Cook It Up!
In this final installment of the Grilling Primer, I’ll cover basic methods of cooking on a grill. What you really need to know about your heat source is where it’s located and how hot it is. In other words, direct vs. indirect cooking. First let’s discuss temperature or how hot the fire is.
Many cookbooks give pretty vague instructions regarding temperature when it comes to grilling (of course, not the books that I write!). Words like hot, medium-hot, etc. are most often used in books on outdoor cooking referring to the temperature at the grate. Sometimes you may get actual temperatures, or perhaps you come across the “hand method”. The hand-method refers to the length of time you can hold your hand an inch or two above the cooking grate (count one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, etc.). Here is a comparison of the three methods:
|Heat Level||Temperature||Hand Method|
|Hot||450° F to 500°F||2 seconds or less|
|Medium-Hot||400° F to 450°F||3 to 4 seconds|
|Medium||350° F to 400°F||4 to 5 seconds|
|Medium-Low||300° F to 350°F||6 to 8 seconds|
|Low||Below 300° F||More than 10 seconds|
Side Note: using this chart, you can now convert your outdoor cooking recipes to indoor cooking if for some reason you cannot cook outdoors. Think grill pan or broiler. Boiler you say? Why yes, think of your broiler as an upside down grill!
This leads us to the next question – where does the heat come from?
Direct Heat Cooking
Direct heat cooking is pretty much Grilling 101. You have heat, a grate over the heat, and food on the grate above the heat. Usually the grill is uncovered. This method is great for steaks, cut-up chicken, burgers, hot dogs, fish, vegetables – you get the idea. Basic backyard grilling — WOO HOO!
Indirect Heat Cooking
This method of cooking opens up a world you may have yet discover when cooking outdoors. When cooking on a grill with indirect heat, the heat source, be it gas or charcoal, is off to the side and not directly under the food. When you do this and close the grill cover, you are in a sense creating an oven. This allows for longer and slower cooking. Meats, such as roasts, benefit greatly with this type of cooking. They are allowed to cook through before the outside turns to cinder. Additionally, indirect cooking allows you to bake on your grill. Did someone say grilled cookies?
To accomplish indirect cooking with a gas grill is fairly simple; light the grill leaving one burner turned off. Put the food on the grate above the unlit burner. Controlling temperature is a matter of turning the knobs to the desired level of heat.
For a charcoal grill, it is almost just as simple. After you have lit your charcoal, instead of spreading the coals out in a single layer, divide them in half and pile on opposite sides of the grill (you will want about 20 to 25 briquettes in each pile). If you love accessories (and I know you do if you love to grill), get yourself some charcoal baskets. Place a large drip pan (a foil baking pan) in the center of the two piles of coals, and put the cooking grate in place. You are going to cook your food in the center of the grate over the drip pan. Temperature control is handled by opening and closing the vents on the grill… the more oxygen that the coals get, the hotter they will burn.
The tricky part about indirect cooking on a charcoal grill is adding more fuel. If you are going to be cooking something longer than 50 to 60 minutes, you’ll need to add more smoldering coals. As I mentioned in part 2, Fuel & Fire, the best way to accomplish this is with a chimney starter. The part of this that gets tricky is getting the lit charcoal onto the piles of dying charcoal. The pain-in-the-ass way to this is to remove the food and the grate then add to the piles of charcoal. That’s okay once in awhile. The easiest way to do this is with a hinged grate to let you access the coals. If you use a kettle grill, Weber makes just this type of grate.
And there you have it! You are now armed with the basic knowledge to get you cooking outdoors. Don’t be intimidated by outdoor cooking. After all, what other type of cooking requires you to have something delicious to drink while you cook?
If you have enjoyed this Grilling Primer, please leave a comment and pass it on to a friend. Thanks!
I went over types of The Grill in part one of this Grilling Primer; and Fuel and Fire in part two. Now before we do any cooking, we need to be sure to have the right equipment. There are a lot of baskets, holders, spits and other things that, while fun, aren’t absolutely necessary.
Wire Grill Brush – the key to grilling happiness is a clean grill grate – the cleaner the grate, the less food will stick to it. A lot of wire brushes also come with a scraping tool. Use the brush and scraper to get rid of all the left behind burnt on goodness.
Long Handled Tongs – the absolute, most important tool next to the grill. Use them for arranging hot coals, lifting hot grates, and of course – moving and turning food on the grill. Please use tongs instead of a fork for moving and turning the food – every time a piece of meat is stabbed with a fork, the juices run out from the nice sear that you just put on your meat. Make sure they lock for easy storage.
Long Handled Slotted Spatula – how else are you going to turn those juicy burgers and tasty fish? The slots help reduce the drag under whatever it is you’re flipping.
Mitts – better to cook the food and not your hands and forearms. Make sure they are flame retardant/resistant.
Instant Read Thermometer – to let you know when you have reached grilling perfection, rather than over-cooked shoe leather. For roasts and larger cuts of meat, consider a remote digital probe thermometer that can be left in with the grill lid closed. The more you open the lid to check how it’s doing, the more heat escapes and the longer it will take to finish.
Foil Pans – cheap and disposable and should always be on hand. Perfect for transporting raw and cooked food – two pans equal no washing and no cross-contamination.
Fire Extinguisher – just in case.
Nice to Have, but Not Necessary
Metal Skewers – personally, I prefer bamboo. Just be sure to soak them in water for an hour before using… yes, they catch on fire.
Grill Baskets – so smaller items don’t slip through the grate.
Rib Racks (but if you plan to cook a lot of ribs, they save time and valuable grilling space).
In the final installment of this Grilling Primer, we’ll cover Cooking Methods.
Okay, so I covered the different types of grills in The Grill, part 1 of this Grilling Primer. Now let’s get some fire goin’! In this section, I’ll go over the different types of fuel and how to get it lit.
Fueling the Fire
If you really want to know about gas, go see Hank Hill at Strickland Propane for your propane and propane accessories. Generally speaking, gas heat is pretty easy to start and control. Start by lifting the cover of the grill, then open the gas valve and turn the temperature control knob to the ignite position. Using the starter button, clicker or long match, light the fire. Set the knobs to the desired temperature, preheat the grill for 5 to 10 minutes, and you’re ready to start cooking.
Cooking with charcoal, on the other hand, has a few variables. My dad would have me believe that lighting charcoal is an art form or skill that requires many years of training. Although there is a little bit of trial and error, it’s pretty easy.
Briquettes vs. Lump Coal:
Charcoal briquettes are available in most grocery and hardware stores year-round. Once lit, you must wait for all of the briquettes to ash over before cooking, about 25 to 35 minutes. This ensures that chemicals used in forming the briquettes have burned off. Briquettes, because of their compressed nature, will burn longer than will hardwood charcoal. However, when you have to add more to your coals for longer cooking times, you must let the new briquettes ash-over before you continue cooking.
Some briquettes have the starter fluid built into them and are ready-to-light. Personally, I don’t like to use the self-lighting variety because even after they have ashed over, they can still leave an off taste to the food. Plus, every good griller knows that it’s all about time and patience.
You can even find some briquettes that have wood chips in them to help “flavor” your food… UGH!
Lump coal or hardwood charcoal seems to be growing in popularity and is more widely distributed than before. Lump coal ignites quicker, burns hotter, and is cleaner (and greener) than briquettes. Once it has reached the desired cooking temperature, you can start cooking. This type of charcoal is ideal for foods that cook longer than one hour because more can be added to the already hot coals anytime without waiting for them to ash-over.
Clearly, this section is for charcoal grills… at any rate, I hope that’s clear or you shouldn’t be playing with fire..
If you are going to use it beware that IT IS VERY FLAMMABLE. To ignite your charcoal make a nice neat pile in the middle of the fire grate or the bottom of the grill. Squirt the lighter fluid on the charcoal making sure to get it all. Snap the lid back on and move the can away from the grill (duh). Light with a long match or clicker. Don’t worry if all of the coals are not lit – they will light, just give them time. This is the perfect time to go grab a beer or blend up some margaritas. Even though it may seem like a cool idea, DO NOT ADD MORE STARTER FLUID TO LIT OR HOT COALS. Allow at least 25 to 35 minutes before putting any food on the grill to be sure that all of the fluid has burned off. Once the coals have ashed over, scatter them in a single layer (please wear a mitt and use tongs). Place the cooking grate on the grill and commence to grilling. Store the starter fluid in a well-ventilated area away from the grill or any other heat source (again, duh).
This starter is simply the best, cleanest, greenest and my preferred method to lighting charcoal. Charcoal chimneys are available in most any hardware store or any store that sells grills and is essentially a metal canister with a handle and no top and bottom. Using no fluids or electric starters, they are the easiest and quickest starter to use. Simply add a couple of crumpled up newspapers to the bottom and fill the canister with charcoal. Place the chimney on the fire grate (not the cooking grate) and light the newspaper with a match. Let the charcoal burn for 10 to 15 minutes, and then carefully pour the hot coals onto the cooking grate. Put on a mitt and arrange coals in a single layer with a pair of long-handled tongs. Another benefit of the chimney is if you are going to be cooking something for more than 45 minutes to an hour, you can start another batch of coals without disturbing what’s cooking.
And there you have it. Next up in the primer is Cool Tools.
One of the wonderful things about living in Southern California is the ability to grill outdoors year-round. However, since Memorial Day is the start of grilling season in the rest of the country, I thought I would kick off the season with a four-part primer on grilling: The Grill, Fuel & Fire, Cool Tools, and Cooking Methods.
The good news is you don’t need a fancy stainless steel gas grill that launches rockets. I have developed and written over 500 grilling recipes and all were cooked on a single-burner portable gas grill (I love my Weber-Q!) or a kettle-style charcoal grill (a 22.5-inch Weber kettle) on my apartment balcony. (insert cheesy grilling demo pic)
Choosing a Grill
What you need to know: It needs to get hot! That said, there are essentially two types of grills: gas and charcoal; and like anything, they both have pros and cons and as I stated, I have both and use each for different cooking methods.
Gas grills are definitely the most convenient… you turn on the gas, light it, select your temperature, and start cooking. They come as simple as having a single heating element to having three or more separate burners so you can have controlled heat zones while you cook. There are, of course, a lot of bells and whistles available with gas grills including side burners and rotisseries. It is also much easier to control and adjust the temperature when cooking with gas – just turn the knob.
Gas grills are usually large, and for the most part stationary, although some manufacturers are starting to introduce efficient portable models. When buying a gas grill the most important thing to remember is to buy the grill you can afford that will get the hottest. A general rule to remember is that the amount of BTUs (British Thermal Units) a grill should have is about 100 BTUs per square inch (95- to 115-BTUs). In other words, if your grill has 350 square inches of cooking surface, it should be putting out at least 35,000 BTUs. If it doesn’t get hot enough, you won’t achieve that wonderful sear on your food that is the hallmark of great grilled food.
Some would argue that charcoal grilling is grilling at it most primal level and the only way to grill. Technologically speaking, they are pretty much the same as they were 30 years ago. However, covered charcoal grills can be even more versatile than some gas grills. Look for the grill that has the largest cooking surface that you safely have room for (don’t squeeze it onto the balcony of your apartment like I have).
Before buying a charcoal grill, know what kind of cooking you want to do. Do you just want to cook a couple steaks and chicken breasts once in a while? Will you want to cook a whole chicken over indirect heat? Smoke ribs? If you want to cook a beer can chicken, you need a grill with a cover tall enough for the chicken to stand on the can.
There are basically three different varieties to choose from beyond a few bricks and a wire grate.
Hibachis are small, coverless grills that are ideal if you want to cook a couple of skewers or maybe a couple of steaks for you and a friend. They are usually made of cast-iron and have one to three adjustable grates.
Braziers are the charcoal grill that we all grew up with. Basically a pan for the charcoal with a grilling grate set up on wobbly aluminum legs that could collapse at anytime. Now that that you have the picture, there are sturdier models out there and many have features such as adjustable grates for temperature control. Braziers are usually, light-weight, portable, and come in many shapes and sizes.
Kettles are usually larger, and therefore, not so portable grills with dome-shaped covers. Because of there unique shape they are the most efficient of the charcoal grills when covered. The domed cover helps to circulate and concentrate the heat allowing food to cook more quickly when the grill is covered. A kettle grill will allow for the most cooking and smoking methods.
Now that you’re set up with the information you need to purchase your new grill, in the next installment we’ll cover Fuel & Fire.