Summertime is grilling time. What would a 4th of July celebration be without firing up the old grill for hot dogs, burgers, steaks, BBQ, ribs…. Few things are better than gilled food, fresh off the coals. Grilled food has a taste of the primitive, that appeals to the Hunter-Gatherer instincts that still reside within us. And it is not just the food. Grilling is a much of a social function as it is culinary. Anytime the grill is going, it’s a good bet there will be more than just one person attending. In the past, grilling has had religious significance, and many a tribal and social dispute has been settled peacefully simply by firing up the grill. Grilling drew our ancestors together after the Mammoth Hunt, and later buffalo hunts. Grilling was the catalyst for us giving up our nomadic existence, and establishing permanent homes, creating villages, and eventually cities.
In this article, I will take you on a journey through the world of grilling, from start to finish. You’ll learn how it started, how it evolved, how it’s done, and what tools and equipment you will need. I will show you little known techniques to make your food stand out from the others. And lastly I will suggest proper maintenance, cleaning, storage, and more….. Even if you fancy yourself a Master Griller, you may still learn something here, so grab a relaxing beverage, sit back and read on!
What Grilling Is, and Is Not…
It is common to list several cooking methods under the title of “Grilling”, but this is not accurate. There are many techniques that use grills, such as barbecuing, smoking, dehydrating, etc….these are not technically ‘grilling’. I won’t get into BBQ, smoking, or anything else here, because I have already done articles on these elsewhere on this site. We will be discussing grilling, and only grilling.
Grilling is the oldest, and most primitive form of cooking there is. It is simply placing meat, or other suitable food, over hot coals and fast-cooking it. Barbecuing is slow-cooking over a low heat, and involves the use of specific sauces and rubs. As a rule, barbecuing is a finishing technique used on smoked meat. Smoking is not even cooking, per se. It is placing food into a low-heat (less than 275ºF) environment filled with smoke from smoldering wood, for many hours. Grilling can overlap roasting, such as in the case of whole birds like turkeys, chickens, large cuts of meat like pork loin, shoulders, London Broil, but usually, grilling refers to thinner cuts like steak, pork chops, burgers, chicken breast fillets, etc… The defining characteristic is a med-high heat with no flame, and meats that will cook somewhat quickly.
To Grill A Mockingbird (or anything else….)
The basic principles of grilling are very easy to master. In fact, it is probably one of the easiest types of cooking there is. And, it requires the least amount of equipment. All you really need is a fire, and meat. A grill is nice to have, but not a necessity. Other things that are handy are a grate, long-handled tongs, a basting brush, and a wire brush for cleaning the grate and grill when you’re done.
Grills can be either plain charcoal/wood, or gas. The only difference between them is how they ignite the coals. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
Charcoal Grill: This grill consists of a simple kettle, or horizontal cylinder, with one or more grates. To use it, you just build a fire in the bottom, add wood or charcoal, and let it burn to coals. The advantages are they can be very inexpensive and easy to maintain, no moving parts to malfunction, and work incredibly well, even the cheap ones. Disadvantage…, well, I can’t really think of any, except maybe that you have to learn how to start a fire.
Gas Grill: Just like a charcoal grill with the addition of a propane tank, and tubing to carry the gas to the charcoal. The gas is only used to light the charcoal. The coals do the actual cooking. The advantages are they tend to be fancier than charcoal grills, with built-in shelves, an integral gas burner to cook sauces and side dishes on, wheels, and more. The disadvantages are (and this is a deal-breaker for me) that they put chemicals onto your charcoal that does affect the flavor of your food. Also, they are much more expensive, have more parts to malfunction, use a dangerous flammable substance, and are much heavier and less portable.
My preference, just like in smokers, is for a plain, old charcoal grill. If you are going to do it, do it the traditional way. Nothing beats real wood/charcoal for cooking. Of course, this is just my opinion. Charcoal grills can safely be taken and used almost anywhere outside, like on a balcony, a tailgate, outside your tent, can be small enough to fit in a backpack (Surprise!… a traditional Hibachi is just a small grill….), and doesn’t require a lot of peripheral things to operate.
What To Do With a New Grill: Seasoning, Accessories & More
Seasoning your grill. Whatever grill you choose, before using it, make sure to wash all the parts well with dishwashing soap, rinse well, dry them off and coat the entire inside surface, and the grates, with a good food-grade mineral or vegetable oil. Do not use olive oil because it contains natural salt that can be corrosive. It will make your grill rust. Once you have coated your grill, you need to fire it up with coals and get it very hot (400+ºF), and let it season for at least 30 minutes. Then, let it cool, clean, and re-oil it. Now, your grill s is ready to use and should last a lifetime. Re-season it every year. If chips in the outside finish appear (and they will after a few years), just touch them up with Rustoleum grill paint. Never leave a chip bare, because it will eventually rust through.
Next on the list of things you will need are the accessories. Some are required, and some are just nice to have handy. The first thing I would get if it dd not come with one is a good cover. Next, a chimney starter (more on that in the next section). You will also need a long-handled spatula that was made for using on grills (not the one in the kitchen that you flip eggs with…) to flip food with, and at least one good pair of long-handled tongs to grab stuff off the grill and reposition with. Tongs are also needed to reposition coals as needed. You will also need a set of good oven mitts, in case you have to grab something hot. Next, a spray bottle full of water, to dowse any flame-ups. And lastly for the required equipment, a small fire extinguisher for Type A and B fires. In the absence of a fire extinguisher, always keep a large, full box of baking soda handy to put out any flames that threaten to get out of control. It’s rare, but it does happen. Other things that are nice to have is a meat thermometer, and a temperature gauge for the grill. And always make sure you have plenty of rags or towels handy to wipe you hands and the tools off with. The finishing touch is to get you a chef’s hat and an apron saying, ”Head Cook…Death From Within…”
The next thing is to decide what fuel you are going to use. Most people use charcoal briquets, just because they are cheap, convenient and consistent. They burn evenly, and for a long, long time. Briquets are just sawdust that has been compressed into evenly-sized rectangular chunks. They light very good, burn well, and are easily stacked and arranged in the bottom of the grill. The downside is that you have no idea what kind of wood they are made from, but this really isn’t much of a problem, because you can throw smoke wood chips of hickory, mesquite, apple, right on top of the coals and they will flavor your food…not as much as smoking,
but the flavor will be there. Avoid ‘self-starting’ briquets. They are just charcoal that has been pre-soaked in lighter fluid, and the chemicals will get into your food. A third type is lump charcoal, which is just irregular lumps of wood that have been pre-burned. They work OK, but be advised that they burn very hot, and do not last long. These are best used for hot dogs and marshmallows. You can, of course, use real word chunks. Just allow them to burn down to coals (no flames at all…), then cook over them like charcoal. This has the advantage of adding wonderful flavors to your food, depending on what type of woods you use. Good choices are hickory, pecan, mesquite, or anything you would smoke food with. Never use soft woods like pine, cypress, evergreens, cedar, etc…the saps create harmful fumes. Never use wood that has been used to build things, like pallets, porches, etc…because they may have been treated with harmful chemicals, stains and paints. Also, be aware that some woods may burn hot and fast, so be ready with a spray bottle with water in case of flare-ups.
Now we are down to the meat or other foods you want to grill. For grilling, you want thinner cuts of meat, like steaks, sliced pork loin, chicken breasts, cut up chicken parts like leg quarters, thighs, wings, etc…, fish fillets or steaks, ham slices, sausages, hot dogs, burgers, pork chops, and other similar cuts. Grilling is fast-cooking, so if your food is too thick, it will char on the outside and be raw on the inside….a common amateur mistake. You can cook large pieces of food by lowering the heat, increasing the cooking times, and using a lid to hold heat and smoke in, but that is not grilling. It is roasting and smoking.
With the exception of hamburgers, hot dogs, and sausages, you should always brine or cure your meat for 12 to 24 hours before grilling. Grilling can dry food out quickly and brining/curing holds moisture and flavor inside the cells of the meat during cooking. Check out my previous articles for some great brine and cure recipes. Be sure to rinse all the brine/cure off before cooking, and never use the brine or cure to make marinades or sauces. Don’t let your pets have it…they will die. Throw it away.
We’ll discuss cooking techniques in the next section. But now, for the sake of argument, we’re cooked, feasted, and the grill is cooled down. Don’t leave it dirty, because it can ruin your wonderful cooking appliance. It’s OK to leave it overnight, but no longer than that. You can scrub, scrub, scrub away with dishwashing soap and a wire brush to clean everything, or use my favorite method. Pack up your grill and take it to a local manual car wash. Trust me, its worth the 75¢ for the convenience, and it does a better job. It will take you about 10 minutes, as opposed to 30+ minutes at home scrubbing. First, hit it with engine degreaser, then rinse it well. Then give it a good shot of detergent. Follow this with the hot water rinse with high pressure, to blow away anything remaining. Now, just wipe everything dry, cover it, and it is ready for the next feast. Don’t forget to blast the grates as well.
Grill Skill: 13 Essential Grilling Tips
Cooking on a grill is a lot like cooking on an indoor griddle It’s more of an art than a technique. Knowing when to turn food, when it’s done, and when to serve it takes practice. There are some tips (if these weren’t enough) that will help you serve professional-quality grilled foods:
- The best way to start your grill is with a chimney starter. They are cheap and very effective. It is basically a large aluminum cup with a handle and a mesh bottom. Just fill it with your briquets. Stuff old wadded up old newspapers, or for an especially satisfying experience, old utility and rent bills, in the bottom, set it on the grill, and light the paper. The briquets will light up and when you see them turning white at the top, they are ready. Just arrange them in the bottom of the grill and start cooking. Easy-Peasy, and all without the use of dangerous chemicals like starting fluids.
- Arrange coals properly.When arranging your coals, if your grill is big enough, set coals under one side of the grate, and leave 1/3 of the grate away from the heat, so you have a cool side to let the food rest after cooking, toast buns, or keep something warm without further cooking.
- Keep food at room temp before grilling. Except for fish and seafoods, it’s best to let your food warm to close to room temperature before cooking. This helps with even cooking inside and out. You will absolutely notice the difference.
- Most meats will shrink by about 25% during cooking, so size your burger patties accordingly, allowing for shrinkage. They should slightly larger than the bun when cooked. And don’t make them thicker than 3/4”, because when they shrink, they will get thicker. 3/4” will give you a 1” to 1-1/4” thick patty when cooked. Thinner patties cook better. You can always make a double-meat burger, or even a triple, if you want. Two thin patties are much better than one thick patty. Try making them about 1/2” thick. Any thinner, and they will probably break when you flip them.
- You can wrap corn-on-the-cob ears, or whole potatoes in foil and set them in the coals while you are cooking your meat. Start them about 20 minutes before you want to cook your food on the grill, and they will all be ready at about the same time.
- Very thick pieces should be butterfly-ed before grilling. Anything thicker than 2” will not cook evenly on a grill. It will be charred on the outside and raw inside.
- If you need a flat grill, outdoor stores usually have flat iron grills made to go on campfires. These work great on grills, and allow you to cook things that would otherwise fall through the grate, or tear up during cooking. You can also cover the grate with aluminum foil and poke small holes all over it, to make a disposable flat grill.
- You can wrap side dishes such as veggies and mushrooms in foil, with a pat of butter, and stick them in the coals while cooking. You can also buy a vegetable/fish cage for the grate. There’s nothing better than grilled veggies. Especially portabella mushrooms, mmmmh, mmmmh…..
- Do not flip your food back and forth a bunch of times during cooking. This dries the food out and can make it tough. You flip once, and only once. Your food is ready to flip when the cooked portion reaches halfway or more up the sides.
- You never want a flame under your food. Flame Broiling is a marketing ploy to explain why their burgers taste like cardboard. You want heat, not flames. Flames will char your food, carbonize it and make it taste worse than biting into a briquet. Fats from your meat or baste can drip onto the coals and ignite, especially when using wood chunks. This is where the spray bottle comes in. Lightly spray and flames that pop up until they go out. Don’t spray any more than you have to, because you don’t want to cool the coals down. If the flames get out of control, remove the food until you get control again.
- Basting is not necessary if you have prepped your food (brined) properly, and are grilling it correctly. It wont be cooking long enough for basting to really do anything, and it would require flipping the food several times during cooking, which will adversely affect the quality. Basting is best reserved for roasting and smoking, where the cooking times are much longer, and the food doesn’t have to be flipped.
- Do not pierce your food with a grill fork while cooking. This allows the juices, and flavor to run out, and dries your food. It is not necessary to see the color of the fluid to know when it is done. You can use a meat thermometer once to check the internal temperature. The food is done when the internal temperature is 160ºF or higher. For steaks, you can check for doneness by feeling them with your finger tip (clean of course). Compare this feeling to your palm. Rare will feel like the web portion of your palm, right between your thumb and 1st finger. Medium is about 3/4” towards your thumb. Well done is the meaty portion of your palm, right below your thumb.
- When your food is done, don’t just throw it on a plate and serve it. This is another amateur mistake. Cooking, as I explained earlier, causes the cells in the food to contract. They need time to recover. Always allow your food to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. You can set it on the cool side of the grill, and it will stay warm. Or, set it on a plate close to the grill, covered. Remember that juicy restaurant steak that gushed liquid when you cut into it? That was not a moist steak, It was a ruined steak that was not allowed to rest before serving. I send these back every time. When the fluid leaks out, so does the flavor. Try resting your food just once, and you will be amazed at the difference. If you cut into your meat and fluid gushes out, you didn’t rest it long enough. A little seepage is OK, but it should be minimal. You want the moisture in your meat, not on your plate.
How It All Started
Grilling food started soon after our Homo habilis ancestors figured out how to control fire, around two million years ago. The consensus is they discovered the joys of cooked meat by accident, most likely by finding the carcasses of animals killed in wildfires. They learned that not only was the meat super-delicious and had a better texture, but it was also easier to digest, and lasted longer. The techniques were passed down to Homo erectus, Homo neaderthalis, and finally, to Homo sapiens…us. Cooking food led to our forebears abandoning their nomadic ways in favor of permanent homes where larger grills could be established, animals could be raised instead of hunted, and crops planted instead of being gathered. This led to villages, and eventually cities. It could be rightly said that cooking is what civilized us. It is also what united us into clans, tribes, then citizens. Cooking became an important part of both social and religious functions. It is still with us today in the form of church suppers, board meetings, awards ceremonies, weddings, Confirmations, birthdays, holidays, etc…
And the really neat thing is that grilling hasn’t changed much from it’s inception. Sure, we have more fun tools, like a grill instead of an open fire, and using a grate instead of a stick to hold the food over the fire…but the basic process has not changed in two million years. A grilled steak today is pretty much the same grilled steak that Homo habilis ate, if it came from some form of bovine. Cool, huh?
After All Is Said And Done…
You’ve totally impressed your loved ones and guests with your grill expertise, everyone has eaten their fill, and rested. It’s best to let the coals go out on their own by letting the grill set overnight, but if you are in a hurry, you can dowse them with lots of water. Embers can burn for days, so be sure to get all of them. Drown the coals with water, stir them up, drown them again, stir again, then one more good soak. Stir them again and look for any embers. If you find any keep stirring and dowsing until they are all gone. Now, you can use a garden trowel and put the ashes in a non-combustable container like an old metal coffee can, or wrap them in used foil, and dispose of them in the trash can. Or, you can do what I do. If you have wisely used non-self-starting briquets, and avoided the use of starter fluids, other chemicals, or a gas grill ( I never use anything but straight briquets, and never use starter fluids…), you can spread the ashes in your yard or garden. They make outstanding alkaline fertilizer, and will greatly increase the heat in your jalapeño peppers, as much as several hundred Schofield Units. Waste not, want not…. Now, just take the grill to the car wash, hose it down, dry it and put it up. Or use your favorite cleaning methods. Remember, the job is never done until everything is cleaned and properly put away….
That’s all there is to professional-grade grilling. With a little practice, you can be right up there with the best. Be sure to check the website often for more great articles. As always,