Memorial Day marks the start of the serious grilling season, and there’s no better weekend to bolster your grill-master game. Luckily, honing your outdoor culinary skills is a lot more simple than it seems, given the right tools, a little preparation, and a few tips on technique.
Get the Right Tools
- Lump charcoal or briquettes?: This is one of those endless, both-sides-are-right-and-wrong debates (kind of like Mac vs. PC), but there is some fairly common ground. As The Virtual Weber Bullet puts it:
The general consensus is that lump tends to burn hotter than briquettes, but not as long or as consistently. Some lack of consistency is to be expected, given that the content and piece size varies within an individual bag and between bags.
Personally, I recommend briquettes for anyone just starting out with their grill, as lump can be finicky in lighting. Of course, you can save yourself a lot of effort and frustration by investing in a chimney starter, which you can also use for flash-cooking.
- Choosing a gas grill: Ignore the BTUs and heat for the most part—unless you really need to cook a whole bird or roast this weekend, most grills have got your steaks and burgers covered. Consumer Reports’ blog recommends bringing a magnet with you to gauge the quality of steel used to contain the heat. If the magnet sticks, it’s likely a cheaper grade that will rust more easily. Feel free to give a test model a few shoves and shakes, as an unstable grill is a recipe for serious problems. The Wirecutter has some good recommendations to get you started.
- Multi-use utensils: The three-tool grilling sets you see at big-box stores have all you’ll need for basic grill work, with long-handled versions of a spatula, tongs, and a carving-type poker. A long-handle brush would be your next purchase, and then a grilling basket and skewers when you start branching out. Make sure your tools feel heavy and firm in your hands, as clumsy handling creates the kind of BBQ stories you don’t want repeated.
- Clean that grill: If there’s black crust on the grill bars, you need to get it off to ensure no-stick cooking and easy food flipping. You can use a grill brush or an onion if it’s being particularly stubborn. The video above shows you how to do a deeper clean, and if you’ve neglected your grill for years, it may need a bit of repair, which you can do yourself.
- Make your own sauce: Most of the pre-bottled sauces you see on grocery shelves are over-sweetened, and none match the taste of homemade.Making your own isn’t that difficult, either. Use one of BBQ Recipe Secret’s three sauce bases as a starting point, and build your own flavor ideas into them. It’ll give you something to talk about while you’re waiting for the ribs to finish. You can even give bottled sauce a boost with a few household ingredients, if you don’t want to start from scratch.
Hone Your Technique
- Use your grill’s “zones”: Not everything goes right over the fire. Different types of meat (and vegetables) will work best on different parts of the grill depending on how much heat they need. Check out this infographic to see where everything goes.
Use a cheat sheet: Experience is the best indicator for knowing the precise moment to yank your food off the rack, but Real Simple offers a super-helpful cheat sheet you can print and bring to this culinary test. Here’s a sample that covers the basics of red meat and sausages:
- While you’re at it, don’t forget about the palm test for determining the doneness of a steak.
- BBQ chicken: As my fellow editor Adam can attest, eHow’s technique for grilling whole or partial chicken results in some juicy bird. The basics: Oil the grill, cook the chicken uncovered slightly off the heat center, and, for Pete’s sake, don’t put your sauce on until the last few minutes.
- Perfect burgers: Our commenters don’t necessarily agree on cooking great burgers, but they do have some common wisdom to share. Use meat that’s as close to room temperature as possible for even cooking. Don’t press them on the grill, unless you like your meat dry. And the best “secret” to great burgers is buying good meat, preferably ground by a butcher while you watch. And if you want them to cook evenly, a shallow indentation in the middle can help avoid the hockey puck look.
- Seriously salt your steak: Got filet mignon dreams for the weekend, but only a Quarter-Pounder budget? Buy a cheap cut of “choice” meat, then salt, salt, salt the heck out of that thing—for only one hour before grilling, and then pat it dry. By doing so, your salt is breaking in your meat and loosening some of its protein strands, making it hold flavor better and cut like the steakhouse commercials of your dreams. You can also freeze it for 30 minutes for that perfect seared crust.
- Hot dogs with maximum toppage: Spiral-cut your hot dogs to ensure it cooks perfectly straight, with more surface area for that nice grill flavor and plenty of room for all your favorite toppings. You might even consider marinating them for a boost of flavor that goes beyond the ho-hum hot dogs everyone’s used to.
- Let it rest: You’ll be eager to slice open your tender steak or succulent chicken, but you’ll lose a lot of juicy flavor if you do so. As the food techies at Cook’s Illustrated point out, cutting into your food right off the grill releases a significant amount of juice, which would be re-absorbed for better succulence if you let it sit a few minutes.
Recover from a Rain-Out
All that planning, cleaning, and purchasing, and Mother Nature calls an audible on your perfect grill day? You’re not finished yet. As the New York Times’ food guru and cookbook author Mark Bittman points out, your oven broiler can sub in for your grill with a little prep-work, with results almost as satisfying. Brown your meat in the pan, roast or braise it slowly, then use the broiler to give it that grill-like finish. Check out his oven-based pork ribs or brisket recipes if you need convincing.
Document Your Success
When you’ve put all this effort into creating a great fire-cooked feast, you’ll want more than just compliments to remember it by. Break out your camera (or pass it off to a trusted friend) and try the following tips to take some great grilling shots:
- Tell a story: A BBQ-friendly shooter named Nika notes that a lot of grilled food might look good to the human eye, but smoky crusts and perfect charring can look like unappealing dark nothingness without good framing. Try to capture moments of “drama,” such as when the meat’s being pulled, or focus on the tools used to make the meal to get shots you’ll remember.
- Get in close: At the same time, Flickr user Another Pint Please…, also known as Mike and who shot the steak picture you saw at the top of this post, recommends being brave and getting up-close and personal with your heat source—while being safe with your lens, of course. You’ll have time to take wider-angle shots when the cooking’s done, but those sudden flare-ups and perfect glistening angles only happen once.
Happy Memorial Day, and enjoy the barbecue!