Grilling to Perfection

I grill every week, sometimes twice, and with repetition my techniques are getting more and more well-honed.

Hardware: I use a Weber Silver One-Touch, a housewarming gift from my parents. I've had it for two years and have already replaced the grille once. I use a Weber chimney starter instead of lighter fluid and an inexpensive fireplace lighter because I got tired of firing up matches that blow out in the teasing wind. The vents are always open.

I take three or four paper towels from the kitchen and give them a light spritz on one side from a can of aerosol canola oil. That little bit of oil makes the paper act like a candle and keeps it burning long enough to set the coals off. (I picked up this tip from Alton Brown.)

I load the chimney up to the top, sometimes heaping a little over (give the coal a shake to help it settle. I've tried cooking with different amounts of coal depending on what I was cooking, but that increases the unpredictability. If you start with roughly the same amount of coal each time, you can more easily adjust cooking times and food placement than when your fire varies by 200 degrees from fire to fire. Cutting down the variables is a way to get consistently good results.

I use wood coal bought by the sack at Whole Foods or Trader Joes or the local hardware store. I prefer it for several reasons: (1) the bags are lighter than pressed briquets and it is easier to handle them; (2) they burn hotter (though that means they also burn shorter); (3) they burn cleaner without any oily smell.

Once the fire is lit, it usually takes about 15 minutes for the chimney to be ready. I use this time to put all the food on aluminum-foil-lined plates, ready for delivery to the grill. The hamburger is seasoned, the steaks coated, etc. etc. Everything must be ready to cook.

Another advantage of the chimney is that all the coals are lit at the same time and burn down together. (I think that enhances the overall heat produced.) I remember setting up barbecues where the goal was to build a pyramid of coals and get them started with lighter fluid and fanning. The coals on the edges did not catch until much later on while the coals at the bottom were already past peak.

The fire is ready when a blue flame starts dancing at the top of the chimney. Another way to tell is, if you wait too long, the chimney starts to glow orange and begin to bend in the heat.

Wearing a work glove, I grab the chimney by the handle and up-end it into the grill, keeping my head away from the sparks and ash. I then use some old tongs to push the coals around and distribute as needed -- usually I make an even layer, but on occasion I will go for a "hot zone/medium zone" by banking the coals. I then put the red-hot chimney somewhere safe to cool off.

When I am cooking for the week, I plan out my food and the desired heat. For example, yesterday I grilled two beefsteaks for dinner that night, a porterhouse and a strip steak, both coated with salt and crushed pepper (four minutes per side); a tuna steak (four minutes per side); eight six-ounce hamburgers; twelve sausages (7-9 minutes), then some asparagus (5-7 minutes). The steaks and tuna got the first, hottest heat; then the hamburgers, with the sausage ringing the grill; then the sausage moved to the center for finishing; then the asparagus.

In this situation, I added another few handfuls of coals to the already hot fire before putting the grill on. Put on too much and it starts to smoulder and issue an off-putting smell until they heat up. But adding fresh coal to the fire lengthens the grilling time overall.

Once the coals are distributed, I throw the grill on top and let it heat up. I then brush it with a copper wire brush to get rid of any food debris or fat from previous cooking. If I am cooking fish, I may give the grill another scrubbing midway to avoid imparting off flavors to the later foods.

The last most important piece of equipment I use is an electronic timer. I usually get distracted with so many small things to tend, so if I just use my watch I will forget whether it was four minutes or three since the second hand passed the 12. My timer faithfully counts down what I want it to, and after a while it has gotten so that I'll trust the timer over my own inspection of whether a piece is "done" yet.

Something to keep in mind: your food will continue to keep cooking when you take it off the grill. A thick cut of steak needs five minutes or more to "settle down" and bind up, and its internal temperature will continue to rise for a few more minutes. So if it is perfect when you cut into it on the grill, it will be overdone when it reaches the plate.

That's all I can think of regarding grilling without getting into specific recipes. None of my stuff is at all expensive, and with practice you will get amazingly professional results.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just remember to take the magnetic timer off your wife's car before calling it quits for the night.

September 27, 2004 at 6:39 PM  

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