It's Labor Day weekend... Are we mourning the end of summer or celebrating beginning of fall? Either way, it’s a great excuse to get together with friends and grill. (Do you really need an excuse for that, though?) Here’s a quick reference of tips and tricks to help you get through your next backyard barbecue.
One of the joys of BBQ is that the sky’s the limit; practically any meat or vegetable can be grilled. The important thing to remember is time. If you’re reading this article an hour before guests start to arrive and you haven’t even bought groceries, then slow smoking an entire pork shoulder is probably out of the question. Don’t stretch yourself so thin that you can’t accomplish the meal. Planning ahead and keeping the recipes quick and simple will help see that your backyard barbecue is a successful one.
Now if you do have the luxury of time than you should start thinking about “cooking” at least two hours before you actually plan to grill.
- Start with marinating your meat. Cooking on a grill is going to impart a nice smoky flavor to everything, but the majority of the flavor is either in the meat itself or will come from the marinade or the rub you put on before cooking. A good marinade consists of three things: an acid (vinegar, lemon juice, etc.), an oil and spices. Do not use BBQ sauce as a marinade. There are a few exceptions to this, however, using BBQ sauce as a marinade will typically only lead to blackened charred food (a little bit of char is good, a lot is bad). This is because most BBQ sauces have loads of sugar in them that just caramelize and burn onto the food long before the food is actually cooked. To play it safe, stick to a simple marinade and then brush on the sauce the last few minutes of cooking or after the food is off the grill.
- Prep your vegetables and other sides. If you plan to grill your veggies, slice them nice and thin so they cook quickly and evenly. Don’t mess with adding oil or spices to them, let the grill do its thing and add the flavoring after. Other great sides to go with your meal can be a nice potato salad, deviled eggs, coleslaw, and other items you can make in advance and have waiting for the rest of the food to come off the grill. Having this prep work done before it’s time to grill will save you some headache, and allow you to pay closer attention to the grill.
- Prep the grill. Make sure your cooking surface is nice and clean, get rid of any old ash left over from the last time you used it. Arrange your charcoal to suit your needs if you’re only cooking one type of thing than a simple split between high direct heat, and low indirect heat will likely work. If you’re cooking multiple things than you may want to go with low, medium, high heat areas (see below for tips on getting the right heat). Just before you throw the meat on you’ll want to take a rag or paper towel soaked in olive oil and coat the grill in a light layer. You want to oil the grill, not the food. Oiling the food can result in oil dripping onto the coals and flaring up. Contrary to popular opinion food that is actually “flame broiled” isn’t so tasty, the fire tends to just burn things.
As awesome as it is to cook with fire, all barbecuing is is a fancy name for caveman-style baking. Just like baking in the kitchen, the success (or failure) of your meal will come down to how well you control the heat. The easiest way to do this is build zones into your grill of high, medium, and low heat areas. This is accomplished by stacking more coals higher in one area than another. You can then move your food around as necessary to help control how it cooks. A quick rule of thumb: when checking your coal temperatures, hold your hand 5-6” inches above the cooking surface and count how long you can leave it there before it becomes uncomfortable. (Please be smart and don’t burn yourself.)
- 6 seconds = low heat
- 4 seconds = medium heat
- 2 seconds = high heat
As mentioned before, you’ll want to light your grill a solid 30 minutes before in order to let the coals burn down a bit and get your grill and cooking surface nice and hot. All that being said, if you have a gas grill, congratulations! You can just turn the knob to high, medium or low, but you won’t get all of that great charcoal flavor.
Have The Right Tools
Having the tools to get the job done right can make a world of difference. If you’re trying to move your food around on a grill with a fork, you’re probably going to have a bad time and a lot less arm hair. A nice spatula or a grill basket can be nice addition to your tools, but a long, sturdy pair of tongs will go along way in making yourself a grill master. A meat thermometer is also recommended, and can be the difference between giving your friends a delicious meal and giving them food poisoning.
Now that you’ve taken all of these pre-precautions, you’re finally ready to grill. Take your deliciously marinated meat and throw it on the grill. That’s it, just let it sit there on the high side of the grill. Don’t mash it down, don’t move it around, just let it sit and sear for at least a minute. If you want those cool criss-cross grill marks, then rotate your food 90 degrees and let sear a bit more before flipping. Once seared, flip and repeat on the other side. Once you have a good sear, move the meat to a cooler portion of the grill. The thicker the cut the lower the heat you’ll want, so it all cooks evenly. Check “done-ness” with the meat thermometer.
Let The Meat Rest
You thought we were done, didn’t you? After all, what else could there be besides cooking the food? An important step when cooking meat is to let it rest for about 10 minutes after you take it off the grill. This will allow the overall temperature to normalize and some of the juices to reabsorb throughout the meat. This is also a great time to add your favorite barbecue sauce. Once you’ve let it rest, load up your plates and enjoy! If you’re curious about what beer you should pair with it, check out our Beer & Barbecue Pairing Blog.
Have your own tips you’d like to share?
This guide was meant to be a general overview to apply to as many grilling types as possible if you have any of your own secrets and tips you’d like to share leave them in the comments below.