Kevin Purdy —There’s something about grilling food outdoors that’s both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s great to commune with your food in such a straight-up way, but what if it goes wrong? We’re here to help overcome your fear of the flame, or step up your grilling game, with these 10 techniques.
Photo by adactio.
10. DIY marinades
Not every cut can be filet mignon, and some meats, like pork, almost always deserve a lengthy dip in some flavor-infusing sweet and salty stuff. Your grocery store wants to sell you a 12 oz. bottle of sickly-sweet stuff for a hefty markup. But you’ve got oil, acids, and flavoring agents at home, so learn to make a basic marinade, and open up your grill to a whole cabinet of ideas. You won’t turn super-tough meat into tender tournadoes, but you’ll learn a lot about how to impart flavor to big, seemingly impenetrable cuts of the good stuff.
9. Steak improvement through salt
It makes your grandmother cry, but totally covering cheap, firm meat with salt, especially cheaper cuts of steak, just an hour before grilling or otherwise cooking is like giving it a really, really deep Shiatsu rubdown. The salt you cover the surface with—and then wipe off, rinse, and pat dry—denaturizes the long protein strands and mixes up the moisture spread in your steak. That turns them, in the Steamy Kitchen blog’s words, from cheap “choice” steak into Gucci “Prime” steak.
8. Chill soda, beer, or wine in two minutes
Waiting for meat to cook leaves you with a good amount of time to stand around and, well, drink something. But what if you forgot to drop your Coke/Sam Adams/Pinot grigio in the cooler or fridge before you cranked up the coals? Mythbuster Adam Savage, one of our favorite interviewees, explains a last-minute chilling technique at Metafilter: Spin it around in some heavily salted ice water. Savage claims it’s based in science instead of backyard lore, and I believe him—it’s amazed many a dinner party host with a “I forgot to” dilemma.
7. Easy grill cleaning
Maybe you’re pulling out the grilling can for the first time this weekend, and … eee-yuck. Here’s what you do. Swipe off whatever big, grungy stuff you can with a stiff (preferably wire) brush and then toss it in your oven on self-clean. Now that a majority of the tough stuff is off, or at least loosened, you probably won’t have to swing for any specialty tools—a wad of aluminum foil can suffice. For light, between-meal cleaning, rubbing a face-down half onion on a heated grill is an eco-friendly way to get in and around the bars without burning your hands or leaving non-compatible scents for your food.
6. Use your broiler as a backup
Unless you live in Hawaii, you really can’t count on the weather to hold for your grilling just because you bought buns and paper plates. If it’s just a drizzle and you can make do with the garage door open, go to it. If the weather or temperature really put a crimp in your style, or you just lack for grill space, consider braising and browning with your broiler. Slow-cooking the food in liquid, then crisping the exterior with a quick broil, gives you surprisingly grill-like results. For big groups or days when it just doesn’t seem like standing outside is feasible, consider the tiny grill your already own in your kitchen.
5. Get started with smoking
There exists a comfortable middle ground between having spent a summer working for the barbecue kings of Kansas City and just wanting a little hickory flavor in your food. Hank Shaw, who’s one serious meat fan, knows exactly where that sweet spot. Using just two grocery-store-standard aluminum pans and some wood chips, he turns a kettle grill into a smoker, one that turns out certifiably tasty ribs with real smoke flavor. Like any barbecue exercise, the real secret ingredients are time, patience, and a tasty rub or sauce.
4. Make your own BBQ sauce
You’ve already put the time and care into tending to your flame, your meat, and your sides, so why settle for a bottle of stuff found next to the ketchup, laced with corn syrup? The BBQ Recipe Secrets blog runs down three basic sauces, covering the traditional tomato sauce, a Carolina-esque vinegar version, and a basic mustard variant. We’ve made this tomato sauce template and been happy to tweak it in different ways, which you can, too. Photo by INeedCoffee / CoffeeHero.
3. Use a cheat sheet
We like Real Simple’s grid-style grilling cheat sheet, as it provides both basic, reassuring timings for a standard grill that won’t leave anyone with undercooked food, and won’t turn out dried-out cinders or hockey pucks, either. It also helps you arrange items across your cooking surface, as you move items from direct flame heat to indirect, ambient cooking. Got another favorite, printable guide? Link it for everyone in the comments.
2. Know when meat is done
Unless you’ve got a serious instant-read thermometer, it’s a pain to keep stabbing your meal-to-be, or, even worse, cut it open, to determine just when it’s just at the edge of safe to eat. Skip the torture and use your hands. By touching your thumb to each of your fingers, and then pressing on your thumb muscle as it changes firmness, you’ll get an idea of how your steak should feel, moving from rare to well done as your thumb muscle moves from your index to your pinky finger. Whole chickens are a similar matter of intuitive touch, or, actually, a twist of the chicken leg. If the leg won’t move, it’s not quite ready—you want there to be a slight amount of tension, and then feel the joints release as you apply soft pressure.
1. Perfect burgers
We asked and our commenters responded about what makes the perfect grilled burger: Good meat, preferably ground while you watch, kept at room temperature right before grilling, and not pressed and overly handled. We’d just add that you shouldn’t try to compress your homemade patties into chain-restaurant-style discs, and that seasoning your patties with salt and pepper right before they hit the heat makes a big difference.
Our list covers a lot of what the average griller would cook up for their friends or family, but we’re certainly open to suggestions—especially vegetarian ideas and technique suggestions. And be sure to check out last year’s guide to becoming the memorial day grill master for more techniques and basic starter tips.