Summer is coming and that means it's time to barbecue. Grilling out is an American pastime and something that people have done for decades — well, millennia if we're talking open fire, but let's stick to the backyard 'cue, shall we?
Barbecuing is so popular that 80% of all U.S. homes own a grill, and nearly 100% use their grills at least once a year, according to a 2013 study by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA).
You can grill on a charcoal or gas fire, open hearth, electric grill or even a smoker. But no matter how you want to grill, you have to know what you're doing — and that's not always easy. So we reached out to some experts to get tips not only about the best types of meat and seafood to grill, but how to best prepare them.
Essential Grilling Tools
There is an inordinate number of tools and accessories you can get for your grill —lights, basting pots, monogrammed tool kits, telescoping skewers. If you think you need something, chances are someone has thought to create it. But Jack Vogt, the pit master for Tony Roma's, says there are a few essential grilling tools:
- Tongs: Long-handled stainless steel tongs help you turn the meat without burning your hands. Most grilling experts will tell you to stay away from using a meat fork.
- Meat Thermometer: This helps to ensure your meat is properly cooked and lets you know when to remove it from the grill. While Vogt suggests a thermometer, some grill masters shun poking the meat and use a touch technique to determine doneness. Rare to medium rare will feel spongy; medium will be springy; and medium well to well-done will be firm or taut to the touch.
- Grill Brush: A grill brush with a long handle and stainless steel bristles helps remove any germs and residue that may build up on the grate. Keeping your grill brushed clean helps reduce excess smoke, flare-ups and uneven heat from cooked-on food.
10 General Grilling Tips
Regardless of what you're grilling, here are a few simple tips to give you good results:
- Always use a clean, hot grill.
- Use high-quality meat and seafood.
- Use minimal ingredients and let the flavor of the meat or seafood shine through.
- Help keep food from sticking to the grill by rubbing vegetable oil on cooler grates with an old kitchen towel.
- Control the heat by leaving the lid open for thinner cuts, but closing it for cuts more than three-quarters of an inch thick to allow trapping the heat and evenly cooking all around.
- Watch your food — nothing kills dinner faster than charred food.
- Use lower heat to grill fish, chicken, vegetables and even fruit (grilled peaches in summer? Yes!).
- Trim excess fat from meat to prevent it from burning off, dripping into the flames and causing flare-ups.
- High-sugar sauces and marinades can cause more flare-ups, which can burn your food. Apply them toward the end of grilling for flavor.
- Put grilled food onto a clean plate, not one that held raw meat.
Tips for Picking Out and Grilling Meat
If you're thinking about pork ribs, pork shoulder, beef brisket or whole chickens, Vogt suggests "low and slow barbecue smoking," but that doesn't mean you can't throw a rack of baby back ribs onto your grill. He says steak, chops and chicken breasts are best for grilling. So what should you buy? Vogt offers up some suggestions:
- Baby back ribs: These lean, tender rib cuts offer a lot of flavor and grill up fairly quickly.
- Steaks: Flank steak can be tender, with more flavor than a filet or strip steak. Since flank steaks are thin, they absorb marinade well, but cook up quickly. Don't let them overcook or burn. Vogt suggests taking them off the grill when the internal temperature reaches 135° and then setting them aside to rest for 10 minutes. Always slice the meat against the grain.
- Chicken: Whether you're making boneless, skinless breasts, thighs or a whole chicken, they’re all great for feeding a group, since they are generally less expensive. Tip: Pound chicken breasts flat to under 1 inch thick so they’ll cook more evenly and be tender.
- Lamb: Pat LaFrieda, the CEO of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors in New Jersey, loves grilling lamb rib chops. He says to use "a simple crushed garlic, salt and olive oil rub on the exterior. Be sure to cut into the individual chops before grilling. Use American lamb for the best flavor and tenderness."
Tips for Picking Out and Grilling Seafood
When it comes to seafood, Carl Galvan, the director of marketing for Supreme Lobster and Seafood, a Chicago-based national seafood wholesale distributor, knows his fish. Known around town as the Chicago Fish Dude, Galvan helps keep chefs in the know about the freshest seafood coming in. He offers up some tips for selecting and cooking seafood:
- Find a reputable place to buy fish. Whether it’s a quality fish market or better grocer, it shouldn't smell like fish when you walk in. Befriend the fishmonger so eventually they'll clue you in to the best stock they have.
- For grilling, use firmer-flesh fish like tuna, marlin, swordfish, yellowtail, grouper, cobia, sardines, mackerel, shrimp or squid. Galvan also loves grilling clams and oysters. "I recommend shucking oysters first. For clams you don't have to; they're more resilient."
- Salmon works best on low heat.
- Fish with softer, flakier flesh like halibut, cod, black cod and sablefish doesn’t do as well on a grill. If you want to get that smoky or charred taste, you can sauté the fish in a pan on the grill. "You'll get flat, straight caramelization on the fish and it'll be easy to get it off the pan."
- Less is more: "When it comes to seasoning, I'm a minimalist. Just use high-quality oil, salt and pepper." However, if you like marinades, he suggests fish sauce, lemon, lime, cilantro and shallots. "Umami, citrus, fat and aromatics. Keep it to that and you're good."
Tips for Grilling Vegetables
While grilling brings meat to mind, don't forget veggies. Corn, portabella mushrooms, asparagus, zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers and more all work well on the grill. Some tips:
- Lightly coat sliced or chopped vegetables with high-quality olive oil, salt and pepper. Don't use too much oil; it could drip into the flames and cause flare-ups.
- You can use a grill basket or skewers to ensure vegetables don't fall through cracks. A foil "basket" works well to steam vegetables on the grill.
- I like to shuck corn on the cob, lightly rub it with olive oil, salt and pepper and wrap it in foil. Cook it for about 20 minutes, turning once, and you'll get a great char.
- "Asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper is the easiest vegetable to grill," LaFrieda says.
- Slice heartier vegetables like zucchini, squash, portabellas or bell peppers lengthwise and eggplant or onion into rounds and place them directly onto the grate to get a nice char.
- Watch your vegetables and don't overcook them.