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Becoming an Expert Griller

This is the summer to master your grill—whether it's a portable hibachi or a super-deluxe gas blaster

Photos, except where noted: Sarah Jay.
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The lure of cooking outdoors is irresistible. The days are longer, the evenings are warmer, and that sweet smoky aroma wafting from the grill makes us feel like all is right with the world. But suddenly something interrupts this reverie—the steak is in flames, the gas has run out, the vegetables have fallen into the fire. If you’re like most of us who encounter these grilling frustrations all too often, it’s time to take control of your charcoal or gas fire by learning a few essential tips and techniques.

Tips for charcoal grillers

A chimney starter is a charcoal griller’s best friend; use a large one
By far the easiest and quickest way to start a charcoal fire in a kettle grill is to use an aluminum chimney starter, which are usually available in hardware stores for about $15.

Here’s how to use it: Load the top of the canister with charcoal and stuff newspaper in the cavity below. Remove the grate and set the starter in the grill. Light the paper with a match; convection sucks the flame up the canister and lights the coals. When the coals are glowing and covered in ash, in 20 to 30 minutes, they’re ready to be turned out into the grill. Put the grate back on, giving it time to get hot before you start to grill.

Tip: If you’re grilling more than just a few steaks or if you need the coals hot for longer than a half hour or so, you’ll need more coals than what will fit in the chimney starter. In this case, make a bed of unlit coals before lighting the starter. Dump the lit coals onto the unlit pile, which will take off and be ready a little bit later. Watch out for the handles on chimney starters—the wooden ones get very hot (use a dry towel or oven mitt) and the plastic ones tend to melt if positioned over lit coals.

Natural hardwood charcoal is the best fuel for charcoal fires
It burns cleaner, hotter, and longer than briquettes. Natural hardwood charcoal is now available in many grocery stores and by mail order (People’s Woods in Rhode Island is one source.)

Tip: If briquettes are your only option, choose those labeled “hardwood” briquettes, which contain a bit more real wood than those composed mostly of fillers. Steer away from self-lighting briquettes, which are saturated with petroleum.

Build a two-level fire
Since charcoal fires burn very hot, you should give yourself the option of moving food to a cooler area with no coals. When you empty your chimney starter, dump the hot coals on one side of the grill. This will be your hot side when the grill grate goes on, since the grate will only be a few inches from the coals. The other side of the grate, farther from the heat, will provide you with a cooler area. Move food to the cooler if there are flare-ups or if the food is cooking too quickly.

Flare-up? Just move the chops to a cooler area until the flames die down.

To determine how hot the fire is, use your eyes and your hands
The “hand test” can give you a good sense of grill heat. Hold your outstretched palm an inch or two above the grill grate. The length of time you can stand the heat tells you how hot the grill is.

Time hand can be held Grill heat Temperature range
Less than 1 second very hot over 600°F
3 to 4 seconds medium 400° to 500°F
5 to 7 seconds medium low 325° to 350°F

You can also use visual clues to tell how hot your charcoal fire is. When the coals are bright red and still flaming, they’re very hot — too hot for most grilling. When the coals are red but covered with a light ash, the fire is hot. When the coals are thickly covered with a yellowish ash, the fire is medium hot. For best results, keep the grill grate about 4 inches above the coals.

If you see flames, the coals are too hot for grilling.
Red coals with a thin layer of ash indicate a hot fire.
Coals covered with ash mean a medium-hot fire.

Tips for gas grillers

Crank all your burners to high and cover the grill
Newer (and expensive) gas grills are pretty powerful, but older gas grills need all the help you can give them. By giving the grill plenty of time to preheat on the highest heat, and by keeping the lid down, the grates will get hot enough for some good searing action. Even while you’re cooking, it pays to keep the lid down on a gas grill, as it helps create an atmosphere of convection, where the hot air moves around inside the grill, cooking foods faster. (Covering a steak or chop seems counterintuitive but seems to actually give better results on a gas grill.)

Get an oven thermometer for your gas grill if it didn’t come with one
An oven thermometer will help you judge where your hot and cool spots are and let you know how the temperature fluctuates as you open and close the lid.

Make sure your propane tank has a good gauge
And don’t forget to check it before starting to grill. You can buy a magnetic gauge if your tank didn’t come with one. Or better yet, if propane fuels your kitchen stove, you can get your gas company to hook up the grill permanently to that propane source.

Tips for everyone

Set up a grill station for the season
If your grill doesn’t have any side extensions, set up a little table next to the grill where you can rest food conveniently and keep your grill supplies so that you’re not doing a juggling act while grilling.

Make a kit of supplies just for the grill
So that you’re not running to the kitchen every two seconds or having to share a tool with the indoor chef, put aside a special set of supplies just for the grill. The supply kit could include:

  • pepper grinder
  • kosher salt
  • bottle of olive oil
  • basting brushes
  • long-handled spring-loaded tongs
  • large spatula
  • instant-read thermometer
  • wire-bristle brush for cleaning the grill grate
  • aluminum foil
  • hot pads or dishtowels
  • enameled steel grilling baskets for cut-up vegetables

Always clean the grill thoroughly before cooking (but after heating)
Use a heavy-duty wire-bristle brush to scrape away buildup. If you don’t have one, use tongs to hold an old dishtowel or wadded-up aluminum foil to scrub the grates. It’s often easiest to do this once the heat of the grill has loosened baked-on food.

Be patient and pay attention while you grill
The two biggest mistakes people make with grilling are starting too soon and walking away. Don’t start grilling until your fire reaches the right temperature. And once you do start, hang around. Because of the nature of a fire, you have to check food frequently. Don’t be afraid to move it to a cooler or hotter spot. That doesn’t mean you should move food constantly—leave it long enough in one spot so that a nice sear can develop, and you’ll have fewer problems with sticking.

With a steel basket and a pair of tongs, it’s easy to grill cut-up vegetables.Boyd Hagen

Use an instant-read thermometer to tell when meat is done
With experience, you can learn to judge doneness of meat by touching it—the firmer it is, the more well done it is. And in a pinch, you can always make a cut to take a peek. But for large cuts of meat and bone-in pieces, an instant-read thermometer is your best way to gauge doneness. The easiest instant-read thermometer to use is a digital one since only the tip needs to be inserted into food to get an accurate reading. A traditional dial instant-read needs to be inserted two inches into food to get an accurate reading. Take meat off the fire when it’s 5 or 10 degrees shy of your goal, as the meat will continue to cook and go up in temperature as it rests off the grill. The few minutes of resting are important to let the juices redistribute.

Type of meat Ideal temperature
Chicken and turkey breast: 160 to 165°F
  thigh: 170 to 175°F
Beef and lamb rare: 120 to 130°F
  medium rare: 130 to 135°F
  medium: 140 to 150°F
  medium well: 155 to 165°F
Veal medium: 140 to 155°F
Pork medium: 140°F
  medium well: 155°F
Fish medium rare: 120°F
  medium: 135°F
You can test doneness with an instant-read thermometer or just by touching the meat.


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