn.
It’s best to brush the glaze on a few minutes before the food is done, or just as it’s pulled off the grill. Secret #24: Some marinades can be boiled down and turned into a glaze. Just be sure to let it boil for several minutes or more to kill any harmful microorganisms.
Secret #25: Make sure to pat the food dry before searing it over direct heat. If not, the food can steam instead of developing a nice crust on the outside. Try to remove most of the marinade from the food. Rubs are fine and don’t need to be removed.
Secret #26: If you are planning on making skewers, smoking food, or using wooden planks, plan ahead and soak them in water first. The extra moisture will help keep the wood or bamboo from catching fire. And in the case of wood chips, will also help create the desired smoke.
Vegetables can be cooked whole or cut into wedges or cubes. Secret #27: They should be lightly rubbed with a little oil to keep them from sticking. Other than that, veggies are pretty simple to grill. A little salt and pepper is all they need, but they can also be marinated if you prefer. (Mushrooms are really great marinated and grilled.)
Once the food is ready, it’s time to head outside and get grilling!
INDIRECT AND DIRECT HEAT
There are two ways of cooking on a grill. Secret #28: You can use indirect or direct heat. Indirect means that the food isn’t over the hottest part of the grill, and with direct heat it is. Direct heat is for foods that cook quickly — 20 minutes or less. Indirect is for foods requiring longer cooking times, like ribs. Secret #29: Indirect heat is also okay to use when you’ve cooked something and need to keep it warm. I’m not talking about steak though. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
The grill above is shallow. This means when the grate is placed on top, the food will be closer to the coals. The charcoal in this type of grill cools quickly, so it’s best for things that can cook very quickly over a hot, high heat. Kettle grills are deeper (unless they are filled very full of charcoal) and have more distance between the food and the hot coals.
Holding your hand over the grill will help you determine if it’s hot enough. Hold the palm of your hand about four inches above the coals and/or grate. Count the seconds it takes until it becomes too hot to hold your hand there. Secret #30: Two seconds is approximately 375-400 degrees F, three is 350-375 degrees, four seconds is 300-350 degrees and five seconds is between 200-300 degrees F. For most recipes and grilling purposes, you’ll want the grill to be in the 375-400 degree range.
Foods best cooked over direct heat: boneless poultry and meat, skewers, burgers, hot dogs, steaks, vegetables (whole or sliced), fruit, bread slices
Foods best cooked over indirect heat: bone-in poultry and meat such as ribs, whole chickens or turkeys.
Once the grill is hot enough, put the steak (or other cut of meat or poultry) on the grill.
Let’s talk about timing. Bone-in cuts of meat and poultry will take a bit longer to cook than boneless and can be seared first over direct heat and then moved to the indirect heat to finish cooking. Thinner cuts will cook much more quickly than thicker cuts, so keep that in mind if you’re cooking steaks and prefer one that is more rare/well done. Vegetables and fruit cook in a flash. Skewers and kabobs cook much more quickly than whole pieces.
Ribs need to be cooked slowly for a long time over even heat. If the temperature spikes, the meat can dry out.
Secret #31: Once you put the food on the grill, don’t be tempted to turn it a bunch of times. Let is stay on the grill to get a good sear on the first side, then turn over once. Resist the temptation to keep turning it over and over again.
Secret #32: When preparing and cooking skewers, make sure the food isn’t too crammed together on the skewer or on the grill. It needs to be close enough so it stays juicy and doesn’t become too dry, but not so close it takes a long time to cook or steam.
Secret #33: Put the lid on the grill to keep the heat in, but leave the vent open so the charcoal or flame doesn’t go out.
When is the food done? A lot of times experience is the best way to know when food is done cooking. Secret #34: But it’s also a good idea to buy an inexpensive instant read thermometer. It will tell you pretty quickly if the internal temperature is high enough.
Medium-rare beef will be about 150 degrees F on a meat thermometer. Poultry should be cooked to 180 degrees, pork and lamb are cooked when they reach 160 degrees.
Secret #35: Remember that food will continue cooking a bit once it’s off the grill. And in fact, you should let meat and poultry rest for about 15 minutes to allow the juices to be reabsorbed. You can lightly cover it to keep the heat in, but it might sacrifice the nice crust a bit.
Steak is one of those things that when done correctly is magical, and if done incorrectly is horrible. Secret #36: A good way to gauge if a steak is cooked properly (rare, medium, well, and in-between) is to use your hand. Bring your pointer finger to your thumb loosely in an O shape. Feel the fleshy part of your palm just under the thumb. That’s what rare feels like. Bringing the middle finger to the thumb feels like medium; ring finger to thumb is medium-well, and pinky to thumb is well done. Secret #37: Don’t worry, it’s better to err on the side of rare. You can always put a rare steak back on the grill for a few minutes.
Flare-up? No problem! Secret #38: Just close the lid to tame the flames. Don’t spray water on it. It could cause splattering and burns. Better to sacrifice a burger than end up in the emergency room.
If the grill is not hot enough or the food isn’t cooking as quickly, simply add more coals for charcoal, turn flame up for gas grills. Secret #39: We like to keep an extra batch of charcoal going when we are grilling so we can add hot coals as needed. It’s particularly helpful if you’ll be grilling for a crowd. That’s another disadvantage of charcoal — it can go out before you’re finished cooking!
Certain foods might fall apart or fall through the grill grates. Secret #40: You can use a grill pan or make a little boat out of heavy-duty foil to keep that from happening. More delicate foods like fish are best cooked in a grill pan or special grilling basket.
And last, but not least, our menu!
Grilled Toasts and Brie, Figs and Jam
Grilled Kale with Sea Salt and Olive Oil
Grilled Marinated Flatiron Steak
Grilled Vegetable and Chicken Skewers
Grilled Peaches and Poundcake with Ice Cream
Grilled Toasts with Brie, Figs and Jam
1 large wheel brie
10-12 fresh figs
1 loaf artisan bread, cut into 1/2-inch slices
olive oil, for brushing
Brush slices of bread with olive oil. Grill over direct heat for a 1-2 minutes each side until toasted. Transfer to a serving platter. Rub grate with paper towel soaked in a little oil. Place whole wheel of brie and figs on the grill. Turn the bried and figs after a few minutes. The brie will be done when the inside feels jiggly when pressed gently with tongs. Carefully transfer brie and figs to a serving platter and serve with the grilled toasts and jam.
Grilled Kale with Sea Salt and Olive Oil
2 bunches kale (I used Lacinato Kale)
1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
coarse sea salt
Wash kale and pat dry. Brush the leaves with olive oil. Working in batches, cook the whole leaves on a hot grill for a few minutes per side. The leaves will darken in places and even become a little crispy. Transfer to a serving bowl. Remove the hard stems if desired and tear the grilled kale into bite-size pieces. Season with coarse sea salt and serve warm or at room temperature.
Grilled Veggie Skewers
assorted cubed vegetables such as zucchini, onion, and bell pepper
salt and pepper
bamboo skewers, pre-soaked in water for 30 minutes
Have a hot grill ready. Place the vegetables on the skewers. Brush with a little olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Place skewers on grill and let cook for 3-4 minutes per side. Serve warm.
Grilled Marinated Flat Iron Steak
Can be prepared in 45 minutes or less but requires additional unattended time.
2-to-2 1/2 pound Flatiron steak (London broil or flank steak can be substituted)
4 large garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried basil, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
2/3 cup olive oil
Whisk all marinade ingredients together in a bowl.
Put the meat in a large resealable plastic bag and pour marinade over it. Seal bag, pressing out excess air, and set in a shallow dish. Marinate meat, chilled, turning bag once or twice for several hours.
Remove meat from marinade and discard the marinade. Have a hot grill ready. Cook meat for 9 to 10 minutes on each side, or until it registers 135°F. to 140°F., on a meat thermometer for medium-rare meat. (This may vary according to the thickness of the meat.) Transfer meat to a cutting board and let stand 10 minutes. Cut meat diagonally across the grain into thin slices.
Grilled Peaches and Poundcake with Ice Cream
4 large peaches, peeled if desired, halved and pit removed
1 pound cake loaf, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 pint premium ice cream
Have a hot grill ready. Rub the grates lightly with oil. Place the peaches on the grill, cut-side down for 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter or bowl. Clean grill grate with wire brush, if needed. Rub again with oil. Place the pound cake slices on the grill. Grill for about 1 minute and carefully turn over and grill for another minute. Gently remove from the grill. Serve warm with the grilled peaches and a scoop of ice cream. Yield: 8 servings
Now I want to hear your grilling secrets! What’s your go-to grilling favorite? Are you a summer-only or year-round kind of griller? Will you be grilling this weekend for Labor Day?
P.S. — Like secrets? Find all the posts in this series here.