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Cheat Sheet

Grilling For Dummies

From Grilling For Dummies by John Mariani, Marie Rama

Grilling is one of the most popular and enjoyable social activities that surrounds the enjoyment of good food and friends. But if you’re just starting out in the wonderful world of grilling, it can seem intimidating at first. To help you get started, check out some guidelines on shopping for a grill, learn the two basic methods of grilling, and read some helpful tips for grilling success.

Tips for Choosing a Charcoal or Gas Grill

Because the two most popular grills are vastly different, buyers are faced with a difficult question: Should I buy charcoal or gas? If you're in the middle of this great grill debate, don't worry. The following list, which compares the major features of those two basic types of grills, can help you make a decision:

  • Cost: Gas has a much larger initial investment, from $150 up to $5,000 and more! Charcoal grills, on the other hand, fall into the $50 to $450 range.

  • Flavor: Because taste is so subjective and personal, the debate will continue forever regarding whether charcoal or gas grilling produces superior flavor. Multitudes of taste tests have demonstrated that most people can't tell the difference between the two. However, despite the many advances in the gas grill industry, a charcoal grill still gives a better — or at least, different — flavor than a gas grill.

  • Temperature capabilities: Because consumers have demanded grills that can achieve the kind of searing and light char that has in the past been possible only at professional steakhouses, BTUs and heat have been increased dramatically.

    Charcoal grills, for example, can go above 500 degrees, so they cook food faster and sear better. The only caveat with these grills is that you must watch your food closely. A gas grill usually stays below 500 degrees, and so food takes longer to cook. However, some gas models, including those from Weber, now have embedded burners that can reach 900 degrees.

  • Convenience: Convenience is a major factor for most people. Many folks are often pressed for time these days, particularly during the week, and use a gas grill during the week and a charcoal grill for the weekends.

  • Ease of lighting the grill: Gas grills are a snap to light. You simply turn on the gas, push the igniter button, and adjust the control to high. Wait about 10 minutes, and you're ready to cook.

    Many people would argue otherwise, but charcoal grills are not difficult to light. The fact is that charcoal grills are extremely easy to light and take only about 30 minutes to reach a medium stage of heat. Using a chimney starter can shave another 15 minutes off that time.

  • Ease of maintaining the temperature: Gas grills have adjustable flame controls, so turning the heat up or down is as simple as turning a knob; they also offer a steady supply of heat. Charcoal grills, on the other hand, are more difficult to manage. They usually come with a damper control that allows you to adjust the amount of oxygen and therefore the amount of heat and fire in the grill, but adjusting the heat to your liking takes more attention than a simple turn of a knob.

  • Practicality for cold winter months: Because a gas grill requires so little effort to use, you can grill with it year-round. Building a fire isn't fun when outdoor temperatures drop, so most people are far less inclined to grill out during the off-season with a charcoal grill.

  • Ease of grill maintenance: Gas grills are easy to clean and maintain because they don't have the sooty build-up or the ash deposits left by a charcoal grill. Charcoal grills, on the other hand, require more scrubbing to remove the soot, burned on fat, and ashes.

  • Cosmetic appeal: This one's a tie. You have dozens of attractive grills to choose from, whether you're cooking with charcoal or gas. Grills come in all sorts of styles, including high-tech, contemporary, gleaming stainless steel, or wonderful bright-colored porcelain enamel. Choose from bright red, cobalt blue, or teal. Even painted gas grills come in colors like hunter green or burgundy.

Direct versus Indirect Grilling

If your grilling experience is limited to roasting a hot dog on a branch over an open fire when you were a kid at camp, you've just scratched the surface of what can be a very exciting (and somewhat intimidating) way to cook. To start your grilling journey, two key terms to know are direct and indirect — the two basic methods of grilling.

Searing food with direct, no-frills grilling

Direct grilling means that the food is placed on the grill directly over the full force of the heat source, whether it's charcoal, hardwood, or gas. (See the figure below.) Just about every food, from meats to vegetables, can be grilled directly over fire, including hamburgers, hot dogs, pork chops, lamb chops, boneless chicken breasts, beef tenderloins, and all types of fish and shellfish.

Grilling over direct, intense heat sears the food, coating its exterior with a tasty brown crust that's loaded with flavor. Steamed or boiled foods don't have this flavor advantage, nor do foods that are stir-fried or microwaved. The techniques of sautéing, deep-frying, roasting, and broiling create this crusty effect, but grilling rewards you with a seared crust and the extra benefit of smoky flavoring that comes from the charcoal, wood chips, or hardwood chunks.

The primary difficulty with direct grilling is that you must watch your food closely to prevent it from burning.

On a charcoal grill, the coals should be spread in a solid layer that extends about 1 to 2 inches beyond the edges of the food. In most cases, the grill grid — the metal latticework you place the food on — is placed 4 to 6 inches from the heat.

The placement of coals depends on the type of grilling you're doing. [Credit: ©Liz Kurtzman]
Credit: ©Liz Kurtzman
The placement of coals depends on the type of grilling you're doing.

Staying away from the heat: Indirect grilling

Indirect grilling grills foods slowly, off to one side of the heat source, usually over a drip pan in a covered grill (see the figure above). Indirect grilling has a multitude of advantages:

  • It slows down the cooking process. How many times have you used direct grilling to cook chicken and ended up with skin charred beyond recognition and meat that's practically raw in the center? With indirect grilling, food is cooked in a covered grill by heat that never directly touches it, and is comparable to oven roasting.

  • Indirect cooking actually gives you two types of fires (or two levels of heat) in one grill. You have a direct fire that can be used to sear food and an indirect fire to cook food slowly and thoroughly.

  • Indirect grilling eliminates the possibility of dangerous flare-ups. Fat drips from the food into the drip pan, rather than onto the hot coals, lava rocks, or ceramic briquettes.

Indirectly grill any large cuts of meat or whole birds, poultry pieces, pork tenderloins, ribs, or large roasts for delicious results.

6 Top Tips for Grilling

Before you begin grilling, here are some general tips that you should always keep in mind for the sake of safety, preparation, and getting the best results.

  • Practice patience with your fire. Never put food on a grill that isn't ready. Be sure to take your time getting the fire going, making sure that the coals are uniformly ashy gray. And remember that not all foods take well to the same fire or the same temperatures. Check your recipe or your grill manual to find out what temperature you need for each type of food.

  • Organize your grill space. Set up a small table next to the grill with all your ingredients, utensils, serving platters, and so on. Grilling can proceed quickly, and so you have to be ready to serve food when it's at its peak.

  • Flavor your food. Grilling a hamburger, a steak, or some fish on the grill is simple and wonderful all on its own. But to add flavor to the food and seal that flavor in is the mark of a master griller. Marinating, which is a liquid flavor enhancer, adds moisture and is great for almost all foods. Oils are great for keeping delicate foods moist on the grill, and rubs help create a nice crispy crust.

  • Don't skimp on fuel. Be sure to build a fire that won't lose its heat before you finish grilling. This is especially important with a charcoal grill. Even though you can always replenish your coals, it's better to use too many than not enough. Just remember to spread the coals about 2 inches beyond the edges of the food, and if you do replenish the coals, you must wait until they turn ashen gray — usually about 20 minutes — before you get back to your ideal heat.

  • Police the fire! A fire changes constantly and demands your attention at all times. At the beginning of the heating process, coals will glow and have a flame above them. When you add food, you'll likely have a small to large flare-up, so monitor the cooking closely at that time. If you leave the grill with fire licking the sides of the food, you may come back to a charred meal.

    Later on, when the fire has died down, you want to maintain a consistent heat so the food cooks evenly. Replenishing the coals if they start to lose their glow and diminish in size is usually necessary at least once. You may need to replenish more times throughout a long cooking time.

  • Figure out when food is done. Unfortunately, overcooked food doesn't have a reverse gear to take it back to rare, and an overdone piece of meat is a crying shame. So be sure to hover over your grill and check the food often. To test for doneness, make a small cut in the center of the food so you can peek inside. Test frequently for doneness a few minutes before the end of the estimated cooking time. Use an instant-read thermometer for thick chops, roasts, and whole poultry.

    You should also gauge the searing on the outside of the food. Some folks love a black char and others prefer a light one. However, if you let the fire flare up too much, you may just get a coal-black exterior and a blood-rare interior.

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