THE WASHINGTON POST – At last, summer has officially begun, and we’re all ready for the simple pleasure of standing around a grill outside, cool drink in hand, watching dinner happen.
Unfortunately, with live-fire cooking (I count a gas grill in that category), you can’t simply set your oven temperature and pour another Arnold Palmer. Grilling requires full engagement with the fire, which is both a pleasure and a challenge. But understanding a few principles can tip the scales more toward the pleasure side.
Your goal in grilling is to avoid burning while still thoroughly cooking the food and giving it a kiss of smoke and char. Here are three actions toward that goal: 1) don’t use a typical oil-based marinade, 2) build a two-level fire to give you heat control, and 3) add your sauces only at the very end of – or after – cooking.
MARINATING FOR FLAVOR, NOT FLARE-UPS
The purpose of a marinade is to add flavour to your ingredient. The problem comes when the marinade burns.
Untamed grilling temperatures can rise to more than 700 degrees, and actual flames also are part of the picture, so tender marinade bits like chopped garlic and fresh herbs incinerate on the hot grill. And when oil drips onto the coals or gas jets, it causes a flare-up or creates smoke carrying unhealthy compounds called nitrosamines, which are to be avoided.
But marinades do add flavour, so what can we do? One solution is to use a “dry marinade,” made from plenty of salt, pepper, garlic and herbs. Coat the meat with the marinade ingredients and leave for at least two hours and up to 24 hours; longer is better. When it’s grilling time, scrape it all off, pat the meat dry (the salt will have drawn out a few juices), and you’re ready to go. No bits to burn, no oil to drip, just flavour imparted into your protein.
What about sticking, you say? I rub the grill grates with just a film of oil rather than oiling my food. More importantly, I let the grate get really hot before installing my meat. The hot grate sears the meat on contact and after several seconds will have created a crusty surface, which then lets the meat release.
WORKING THE HIGH/LOW
Perhaps the technique that gives you the most control while grilling is the two-zone fire, which is actually simple. For a gas grill, just turn one burner to high and the other to low. You may need to tinker with those settings because everyone’s grill is different; my old gas grill had the BTUs of a Bic lighter, so I would have used medium to get low. (Read how to gauge the desired temperatures below.)
For a charcoal grill, start your coals using a chimney starter. If you don’t have one yet, please buy one now; it is low-tech and life-changing.
(To use a chimney, stuff the smaller, bottom cavity loosely with paper. Fill the top with charcoal briquettes and, if using, hardwood lumps. Holding the chimney upright, light the paper in several places. The Venturi effect comes into play, drawing air from the bottom chamber up through the top. Remove your grill grate and carefully set the chimney in the bottom of the grill until the coals are red hot; this should take about 15 minutes. Proceed with your grilling operations.)
Using an oven mitt (the chimney handle can get hot even though they’re designed not to), dump out the red-hot coals onto one side of the grill. Add more coals (about an equal amount will give you enough firepower to grill something small like chops or steaks), and let them burn until you have a nice deep bed of glowing coals coated in white ash.
Now, with long tongs or a little shovel or other hand implement, scoot about a third of the coals to the other side of the grill basin, so you have two third piled on one side and one third spread out on the other. Put the grill grate back in place.
Test the temperatures with your hand. Hold your palm about five inches above the grate. You should want to pull your hand away – urgently, I might add – from the hot side after only two to three seconds and the moderate side after about eight seconds.
You are ready for action! Heat the grill grate for a few minutes, and then, using a wadded-up paper towel or bar rag and tongs, rub on a little oil where you think your food will go, and add your food.
The general principle is to start your food on the hot zone, letting it sear gently and develop some sexy grill marks, and then transfer to the cool zone, so the interior can finish cooking without the exterior overcooking. Having a cool zone also allows refuge for your food if you get flare-ups during the first part of cooking; you never want to cook your food directly over flames.
Decide when your food is done using an instant-read thermometer. Or, you can simply cut into your meat. In any case, know the meat will continue to cook once off the grill, so pull it off the heat before it’s fully done to your liking. You can always put it back.
THE SEASONING, FINALLY
If you’re using a barbecue sauce or other thick condiment, you can brush some on during the last few minutes of cooking to let it heat up and set.