Tips for Successful Grilling

Hone your skills in preparation for barbecue season

By Roxanne Webber

Cook's Illustrated says keep it hot.
Cook’s Illustrated says keep it hot.

The Barbecue! Bible says keep it clean.

The Barbecue! Bible says keep it clean.

The New Vegetarian Grill says keep the lid up.

The New Vegetarian Grill says keep the lid up.

May is National Barbecue Month, as if you needed an excuse to get fired up about summer hamburgers, hot dogs, and corn on the cob. To help you celebrate, we’ve put together this list of grilling tips to keep you, your guests, and your grill happy.

1. Keep It Hot. Preheat your grill, otherwise food will stick. The Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue says that when your gas or charcoal grill is ready to cook on, you will be able to hold your hand five inches above the grate for two seconds if the fire is “hot” and three to four seconds if the fire is “medium-hot.”

2. Grill Safely. The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association has put together a helpful list of tips for safe grilling. Good reminders among them: Don’t grill in an enclosed area; use baking soda to control a grease fire, not water; have a fire extinguisher, bucket of sand, or garden hose on hand; and be sure your grill is on stable ground before firing it up.

3. Have Everything Nearby. Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, authors of The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining, say that you should have everything you’re going to need close at hand before you start cooking. “The chicken breast will burn by the time you run back into the kitchen to find those tongs,” they caution.

4. Keep It Clean. Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue! Bible, says that “last year’s food does not a good seasoning make for this year’s food.” John Atkins, the pitmaster for the Virginia-based BBQ Connection catering company, offers tips for cleaning your grill on his barbecue blog.

5. Grease Your Grates. Once your grill is clean, Judith Fertig, one of the BBQ Queens, two grilling and barbecue experts who have written 20 cookbooks between them, says to make sure you oil it before cooking. This helps to keep food from sticking, and makes it easier to clean up later.

6. Decide If You Need a Single-Level or Dual-Level Fire. A single-level fire heats the grill evenly, either with all the gas burners on the same setting, or with the charcoal equally spread out. This is good for cooking things fast, such as vegetables and fish. A dual-level fire (also called indirect grilling) has most, and sometimes all, of the charcoal banked to one side, or the burners on a gas grill adjusted to high on one side and the others turned off or set to low. “When you’re grilling bone-in chicken or steak, you’ll want to sear it first on the hot side,” explains Fertig, “then transfer to the cooler side, put the lid down, and finish cooking.”

7. Leave an Unheated Space on the Grill. Even if you’re cooking over a single-level fire, the Jamisons recommend leaving a small space unheated so that you have somewhere to move food if you have a flare-up or if something is cooking too fast.

8. Keep the Lid Up for Veggies. In her book The New Vegetarian Grill Andrea Chesman says that the lid traps moist heat and smoke, which makes vegetables lose their crunch and take on a “dull, sooty patina.” She advises lid-down cooking only for large, whole vegetables that benefit from a little steam, such as winter squashes or potatoes.

9. Sauce Later. The Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue says that saucing too soon is a common mistake. If you brush on sauces at the beginning of cooking, chances are they will burn and taste awful by the time the food is done. Wait until the last few minutes to apply them and you’ll get a nice glaze instead of a black, charred mess.

10. Don’t Forget Food Safety. Check for proper doneness with an instant-read thermometer and use separate platters for cooked and raw foods. If you want to use a marinade as a sauce, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service says to either reserve some that hasn’t come in contact with raw foods, or to boil it first to destroy any bacteria. Check out this food safety fact sheet for more tips.

CHOW’s The Ten column appears every Tuesday.

Roxanne Webber is an associate editor at CHOW.

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