Grilling is more than a chance to don the “I’m the Chef” apron and pick up the fancy tools you got for Christmas. Those alone will not a grillmaster make. If you’ve ever wondered why restaurant food or professionally grilled food tastes so good, has lovely grill marks or that wonderfully crispy bark, it’s not just by happenstance. There are basic professional techniques that can easily be replicated on your own patio.
1: Prepare the Grill
The first step is to ensure that your grill is in clean and good shape. Once grilling season begins, take the time to assess any off season damage, leftover food debris or rust. This rule applies to all types of grills, whether gas, charcoal or electric. For gas grill owners, check the fuel tank, starter and the hoses and for electric grill owners ensure that the wiring isn’t damaged to avoid any short circuits. A clean grill allows for better heat transfer – better heat transfer leads to a better end result. A wire brush or brillo pad will do the trick for that dirty grate, but you might also want to heat the grill up and burn off some of the debris and then rub down with a large, dense ball of aluminum foil, too.
2: Choose Your Wood Carefully
The type of wood you choose for grilling impart distinctive flavors. Mesquite wood gives a slightly sweet and smoky flavor while oak imparts a smokier taste to your meat. Different types of woods burn at different temperatures. Mesquite gives a very hot fire which is perfect cooking fish, pork and ribs, while oak wood burns at a slight temperature which is perfect for vegetables and meats. Even if you’re using a charcoal or gas powered grill, you can still benefit from using wood smoking chips soaked in water and simmered atop your grill. When the grill is covered, the steam from the chips will lend flavor to the food.
3: Get the Grill Hot Before Starting
Don’t wait until the last minute to get the fire going. You will want to get the grill very hot, as this will help you to accomplish a couple of things. One, the grate of the grill will get hot enough that it will leave good grill marks on the protein or vegetable. These grill marks are just as important to the grilled flavor of the food as the seasonings you use. Also, having some of the coals or burners at a lower rate will allow for indirect heat. Many proteins will benefit from beginning on the hot side to achieve the grill marks and then moving to the indirect side to complete the cooking process.
When cooking large amounts of food at one time, you will want to start off with a very hot grill. Putting vast amounts of cold food on a hot grill will diminish the temperature of the grill and your results will be inconsistent.
4: Grease The Grill
You don’t need a fancy grilling mat or fish basket. Simply heat the grill up and brush the grate with vegetable oil. Soak several paper towels in vegetable oil or rub with shortening, then use tongs to spread evenly over the grill grate once it has been heated. This will work in a manner similar to stainless cookware. The oil will form a coating over the metal surface allowing food to be easily moved without disintegrating.
5: Prepare Ingredients for the Grill
While you certainly don’t want to leave proteins out in the sun for long periods of time, do remember to take the ingredients out of the refrigerator at least 20 minutes before you plan to grill. This is a twofold benefit. Room temperature food will grill more efficiently, and this resting period also allows for any moisture on the outer layers to evaporate, leaving a dry exterior which will brown nicely. For white meats that you want to make sure have a moist interior, brine them for several hours. This will end with a tender, juicy center. If the protein is a tougher cut, make diamond shaped hashmarks partially through the exterior on both sides and marinate. The marinade will help to break down the fibers of the meat and the hashmarks allow the marinade to penetrate effectively.
6: Let the Protein Rest
The worst thing you can do after beautifully grilling a protein is serve it right away. Whether it’s steak, brisket, chicken or wild game, it’s important to let the meat rest for at least ten minutes. This resting period allows the juices to be reabsorbed into the meat. Prematurely cutting into the protein will result in a plate full of juice, leaving the protein colorless and dry. Some choose to also add a little pat of butter love to the top of grilled steaks and ribs as well. This will leave you with a nice silky bite of meat once it’s time to dig in.
7: Working With Hamburgers
As health conscious as many of us are, burger grilling time is NOT the time to go out and purchase the more expensive 93 percent lean ground chuck. The natural fats are necessary as both a binder and a flavor enhancer. Burgers made with leaner meats are more likely to fall apart and will not be as easy to work with on the grill. Likewise, they will result in a much more dense, dry and less flavorful end result. Indulge a bit and purchase the 80 percent. Don’t go too far, though. I have found that meats below the 80 percent mark will have higher shrinkage and cause more flare ups.
8: Don’t Play With Food
Everybody has seen the grill master who feels it necessary to constantly move the food around the grill. This should be the first indicator of an amateur. Don’t move the food just because it’s fun or you don’t know what else to do. There is a scientific basis behind this. Moving food does not allow the surface of the food to caramelize where the grate comes into contact with the outer layer. This contact results in grill marks which are important to the flavor and texture of the product. For most proteins, you will want to work on a rotation that will allow for perfect diamond shaped grill marks. Place your food down at a 45 degree angle. Wait several minutes and turn 90 degrees. Wait several minutes and flip, also placing at 45 degree angle. Wait and rotate another 90 degrees. If the protein still needs indirect heat, move and place in that area of the grill, but otherwise leave it be. Don’t press down on steaks and burgers. This eliminates the juice from the protein and it won’t be reabsorbed for a nice juicy finish. Additionally, squeezing juice and fat out onto your coals or gas burner can lead to flare ups, which can lead to charred food and a disappointing finish. Whatever you do, don’t walk away from the grill. Accidents can and will happen. Take precautions, use common sense and have fun!