Grilling Season: Feeding the Fire
I just want to say that this is one of my least favorite seasons. I’m not talking about the hot, sticky, peach-sweet days of summer. I’m referring to grilling season when suddenly everyone becomes an expert on cooking over an open flame when they haven’t even entered their own kitchen in six months.
And, when every magazine’s headlines suggestively proclaim “Hot, Hot, Hot!” “Thrill to the Grill” and “Master Your Grill,” it’s damn hard not to take up the challenge even if your skills may be far from thrilling or masterful.
I know I sound bitter, but I have suffered and I want you to know my pain. I have sat through dinners of charred burgers and undercooked chicken. There have been luncheons of black and blue steaks that were mostly black, and pool parties where the hot dogs served could have been mistaken for kindling soaked in lighter fluid.
I’m not saying that my friends are bad cooks, in fact most of them do just fine in the kitchen where they seem to know their limitations—sticking to one kind of protein at a time (no, really, we don’t need burgers, dogs, chicken AND steak!) and not trying to cook everything using one methodology–the seductive, but deceptive, grill.
The grill station is one of the most demanding places in a professional kitchen—it’s all about timing, temperature and taste. Lots of burns usually line the arms of the folks who man this station for good reason, and their lack of arm and often eyebrow hair is a badge of honor in some crowds. The grill is not for the faint of heart.
But good grilling is not impossible if you remember a few simple things. Allow me to offer a few suggestions that might actually make you King or Queen of the Grill:
1. My first bone of contention is that barbecuing is not the same as grilling. Unless you come from the Land Down Under and are slipping shrimp onto your “barbie,” you are grilling a steak, chicken breasts or burgers. Barbecuing in this country is done slow and low and usually includes really large pieces of beef or pork that are oftentimes slathered in sauce.
2. Remember to start with a clean grill. Just like you wouldn’t cook in a dirty pot, don’t cook on a dirty grill. Though this may seem evident you would be surprised by how many times I’ve bitten into a crunchy nugget of last week’s dinner on my otherwise lovely chicken breast. Let’s be clear here—char is not a flavoring agent! I like to clean my grill by leaving the “crust” to burn off after I finish cooking, scrubbing it quickly with a grill brush and then rubbing the grill with a high-heat oil to keep it lubed up.
3. Preheat your grill—I don’t care if it’s charcoal or gas, make sure you have it going in plenty of time and it’s hot. I’m not a charcoal person—it takes too much planning—but if you are, make sure you use a charcoal chimney to light your hard-lump coals. Those pre-soaked briquettes and lighter fluid leave a nasty taste and are potentially carcinogenic.
4. Make sure your grill is hot but not too hot. It may sound like an oxymoron but what it means is that you need to have a hot side of the grill and a slightly cooler side so that you can move your meat, veggies, fish or tofu off the high heat after they have seared and let them gently cook. If you’re cooking something like steak or tuna—things that you want to have a great sear on the outside and a rare or medium-rare center—a section of very high heat is perfect to create that. To make sure your coals are hot enough, hold your hand about a foot above the fire, if you can only hold it there for 1 to 2 seconds before you have to pull it away, you are good to go.
5. Before you start cooking make sure you have everything laid out within reach. You are guaranteed to burn your dinner if you have to keep dashing back into the kitchen for various ingredients, tools, a clean plate or a beer. Also, if you are cooking red meat, remember to take it out of the refrigerator about 10 minutes before you put it on the grill. This helps it cook more evenly.
6. Piggybacking on number 5, don’t wander off. You wouldn’t leave food searing on your stove, so don’t leave your grill unattended. I can’t tell you how many dinners I have seen ruined because someone had to weed their garden or toss a ball for the dog.
7. Don’t fuss with your meat. Don’t move it around too much, don’t press down with your spatula and lose all those precious juices between the grates, don’t raise and lower the lid. Opening the lid on a charcoal grill raises the temp (oxygen+fire=heat) and on a gas grill it cools it down. So, just relax, stay alert, and carry on.
8. Monitor the temperature of your meat with a meat thermometer. Not your finger. Who do you think you are? Even professionals have trouble with that and we have already concluded that you are not a professional. For you gadget-hungry hordes there are even remote thermometers so you can go and pick those tomatoes without risking disaster. There are even thermometers with a multitude of probes because not everything you are cooking takes the same length of time. Locally, you could find such gizmos at Warren Kitchen & Cutlery in Rhinebeck.
9. Tools are important. You don’t have to have the 18-piece grill kit in its fancy, faux-wood case. All you need are a few good items: a set of long tongs, a spatula, a grill brush and I like a head lamp. Sure you may look like a fool, but it helps you see what you are doing. Don’t get a fork; you never want to pierce your protein (again with the precious juices!). And don’t forget some silicone oven mitts and a bottle opener. After all you don’t want to be running back to the kitchen to open your beer.
10. Don’t put the BBQ sauce on before you cook the meat. BBQ sauces have a high-sugar content and sugar tends to caramelize (or burn in layman’s terms) and make for an unappetizing, scorched mess. Marinades low in sugar but high in flavor are great for bland proteins like chicken, fish and tofu and basting throughout the process helps keep those juicy. Layer on that sauce 10 minutes before you plan to take the food off the grill.
11. And perhaps most important of all—don’t cross-contaminate! Never put your cooked meat on the plate or board that you used for your raw meat. Food-borne illness should not be served as a side dish. Always have a clean plate at the ready.
Now you are ready to serve—but before you do, give your meat a little time to rest (5 to 10 minutes depending on the thickness of the cut). After all, it’s been doing some strenuous work—proteins have been binding, muscle fibers have been shrinking and sugars caramelizing—this final step will assure a juicy and delicious meal.