Grilling: The Basics
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Want to conquer your fears of grilling and become a pro this summer? It's easy once you learn the basics. The culinary sport is often seen as a challenge to many, with the open flame and varying temperatures – not to mention the messy clean up – but we’re here to set the record straight. Grilling doesn’t have to be so intimidating; you just need to know a few simple steps and it becomes an easy and enjoyable outdoor activity. Here, we’ll run you through everything you need to know about grilling in order to be comfortable, so you can stop hiding behind your ovens and sauté pans this summer.
Charcoal vs. Gas
Let’s start at the beginning, which is the grill. The first thing people ask about grilling is what’s the difference between charcoal and gas. The simple answer to that is how the flame is produced, but there are some other things that play into gas versus charcoal. Here are three things to consider when deciding between charcoal and gas:
- Convenience: The main difference between charcoal and gas is the ease of lighting. You can light a gas grill in just a few seconds with the turn of the knob, while lighting a charcoal grill takes a little planning, time and execution to get the coals burning.
- Cost: Oftentimes with convenience there comes cost, and that’s exactly the case with gas versus charcoal grills. For the cheaper route, stick to charcoal, where you can find something as cheap as $20, whereas gas grills can cost anything from $150 to $350.
- Taste: If you’re big on taste with grilling, charcoal gives the most authentic, fiery flavors to your food. You’re also able to experiment with different types of charcoal to get different results, whereas a gas grill will give you the same, uniform taste.
How to light a charcoal grill
If you’ve sided with charcoal after considering those three things, here’s how to light a charcoal grill in three easy steps:
- Clean your grill by removing any ash or dirt before adding the new charcoal.
- Decide on how much charcoal you’ll be using. The amount of charcoal you use depends on the size of your grill and what you’ll be cooking. If you’re grilling something quick, you’ll only need 20 or so pieces, whereas with bigger foods such as steaks or chops, you’ll need a bit more.
- To light the charcoal, arrange the pieces in a circle, piling the most in the center so that it resembles a pyramid. Drizzle lighter fluid on top of the pyramid, concentrating on the center where most of the charcoal is. The amount of lighter fluid depends on how much charcoal you’ll be using, but rule of thumb is usually two to four squirts. Light the charcoal using a long match and close the lid of the grill. Let the charcoals burn until they’re well lit and are embers, usually about ten to fifteen minutes.
Once you’ve got your grill lit and ready to go, you’ll want to make sure you have all of the right accessories on hand for when you’re grilling. Tools really all depend on preference and technique, but can also depend on the type of food your grilling. Tongs and spatulas are great for most meat, because you want to avoid puncturing the flesh so that you retain the juices of the meat, where prongs or forks work best for vegetables and other types of food. For more information on the best grilling tools and where to find them, read about what we recommended for Dad over Father’s Day.
Now that you’ve got your grill and tools set, you’re ready to get cooking. The first thing to consider when grilling is what you’re going to grill and how you’re going to flavor it. Step number one is a marinade, which helps to tenderize and flavor your food before cooking. There’s a lot to consider when marinating, and we cover all of the basics here.
The other kind of flavoring used when grilling, and oftentimes the most popular kind, is barbecue. We can go on and on about barbecue, from barbecue recipes to best tips, but here are some of the most basic things to know.
The other topic that usually comes up with grilling is timing. Many feel it’s easier to follow a recipe using an oven or stovetop because there’s a time given and it’s reliable, due to the fact that the strength and heat of an oven is most commonly uniform. Charcoal grills and even some gas grills often give off varying heat, depending on how you stacked your charcoal, how much you used, and how strong your propane tank is.
The easiest way to overcome this hurtle is to buy a meat thermometer and stick to the cooking temperatures for specific meats, but there’s also some tell tale signs that can help you determine if you’re food is done. The most common is known as the finger test, where you touch the tip of a finger to your thumb and feel your palm to determine the doneness of the meat:
- Palm: The feel of your palm when your hand is open is what your meat will feel like when it’s rare
- Thumb to pinky: Well done
- Thumb to ring finger: Medium
- Thumb to middle finger: Medium rare
- Thumb to pointer finger: Rare
While this method is helpful, it’s not a surefire way to tell if your meat is done or not because of the varying types and textures. See the chart below for best grilling tips for specific types of food.
Other Uses For Grilling
Grilling is not just for meat, and there’s a lot of different reasons for using a grill, from keeping cool to using it to cook other types of food, so be sure to experiment with your grill and have fun with it. While we encourage you to think outside of the box when grilling, there’s also some things you should definitely not grill, so be sure to read up on those as well.
Cleaning Your Grill
You’ve succeeded in grilling: you’ve picked out the type of grill you want, got it lit, flavored and cooked your food perfectly, so now it’s time for clean up. It's important to remember to clean your grill directly after using it. The heat from cooking makes it easier to scrape off any debris that has stuck to the grates, so don’t wait to clean it. We like to think of it as a good distraction while you let the meat rest (which is often difficult to do for anxious and ravenous cooks!). The most common type of cleaning method is to use a grill brush, but we’ve heard some scary stories surrounding that method, so here are some other methods for cleaning your grill.
So now that we’ve covered the basics we hope you’re feeling comfortable enough to get out there and get grilling. Read more from our 2012 Grilling and Barbecue Essentials Guide for more information on grilling, recipes, and grilling ideas.(Photos courtesy of Thinkstock/iStockphoto/Goodshoot).
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