1. Be organized.
Gather together everything you are going to need from start to finish and be sure to make a trip to the restroom. Once you get started, you can’t walk away — this is live fire cooking.
- Do you have enough charcoal (or propane)?
- Do you have all the ingredients?
- Do you have a clean platter to put the ingredients on once they are cooked?
- Do you have matches? Tongs (no forks, please!)? Oven mitt? Meat thermometer? Paper towels? Marinade brush? Grill scraper? Cell or cordless phone? Margarita (you’ll need to stay cool with all that heat!)
- Is the recipe ready to go?
- Meats should be trimmed of fat and removed from wet marinades.
- Do you have a metal garbage bowl or bin?
If you have space, consider storing all your outdoor grilling utensils and gadgets in a sturdy canvas bag in the mudroom — I like to have tongs, mitts, and thermometer in the bag and the rest I gather before I go outside. Or prepare a laminated list that you can check before you strike a match.
2. Where to grill?
The placement of your grill is important — do not place it by a door that will be open and shut during cooking, nor in a heavily trafficked spot in your yard. Open windows, places where kids are playing, and, of course, spots where flammable materials might be, are all no-nos. Place your grill on a flat, fireproof surface at least 10 feet from your house.
3. Bring on the heat.
I prefer lump charcoal — I like the flavor, I think you get better heat, and it’s more interactive. With chimney starters, you can even avoid the use of nasty canned fire starter fluids. Once you get a chimney starter going and glowing with coals, dump the coals out onto a neat pile of charcoal and let them burn until they become gray. Give the whole grill a gentle shake or carefully spread the coals out with the tongs. If you are making a long cooked roast make a pile on one side of the grill (and cook the meat on the other — you’ll form a natural convection oven).
Place the grate on top of the grill and let it heat up for a few minutes, then scrape it down with a stiff wire brush to remove any browned bits from last week (or last year). This is good maintenance and it will help keep food from sticking.
You are ready to cook (medium high heat) if you can hold your hand 6 inches over the grill for 5 seconds.
4. Lube job.
Lightly oil the grates. When you are good to go, with tongs, run an oiled paper towel or hunk of beef fat over the grill grates. This, too, will help keep food from sticking. You could also remove the grate and give it a dusting of cooking spray oil (away from the flame), use a folded paper towel soaked in oil, or rub it with a piece of fatty bacon, beef fat, or chicken skin. Be sure to let the grates come to temperture before you begin cooking.
5. Rest up.
When cooking proteins (meat, pork, chicken, fish) be sure to let them rest at least 5 (if not 10) minutes before slicing them. The juices will release while they are cooking and if you cut into them right from the grill all those flavorful juices will run. If you let them rest, the meat will absorb and redistribute the juices.
6. Think about your marinades.
Marinades with sugar should be added at the end — the sugar will burn, not caramelize, if added too soon. Any marinades with acid (citrus juice, vinegar) will cook protein — if you want the flavor, but not the acid, try the zest from citrus fruits and/or add such flavors toward the end of the marinating process.
Consider adding flavor to the fire with chips of dried hickory, applewood, pecan, cinnamon, or rosemary.
7. Bring ingredients to room temperature.
They cook more quickly and evenly.
8. Don’t move proteins around too much.
If cooking steak or chicken, find the right spot and lay it down, then let it cook a few minutes before moving or turning. If you have oiled the grates, then chances are the steak or chicken won’t stick when you move it. One turn ought to do it.
9. Fashion matters.
Be careful what you wear. You want to look good, but save heavy metal cuff bracelets and watches for another day — they can heat up, and most likely not burn you, but make things uncomfortable. Also long, dangly necklaces could be a problem.
10. Use tongs or spatulas rather than forks or knives.
Tongs will help keep things in one piece, while other utensils will poke holes in all your hard work.