Frequently asked questions
A. While probably the most basic grilling question, this is also one of the most frequently asked. For a charcoal grill, we recommend using a chimney starter ignited with a fire starter or a crumbled piece of newspaper. If you do not have a chimney starter, the next easiest method is to pile the charcoal into a pyramid shape on top of your fire starter (crumbled newspaper or paraffin fire starters) and light the fire starter. The coals should be ready in 20 to 30 minutes, when they are covered with a light grey ash.
For a gas grill, simply follow the manufacturer’s directions. Most gas grills are lit by first turning the gas (either natural gas or propane) on at the source (tank or wall nozzle) and then turning the gas knob of one burner on. Then simply push the ignition switch one or two times and the burner will light. Turn the remaining burners on and the rest of the burners will ignite.
A. It’s no secret, it knows the basics. Most cooks instinctively understand that you have to watch the heat when you sauté or bake, and it’s the same with grilling. The most important thing to know is which type of heat to use: either DIRECT or INDIRECT. Most of the common problems associated with grilling, like burned or under-cooked food, are a result of using the wrong type of cooking method.
A. This is the age-old grilling question and the truth is that most of taste is in the “perception of taste,” not the actual tasting. In fact, in blind taste tests people almost always prefer the food cooked on gas grills over the charcoal but they think that they are choosing charcoal. The “grilled” flavor that we associate with a hamburger or steak is not produced by the smoke of burning charcoal (ashed-over, charcoal produces no smoke unless something is put on it like fats, juices or wood chips). It is the vaporized fats and juices that drip onto the hot coals that create the smoke and the flavor. Gas grills can produce this same effect by vaporizing the juices as they fall onto the gas heat source such as hot Flavorizer bars.
True smoke flavor (associated with authentic pit-cooked BBQ) is only present in foods when smoke is introduced into the cooking box, usually through the use of soaked wood chips or chunks. For those high-pitched firemasters who grill over whole logs, the fuel does flavor the food – often excessively.
A. In my opinion, they all taste primarily smoky. But there are subtle differences between the various woods. Oak produces a clean, uncomplicated taste and is a favorite of the barbecue circuit, especially around Memphis, TN. Post Oak from Central Texas has a sweet and delicate flavor that makes Texas Hill Country barbecue unique. Apple (and other fruit) wood is sweeter than most types of wood and is especially suited to poultry and pork. I’m sure you’ve tasted a piece of applewood smoked bacon. Hickory is one of the most assertive of woods and is the familiar taste in barbecue sauces and restaurants in the U.S. It is also the wood most commonly associated with North-Carolina style pulled pork from Western Carolina. Mesquite the very strongest and burns the hottest of the woods. It is best suited to steaks, burgers and meaty fish that don’t take long to cook. Other types of wood, such as pecan, maple and cedar, hearty herbs like rosemary and lavender stems, alder, grapevines, and sassafras and even corncobs, are used in more obscure styles of cooking. They all have slight variations in flavors and styles (corncobs are very sweet).
A. The analogy that I most often use is baking a cake. You wouldn’t bake a cake with the oven door open because it would take forever to cook, wouldn’t rise or brown properly etc. because all the heat escapes. Likewise, it is better to grill with the lid down. Cooking with the lid down captures the heat and lets it do its magic on the food; the food will benefit from the rotating hot air (convection) and it won’t take as long to cook. That said, “to lid or not to lid,” can be a heated question and I firmly believe that grilling is also about having fun, not about following a rule book. If you truly believe that you get a great result without the lid down, be my guest, although I always grill with the lid down at my house. Barbecue can only be cooked with a covered grill.
A. The vents on a gas grill are factory set, so this really only applies to charcoal grills. Just like us, fires need to breathe oxygen. The vents have to be open so the fire can breathe and keep burning. If you close the vents, you’ll cut off the oxygen supply and presto! your fire will go out. The vents on the top, bottom or sides of the grill are there to circulate the air. Vents must be opened before lighting briquettes and left open while grilling. You can close them only when you’ve finished grilling to put the fire OUT. You can’t control the vents on gas grills.
A. No…no and no! There are many reasons not to par-cook your food. For me the number one reason is loss of flavor. There is no food science reason to par- cook and you run the risk of losing some of the natural flavor and sugars that caramelize on the grill. You might be asking yourself, how does that happen? Well, when you boil food in water, the natural flavors are diluted and absorbed into the boiling liquid whereas roasting (essentially the same process in a grill or an oven) concentrates the flavors and intensifies them. The second reason is almost as important as flavor: clean-up. One of the best parts of grilling that there is very little clean-up. Why dirty up the kitchen before cooking outside?
A. Make a mixture of dishwashing liquid and water. Pour it over the hose. If bubbles form, you will know that the connection is NOT secure. If it does not bubble, your tank is securely attached to your grill.
A. If you haven’t used your grill for several months, clean off any obvious debris, ashes etc. and wash well with warm soapy water and a sponge, making sure to rinse well with clear water. For gas grills, check all connections and make sure the tank is full or at least half full. Turn on all the burners on high and let preheat for 30 minutes to burn off all the residue and sterilize the grill. Empty the drip pan and brush the cooking grates with a brass bristle brush or crumpled aluminum foil until all traces of cooked food are removed. Burn off cooked food after every cookout and clean grates with brush before cooking every time.
A. It is very important to preheat your grill before you cook—every time. This is true for both gas and charcoal. Preheat a gas grill with all burners on high, or cover a charcoal grill while the briquettes are still flaming. The preheat stage can be completed in about 20 minutes or until the inside of the cooking box reaches 550°F. The preheat stage burns off any leftover food from the previous cookout, sterilizes the grill and gets the cooking grates hot and ready to sear the food.
A. Oil the food, not the grates! A lot of people think if they oil the cooking grates, the food won’t stick. Often, the food sticks worse because the oil starts to burn and become tacky—almost like glue—before they get the food on the grill. Food won’t stick if it is brushed with a thin coat of oil and placed on clean cooking grates. The final tip is don’t try to turn the food too early. Most food and especially protein initially sticks to the grill. Once it is cooked on one side, it will naturally release and you’ll be able to flip with ease.
A. There are some simple rules of thumb. If the food will take longer than 20 minutes to cook, it should be cooked using the INDIRECT method. Generally this means the larger, tougher cuts of meat, fish, poultry and certain types of whole vegetables. Examples of foods that should be cooked using indirect heat include whole poultry, large roasts, whole or delicate fish, root vegetables and any other food that should be cooked low and slow.
The DIRECT method should be used for smaller, tender cuts and when you want to produce a nicely-seared exterior while retaining a juicy or rare interior. Typical foods that are cooked via direct heat include thin steaks, kabobs, hamburgers, lamb chops, small fish or fish steaks and most vegetables.
Combo cooking is literally a combination of the two methods and I recommend using this method when you want to sear the exterior of the food, and then lower the heat to finish cooking. Pork and veal chops, large steaks, and fish steaks are typically cooked using combo cooking.
A. The best way to test for doneness is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. The best way to test for doneness is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. I guess, I don’t need to repeat myself! Seriously, a meat thermometer is a foolproof way to make sure that the food is cooked. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, there are several rules of thumb you can follow. Poultry is fully cooked when the legs/thighs move easily in the joint and the juices run clear when pricked with a knife. Don’t forget that large pieces of meat continue to cook once they are taken from the grill, and should be allowed to rest for at least ten minutes before being carved and served. For Steaks and chops, refer to my A-OK method of testing for doneness.
A. The more you use a grill, the better the food will taste, the better the sear marks will be and the food won’t stick as easily. This is because as the grill is used, it is being seasoned. (See Seasoning the Grill). My favorite way to season the grill is to fill the cooking grate with sausages and let them cook over a medium-low direct heat until very brown. I grill them on a medium-low heat to control the flare-ups and coax all the natural fats out of the sausages. The smoke that is created by the fats and juices vaporizing provide a nice start to seasoning your new grill. This can actually be done every season if you don’t use your grill year’ round. And the bonus is a great sausage cookout for all your friends and family.
A. Tongs are one of the few essential tools for cooking outdoors. And, I have very strong opinions about tongs. The traditional barbecue tongs are too cumbersome and large for my hand—and most any hands. I prefer (in fact, I even travel with) long-handled locking tongs. My favorite chef tongs are 12-inches long and lock by pulling a loop at the bottom of the tong. They are widely available.
Speaking of tongs, don’t be tempted to leave them outside. They might get kidnapped by the neighborhood dog, or even worse, licked clean by the hungry pooch and left to dangle at your grill, germ-ready for the next cookout. Take them inside, throw them in the dishwasher and they’ll be clean and waiting when you need them.
Tong Tip: To make sure my cookouts are food safe, I buy two pairs of tongs and a roll of red and a roll of green tape. I put red tape on the tongs that I use to handle raw food (Red for Stop). I put green tap on the tongs that I use to handle cooked food (Green for Go). That way I never “cross contaminate” or touch cooked food with tongs that have handled raw foods. The tape stays on even after dozens of washings in the dishwasher and soon everyone learns when to use which tong.
A. You can absolutely flavor foods with smoke with your backyard grill. This is referred to as hot smoking and works very well on foods from peppers to salmon. Be cautioned, hot smoking does not cure the food and refrigeration is required just like any other cooked or grilled food. The food is cooked by the heat produced by charcoal briquettes or gas burners and the smoke only flavors the food.
A. Yes, you need a grill brush. To prevent food from sticking and keep your grill in optimum condition, you must clean the cooking grates every time you use your grill. A brass-bristle brush works best. In a pinch, you can use crumbled aluminum foil but it isn’t strong enough for every time, especially if you use your grill a lot. I do not recommend using a stainless-steel- bristle brush because the steel is usually so hard that it can damage the finish of the grill.
A. Not really. What I mean by that is that you don’t need to scrub your grill like you would a roasting pan. The more you use your grill, the better the food will taste. Think of all those cookouts as seasoning the grill. If you wash it off every time, you’ll never properly season your grill. Treat it like you’d treat your cast-iron skillet. Once a year, clean the inside with warm soapy water. Never use harsh cleaners or anything abrasive. Make sure you rinse the grill well and let is preheat with all burners on high for 30 minutes to burn off any residue. Finally, brush all the cooking grates with a brass-bristled grill brush or crumbled aluminum foil before placing the food on the grill. And although the grates are dishwasher safe, I would never do it because you’ll take all the “good stuff” off.