Summer's in full swing, which means you've most likely spent an afternoon or two cooking up some delicious barbecue. And if you aren't at the expert level on the grill master charts, it's safe to say you've already burnt your fair share of burgers.
So with that in mind, let's go through some basics that'll have you one step closer to becoming a grill master.
- Have all your tools ready to go. You don't want to be searching for the metal spatula when your burger is ready to flip. If you can't find last year's grill brush, use a crumpled-up piece of aluminum foil to clean the cooking surface. And about that propane? Get it filled before you start cooking (if your tank has reached its expiration date, you may need to change it for a new one). Otherwise you'll be stuck with dinner half-cooked on a cold grill.
- Decide: direct or indirect? Direct heat (open grill) is usually best for thin cuts of meat or boneless chicken breasts that cook at high temperatures. Indirect heat (lid closed) works better for thicker cuts (like ribs or bone-in chicken breasts) that cook longer at lower heat. Try to resist the temptation to open the lid every few minutes, as doing so will let valuable heat escape. Bone-in chicken breasts will take 20 to 30 minutes at medium indirect heat; baby-back ribs 3 to 4 hours at low indirect heat. Thicker cuts of steak can be seared with high direct heat, then finished with five to 10 minutes of high indirect heat.) One caveat: Don't flip your steaks or burgers time and time again—turn them over one or two times at most to preserve flavor and juiciness.
- Branch out. Sure, steak on the grill is a classic, but why stop there? Veggies, potatoes, and even some fruits (slices of pineapple, mango) can be delicious on the grill. Coat veggies lightly with oil and place them on skewers; they'll cook more evenly and the smaller pieces won't slide into the fire. Corn on the cob is absolutely delicious on the grill; simply leave the husks on. (If you soak the husks first, they'll be less likely to catch on fire and your corn will be even juicier.) Pull back a couple bits of husk if you want grill marks and a slightly charred flavor.
- Explore the world of marinades. You can turn a not-so-tender piece of meat (like flank or skirt steak) into a melt-in-your-mouth meal by letting it soak in marinade for a few hours. Experiment with different mixtures, keeping in mind that marinades should contain three things: an acid, like lemon juice or vinegar; an oil; and flavors like fresh herbs and garlic. If you're in a hurry or out of fresh herbs, Italian salad dressing can do the trick. Don't limit marinades to meat and chicken; fish and vegetables, like eggplant and zucchini, benefit from a 30-minute soak in a tangy mixture. (The rule of thumb is the more delicate the food, the less time it needs to marinate.)
- Figure out what “done" is. Many of us resort to cutting meat open while it's still on the grill to see if it's ready or not. By doing so, we lose precious juices (and end up with a less-than-attractive steak or chicken breast). Instead, use this simple test to figure out whether meat is done: Poke the meat with your index finger; then poke the ball of your thumb and compare. If you make a circle on your thumb with each of your fingers (don't apply any pressure), the feeling of the ball of your thumb, will simulate the "doneness" of a steak. The pointer-thumb combo feels like a rare steak; middle finger medium-rare; ring finger medium; and the pinky well-done.
- Save barbecue sauce and glazes for the end. Anything that contains sugar tends to burn quickly, so there's no reason to add tangy barbecue sauce or glaze to your meat until till the last 10 minutes or so. Be sure to offer extra sauce at the table for those who might want a little more of the sweet or spicy goodness.
- Let meat rest once you take it off the grill. Sitting for five minutes or so will result in a juicier cut of steak. Of course, you're anxious to dig into that mouthwatering porterhouse, but if you cut it right away, the juices run out; if you let it sit, they work their way into every bit of meat. You'll be glad you waited – and so will your family and friends. Thankfully, you have a whole summer of great grilling ahead of you.