Basics of grilling

Grilling meat is as old as human history since, in fact, this very act if what first made us “Human” and separate from the animals. The ability to control fire and cook meat gave us a major advantage over other species and helped to put us at the top of the food chain.

While advancements have been made in all areas of grilling, it still comes down to the fire and the meat and out of all of the cooking methods, this tends to be the most satisfying.  Whether you’re cooking for yourself or a group of friends, nothing says summer like cold drinks and a hot grill.

History of grilling

Humans first learned how to control fire about 500,000 years ago and grilling can be argued to be the oldest cooking method. The definition of grilling is cooking with direct heat from below and we have developed a multitude of ways and means to do this. People figured out that by using different types of wood and other fuel sources, they could change the flavor and texture of what they were working with.

No one is certain when or how people figured out how to grill and the most likely origin is one of our ancestors finding the charred remains of an animal as the result of a forest fire or other natural event and realized it was a lot better than the raw meat they had been eating.

As humans spread out we developed new ways of cooking yet most all of them have their start from the open fire of the grill. Still today, it remains one of the most popular ways of cooking and modern grills come in a variety of sizes and options so whether you are hiking in the backcountry or cooking burgers for twenty friends in your backyard, you can find one that suites your needs.

One common misconception is that the terms grilling and barbecuing are interchangeable. Though similar in some respect, barbecuing is a much slower process that uses lower temperatures and is closer to smoking than grilling.   

Guide to Grilling:

Steak

Steak is synonymous with grilling to most people and yet there are still a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to properly preparing the meat. By taking a few simple steps, you can make sure that whomever you are cooking for will have fond memories of the meal.  

Marinade: Used to not only enhance the flavor of the steak, Marinades often help tenderize tougher cuts of meat by slowly breaking down the connective tissue. Cuts such as Flank Steak and Flat Iron do really after sitting in a simple marinade of red wine and olive oil for a few hours and it’s worth the effort to plan ahead.

Clean and oil your grates: Make sure that your grill grates, the surface you cook the steaks on is spotless and free of debris. Once it shines, give it a light coating of oil while it’s heating. This will help avoid food sticking and also give you better grill marks

Make sure your grill is hot: But not on fire since you don’t want to scorch your steak. When cooking over coals this is especially important and you need to wait for them to go out and let the grate heat up. If you can hold your hand above the grill for more than two seconds, it’s not hot enough.

Dry your steaks: This is one of the easiest ways to get perfect grill marks on your steaks. Simply pat your steak dry with a paper towel before placing it on the grill and you will see why Chefs always do this.

Rest your Steak: Another trick that Chefs use is that we let our steaks rest on a plate for a minute after we pull them off the grill. This lets them finish cooking for a second so that the juices don’t run.

Chicken

While most people think of Steak when they think of grilling, Chicken is a great, light alternative for those that want a slightly healthier choice. That being said, it’s a completely different kind of meat and must be treated accordingly.

Brine your Chicken: Brining simply means soaking in the meat in a Salt water for a few hours. This plumps the Chicken so that the meat doesn’t dry out as you are grilling it and this is one of the biggest ways you make a good meal truly great and is also one of the most overlooked keys to grilling. A simple ratio is to mix one cup of salt with one gallon of water and one cup of sugar. Soak your Chicken in this mix in the refrigerator for a few hours and then discard.

A bit lower, a bit slower: Unlike steaks, Chicken needs to be cooked all the way through before you serve it and you don’t want to burn the skin. If you are cooking both steak and chicken at the same time, avoid putting the chicken directly over the coals if possible. Put the Chicken on first and take it off last and always cut into a piece at the thickest point to make sure that it’s completely cooked all the way through

Cover the grill: Another big mistake most people make is that they leave the grill uncovered and thus the meat only gets cooked from below. Covering the grill helps to trap the heat and recirculate it around the chicken allowing it to cook much faster without burning.

Sauce at the end: If you are going to use some kind of sauce, wait until right before you are ready to pull the chicken off the grill. The reason is that most sauces have a lot of sugar and burn easily.

Fish and Seafood

Fish and Seafood go great on a grill but they are also a little bit more difficult to work with at times. Don’t let this discourage you since there are a few things you can do make sure your meal comes out amazing.

Even lower and slower: Most kinds of Seafood and Fish don’t do well over high heat and it’s best to take the time to cook it the right way instead of rushing it. If you’re cooking with a modern propane grill, heat up the grates and then cut the heat to low-medium. As with Chicken, you want to keep the grill covered as much as possible so that the heat can circulate around the fish.  

Make sure your grill is spotless: Since Fish tends to be a lot more delicate than steak or chicken, it’s a lot more likely to stick the grill and fall apart when you try to turn it. To avoid this, take a few minutes to deep clean your grill before you start cooking.

Pan spray is a big help: This is another thing that most Chefs do since it helps prevent the fish from sticking and gives more definition to the grill marks

Skin side down first: From time to time you might end up grilling fish such as Snapper or Salmon which is often sold with the skin still on. Always grill with the skin side down first, then flip it to finish it.

Citrus pairs well: If you’re at a loss with how to season your dish, keep it simple with just a little Lemon or Lime juice plus a dash of salt and pepper. Various kinds of Fish all how their own unique flavors and characteristics and you don’t want to mask these by overpowering them with spices.

Burgers and Sausages

Burgers and sausages are in a class of their own in the world of grilling and there are a few tips to follow to make sure you’re successful. As always, the key to grilling is starting with a clean, hot, well-oiled grill so take the time to make sure that you are prepared before you start working with the food.

Temperature matters: You have to be a bit more careful with things like ground beef, burgers and sausages for the simple fact that there is a much greater risk of getting sick due to foodborne illness, even if it’s sourced from a top quality place. The reason being that, unlike a steak that has only a limited amount of exposed surface area, ground meats have much more and are often mixed with other cuts, sometimes from other animals. To be safe, you should always make sure to cook things like burgers to at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit, especially if you are serving it to young children of the elderly. An easy way to gauge this is to make sure that the juices run clear.

Season before you grill: If you’re buying ground beef to make hamburgers with, you might as well take the time to make them your own and give them a bit of a kick. Add a bit of salt and pepper or even a bit of chili powder and your burgers will stand out but remember that a little goes a long way. If you do this, make sure that you mix the meat well so that it’s seasoned evenly.

Dent your Burgers: Another odd yet effective trick that Chefs use to make picture perfect hamburgers is to dent the center of the burger by pressing down with your index and middle fingers. This helps prevent the burger from shrinking as it cooks on the grill.

Vegetarian Grilling options

While most people automatically think of meat when they think of grilling, vegetables take on a whole new flavor when cooked over the open fire of the grill. From corn on the cob to shish kabobs, there are ton of ways that you can enjoy food fresh from your garden over the hot coals of the grill.

Oil them first:  Most vegetables tend to dry out fast from the heat of the grill and this means that you need to add a bit of oil to them to prevent sticking. Don’t overdo it though since, if they are dripping oil, this will cause the grill to flare and scorch the vegetable.

Skewers keep it together: One of the easiest ways to cook fresh vegetables on the grill is by placing them on either metal or bamboo skewers. This keeps smaller pieces of veg from falling through the grate and makes flipping them much easier.

Add some wood chips for flavor: Both vegetables and seafood take on other flavors easily and a small handful of apple or cherry wood over the hot coals will give your meal that extra bit of magic that sets it apart. Make sure to keep an eye on the wood chips so that they don’t accidentally catch fire and burn the vegetable.  

Precook them: Tougher vegetables such as potatoes and carrots are a lot easier to grill if you first precook them in boiling water for a few minutes before placing on the grill since it helps them to soften without getting burnt.

Foil packs are handy: For smaller cuts of vegetables, placing them in small packs of aluminum foil is a great way to grill. Another great thing about foil packs is that you can easily add whatever sauce or seasoning you like without getting your grill dirty

In conclusion

There is something about cooking over an open fire that appeals to our most basic nature and regardless of if you are cooking with the latest propane model or a classic Weber kettle grill, in your backyard with friends or on a remote beach miles from civilization, grilling remains one of the most satisfying ways to cook. It’s simple, direct and effective and yet there are a million ways to utilize it to create a range of dishes and in the hands of a skilled Chef, a hot grill can be as useful as his knife. Now it’s your turn to go cook.

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