I would never call myself a grill master by any stretch of the imagination. That said, I’ve been grilling for long enough to know some important techniques that will be the difference between making a delicious, succulent steak and making a beef-flavored hockey puck. If you’re grilling this weekend — and like all true Americans, I assume you are — here are some essential tips and you should know about.
1.) Set up your grill so you can use both direct and indirect heat. This is the single most essential thing any amateur grill chef needs to know. Often, people with charcoal-based grills will try to spread the coals around evenly under the mistaken impression that every part of the grill should be evenly hot. In reality, however, it’s best to have more coals stacked to one side of the grill while leaving the other side with just a few coals underneath.
This gives you the ability to cook with both direct and indirect heat. You use direct heat when you place a piece of food directly over the side where the coals are located. You use indirect heat when you place the food on the side of the grill without coals and then put the cover on top of the grill to trap heat from the coals in the area right over the grill.
2.) Learn which foods cook best with direct and indirect heat. Direct heat is best for meats that are relatively thin and thus won’t take too long to cook. The advantage of using direct heat on meats is that it will sear the outside of the meat to trap juices within while cooking, while at the same time not scorching the meat since you’ll only be cooking these meats for 6 minutes per side at most. Here are some popular dishes that should be cooked using direct heat: Hamburgers, steaks, shrimp, sausages, swordfish steaks.
Indirect heat, meanwhile, is usually used for larger cuts that will take longer to cook through. You obviously wouldn’t want to cook these using direct heat since they’d be burned on the outside and likely still raw on the inside, so it’s better to put them on the side of the grill without any coals and cover them up to let them slowly roast. Popular dishes that should be cook with indirect heat include whole chickens, pork tenderloins, and prime ribs. Also, even though salmon doesn’t take long to cook, you’ll still likely want to cook it over indirect heat since it is much more likely to get blackened by direct heat than steaks, chicken wings and other meats.
3.) When it comes to burgers, employ as light a touch as possible. Since hamburgers are the most popular grilling choice, I figured I’d give them a section of their own. Basically, you shouldn’t overthink cooking burgers — the best ones are cooked using very simple methods. Here is what you need to do to make a perfectly grilled burger:
- Buy ground chuck that is 80% lean. This is fattier than other ground beef you can buy but it’s also tastier and will make a more delicious burger. And come on: If you’re grilling hamburgers, are you really worried about your figure?
- Do not mash your burgers too hard when forming patties — you want burgers that will have some shape to them and will be able to withstand direct heat without getting overcooked in the middle.
- Flip your burgers only once. This will ensure they retain their shape and will also decrease the likelihood that pieces of the burger will fall off since you’ll only be turning them over one time.
- Similarly, do not press down on your burgers while they’re grilling.
Depending on your preferences, it should take between 3 minutes to 6 minutes per side for your burgers to cook. 3 minutes is for people who like their beef really rare while 6 minutes will be more well done while hopefully still remaining juicy on the inside. When in doubt, use a meat thermometer to check your burger’s temperature — if the center of the burger measures at 160°F, then it is safe to eat.
4.) Don’t be afraid to let your food rest after it’s done. Letting your food sit after it’s been cooked has two advantages. First, it will maintain its internal temperature while it sits, thus killing off any extra bacteria that may be lingering around. Second, cutting open meat just after it’s finished cooking will spill out a lot of the juices inside — letting it rest for 3 to 5 minutes before serving, however, will let the meat absorb those juices and thus make for a more enjoyable meal.
This is particularly important with steak, which sinks or swims largely on the texture of the meat. So while you may be clamoring to tear into that pricey porterhouse you’ve had your eyes on all day, you should have the discipline to let it be for another five minutes before cutting it up.
Incidentally, cooking a steak is much more of an art than cooking a burger is — to get a complete rundown of everything you need to make a perfect steak, check out Serious Eats’ complete guide by clicking here.
5.) Finally, if you’re going to smoke your meat, know the differences between the different types of wood chips. Cooking with wood chips is a great way to add more flavor to your meat. The best way to use wood chips is to first soak them in water for at least an hour and then seal them inside an aluminum foil packet that has holes poked out in the top. Then place these packets inside the grill right on top of the heat source, where they’ll slowly let out their delicious flavors.
Remember that different kinds of wood chips deliver different kinds of flavors: If you want strong, smoky flavor for your meat, we suggest going with hickory and oak chips. For sweeter flavors, you should go with either Applewood or Cherry Wood.
While there’s still a lot to learn about grilling, I hope these five tips will at least give you a good basis to have a killer July 4th barbecue. Now get out there and grill a slab of dead cow in honor of ‘Murka!