Foobooz PSA: Grilling Tips From Famous Chefs for This Holiday Weekend
Happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone!
Remember how long this past winter was? Remember how cold and wet and gross and awful? Well that’s all done now because while we’re already in the middle of a lovely spring, this long weekend marks the unofficial start of summer and, more important, the totally official start of the grilling season.
So for those of you out there looking to light some stuff on fire, we’ve collected a bunch of grilling tips from local chefs and food people as a kind of primer. It’s probably been a long time since you last fired up that backyard grill, after all, and whether you’re a complete rookie or a seasoned pro with your own novelty apron and everything, all of us can benefit from a little re-education now and then. So let’s start with the basics…
First, Let’s Clean Things Up
Personally, I prefer the manly simplicity of a plain charcoal grill. I could get by with a bucket filled with charcoal topped with a scavenged oven grate, but being a gentleman of (very small) means, I actually sprang for one of those $20 bowl-shaped ones from Walmart or wherever and it has served me well for years.
Anyway, if you’ve got a grill like mine, you need to do three things before lighting her up for the first time. Thing 1: bang on the top of it with a long stick to chase all the spiders out. Thing 2: shamefully dump out the last load of charcoal leftover from last year. Thing 3: Clean it. You know that thing that some people say about not cleaning their grill grates because all the built-up gunk on them is just “seasoning”? Those people are gross. Throw in some burnables, get a good flame going, then find a wire brush and a spray bottle. Spray water on fire to make steam. Use brush on grate. You don’t have to make it all shiny again, but getting all the large chunks of carbonized meat off is a good idea. When you’re done with that, spray some more water and slap the lid on. Let the steam loosen up some of the gunk on the inside of the lid, and wipe that down, too. And that’s it. You’re done.
For those of you who have fancier grills? I don’t know what to tell you. Anything with gas or propane, automatic igniters and various dials scares the hell out of me because I always feel like I’m basically cooking in front of a giant bomb standing about groin-high. Clean your shiny chrome behemoths as the manufacturer suggests. Or, better yet, sell that thing to your jealous neighbor, buy a grill like mine, and spend the balance of the money on a nice bottle of whiskey to drink while you’re getting back in touch with the elemental pleasures of unadulterated fire, metal and meat.
Now, onto the cooking…
Chicken Is Not Supposed To Be Black
“When you see super-burnt chicken, this is because there are too many coals on the grill. You want to start off with lower heat, so put your chicken pieces on the cooler part of the grill, and then use the hot spot later to crisp up the skin. Sometimes, if you have a ton of people coming over and want to make sure everyone is taken care of, you can even cook it first inside, in the oven, and then finish it up on the grill, with your sauce.” – Erin O’Shea, Percy Street
Lighter Fluid Is the Antichrist
“When I go to cookouts, it is so off-putting to see people dousing their coals in lighter fluid. These are chemicals. You’re going to be eating off of those coals. Plus, the easy light coals burn way too fast. The easiest way to deal with lighting the grill is a chimney starter. You can have your coals rippin’ hot in 20 or 25 minutes. Just add a little newspaper and you’re there.” – Nick Macri, La Divisa Meats
Another Note On Lighter Fluid
I’m largely with Nick on this one. Lighter fluid? There’s just something so Homer Simpson about it, and while the humorous possibilities of mixing flammable liquids, backyard beers and fire are undeniable, those kinds of things are only funny after the skin grafts have healed. One thing I disagree with? The use of easy-light charcoal. If you’re just ducking out onto the deck to grill up some hot dogs or ears of corn, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making it a little easier on yourself. Yes, part of the lure of grilling is getting to sit outside, sipping whiskey and staring contemplatively into the flames while your perfectly assembled fire cooks down into coals. But if you don’t have an extra 45 minutes to spend on getting that coal bed just right, go with the easy-light briquettes. No one will think less of you. Except maybe Nick Macri.
Don’t Forget Your Veggies
“Vegetables are great on the grill. For most, I salt them a little to get some of the water out, maybe 20 minutes before. Then, put them on a screaming hot grill. Others, like beets, onions, and garlic, I put right in the coals wrapped in foil. You can even grill fava beans and peas in the pod. You just put them on a fine grate.” – Josh Lawler, The Farm & Fisherman
Don’t Fear the Fish
“I love doing a whole side of sea bass or salmon on a gas grill. Nothing too big, like a swordfish, or you’ll be there for 8 hours. But a nice Chilean sea bass, 3 inches thick, it will feed a family of five, and all you need is some salt, pepper, and olive oil. Soak a cedar plank overnight, line it with limes, and then just put the fish on it with some kosher salt. The whole thing goes on the second tier on medium high. Maybe 25 minutes later, that’s it.” – Romeo DiBona
And Don’t Fear The Friends Of Fish Either
My favorite thing to grill? Shrimp. They’re also one of the easiest things in the world to cook–whether you’re just butterflying them and throwing them straight on the grate or wrapping them in foil with butter, garlic and lemon. Either way, they’re done in under 10 minutes and are just awesome.
Touch Yourself (To See If Your Steak Is Done)
“It’s easy to tell when a piece of meat is cooked to the right temp. Touch your cheek. That’s how it will feel when a steak is right around medium rare. If you have to cook it a little more, touch the tip of your nose. That’s medium. For anything more than that, medium well or well done, it will feel like your chin bone. Whatever you do, don’t poke your meat or cut it to test for doneness, or all the juices will run out.” – Ed Battaglia
Thighs Trump Breasts
“People seem to always go for the breasts, but boneless, skinless chicken thighs are really excellent for grilling. They’re juicier, and really so much better. They’re also really flavorful and take well to a lot of different seasonings. And they are generally pretty cheap, but you should spend a little extra to get a higher quality chicken, because the thigh is where you can really taste the off-flavor in a chicken, much more than in a breast.” – Aliza Green, author of The Field Guide to Meat
Season. Season. And Then Season Some More
“One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they don’t season their meat. Actually, a lot of home cooks just don’t season anything properly, at all. Most people that cook at home don’t understand that you have to put salt and pepper on everything. Everything. I’ve been to so many backyards. He’s got on an apron. He’s the man for like one day a year. And he unwraps some steaks and just throws them right on the grill. It’s disgusting. How could you do that?” – David Katz
If You Think It’s Hot Enough, It’s Not Hot Enough
“When I see home grillers cook steaks, the grill is never hot enough. Listen, if you want to cook steaks on a grill, then the grill has got to be extremely hot. Otherwise, cook something else. If it’s not hot enough, the steak will cook all the way through before you develop any good color. Put your hand two inches above the grill. If you can hold it there for more than two seconds, it’s not hot enough. It’s that simple.” – Chris Painter, Il Pittore
Ditch the Olive Oil
“I don’t know why, but people love to load their food down with a lot of oil – especially olive oil. But it just burns off, and you get all these flames coming up. And if you’re using a gas grill and you’re getting the flames, well, your food is going to taste like gas. The food doesn’t need any oil. The grate does, and if the grates are really nicely rubbed down with oil, nothing will stick to them. But don’t use olive oil. Go for something with a higher burning temperature, like vegetable or grape seed oil. And then once your food is done, that’s when you hit it with a nice extra virgin.” – Marc Vetri, Vetri
Know Your Equipment
“For me, the trick is to know your grill. Whether you’re using a little drum thing with charcoal or wood, or you have some super duper gas grill at home, there are always hot spots and cooler spots, and if you’re going to be successful, you absolutely have to know where they are. And that means that you have to grill a lot.” – Daniel Stern, R2L
A Final Thought
This is all good advice. But really, here’s everything you need to know in one sentence: Make the grill hot, then hotter; everything is grillable; season everything except your hands and trust your gut on doneness–then cook it for an extra minute or so if you’re nervous.
Also, no one thinks that apron is as funny as you do. Just sayin’.
Portions of this post appeared previously on Foobooz. But good advice never goes out of style.