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How to Cook a Roast on the Grill

Grill-roasted beef, pork, and lamb are juicy, tender, and kissed with smoke

Fine Cooking Issue 27
Photos: Ben Fink
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In my mind, grilling has always been synonymous with quick-cooking fare like steaks, burgers, and chicken breasts. But as much as I love the ease and speed of these casual outdoor meals, I sometimes want to cook something more substantial without giving up the pleasure of cooking outdoors. So I’ve learned to use my grill as a sort of an outdoor oven, cooking goodsized roasts like beef tenderloin and pork loin over indirect heat. Once you have a good fire going, this cooking method takes no longer than roasting in the oven, and the results are even better. The meat is beautifully moist, juicy, and perfumed with that unmistakable taste of summer smoke.

Choose naturally tender roasts

The best cuts to use for grill-roasting are those that you’d ordinarily roast at high heat in the oven—cuts from the loin, tenderloin, sirloin, leg, and round. I generally stick with a small to medium roast ( 2 to 6 pounds) since I can usually cook it without refueling the fire. (A good charcoal fire will last over an hour and a half—plenty of time to cook a roast this size.) You can certainly use the same method to cook larger roasts, like a standing rib, but you’ll need to pay more attention to the fire.

Avoid overly tough or fatty cuts such as the shoulder or brisket; these require the gentle, slow heat of a braise or the low, smoky heat of traditional barbecue to become tender. I also like to stick with boneless roasts when grilling because I’m often serving dinner outside, and it’s easier not to have to fuss with complicated carving. A good solution for a cut of meat like a leg of lamb is to order it boned and rolled into a neat cylindrical roast.

Before roasting, rub the meat with seasoning for a delicious layer of flavor. While a handful of coarse salt and freshly cracked pepper will do, I have a lot of fun experimenting with spice and herb blends (see recipes opposite). I don’t usually bother with marinades because their flavors and tenderizing effects barely penetrate the surface of a large cut of meat, they tend to be messy, and more important, they cause flare-ups. The one exception is pork loin: the very lean meat does benefit from a few hours in a simple yogurt marinade. In this case, I wipe off the excess marinade before roasting and then coat the loin with a spice rub to get a savory crust.

Cook the roast on the cool side of the grill. With the grill’s lid on, the roast will have a steady supply of moderate indirect heat, but it won’t burn before it finishes cooking.

A large kettle grill works best

With a 22-inch or larger kettle grill, you’ll have plenty of room to accommodate both the fire and the meat. The dome of a kettle grill cover creates a perfect convection environment of heat and smoke to roast the meat evenly. I’m also convinced that the best fuel for grill-roasting is hardwood charcoal because it gives you the cleanest and longest lasting fire. You can use a gas grill for grillroasting as long as you’re able to heat only one side and set the roast on the other side.

Get a good bed of coals going on one side of the grill for an indirect fire. When the coals are burning well, set the roast on the other side of the grate. The top and bottom vents should be damped almost all the way—but not entirely, or the fire will go out. This technique gives you cooking temperatures around 325° to 375°F, perfect for roasting meat. If your grill has an external thermometer, expect it to read higher since it registers the average temperature inside the grill, not just the temperature of the side farthest from the fire. I set a regular oven thermometer on the grill over on the cool side to monitor the temperature.

Try not to open the grill too often. The first few times I tried grill-roasting, I couldn’t resist peeking quite frequently. Lifting the lid isn’t catastrophic, but it does let a lot of heat escape and causes the fire to burn down more quickly, which increases roasting time. Now I just check every 25 to 30 minutes.

Rotate the roast once halfway through cooking. The side of the roast closest to the fire will brown a bit more quickly, so rotating the roast will help ensure that it cooks evenly. Use the chart at left to estimate total cooking time so that you can turn halfway through. As with roasting any meat, the best doneness test is to stick an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the roast. Once the meat is within about 10 degrees of the desired temperature, you can roll it directly over the coals for a few minutes, turning it so all sides get a nicely browned crust. Browning the roast after cooking (rather than before) is unconventional, but I prefer it because it takes much less time since the meat is already hot. It also allows me to only brown the meat if it looks like it needs it. Then let the meat rest for 10 to15 minutes before carving.

Plan a flexible menu to go with the roast. Since grill-roasting isn’t an exact science (variables like wind and cool weather could slow things down), prepare salads, slaws, and salsas that can wait, and give guests something to nibble on.

For indirect grilling, bank the hot coals to one side of the grill. The fire is ready when the coals are glowing and a fine layer of ash covers them, as shown here.

Cuts and cooking times for roasts

Narrow roasts generally need a total cooking time of 35 to 50 minutes at an average temperature of 350°F, as they’re all about the same thickness. The best way to judge the cooking time of a fatter, rounder roast, how-ever, is to figure 15 to 20 minutes per pound. Variables like weather or an uneven fire can affect cooking times, so check the temperature in the thickest part of the meat with an instant-read thermometer. Remove lamb and beef at 125°F for medium-rare meat; pork at 135°F. Temperatures rise about 10 degrees during a 10- to 15-minute rest.

  • Long and narrow roast (2 to 5 pounds): center-cut pork loin, beef tenderloin, beef strip roast, beef tri-tip = 35 to 50 minutes total cookingtime (rotate after 20minutes)
  • Fat and round roast (3 to 6 pounds): beef top round roast, beef sirloin roast, sirloin tip, rolled, tied leg of lamb rolled, tied double pork loin roast = 15 to 20 minutes per pound (rotate halfway through)


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