Grilling 101

The weather is starting to warm up and that only means one thing, grilling season has officially begun. For some it is rite of passage, learning what generations before have come to know and master. Others, however, find using a grill a daunting task. But with a few simple tips and some tried and true rules, grilling is one summertime tradition that everyone can conquer.


Step one: The Grill

Preheat the grill
Whether using charcoal grills or gas, the first rule to grilling is to get the grill good and hot. Turn on the heat before prepping the food. If using a charcoal grill, a charcoal chimney starter is essential for getting the charcoal briquettes nice and hot. Placing food on a cool grill increases the cook time and dries out the food.

Season the grill
Don’t clean the grill with a brush when finished cooking. Leave it until the next use. Turn on the heat and once hot, use a wire brush to scrape the bits off the rack. This seasons the grill and doesn’t damage the grill rack. For new grills, turn on the heat and once hot, place a few strips of bacon on the grill. This oils the grill and “breaks it in” with a tasty bonus.

Direct and indirect heat
Depending on what is grilling, having different temperature zones makes the perfect finished product. The longer things take to cook the cooler the grill needs to be. To create “hot” and “warm” zones in gas grills, simply turn one side to high and the other to low. For charcoal, pile the hot briquettes to one side, leaving the other side empty.

Invest in a digital thermometer
There are many tips and tricks for determining when food is cooked the proper temperature. There is the finger jab, the juices watch, the “just long enough to drink one beer” approach and numerous others. The best way to test the food is with a digital thermometer. Fast and accurate, it takes the guessing game out of dinner.

Pull meat out of the refrigerator about 20 minutes before placing on the grill
Taking the chill off the meat allows for it to cook evenly. Placing a cold dense piece of meat on a hot grill will dry out the exterior of the meat before the inside has a chance to cook.

Only turn the meat once
Turning meat multiple times causes juices to escape, making the meat dry.

Rest is important
Diving into food hot off the grill is not only harsh on the taste buds it also causes the juices to run free. Let the grilled goods sit for a few minutes for the perfect juiciness.

Keep a fire extinguisher in close proximity to the grill. Marinades are great for all types of meat but keep the sugar amount low; sugar burns. Wipe off excess marinades before grilling. If flare-ups do occur, keep a spray bottle of water next to the grill. A couple of squirts and flames should subside. If using wooden skewers, soak them at least 30 minutes in water to prevent them from catching fire on the grill.


Step two: The Meat 

The Perfect Burger

The burger is the quintessential American meal made in backyards across the country. Adaptable to every taste, it is the perfect summer food.

The DOs and DON’Ts to the perfect burger:

• DO use ground chuck or ground beef with at least 20 percent fat. Leaner grinds dry out.

• DO form 4 to 6 ounce burgers and make the patties 1/2 to 1 inch thick and 1/2-inch wider than the buns to account for shrinkage when grilling.

• DO make an indentation in the top center of each patty with a thumb to prevent burger bulge.

• DO grill burger patties over medium to medium-high direct heat until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Flip once.

• DON’T flip, squish, press, poke or prod the burgers on the grill. Keep the moisture on the inside where it belongs.

• DON’T add too many ingredients to the patty. Simple seasoning is best, otherwise it is grilled meatloaf.

• DON’T over handle the meat. Gently form the meat into patties or it will get tough.

• DON’T wait until the burgers are done to add cheese. Place cheese on patties when they are 3/4 of the way done, allowing cheese to melt.


The Perfect Chicken Breast

Chicken breast has a bad rap. It is anything but boring especially when it picks up a smoky flavor from grilling. Jazz it up with marinade or sauce or keep it simple with salt and pepper. Either way, it is one delicious piece of meat.

The DOs and DON’Ts to the perfect chicken breast:

• DO cook the chicken over a medium to a medium-high grill (375 to 400 degrees) until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.

• DO remember chicken with bone-in and skin takes longer to cook than boneless and skinless chicken breasts.

• DO pound boneless chicken breast to a level thickness. This will allow for even cooking.

• DON’T brush on barbecue sauce or other sauce until the last 3 to 5 minutes of cooking. Otherwise it will burn and leave the chicken uncooked.

• DON’T be afraid of seasoning. Unlike other meats, chicken can stand up to a multitude of flavors.

• DON’T peek! Resist the urge to open the grill lid when cooking chicken. Keeping the cover down allows the chicken to cook evenly.


The Perfect Salmon Fillet

Salmon, especially in the Pacific Northwest, is a common sight on grills. Although it is delicate and can be temperamental on the grill, with a little know-how, grilling fillets is easy.

The DOs and DON’Ts to the perfect salmon fillet:

• DO buy the freshest salmon possible, preferably local.

• DO place a piece of foil on the grill before lighting and heat to 400 degrees. Spray the foil with cooking oil. Alternatively, try experimenting with cedar planks for a nice smokiness or fish grill baskets.

• DO turn the fish like turning a page in a book rather than flipping like a burger. This will keep the fish more intact and prevent crumbling.

• DO place the fish skin side up first. This allows for the presentation side” or top to look great, and prevents indentations on the fish

• DO use the grill like an oven. To take the pressure off of actually grilling fish, place each fillet onto a piece of foil, add a squeeze of lemon or wine, salt, pepper and herbs and seal securely. Place the packets on the grill and “bake” for 12 to 15 minutes.

• DON’T place fish on the grill until foil is sizzling hot. This will help in preventing sticking.

• DON’T overcook the fish. Cook until the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees for perfectly flaky, moist fillets.

• DON’T try to grill the tail end of a fish. Get fish that is 1 to 1 1/2-inches thick with the skin on to keep in the moisture.

• DON’T try to flip the fish too soon. It will release itself from the surface when it is ready to flip. Test it with the edge of a spatula and if it gives, it is time to turn over.


The Perfect Steak

There’s nothing like the smell of a good steak sizzling on the grill. It’s intoxicating. No longer is a reservation at a high-end steak house necessary when amazing steak is easily made at home.

The DOs and DON’Ts to the perfect steak:

DO let the steak rest before cutting into it. Like most meats, letting steak rest allows the juices to redistribute and keeps the meat juicy.

• DO keep the seasoning simple. Steak is beautifully tasty on its own. Finish with a little pat of butter and it will taste just like its steak house counterpart.

• DO cook steak to order. For each preferred degree of doneness, follow these USDA recommended internal temperatures:

  • Rare: 135 degrees
  • Medium Rare: 150 degrees
  • Medium: 160 degrees
  • Medium Well: 165 degrees
  • Well Done: 170 degrees

• DON’T salt steak too far in advance. The best steaks are seasoned just before hitting the grill.

• DON’T cook every steak at the same temperature. Start with high heat for a rare steak and turn down the heat for every level of doneness.

• DON’T use a fork to flip the steak. Turning with tongs will prevent puncturing and keep the juices from dripping out.

This article originally appeared in the June-July 2012 issue of South Sound magazine.
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