The Thrill of the Grill
Getting Ready To Grill
Marinades, Rubs, Sauces And Accompaniments
What most of us do in our backyards, wearing aprons that say Le Chef is not barbecuing but grilling. Grilling means cooking food such as hot dogs and steaks - and increasingly fish, fruits and vegetables - under direct, often intense heat. The result is food with a pleasantly charred flavor that humans have craved since our prehistoric ancestors put slabs of antelope on a roaring fire. (True barbecue, on the other hand, is produced by long, slow cooking, often in a pit, with indirect heat from a hardwood fire.)
GRILL TYPES (back)
Grills fall into two broad categories, charcoal fired and gas.
Charcoal grills are subdivided into those that are open and those that are closed (virtually all gas grills have lids). Open grills are simply grates over glowing embers that are nestled in a trough of some kind.
The hibachi is the most elemental of open grills, and anyone who has been cramped for space or money (or both) has probably had this Japanese-style grill at one time. Its low-to-the-ground, rectangular shape takes up little room, and it costs peanuts at hardware or discount drug stores. Though limited in size and temperature control, hibachis are quite serviceable for grilling small items such as hamburgers or boneless chicken breasts. And hibachis travel well on picnics.
Other open grills are essentially souped-up versions of hibachis. For example, the grill surface may be larger to accommodate a whole salmon. And the grate may be elevated or lowered several settings to regulate the intensity of the heat on the food.
A larger grill also offers you the flexibility of moving food around. So,
cooked food can be transferred to a cooler spot on the grill and food not
yet cooked shifted to a hotter spot.
Covered grills such as the extremely popular Weber-style kettle grill can cook food by direct heat, though the grill height is usually not adjustable. To compensate, heat is diffused by the dome design and adjusted by controlling the air flow from vents in the top and bottom of the closed kettle. Kettle grills can, of course, be used as open grills too. But kettle grills can also cook foods such as whole turkeys with indirect heat in a barbecue-type fashion. I say barbecue-type because it's not really grilling over direct, intense heat, nor is it genuine barbecue (see Poultry below).
Gas grills, which now account for the vast majority of grill sales, are cleaner, but purists think they don't give the real grilled flavor that charcoal-fired grills do. That may depend on the keenness of your senses, but there's no getting around the fact that charcoal grills are messier, and you've always got to remember to bring the charcoal and a match.
With gas grills, the most important element is the burner because it wears out first. Cast iron is the preferred material but brass is even better. Porcelain or enamel-coated, cast iron grates are also recommended because they conduct heat better and sear more effectively. They also heat up faster and are easier to clean.
FUELS FOR CHARCOAL GRILLS (back)
There are those who will tell you that only charcoal (and perhaps only certain kinds of charcoal) can produce a grilled flavor that's worth shelling out $20 for a thick porterhouse steak. I am not one of those people. One reason is that since most grilling is done fairly quickly, the flavor of charcoal or embers from fruit woods or other hardwoods is minimal. Another is that gas grills create their own flavor when fat and juices drip onto heating elements and create smoke to season the food.
But maybe you re the type who can spot glove leather in an old cab at 50 paces. In that case, you might want to try lump charcoal made from hardwoods (mesquite, alder and hickory) or fruit woods such as cherry, apricot and peach. Lump charcoal burns slower and hotter - which is why professional chefs like it - though not as evenly as briquettes.
Briquettes are easy, safe and convenient. They travel well and they're less messy than lump charcoal. But they also contain binders and, occasionally, sodium nitrite to speed ignition. However, by the time the coals reach their hottest stage, most if not all, of these additives have burned off. The only caveat with briquettes, according to A. Cort Sinnes, author of "The Grilling Encyclopedia" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992), cheaper brands are often less dense, and thus burn out faster than better-known brands.
Even more convenient (and more expensive) than standard briquettes are instant-lighting briquettes which are impregnated with fuel. One reason that people use instant-lighting briquettes is that they have trouble starting fires. But an increasingly popular, sure-fire method of getting a fire going - and non-chemically to boot - is a chimney starter. This is a metal flue, about the diameter of a drain pipe. Crumbled newspaper is put in the bottom and briquettes in the main chamber. When the newspaper is lighted, the flames envelop the briquettes and keep going, using the same principle as a chimney. It's best to use this directly on the bottom grate of the grill so airflow isn't blocked and you can pour the heated briquettes out easily when they're ready.
Electric starters, metal loops that are submerged in the charcoal, have their following. But they require outlets and the heating elements can be damaged if left in the fire too long. Lighter fluid - even the environmentally friendly kind - adds chemical flavors, especially when it's overused. (To minimize the use of lighter fluid, mound the charcoal before dousing it with fluid. Then spread out the charcoal once it's fully heated.) Other starter aids include paraffin blocks and wax-coated wood chips. And for the terminally lazy, some grills such as the Weber Performer offer propane-fueled igniters.
How much charcoal is enough? A single layer of briquettes wide enough to extend one inch beyond the food surface will suffice in most cases. If you're going to be grilling for an extended period (say more than 20 minutes), you might want a double layer of briquettes. However, most grillers have far more BTUs than they need.
If you want to get a little sophisticated once the coals are ready, mound some briquettes in one area of the grill for intense heat. Then have a single layer elsewhere for medium heat, and a third area with no coals for very low heat.
FUELS FOR GAS GRILLS
Unless you pipe in natural gas from your house's main source, the fuel for your gas grill is propane. It's widely available at truck and tool rental locations. Keep an extra filled tank on hand (not in the house) in case you run out of fuel in the middle of cooking. There are also fuel gauges that can be attached to the tanks to let you know when the fuel level is low.
The primary heating elements in gas grills are lava rocks, ceramic briquettes
and metal rods, sometimes called flavor rods or heat distribution plates,
which account for the remaining 20 percent. Those nooks and crannies in the
lava rocks absorb the fats and juices of the grilled food better, creating
more smoke for that distinctive grilling flavor. They're also the easiest
to clean (see Tips).
Flavor rods provide even heat distribution but cause more flare-ups than the other two elements, and they're harder to clean. Ceramic briquettes give even heat distribution and are the least susceptible to flare-ups.
GETTING READY TO GRILL (back)
OK, you've somehow managed to light the charcoal. So when is it ready for the food? Wait until the outside of the charcoal gets a fine layer of gray ash and there's no flame. If you put a steak on too soon, for example, the juices will cause a flare up and torch the bottom of the steak, So instead of getting nice grill marks from the grate, you'll get a layer of soot.
A good way to test the heat level is by holding your hand about six inches above the cooking surface. If you can hold it there for more than six seconds, you have a low fire; five seconds a medium fire; less than three seconds means you have a hot fire.
When done properly, grilling is as safe as broiling in your oven. But some precautions should always be taken. If possible, position the grill near a hose that's connected to a water spigot. Failing that, have accessible an all-purpose ABC fire extinguisher (which you should also have in your kitchen). Fireproof gloves are a good idea too.
Normally, briquettes don't give off sparks. But lump charcoal may. So if
you use the latter, stay away from foliage, dry grass or anything else that
may catch fire.
Speaking of fire, the term throwing gasoline on a fire also applies to throwing lighter fluid - or any other fuel -on a charcoal fire.
Finally, never grill indoors and never leave a fire unattended, especially when it's just getting started and most especially when children are present.
CLEANING UP (back)
Whether using a gas or charcoal grill, cleaning the grate is facilitated by brushing or spraying it with vegetable oil before starting a fire. (This also makes grill marks more distinctive on the food.)
A stiff wire brush should suffice when cleaning the grill. Lose the scouring pads, this is an outdoor grill, it's not supposed to be perfectly clean.
Periodically clean lava rocks by putting them in a bag and shaking them to remove food particles. But don't wash them in detergent.When closing down for the night, shut off all vents and put the cover on. Better charcoal grills have more elaborate ash catchers. Just make sure you don't dump ashes in the trash for 24 hours. And check to make sure the vents aren't clogged with ashes before you make your next fire.
You can put almost any accessory imaginable on your grill short of a cellular
phone. But hold off until you've worked on the grill a few times to see what
you really need.
Some accessories I've found useful include:
Grill covers are enamel-covered grill tops with small holes that fit over traditional grill grates. They're handy for keeping small items such as shrimp or scallops from falling through the spaces in the grate and into the fire. But you won't get those appetizing grill marks.
If you're fond of doing fish on the grill but can't get the darned thing off in one piece, there is the fish basket. Try to get one that is non-stick or stick resistant, adjustable so that it holds various sizes of fish tightly, and with a long, removable handle. Baskets are also made for vegetables, even burgers.
I prefer metal skewers for kebabs rather than wooden skewers which always seem to get burned up even after they've been soaked in water.
Instant-read thermometers are a good idea when cooking large pieces of meat such as legs of lamb. They're more difficult for small items such as chicken breasts. In those instances try a button meat thermometer which doesn't need to probe as deeply to get a reading.
I think wood chips add more aroma to the grilling process than flavor to the food. But they do work reasonably well on lighter meats such as poultry and pork, and on seafood. My favorite vehicle for using them is a heavy iron box. Because the chips don't get enough air, they don't catch fire but smolder instead, letting their smoke waft through holes in the top of the box. Failing that, wrap the chips in aluminum foil then poke holes in the foil. Or soak the chips in water for at least 30 minutes before throwing them on the coals. Other aromatics to consider are grapevine cuttings (chic but very subtle), fresh herbs such as bay leaves and rosemary, and the fronds from fresh fennel (especially good for fish).
GRILLING TIPS (back)
- Plan on 30 to 40 minutes from the time the charcoal is lit until you can put food on the grill. Gas grills should be preheated for about 15 minutes.
- Allow food to come to room temperature before it goes on the grill, about 30 minutes out of the refrigerator.
- Don't put cooked food back onto platters that contained raw meat, especially poultry.Marinades, especially for poultry and pork, should only be applied during the first half of cooking. If marinades are to be used for later basting or as serving sauces, boil them a few minutes first to destroy any bacteria.
- If a charcoal fire burns too hot, spread out the coals. To keep a fire going, add some fresh charcoal to one end of the heated coals just before you put the food on the grill.
- Flare-ups can be doused with the well-directed stream from a spray bottle. But use this judiciously. Put the cover on the grill and close the vents for serious flames.
- No need to replace lava rocks because you think they're getting old. The older they are, the more flavor they retain and give to the food you cook.
RED MEATS (back)
Despite all the talk about fat, Americans still love their steaks and hamburgers on the grill. However, if you’re considering smaller portions, share a large steak of, say 20 ounces or more, among 4 people rather than grilling four six-ounce steaks which could easily overcook and dry out.
One of my favorites on the grill is a butterflied leg of lamb. Have your butcher remove the bones from a full or partial leg of lamb and spread the meat out flat as if it were a large steak. This can be then marinated with seasonings from the Mediterranean (garlic, rosemary, thyme and olive oil); the Middle East (cumin, garlic and olive oil), India (yogurt, turmeric, ginger, garlic and fresh chilies) or the American Southwest (ground chilies, cumin and cilantro). Grill as you would a steak. The uneven thickness of the meat is actually a benefit because someone at the table will invariably want his or her lamb well done while others will want theirs medium-rare to medium.
No matter what the recipe (or the butcher) tells you, stay away from tougher cuts such as ribs, shoulders and the like. These cuts need long, slow cooking with indirect heat. A good rule of thumb is that anything that you can broil or pan fry, you can grill.
Game is an underutilized meat on the grill. Quail is excellent when first split, then lightly marinated. Venison is wonderful as long as you cook it no more than medium rare. Beyond that, the lack of fat will render it tough.
Poultry is a real bugaboo on the grill because it always seems to burn on the outside before the inside is fully cooked. And the idea of precooking in the microwave is as appealing as parboiling a slab of ribs.
The best way to approach cooking poultry is the indirect method of heating, which is best done with a covered grill. For example, if you’re using a charcoal grill, build a fire to one side of the grill. When the fire is ready, put the chicken everywhere except directly over the coals. Then cover the grill. You can adjust the temperature during cooking by opening and closing the vents.
If you’re grilling a cut-up chicken, put the dark meat on the grill about 20 minutes before the light meat.
Cooking chicken - or anything else - with indirect heat minimizes flare-ups caused by the fat hitting the coals. (You can put an aluminum pan under the chicken to catch the fat as it drips down.) Cooking indirectly also allays some fears of carcinogens that form during direct cooking on the grill, though frankly, you’d have to eat a whole lot of grilled food to really worry.
You can cook indirectly with a gas grill if you have more than one burner. Turn one burner off and put the chicken on the grate over that burner. Then close the lid and adjust the heat with the controls on the other burner.
You can cook smaller birds like Cornish hens on direct heat as long as
the heat is fairly low and the bird is split and flattened so that it cooks
evenly and as quickly as possible.
Don’t add any sauce or marinade - especially ones that contain sugars or other sweeteners - until the very end of the cooking process. Sugars caramelize and burn easily. If you can get an accurate reading, poultry should be at least 160 degrees before it is removed from the grill.
I think the most boring piece of meat in the world is a boneless, skinless chicken breast. So I always cook chicken parts with bone and skin on, even if I don’t plan on eating the skin.
Fish - whether whole or cut into fillets - is becoming popular on the grill. But not every fish is a good candidate for the coals. "Meaty" fish such as swordfish, tuna, shark and monkfish are best, followed by grouper, halibut, mahi mahi and salmon. Though I hate messing with fish bones, they do keep fish moist and in one piece. So choose steaks over fillets. And with fillets, keep the skin on.
Since fish have less fat than red meat, it’s essential that the grill surface be lubricated or that the fish brushed with oil, or both, before grilling to prevent sticking. But don’t overdo it or you’ll cause flare-ups. Putting the skin side down first also helps to develop a firm outside crust.
Strong marinades obscure the delicate nature of fish, so steer clear of seasonings such as sesame oil, garlic and rosemary. (Keep seafood marinades light and short. No more than 30 minutes.) Heavy charring also masks the subtle flavor of fish. Therefore, you should cook fish at a lower temperature than red meat.
Knowing when fish is done is almost as tricky as getting poultry just right, though underdone salmon is less hazardous than rare chicken legs. For fillets or steaks, use the finger- poking method. When pressed with your index finger, the fish should spring back. If the flesh is mushy or leaves a permanent indentation, it's not yet done. If it flakes, it’s overdone.
Whole fish are a little trickier, though the finger poking method still works. You can also "cut and peek" by slicing into the thickest part of the fish and taking a look. Fish is done when it’s opaque rather than translucent.
Shellfish, with their delicate meat, require even more care on the grill.
Shrimp are a natural, the larger the better. Ditto for large scallops and
soft shell crabs. A few minutes on either side is all you’ll need for
any of them, unless the shrimp are unusually large.
Mollusks such as oysters, clams and mussels are fun on the grill. Just scrub the shells and put them on the grate. Remove them when they open, discarding any that don’t.
The grill is a great way to handle the summer’s bounty. My wife and I can make a meal out of a platter of grilled vegetables with nothing more than cruets of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and crusty bread.
In general, dense vegetables such as potatoes should be grilled at lower heat or they’ll char too fast on the outside before they’re done inside. Softer vegetables can tolerate higher heat because they’ll cook through quickly. Here are some ideas:
Peppers, whether sweet or hot, are magnificent from the grill. After thoroughly charring them, put them in a plastic bag to cool. Then peel, seed and slice or chop. The sweet ones are great with fat anchovies as a first course, in rice or pasta salads or by themselves marinated in garlic and olive oil. Hot chile peppers can be chopped for tomato salsas or mixed in other dips such as guacamole. (To mitigate some of the heat, remove all or part of the seeds and membranes.)
If you’ve ever had sodden eggplant in eggplant Parmesan, grilled eggplant
will be a revelation. Fresher eggplants and smaller varieties (such as Japanese
and Chinese) don’t need to be salted. Just slice, lengthwise. Larger eggplants
should be cut crosswise (don’t peel). Brush with oil and put on the
grill until nicely charred. Try making a grilled ratatouille by adding
grilled eggplants to grilled peppers, onions, zucchini and tomatoes.
What could be more natural than grilled corn on the cob? Pull back the husk, remove the silk, then soak the corn in water for 20 minutes. Slather the corn with butter (plain or flavored with chile powder and scallions) and replace the husk, securing it with string or piece of husk. Then grill over medium heat, turning a few times, for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Any member of the onion family (including garlic) is great on the grill as are tomatoes, mushrooms and summer squash.
Ripe but still firm fruit develops a delicious carmelization on the grill.
But grilling also makes up for the lack of sweetness in slightly underripe
fruit. I especially like stone fruit such as nectarines and peaches (marinated
in rum), bananas (with only a few brown specks and no green showing), figs,
pineapple (marinated in rum and ginger) and papaya.
Don’t think of grilled fruits just for dessert. Figs wrapped with pancetta or prosciutto or stuffed with semi-soft cheese and nuts make a great hors d’oeuvres. Grilled pineapple is a terrific salsa ingredient to accompany grilled seafood. And fruit can go together with fish or chicken on kebabs.
MARINADES, RUBS, SAUCES AND ACCOMPANIMENTS (back)
The first thing you should know about marinades is that they don’t tenderize. You can soak a chuck steak in olive oil and red wine until the Cubs win the World Series but all you’ll get is a soggy piece of tough meat. Marinades do flavor, however. Some of the best flavoring agents are red wine, olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs and freshly cracked black pepper. I like to create marinades according to the type of dish I want. Asian calls for sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine. Greek says garlic, olive oil and rosemary. And so forth.
Rubs are an even better way to flavor foods (especially meats) for the
grill because they adhere to the flesh or skin. (If you’re not going
to eat the chicken skin, but want its moistening effect during cooking,
rub seasonings on the flesh under the skin).
Generally, rubs involve dried herbs and ground spices which are more convenient (and intense) than fresh ones. And they can also follow an ethnic theme. For example, a West Indian rub for chicken or pork might be: curry powder, cumin, allspice, ginger, cayenne, salt and pepper.
As for sauces and accompaniments, I say go easy on the former and heavy on the latter. Nothing ruins the carbonized goodness of grilling more than cloying barbecue sauces too liberally applied. But by all means have a full assortment of relishes (especially chutneys and salsas, whether homemade or store-bought), pickles (large and small, sweet and sour) and side dishes (homemade coleslaw and bean salad) on hand to accent your perfectly grilled food.
GRILLED BEEF SALAD WITH SUMMER VEGETABLES (recipes)
This grilled "salad" has a little something for everyone. The kids may even give up their burgers for it.
1-1/4 to 1-1/2 pounds flank steak
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil spray
1 green bell pepper
2 red bell peppers
4 medium zucchini
4 medium yellow squash
1 small eggplant
1 medium to large yellow onion
1 pint of cherry tomatoes
2/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
Season steak with salt and pepper, spray with olive oil. Over high heat, grill the steak medium rare, about 5 minutes on each side. Set aside.
Grill peppers until blackened or blistered all around. Put in a plastic
bag to cool.
Cut zucchini, squash, eggplant and onion in half. Spray with olive oil and grill. Put onion, skin side down on the coolest part of the grill. Put zucchini, squash and eggplant on the hotter part of the grill. They should be lightly charred and tender but still firm when done. Remove onion when it has softened but is still crunchy after about 20 to 25 minutes.
Cut beef against the grain on the diagonal into thin slices about the length of an index finger. Put into a mixing bowl. Cut zucchini, squash and eggplant into 3/4-inch cubes. Cut onion into thick slices. Peel, seed and cut peppers into strips. Halve tomatoes. Add all vegetables to the beef.
Mix olive oil, vinegar, garlic, basil, salt and pepper. Pour over meat and vegetables. Toss gently and refrigerate two hours or longer. Let come to room temperature before serving. Adjust seasoning as necessary.
HALIBUT WITH FRESH TOMATO SAUCE (recipes)
The following recipe comes from "The Thrill of the Grill" by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby (William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1990) one of the best grilling and barbecue books around.
2 large, ripe tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon minced garlic
4 8-ounce halibut steaks
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine tomatoes, basil, olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice and garlic in
a bowl. Set aside.
Rub fish with vegetable oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill fish over medium-high fire about 5 minutes per side or until fish springs back when pushed with a finger, or the flesh is opaque.
Spoon some tomato sauce on 4 plates. Put fish on sauce.
GRILLED PINEAPPLE SALSA (recipes)
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
2 tablespoons minced red onion
1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, minced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon lime juice
Salt to taste
Remove skin and "eyes" and cut pineapple into 1/4-inch dice. Combine with remaining ingredients and refrigerate a few hours. Use with grilled seafood, poultry or pork.
Makes about 2 cups.
TARTAR BURGERS (recipes)
1 pound ground round or other lean ground beef
11/2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon drained capers, chopped
1 teaspoon minced anchovies
2 to 4 tablespoons chopped green onions
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup ground crackers
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients together and form into five 5-ounce patties. Cook to desired doneness.
Serves 3 to 5.
GRILLED QUAIL (recipes)
(From "The L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook" by Angus Cameron and Judith Jones, Random House, 1983)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, put through a press or minced
1/2 teaspoon thyme
3 quail split
Mash all ingredients except quail in a mortar and pestle, or combine well by shaking together in a jar.
Rub over quail and grill about 5 minutes on each side over a medium fire.