Grilling over a charcoal barbecue is one of those classic skills that every guy should have. Yet many guys don’t take the time to learn the fundamentals.
In some ways it’s easy to see how that happens: when you’re outside on a sunny day, you’re drinking ice cold beer with your friends, maybe that dried out, leathery burger doesn’t taste that bad–if you add enough ketchup and mustard and wash it down with another beer. You’re still having a great time with your buddies. What more do you need?
The fact is that with just a little knowledge, you can improve your barbecuing chops by leaps and bounds. Here are few refresher tips to help improve your grilling technique…and your results.
1. Upgrade your fuel
Regular Kingsford Charcoal is the old standby, and it works fine. To take your coals to the next level, consider using Kingsford Competition Briquettes which are vegetable-based but still burn really smoothly. Or better yet, try hardwood lump charcoal. I like the lump charcoal from Lazzari. It’s a bit more temperamental than regular briquettes but the flavor is great. And secretly I enjoy the odd sizes and shapes you get in the bag–makes things more interesting and bit more like grilling over a wood fire.
2. Smoke ’em if you got ’em
The real beauty of grilled food is when you get that mouth-watering smoky taste. Even if you’re using regular briquettes, try adding some wood chips to enhance the smokiness of your meat or veggies. It can help turn regular barbecue into amazing barbecue with very little effort.
3. “10 and 2”
Who knew that the same numbers you learned in driver’s ed class were the secret to making perfect cross-hatch marks on your meat? To make beautiful diamond shaped marks, think of your grill as a clock face: when you first put the meat down, angle it toward “10”; then halfway through cooking that side, without flipping, turn it to “2” and cook the same side the rest of the way. When you flip it, repeat the same steps on the other side. You’ll get perfectly shaped cross-hatch marks every time. Check out this video from Jamie Purviance to see it in action.
4. Touch your meat (no, not like that…)
Really, this is one of the most important tips of grilling. Meat thermometers are fine, but they end up poking a hole in your meat and loosing precious juices. The best gauge for knowing how cooked your meat is, is by feeling it. As meat cooks, it becomes firmer. And the more you practice, the better you’ll be able to gauge how cooked it is just by feeling it.
A great trick is using your own hand as a comparison. The fleshy pad of your palm just below your thumb is a perfect analog to how meat feels at different degrees of done-ness. On your left hand, lightly touch the tip of your thumb to your index finger. Then, press your right index finger into the fleshy pad of your palm on your left hand right below your thumb; it should feel slightly squishy.This represents how rare meat should feel.
For medium-rare, touch your thumb to your middle finger. For medium, touch your ring finger to your thumb. For well-done, use your pinky (but for the love of all that is good and holy, please don’t cook your meat well done. Unless you you want it to taste like shoe leather). For more on the touch test, click here.
5. You like-a the juice. The juice is good
When you’re grilling, maintaining the natural moisture of the food is key. Again, with your meat, you want to avoid sticking holes in it or cutting into it. And whatever you do, don’t press it down on the grill. I know it might be tempting: you get that cool sizzling sound and maybe a nice little flare-up from the fat falling into the fire. But what you’re doing is actually squeezing out all the natural juices, which makes the final product dry and less flavorful.
Even beyond meat, maintaining the natural moisture of any food should be one of your key goals when grilling. I learned a cool trick from a chef that illustrates this point and will forever stick with me. When grilling mushrooms, the chef insisted on cooking them stem-side up the entire time instead of flipping them or moving them.
Since we had removed the stems during prep, what we got at the end of cooking were these beautifully grilled mushroom tops filled with scrumptious, mouth-watering juice–it was like the best mushroom broth you ever tasted. But had I cooked the mushrooms on my own, I would have flipped them and lost all that precious flavor and moisture. The juice is good.
6. The grillman only flips once
Now that you know how precious the juice is, this next point should come as no surprise. You should really only flip your meat once while cooking it. If you’re not really sure how fast you’re meat is cooking, it’s easy to get into the trap of continually flipping it. But every time you flip it you are jarring the meat and potentially loosing the natural juices. If you use the touch test (see #4 above), you shouldn’t have to continually flip your meat like it’s some guessing game. Flip once and keep in those juices.
7. Let it rest
Besides over-flipping meat, one of the biggest mistakes many rookie grillers make is not letting their meat rest properly before eating it. When you cut into your meat immediately after it’s cooked, all the juices end up running out (again with the juices?!).
But when you let it rest for a few minutes tented under a piece of foil, all those free-flowing juices end up getting reabsorbed and re-incorporated into the meat. So you taste them with each luscious bite rather than just looking at them sadly puddled up on your cutting board. You should aim to rest any type of meat about 5-10 minutes before cutting it.
8. Get fruity
Now that you’ve learned how to make perfectly cooked, wonderfully juicy meat, what about dessert?
You can actually get pretty fancy here if you use your covered grill as an oven. I’ve seen people make cupcakes and other complicated baked goods. But that stuff takes a lot of prep and planning (and let’s face it, those people are just showing off anyway, right?).
One of the easiest and most rewarding desserts to make for a barbecue is grilled fruit. You can pretty much grill any kind of fruit. But for me, nothing really matches the ease and reward of grilled pineapple. Slice up the pineapple into 1/2″ or 1/4″ thick rounds, throw it on the grill while you’re meat is resting. And after a few minutes, the natural sugars start to caramelize, and the fruit becomes cooked and slightly tender with beautiful-looking grill marks. It looks and tastes stunning, and it’s ridiculously easy.
I hope you found these tips helpful. If you have any other tips that work for you, please leave a comment below.
Good luck and happy grilling!
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