Mastering the grill is part science, part art. It’s a blend of the right tools and intuition, adapting to variable outdoor conditions at a moment’s notice.
“It’s a lot like sailing, because when you set out, you don’t know how long that trip is going to take,” says John Manion, chef/owner of El Che Steakhouse & Bar in Chicago. “You need to set yourself up for success, and remember that patience is involved.”
Resisting the urge to poke, prod and flip your meat every minute that it’s grilling is the first step to ensuring a delicious meal, Manion says. Follow the rest of his steps, and you’ll be a master of your home grill in no time.
One: Wait until the grill is hot. Then wait some more.
Most people don’t allow their grill to come up to its maximum temperature before they begin cooking. Giving your grill the proper amount of time to reach its upper temperature limit will ensure a beautiful sear. Manion recommends a full 30 minutes of preheating before cooking. “That’s a long time, but you really want it hot,” he says.
Step Two: Clean, then season.
A clean grill is an effective grill. Once the grill is hot, scrape off any scorched bits of food with a brush, then season slats with vegetable oil or a neutral non-stick spray. Don’t forget to give your meat or vegetables a brush of good-quality olive oil before grilling. Oil not only keeps food from sticking, it also conducts heat.
Step Three: No lighter fluid, ever.
“It’s putting chemicals into your food. It’s no good,” he says. To ensure his meat doesn’t taste like butane, Manion uses a propane torch to light his charcoal grill. But even a simple chimney starter will do the trick.
Step Four: Play the zone.
Create two heat zones by mounding lit charcoal to one side of the grill, or using a gas grill’s variable dials to keep one side at maximum temperature and the other at 75 percent of maximum temperature. “Get that sear on the hottest side,” Manion says. “If you need to bring the meat down a notch, it’s nice to have that safety zone on the other side.”
Step Five: Streamline your tools.
Grilling doesn’t require an entire arsenal of supplies. Most home cooks only need a set of long tongs, a spatula for scraping, and a water squirt bottle for tamping down flares created by dripping juices, Manion says.
Six: Don’t guess when it comes to temperature.
Think of the dramatic differences between a 100-degree summer day and a 0-degree winter night. The same is true for meat, which cooks very differently at 500 degrees than it does at 400 degrees, Manion explains. Spring for a digital-read thermometer, and you’ll be able to adjust your grill’s heat source to compensate for changes in your backyard’s wind and air temperature. Also, bear in mind the temperature that your meat should be cooked to: Pork,for example, should reach 145 degrees Fahrenheit with a three-minute rest.
Seven: Go easy on the marinade.
Marinades and seasonings will add flavor, but marinating too long runs the risk of ruining your meat. If you want to soften up a piece of meat, Manion suggests using a tenderizer or Jaccard tool.
Bonus Tip: Use a cast-iron skillet on the grill to sear firm lettuces like romaine, radicchio or endive. Charring gives the lettuce flavor depth that lends a clean, slightly bitter counterpoint to a rich pork chop.