Fire Up the Grill

by Mark R. Vogel

            Nothing epitomizes summer cooking more than grilling.  However, grilling can be very confusing.  The more recipes, cookbooks, and perspectives you encounter, the greater the diversity of opinion that arises.  When do you apply the barbeque sauce?  Gas or charcoal?  Flip the food only once or frequently?  High heat or low heat?  Dry rubs or marinades?  Cover closed or open?  It can make ya nuts.  Let’s explore the different variables.

             Barbeque sauce.  It is generally recommended to add it toward the end of cooking since it is high in sugar and can burn easily.  Some question whether applying it near the end limits how much the sauce will infuse the food.  You can marinate the food in the barbeque sauce beforehand but be sure to remove all the excess before cooking.  Then add more near the end.    
            Gas or charcoal?  There are pros and cons to both.  Charcoal adds a flavor dimension that gas can’t.  Of course you can always add wood chips to your charcoal or gas fire for flavor enhancement.  Charcoal grills are cheaper but more troublesome to light and keep at a steady temperature.  Do you want that charcoal taste or ease and better control?  If you have large parties with extended periods of cooking, I’d go with the gas. 

              To flip or not to flip?  Many people place their food on the grill and then immediately start moving it around or flip it frequently.  They think this will prevent sticking but actually they are encouraging it.   Just as in a sauté pan, searing the food is what prevents sticking (in addition to cleaning the grill and wiping it with oil beforehand).  Searing also creates intense flavor.  This is what grilling is all about.  Frequent flipping lowers the temperature of the food and prevents a proper sear.  To summarize: clean the grill, wipe the grates with an oiled cloth, let it heat up first, place the item on the grill, leave it alone, and then flip it once half-way through. 

             Heat level depends on the type of food and your objectives.  As stated, high heat is necessary for searing the exterior of most grilled items.  However, a thick on-the-bone chicken breast will take some time.  Left on high heat the exterior will be obliterated by the time the center is sufficiently cooked.  Start it on high heat to create the sear, and then move it to the rack above the grill or turn the gas down to low for the remainder of the cooking. You would also don’t need very high heat for more delicate items such as shrimp, vegetables or fruits.

             Wet marinades or dry rubs?  A marinade is a combination of liquids and/or spices while a dry rub is just that: a mixture of dry ingredients.  For tougher cuts of meat such as London broil, flank steaks, skirt steaks, etc., I prefer a marinade. Marinades (which usually employ some form of acid), help tenderize the meat a little bit.  On tender cuts you can use either.   Steaks and chicken are best if marinated overnight.  Fish on the other hand should not be marinated more than an hour, if there’s any acid in the marinade.  The delicate meat will break down and become mushy if marinated too long.   For dry rubs, simply coat the food thoroughly with the rub, and allow it to sit for fifteen minutes.

             The number, type, and ratio of ingredients for marinades and rubs are endless and largely depend on your preference.  Typical marinade ingredients include various oils, vinegar, wine, citrus juices, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and hot sauces, in combination with aromatics (onion, ginger, garlic, etc.), herbs and spices.  Dry rubs can include any and all dried spices you can think of.  I like a combo of salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and thyme. 

             Now the cover issue.  For quick, straightforward grilling such as steaks, burgers, hot dogs, etc., the lid can remain open.  Keep in mind that closing the lid turns the grill into a grill/convection oven.  The food cooks from contact with the grill as well as from the hot air surrounding it.  If you’re cooking something that requires extended time without direct contact on the grill, or on a cool spot on the grill (like that on-the-bone chicken breast we discussed), the lid should be closed.  Likewise for employing wood chips, as you don’t want the flavorful smoke to dissipate into thin air.  Endeavor to use a thermometer so you can monitor and adjust the temperature inside the grill.                       


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