Grilling is steeped in history and tradition, and as with any centuries-old method, technique is key. Because temperatures can vary dramatically on different styles and brands of grills, it’s important to develop a feel for the fire, rather than rigidly follow instructions. Once you master temperatures and timing, the sky’s the limit. Here are some tips.
If you’re using charcoal, start the fire with a charcoal chimney. For a direct fire, spread an even bed across the bottom of the grill. For two-zone grilling (more on that in a minute), pile the unlit charcoal along one side of the grill. Fill the chimney with coal, crumple newspaper, stuff it below the coals, and light the paper. Wait about 10 minutes for the charcoal to become fully ignited, then, wearing heatproof gloves, carefully pour the lit charcoal evenly over the unlit charcoal.
Always start cooking with a clean grill to avoid flare-ups or an outright fire and to prevent food from sticking or tearing. The best time is about 10 minutes after lighting, when the grill is really hot. Brush the grate with a hard-wire grill brush or wadded foil held by tongs. Spray it with cooking oil or lightly dip a clean towel in a little bit of vegetable oil and rub the grates. Repeat until the grates are free of all debris.
Direct grilling, comparable to sauteing, is fast cooking. Meat, fish, and vegetables, set over the coals, will be roasted outside, moist and juicy inside.
Two-zone grilling allows food to build caramelization and take on an element of roasting. The food is cooked by the heat of the coals along with the ambient air and smoke generated when the cover is closed.
Maintaining the grill temperature is key. When the coals are at their peak, the fire is about to die. This is the time to add more coals or wood, carefully removing the grate or sliding it to one side with heatproof gloves, and evenly spreading more charcoals across hot coals, being careful not to smother the fire. The temperature will drop, but it will come back to full strength quickly.
Let meat or poultry sit at room temperature for 30 to 40 minutes before grilling so it cooks more evenly.
Dry rubs are a good way to add flavor, but don’t apply a rub more than four hours before cooking because the salt will start to cure the meat. When you are ready, lightly sprinkle the rub on, then lightly pat it.
Grill vegetables one type at a time, because they don’t all cook at the same speed. Crowding the grill can keep oxygen from getting to the fire, ultimately leading it to die down if you’re not paying close attention.
Grilling fish fillets can be challenging because they are so flaky when cooked; it makes it hard to flip and to remove them from the rack without everything falling apart. The grill should be super clean and you need a flexible spatula. The ability of this handy tool to bend allows you to get up snug against the grill and lift your fish off.
Fruit is pretty easy to grill. Many fruits are firm and easy to handle when warmed or cooked on the coals. Bananas have a lot of natural sugar, which means they burn easily. So watch them carefully or keep them in their peels while grilling, which makes them easier to handle.
Excerpted with permission from “Grill to Perfection: Two Champion Pit Masters Share Recipes and Techniques for Unforgettable Backyard Grilling," by Andy Husbands, Chris Hart, and Andrea Pyenson