Grilling is one of America’s great summer pastimes. Barbecuing is cheaper than restaurant dining and more fun, because the kids don’t have to sit still and behave.
Your home stays cool when you cook outdoors, and even men who plead ignorance in the kitchen will happily take on cooking chores that involve popping a cold brew and firing up the grill.
Here are 19 ways to eliminate snafus, cook your food perfectly, and get the most for your effort, health and money:
1. Get the grill really hot
If you are using coals, they’ll need at least 15 minutes to get hot enough for cooking. Perfect coals have a cherry-red glow, and at least 70 percent of them will be covered with ash.
Another way to tell if the coals are ready: Hold a hand about 4 inches above the grill grate and count, “one Mississippi, two Mississippi,” says Real Simple magazine. If you can only get to two or three Mississippis, you’ve got a hot fire — four to five means medium-high and eight to 10 means you’ve got a medium-low fire.
For the scientists among us, Eating Well magazine says:
- High heat is 400-450 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Medium is 350-400 degrees.
- Medium-low is 300-350 degrees.
- Low is 250-300 degrees.
Whether you’re using charcoal, gas or electricity, be sure to preheat your grill for 15 to 25 minutes before putting food on it. That kills any bacteria on the surface.
“A properly heated grill sears foods on contact, keeps the insides moist and helps prevent sticking,” says Eating Well. Contrary to what you may have heard, searing doesn’t really seal in juices. It does improve flavor by caramelizing the food’s surface, though.
3. Oil the grate
You don’t want a lot of food sticking to the grill. This is one point that separates grill pros from amateurs. What’s more, a grimy rack makes for an ugly cleanup job.
Oil your hot grill grate before putting food on it: Soak a paper towel in vegetable oil, grab it with your barbecue tongs (not your hands) and rub it on the grate until the metal is well-oiled. Danger: Never ever spray cooking oil onto a hot grill.
4. Use a grill basket
Use a grill basket to keep together small pieces of food or fragile vegetables and fruits that could drop through the grill grate. The cost is around $10 to $30.
5. Try this secret for great grill marks
Here’s advice on getting good grill marks, courtesy of Real Simple: Concentrate the heat just before you put the meat down. Do this by laying a sheet of aluminum foil over the grill grate for 10 minutes and then pull it off just before you put the food on it.
6. Get a meat thermometer
Grill artists use a meat thermometer. Here’s why:
- Safety: Underdone meat can make you, your family and your guests sick.
- Getting it just right: Take your meals to the perfect temperature for safety and flavor without overcooking.
- Money savings: Meat and fish are expensive. Burning, undercooking and overcooking food are a waste of money.
Follow these tips:
- Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. Don’t let it touch fat, gristle or bone.
- Follow this U.S. Department of Agriculture chart for safe internal temperatures for meat, poultry, fish and other foods.
7. Go digital
OK, you’ve got religion on meat thermometers. Now, make yours a digital type. When Consumer Reports tested 46 meat thermometers each of its 10 winners was digital. Here’s why, according to their findings:
Digital models generally performed better and were more accurate, consistent and convenient to use than analog models. Analog thermometers were often more difficult to read, had the longest response times, and have few if any features.
Digital thermometers come in three types:
- Instant-read. Poke a probe into the food and remove it for a quick test of doneness. Consumer Reports’ winners ranged from $18 to $85. This type is especially good for meat that must be handled and turned during cooking.
- Infrared. Infrared is a less-common instant-read type. It uses a point-and-shoot laser. You can get a good one for about $69. Infrared is used to measure the surface temperature of grilled meat.
- Continuous-read. This type typically has a couple of parts: a probe that’s left in the meat as it cooks, and a thermometer unit connected to the probe either wirelessly or by a wire. Continuous-read thermometers let you see — or alert you — the instant your meat reaches a desired temperature. Use this type of thermometer with foods that can be cooked undisturbed. Consumer Reports’ favorite products in this category cost from $40 to $200.
8. Try this for no-stick fish
When turning a piece of delicate fish on the grill, it’s all too easy to break it apart. Keep fish intact and prevent it from sticking to the grill by laying a few slices of lemon directly onto the grill first and then putting the fish atop them. People Magazine shows how it’s done.
9. Show off with spiral cut weenies
Impress the guests when you prepare hot dogs for grilling by cutting round and round but not through the little devils. The finished product looks like a twisty pig’s tail and exposes more scrumptious surface area to the fire. The Caramel Potatoes blog explains:
Just insert a wooden skewer through the center of your hot dog. Hold a knife at a slight angle and cut down to the skewer as you roll the hot dog away from you.
10. Poke ice cubes into hamburgers
Here’s a crazy tip for keeping burgers moist as they cook on the grill: Stick a single ice cube into each patty just before you put the meat on the grill, says People Magazine.
The ice melts and the liquid absorbs, keeping the burger cooking slowly inside while the outside gets crispy.
11. Toss aromatics onto the fire
Grilling over a fire topped with fragrant wood-flavoring agents infuses food with exotic taste. “Use rigid, woody growth rather than green branches,” advises The Oregonian, listing the best woods, including grape vines and prunings from apple, cherry and peach trees, and herbs for topping a fire. The Oregonian says:
Wood chips or woody prunings act as flavoring agents, not fuel. Soak them in water, beer, wine, bourbon or apple cider for at least 30 minutes before using.
12. Start fires the old-fashioned way
Avoid lighter fluid or other chemical fire-starters. They impart a nasty taste to food. Use newspaper or clean kindling instead. Or try a small vented chimney used to light charcoal briquettes. Electric fire-starting tools work well with coals, too.
13. Marinate safely
Marinating meat, fish and poultry adds flavor and tenderizes tough meats. Marinades can include oils and acids (like vinegar, lemon juice or wine) herbs, condiments, spices and dairy products like yogurt.
Since marinades are used with raw meat, it’s important to follow these basic food safety rules:
- Marinate in the refrigerator, never at room temperature.
- If you’re basting with a liquid in which raw meat marinated, don’t apply it during the last three minutes of grilling, says All Recipes, which has recipes for marinades, brines and rubs.
14. Get an antioxidant boost from marinades
No direct link has been proved, but eating meat cooked at high temperatures may be risky. Cancer.gov explains that HCAs (heterocyclic amines) are formed when cooking chicken, pork, fish and beef at high temperatures.
HCAs cause cancer in laboratory animals, and they may put humans at risk too, says this National Institutes of Health study.
The study found that meat marinated with one of three (Caribbean, Southwest and herb) commercial marinades containing certain antioxidant spices interrupt HCA “and provide reduced exposure to some of the carcinogens formed during grilling.” The Caribbean marinade worked best.
Antioxidants studied included carnosic acid and carnosol (in rosemary and sage) and rosmarinic acid, (common in herbs like rosemary, sage, lemon balm, basil, holy basil, marjoram, thyme and peppermint).
15. Fight flare-ups
Another unhealthy compound, PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon), is created when fats drip onto a hot surface or meat is licked by flames. Stop flare-ups with these four tips from Eating Well:
- Use lean cuts of meat.
- Trim excess fat.
- Remove poultry skin.
- Fill a squirt bottle with water and keep it nearby to squirt flare-ups.
16. Cut carcinogens
Marinades aren’t the only way to cut the risk of cancer from grilled meat. Cancer.gov recommends these techniques:
- Reduce cooking times (yet another argument for using meat thermometers).
- Microwaving meat before grilling to “substantially reduce” risk.
- Continually turning meat while it’s cooking.
- Remove charred areas of meat before eating.
- Don’t make gravy or sauce with drippings from charred meat.
17. Find favorite grill apps
Technology infuses grilling with a sense of fun and adventure. It also helps you hone your grill game. Here are a few of the most-popular apps for grilling:
- GrillTime (free, iOS). The New York Times loves this app. It does just what you’d think: tells you how long to grill anything and times your food as it cooks. Have a bunch of burgers? Use multiple timers, one per burger. The app lets you know when to flip each one.
- On the Grill ($4.99, Android and iOS). Weber’s app includes 280 food recipes, plus 40 more for marinades, rubs and sauces. You can tag recipes, create a shopping list and share recipes with friends.
- Grilling: A Bon Appétit Manual (free, iOS). The gourmet magazine’s test kitchen pulls together 101 recipes, tips and videos.
- Epicurious Recipes & Shopping List (free, iOS, Android, Windows). The famed online foodie site includes grilled foods among its 30,000-recipe app, which also manages shopping lists and accepts voice-activated commands for no-hands cooking.
18. BYO chilled air
You may have a portable air conditioner and you’ve almost certainly got a cooler, but do you have both in one? You can, with an IcyBreeze Portable Air Conditioner and Cooler (around $400 at Amazon).
PC Magazine calls it a standard cooler on wheels that also houses a (rechargeable) battery-operated air conditioner that “blow(s) a constant breeze of cool air up to 25 miles per hour at up to 35 degrees below the outside temperature.”
Too expensive? No problem. Here’s how to make your own for less than $10.
19. Make cleanup easy
At cleanup time you’ll be glad you oiled the grill before cooking because you should have less food stuck to the grate. Use a long-handled wire grill brush to rub the grate clean.
And remember that piece of aluminum foil you used (tip No. 5) to concentrate the heat for great grill marks? Wad it up now and put it to work. It makes an excellent disposable tool for scrubbing a grill grate clean.
What are your secrets for perfect grilling? Share them by commenting below or on our Facebook page.
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