With the harsh winter behind us, it’s time to get outside, fire up the grill and enjoy the allure of cooking and dining in the fresh air. Tender cuts of meats, savory fish and crisp, fresh fruits and vegetables taste better grilled al fresco, whether over gas or charcoal.
There’s much more involved in successful grilling than throwing food on a grill over an open flame. As with all other forms of cooking, planning and preparation are a must if you expect perfection.
Here are some tips and reminders that will improve your output, even if you’re not new to the apron and spatula.
BEFORE THE FLAME
• Decide on the medium. Charcoal grillers know that lump charcoal burns cleaner and hotter than briquettes. Lump charcoal may be more expensive and harder to find, but it’s worth the effort and expense because of the flavors it will — and won’t — impart to your grilled foods.
• Start clean. You wouldn’t use a dirty saucepan to cook something on your stove, so clean your grill to reduce unwanted flavor intrusions, as well as flare-ups from food and grease residue. Ten or 15 minutes of cleaning with a stiff wire brush over a high-heat grill is a great start. If you use chemical cleaners, make sure that you rinse thoroughly following application.
• Oil it up. A lot of outdoor cooks forget to grease the grill as a way to keep foods from sticking. Rubbing the grate with a high-heat oil before you begin should do the trick.
• Preheat your grill. Food cooks more evenly in a preheated environment. When meat is placed on the grill as it’s heating up, portions of your steak, chop or burger might come out underdone and overdone. Charcoal should be red-hot and covered with white ash prior to placing food on the grill; gas grills should be given 15 minutes of high heat with the lid closed before any food hits the flames.
PREPARING YOUR FOOD
• Warm up your entrées. Don’t take your grilling favorites directly from refrigerator to flame. Warm everything to room temperature first. That will help keep it from sticking to the grill and creating unwanted burn spots on the food.
• Marinate your meats. A nice marinade adds flavor, but it also reduces the formation of potentially carcinogenic heterocyclic amines that can form during the grilling process.
• Cut the fat. Trimming your meat and using leaner cuts slow down possible flare-ups from dripping fat, reduces the chances of unwanted charring and results in more evenly cooked foods.
• Strive for balance. Beef isn’t the only thing that grills well. Practice your techniques for grilling fish, poultry, vegetables and fruit so your outdoor buffet is bountiful.
AT THE GRILL
• Access to tools. Make sure that your basting brush, long-handled tongs and other tools of the grilling trade are within easy reach. More food is ruined by absent cooks searching for oven mitts than by any other problems. Invest in a meat thermometer so you can tell when your foods are cooked to the right temperature inside and out.
• Don’t press that patty. Impatient grillers like to press burger patties, hoping the pressure will make them cook faster. The pressure simply causes the meat to lose its juices, resulting in flare-ups and, ultimately, dried-out burgers. Enjoy the sizzle and rest assured that meat is cooking exactly as it should.
• Wait to baste. Barbecue and other sauces almost always contain some form of sugar, a substance that burns quickly over high heat. Apply your sauces at the end of the cooking cycle. The heat will help lock in the flavors without creating that charred characteristic you’ve tried so hard to avoid. You’ll also have less messy drippings to clean up.
• Give it a rest. Allow your grilled meats about a 10-minute rest after removing them from the grill so that the juices can distribute throughout the grilled cuts. Keep them covered to preserve warmth and then serve with confidence, knowing that all your preparations have preserved your title as backyard barbecue royalty.
GRILLING THE HARVEST
More outdoor cooks are discovering that grilled vegetables, legumes and roots provide excellent and healthy side dishes for grilled meats. For some, a meal of grilled veggies is all that’s needed for a full and complete dinner.
What are best vegetables for the grill? The Full Circle Organic Produce website offers the following Top 10 list:
• Sweet corn
• Bell peppers
• Green beans
One caveat: Use a basket or fine mesh screen with small pieces in order to prevent them from slipping off the grate. Once grilled, most veggies can simply be brushed with a little olive oil, salted and peppered before serving.