With the great weather upon us, it is time to break out the grill. (Seriously though most of us New Mexicans grill all year around since our weather rocks.) According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, about 180 million Americans own a grill and roughly 62% opt for gas and 50% favor charcoal—meaning there are some grill-fanatics who juggle the two.
The age-old question is which is better – gas or charcoal? And the answer is…it depends on your lifestyle and what you are cooking. I know a cop out! But it’s true. For instance, imagine you are late home from work and the kids are starving. Well then a gas grill is your go-to solution. A dinner of brats and roasted veggies can be whipped up lickety split—without upping the quotient on smoke and heat. Gas grills are also terrific for cooking fish. However, most experts agree that for cooking the perfect steak or anything where you want to allow the meat to cook in its own juices and want to generate high-heat searing, charcoal can’t be beat. Other good choices for charcoal are chicken and pork. And anything that you want to be influenced by smoke and indirect heat to produce a barbecue flavor.
One great source for all things “grill” is Wirecutter, an online spot with lists of the best appliances, tech, and gear for the home. You can search the archive for all sorts of great advice such as Best Portable Grills, Best Gas Grills, Best Charcoal Grills, Best Grill Accessories, a virtual smorgasbord of grilling information. They even have evaluated the best charcoal for grilling. Best gas grill? The Weber Spirit II E-310. Best charcoal grill? Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill 22. These accolades stem from many days of grilling burgers, BBQ, and chicken.
Whatever grill you choose, here are 16 maintenance and cooking tips to keep your food at its tastiest:
Clean Your Grill—Reduce flare-ups and bad smoky flavor. A high temperature “burn” will only do so much—you have got to use a grill brush and dedicate a little time to this task. And you know that food that dropped in there that you never took out and the deposits in the bottom? Yeah that’s gotta go too. Several times a year you should deep clean the entire grill.
Flare Ups Happen—Be prepared. Keep a portion of the grill empty so that you can quickly move food away from blaze. If the flare up is intense, remove your food, turn off burners (if gas grill), and let the fire burn down before placing back on grill. The experts at Weber say that one reason to cook with the lid down is to reduce oxygen and prevent flare ups.
High Altitude Attitude—Be patient first and foremost. High altitude does require a little extra time for grilling. Also if the wind is blowing (ahem springtime in New Mexico), it will lower the temperature of a gas grill and raise the temperature of a charcoal grill, so adjust accordingly.
Pay Attention!—So many times you hear, “but I just went inside for a minute,” and boom there goes dinner. Grilling needs constant attention since adjustments are part of the process. Also, before you start, gather up all your necessary utensils, etc.
Safety First—Avoid cross contamination by using separate cutting boards, utensils, etc. for raw food. Baste with a separate source and not with the marinating liquid. And be sure to keep your grill away from anything flammable like lighter fluid, fences, your house, etc.
Use a Meat Thermometer—By using a meat thermometer you can cook foods safely and avoid unpleasant things like Salmonella and E. Coli.
Charcoal Fire—Practice makes perfect! Be aware that it takes about 15 minutes to reach proper cooking temperature and the charcoal should look white or gray. If you need a very hot fire, use enough coal for a double layer; for medium heat spread the charcoal around in a single layer. And if you want an indirect flame, once charcoal is at optimum heat push it all to one side and cook on the other side of the grill.
Charcoal Disposal—While it may make sense to keep embers and remaining usable charcoal in the grill for future use, sometimes it is time to dump it. Bear in mind coals can stay hot for up to 24 hours; so properly extinguish ashes before you get rid of them.
Check Your Temp—Some foods cook better slow and steady while others require a super hot source. In general, thinner cuts of meat like beef and pork should be cooked quickly at high heat. Food like fish, vegetables, and chicken are best cooked at a medium heat. And large, thick cuts of meat, roasts, etc. should be cooked at lower temperatures—even on indirect heat. In addition, meats with rubs and sauces containing sugars should also be cooked low and slow to prevent charring.
Preheat the Grill—You should allow any type of grill to pre-heat for about 20 minutes in order to create a good heat source and quash any lingering bacteria on the grill.
Delay Food on the Grill–Avoid putting cold foods on the grill, better to let them sit out for about 20 minutes—this helps food cook more evenly.
Marinate!—Not only does marinating boost the flavor, it also helps diminish potentially carcinogenic properties (HCAs). According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), marinating meats can significantly reduce the formation of these harmful HCAs. (Find out more ways to make your grilling healthier from the AICR here.)
Grill Baskets Rule—This is a great solution for foods that can easily fall through the grill rack like veggies, tofu, cut potatoes, and fruit.
Don’t Flatten Meats—You know that satisfying sizzle when you flatten the burgers? Turns out it is not the best method for creating good flavor—cause you are squeezing out juicy flavor and moisture.
Don’t Move Food—Another culprit of flavor reduction is the constant turning and moving of food. Resist the urge and try to limit the number of times you flip and rotate food.
Take a Rest—When you take food off the grill, let it rest for a few minutes (foil it to keep the heat in)—this method lets juices redistribute evenly in meats.
Part of the allure of grill cooking (besides the great flavor) is the chance to enjoy some outdoor time and reduce smells and heat in the house during the summer months. With a little practice, you really can’t go wrong with grill foods—try a variety of marinades and rubs on your meats, skewered chicken with vegetables, and fish wrapped in foil with herbs and oil. Here are a few terrific online resources with tons of recipe ideas: 50 Grilling Recipes You’ve Got to Try, Bon Appetit’s 100 of Our Favorite Grilling Recipes, and Good Housekeeping’s Ultimate Summer 2019 Grilling Guide.