It seems simple enough: take a piece of meat, put it on a grill over an open flame, turn it, and off comes a delicious steak, chicken breast or some such thing. And yet somehow, you always wind up with burgers that are charred on the outside and raw on the inside, dry chicken cutlets, etc. You laugh it off as “Cajun blackened” something or other, but inside you’re crying that yet another dinner looks more like the charcoal than anything you’d ever want to eat.
Grilling is the act of exposing a food item to a direct heat source without the use of a cooking liquid in which the food item will sit. Typically, the heat source is an open flame fueled by charcoal, wood or gas, and the food rests directly on a grill suspended over the flames. I will only allow for electric grilling if there is absolutely, positively no other way for you to grill food.
So rather than go over all the things you might be doing wrong, here’s all the right things about grilling.
Grilling, Broiling or Barbecuing?
Cooking something on a grill with a fire beneath is called grilling. Cooking something on a grill with a fire above is called broiling. Cooking something low and slow to allow smoke and/or sauce to deeply flavor it is barbecuing.
In grilling you cook food on a grill. You can cook something in a pan on a grill, but then you’re sauteing, or poaching, or something else. I’m still undecided about grilling fish on planks of wood. In broiling, you put a piece of meat in a hot box, either an oven or a salamander, and the heat source is above the food item. Barbecuing happens in pans, tin foil, you name it. There is usually always something between the heat source and the food. Often, the heat source is away from the food, so that it cooks indirectly, conveniently called indirect cooking.
Now, in all fairness, there are regional differences for each of these definitions, but they’re wrong. So get it sorted out.
Different cuts of meat work better for different methods of cooking. If this is not your first time reading this blog, this is not your first time reading this. Do not expect a rare, juicy piece of meat if you think you’ll try grilling a brisket. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive the piece of meat is per kilo, the greater the chance you can grill it successfully. And the opposite is true; the cheaper the cut the longer you’ll have to cook it.
Within this rule are subtle variations. Marinades will make a tough cut tender, such as London Broil, which is still a method, not a cut.
Low and Slow Or Fast and Furious?
Yes. Cooking meat low and slow means that the flavors are going to develop and penetrate the meat thoroughly. After four hours, you’ll be rewarded with a piece of meat that’s soft, tender and full of flavor. That’s great for tougher cuts of meat, but obviously you won’t get a rare piece of steak that way. Grilling quickly over high heat will give you a rare, juicy piece of meat, and the flavor of the meat will be more pronounced. So really it depends on what you want to eat.
And remember, flames don’t cook, heat does. Caramelize, not carbonize.
Charcoal is Better, But Not Always Practical
There is no comparing the flavor of charcoal-grilled meat to gas-grilled meat. It’s simply better. But, charcoal grills take longer to heat up, are a little fussier (okay, much fussier), and take longer to cool down. That last one you can’t argue against in the comments. An untended fire is a disaster. Not a disaster waiting to happen, a disaster. It’s in every live coal, every ember. Walking away from a live grill is for me a misdemeanor offense. And by live grill I mean a grill that has been lit in the last six hours. Don’t believe me tough guy? Douse your coals as much as you want with water, then stick your hand in the smoking pile. What’s that? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
So for regular grilling I use a gas grill. And when I’m out with a charcoal grill (and kids who are high on marshmallow), I’m a bit of a nervous Nelly.
Repeat After Me: All Grills Are Individuals
When my wife offered me to cook on my neighbor’s grill while her husband was away, I was scandalized. It was like she was ordering me to sleep with someone else! Yes, ladies, a man’s grill is unique to him. And you can laugh all you want, but it’s one of our few domestic proclivities, and we’ll thank you to be understanding of this.
We get to know our grills, their hot spots, how long they take to heat up, and so on. They’re all unique, in some bizarre throwback to the handmade individuality of yesteryear. And perhaps we do understand them a little better than we understand our wives. But who says that’s our fault?
The Secret Is In The Timing
Hot dogs cook faster than hamburgers cook faster than boneless chicken cooks faster than steaks cook faster than chicken on the bone cooks faster than meat on the bone. Of course that’s all relative to the temperature. And what’s on the menu. Don’t be haphazard about what you put on the grill, where you put it and when you put it on. Putting chicken thighs on the hotter part of the grill and the hot dogs on the cooler part means you’ll have both ready at the same time.
This is the only rule that has both absolute rules (which cooks faster, above), and no rules. It’s entirely up to your knowledge of your own grill that will make the difference between everything being ready for dinner at the same time and you having to tend the grill for an hour.
Fat Is Moisture, and That’s a Good Thing
Sure, you want to be all healthy and grill that fat-free piece of chicken. So then why are you surprised that it tastes like shoe leather? Simply put, you need fat to keep the meat moist as the intramuscular moisture is boiled off. Fat forms a barrier that transmits heat inward, while keeping the moisture from evaporating out. Intramuscular fat is even better; it melts and keeps the meat moist on the inside. So leave the chicken skin on if you can, and take it off before you eat, if you want. Use olive oil and brush your chicken cutlets lightly while grilling. The olive oil helps the spices adhere to the meat. And the natural fats will melt and drip off the meat, which means you’ll be eating less fat.
Keep A Lid On It
Every time you open the lid of the grill, you increase the chances of your dinner becoming a dried out mess. You don’t need to check on it every two minutes. The lid keeps in the heat. The hotter the grill gets, the faster the food cooks. Opening the lid releases the heat, so the grill has to start all over building up the temperature, which means it’ll cook longer, which means it’ll dry out quicker. Keep the lid on as much as you can, cover the grill as soon as you can after adjusting the food, and sit tight. Let the laws of thermodynamics do their thing.
Smoke ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em
If you have a supply of wood chips, by all means use them. All you need to do is soak them and put them in an aluminum foil pan, then put it over a low fire. The smoke will add flavor to the food you’re grilling making it even more delicious. If you have a fancy smoker box attachment (I do), then you put the chips in there. Why soak them? So they burn longer, releasing more smoke. More is better.
Any hardwood will do, and dead branches of fruit trees (except mango; it’s toxic) make excellent smoking wood — apple, cherry, pear, pomegranate. Grape vines, too.
Give It a Rest
You will be tempted to bite into food hot off the grill. Besides burning yourself (yes, it’s a good kind of hurt), you’re doing your meal a disservice. The same rule applies here as it does with roasting meats. Let the food sit for a few minutes so the muscle fibers can relax and the moisture in the meat has time to redistribute itself within the meat.
It will still be plenty hot when you’re slavering to bite into that burger. At least now you’re not going to dribble all that juice onto your shirt like last time.
Coordinate with The Kitchen
There is nothing worse than cooking hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken wings to perfection, only to find out that the salad isn’t cut, the fries are raw and you have to run out to get mustard. Yes, you could spite everyone and eat it all yourself while it’s hot, fresh and tasty, but do you really want to do that without mustard?
Marc’s Rule of Fours
Here is my rule of thumb for keeping it simple: No more than four centimeters thick, no more than four minutes on a side, no more than four turns/flips. Yes, you might want a double-cut rib steak grilled medium rare, but the likelihood is that you’re going to get a medium raw chunk of cow on the inside while the outside is cinders and ash. Okay if you really can’t resist, make it look pretty on the outside, then finish it in the oven. Like real chefs do. Sixteen minutes is plenty of time to cook a portion of anything anyone’s going to eat in one sitting. And if you need to put it back on because it’s a little raw in them middle, it’s because your grill wasn’t hot enough. Or it was too thick. In any event, it’s your fault, not mine.
No, I didn’t spend any time talking about vegetables. Once you’ve got all this figured out, then you can tackle vegetables, which are more delicate than hot dogs and leaner than chicken.
And finally, just in case you forgot the mustard:
- Prep Time : 20 min
- Ready Time : 20 min
- 2 tablespoons yellow mustard seed
- 1 tablespoon black mustard seed
- 1/2 cup distilled vinegar
- 2 teaspoons dry mustard
- 1 tablespoon white wine
- 2 1/2 tablespoons water
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
Combine mustard seeds and black peppercorns in spice grinder.
Pulse 6-10 times until medium ground.
Transfer spice mix to bowl. Add remaining ingredients. Stir to combine.
Allow to sit on the counter for 2-3 hours to allow flavor to develop.
Cover tightly and refrigerate for up to three months