Nothing should be simpler -- and tastier -- than putting food to flame. Then how come we always end up with overcharged chicken, underdone sirloin, and ribs that never, ever fall off the bone? Follow these nine tips and you will forever be king of the grill.
Photographs by Tom Schierlitz
1. The Fire
Whether you're working with gas or charcoal, the key to grilling successfully is achieving a hot zone and a cool zone. This allows you to position your steaks, burgers, ribs, etc., so you can develop a char over the hottest part of the grill and then slide the meat to the cooler area, which lets the interior cook through without burning the exterior. Heat levels on a gas grill are relatively easy to manipulate (just turn a few knobs), but the fact is, only charcoal will give you that perfect crust on a steak—it burns hotter and more consistently. You just have to know how to work the fire.
1. Your basic grocery-store briquettes are fine, but for a seriously aggressive fire, search out hardwood lump charcoal (but not mesquite; it's too fragrant).
2. After you've got the fire going (thanks to one of those chimney things, or an electric-filament starter, or if you must, fluid-soaked briquettes), don't do a thing till the flames die down. When the coals burn a glowing, dusty orange, it's time to start cooking.
3. With a set of long tongs, arrange the coals in a sloping bank so that one side lies low while the other side reaches 3 to 6 inches below where the grill will be set. This will be your hot zone, where you'll place your steak or burger to get that only-from-a-charcoal-grill char.
4. Remember, you're playing with fire—it tends to do what it wants. So grab a beer and a set of tongs and transfer your food around the grill when necessary. Don't be afraid to temporarily remove it from the grill entirely if the flames act up too much. Ultimately, you want the food cooked from the intense heat generated from the coals, not from the grease-fueled flames they emit.
2. The Steak
If you invest in high-quality cuts (you know, the ones that run you $20 a pound), the less you do to them, the better. A generous amount of salt and freshly ground pepper is all a Prime-grade rib eye, strip, or porterhouse needs. It's the lesser cuts, like skirt and flank steak, that require marinades. For the high-end steaks, how you grill them will determine how good they taste.
1. If you're using a gas grill, crank it up as high as possible. For charcoal, use plenty of briquettes—the hotter the better.
2. Place the steak over the hottest part of the grill (see The Fire) and cook until a deep-brown crust forms. Flip over and repeat.
3. Unless you like your steak very rare, slide it to the cooler part of the grill to cook for a few more minutes to bring it to medium-rare.
4. Remove steak from the grill and let rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes. Slice and serve on a platter, or plate each steak individually. And always remember the finishing touch: a sprinkle of kosher or sea salt.
3. The Burger
If you want to get fancy with your burger, go crazy with toppings. The burger itself should be a study in simplicity. Here's what you need to do.
1. Use freshly ground chuck, if you can find it. You want beef with about 20 percent fat content, which will guarantee a flavorful, juicy burger.
2. Season the meat with salt and pepper (no Worcestershire sauce, no minced onions), about a teaspoon each per pound of meat.
3. And here's the key: Form patties that are relatively thick but not bulbous, and pack them as loosely as possible—just enough so they hold together. You don't want dense, firm burgers. Texture is crucial. 4. Grill over relatively high heat, sliding from the hot part to the cooler part of the grill (see The Fire) to achieve proper doneness. And never press them down with a spatula. The fire doesn't need their juice; you do.
4. The Slaw
Every barbecue should include a bowl of homemade coleslaw—partially because it tastes so good (you'll get loads of compliments, trust us) and partially because it couldn't be easier to make.
1. If you own a mandoline, shred half a head of white cabbage and a few large carrots. Or go to your local grocery store and buy a bag of Dole's preshredded cabbage-and-carrot mixture. No, it's not cheating; it's just common sense.
2. To make the dressing, grab a mixing bowl and add a cup of Hellmann's (or Best Foods) mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of some sort of white vinegar (try rice-wine vinegar), a dollop of Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. And then, most of all, add a tablespoon of celery seed (not salt but seed). It'll set your slaw apart from everyone else's.
3. Add cabbage mixture to dressing, toss till evenly coated, and refrigerate for an hour or more until ready to eat.
4. Serve with—or on top of—everything that comes off your grill.
5. The Chicken
Nobody, except for survivalists and certain breeds of pit bulls, prefers his chicken rare. And if you've ever sunk your teeth into an undercooked chicken thigh, there's a pretty good chance you were at somebody's barbecue, where the burgers had calcified into tough little gristle pucks and some guy in a Red Wings jersey was doing keg stands when he should have been watching the grill. Considering how much chicken we eat these days, it's amazing how rarely it gets grilled right. Here's how.
1. Hold the sauce. Slathering a bunch of bone-in, skin-on chicken parts with sweet sauce and throwing it on the grill creates, at best, a reddish candy-coated surface that does little to flavor the actual chicken. (At worst, after the sugary sauce has dripped onto the coals, you end up with a blackened hunk of undercooked bird.) Start by tossing your chicken in a mix of salt, pepper, and maybe a bit of cayenne, paprika, or garlic salt and let it sit for about an hour.
2. Place the chicken skin-side down and cook over medium heat for 4 to 8 minutes or until the skin is crispy. Flip and cook bone-side down for another 4 to 8 minutes.
3. Lower the heat or move to the cool side of the grill (see The Fire), brush your favorite sauce on both sides, and cover (with the vents open) so the inside of the chicken can cook through. You might want to flip again once or twice and resauce during this period. Allow about 25 minutes for breasts, a bit longer for the tastier dark meat.
4. When it's done (test with a knife to make sure), let the chicken stand, covered with foil, while you fill your plate with potato salad and that slaw.
6. The Ribs
Unless you've got one of those barrel smokers in your backyard, you're not barbecuing ribs—you're grilling them. And that's okay. They'll still taste amazing; just don't expect any awards from barbecue purists. That said, the secret to impossibly tender, fall-off-the-bone spareribs or baby back ribs is what you do to them before they hit the grill.
1. Coat your racks of ribs on both sides with a dry rub. (Baby back ribs require less time; spareribs pack more flavor. One rack of baby backs per person; one rack of spareribs per two.)
2. Place ribs on a cookie tray (it's okay if they overlap a bit) and pour some water into the tray. Seal tightly with aluminum foil.
3. Cook in a 300-degree oven (3 to 4 hours for spareribs; 2 hours for baby backs). This can be done hours in advance. Just keep the ribs wrapped in foil after they cool off.
4. Place ribs over medium heat, bone-side down. After 5 minutes, flip the ribs and with a brush, shellac them with a relatively sweet barbecue sauce. After 5 more minutes, flip again and shellac the meat side. Do this a few more times, till they're sufficiently sauced and crispy. Remove and cover. Repeat this process with the remaining ribs.
5. When they're all done, place them on a cutting board and hack them up. Serve in a big pile with extra sauce and homemade coleslaw. Lick your fingers and pat yourself on the back. You've just made the tastiest thing you'll ever cook on a grill.
1/2 cup black pepper
1/3 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne
7. The Skewer
Hunks of protein threaded on a spear and seared over an open flame—is that manly enough for you? But instead of reaching for chunks of lamb or chicken, try shrimp. It absorbs marinade extremely well, and it cooks quickly, making for an excellent grab-and-chomp dish that requires nothing in the way of girlie utensils.
1. Buy relatively large shrimp, heads on or off, shelled or unshelled.
2. Marinate them for an hour in 1 cup of soy sauce, 3 cups of rice-wine vinegar, 4 tablespoons of brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of regular or hot sesame oil, and lots of fresh ginger and garlic.
3. Skewer the shrimp. If you're using wood skewers, soak the skewers in water for 30 minutes first, so they don't burn.
4. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes per side over medium heat till orange and firm.
5. Unskewer the shrimp onto a large plate, place in the center of your table, and chomp away.
8. The Tools
You will not need an arsenal of tools that come twelve to a set and live in a Halliburton briefcase. In fact, the less your grilling gear resembles ordnance, the better, as turning food over heat is not about aggressive poking and stabbing but rather about precision gripping and control. That said, stock two utensils: restaurant-grade spring-loaded tongs (sans char-prone wooden handles) and a stainless-steel dogleg spatula (yes, like the shape of a long par-5). Both implements should have some length in order to keep your hands away from the heat, but they also need to be sturdy. Your tongs should never bow when flipping a rack of ribs. Use that spatula for more delicate dishes—like fish and loose-packed burgers—to ensure that they reach the plate instead of the bottom of the grill. www.bowerykitchens.com/tongs
9. The Dessert
Tell your buddies that you're grilling peaches for dessert and you'll get a look that says, You may inhabit the body of a man, you may display certain familiar male traits, but you are not, in fact, a man. The insinuation is that you—how to put it?—are somehow lacking in the sack department. These friends of yours, though, are fools. A grilled peach is pretty much, without fail, the most memorable thing at any given Sunday barbecue. Sweet and salty, hot and cold, not without nutritional value. What's not to like?
1. Look for good peaches. In season. If you have a farmers' market nearby: that kind of peach. Get them on the firm side, as the fire will soften them up.
2. Halve the peaches and remove the pits. Leave skin on. Set the peach halves on a platter, flesh-side up. In a saucepan, heat a couple of tablespoons of salted butter. Remove from heat. Add 1 half-teaspoon of good vanilla and a pinch of brown sugar. (Note: Overdo the sugar and you will burn the peaches.) Mix. Brush mixture over flesh side of the peaches, and be generous with it.
3. You're grilling these after dinner, so the fire should be fairly mellow by now. Place the peaches on the grill, flat-side (flesh-side) down. After about 5 minutes, turn. Cook on skin side for 2 to 3 minutes. You don't want the skin to char or blister. They're ready when the flesh is easily penetrated by a fork—soft but not mushy. They should be golden in color.
4. Serve immediately. Each person gets 2 halves and, on top, a pat of butter or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which should be melting when eaten. A spoon might be called for. Who's the man now?
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