Grilling is a passion ignited by smoke, sizzle and fire. The grill has evolved into a backyard shrine where, instead of sweating over it, devotees weep droplets of undiluted love and patty-cake humble hamburger into a James Beardian din-din.
The history of cooking over an open fire is ancient and the principles relatively simple, yet backyard grilling can harbor more mysteries than a Freemason gathering. Sauces and rub recipes can be family secrets and techniques often are hotly debated. A chat can escalate from hiss to flare-up when gas or charcoal and medium rare or well done are debated.
Debates aside, the tastiest aspects of grilling are enjoying food with the company of others.
“Grilling is an outdoor activity and often involves friends and family,” said Dina Guillen of Folsom, author of “Plank Grilling” (Sasquatch Books, $19.95, 171 pages). “Cleanup is minimal and it’s a fast way to prepare food. Did I mention you get to play with fire?”
Bill Krycia of Antelope is preparing for his eighth year of conducting grilling demonstrations at the California State Fair (in The Farm area).
“Cooking for yourself and other people is a blast, but it’s also a creative outlet,” said Krycia. “It will enhance your self-esteem and accomplishes all positive things.”
Sacramento is prime grill country where farm-to-fork elevates the quality of meat and produce and weather is generously cooperative. When weather throws a tantrum, it’s not considered bizarre behavior to don a rain slicker and finish off the loin chops.
“I’m a year-around griller,” said Guillen. “I’ll grill in the rain. We don’t have snow in Sacramento and it’s not that cold. I prefer grilling rather than getting my kitchen dirty.”
Nationally, four out of five U.S. households own an outdoor cooking unit, according to the trade group Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association’s 2014 survey. Gas grills far outnumber charcoal – 61 percent to 41 percent (some folks own one of each). And, the Fourth of July is America’s favorite day to grill, followed by Memorial Day, Labor Day and Super Bowl Sunday.
Truth be known, any day is ideal for grilling up fabulous feasts. Whether you consider yourself the neighborhood Grillmeister General, an apartment-dwelling hibachi master or are merely contemplating the purchase of your first grill, there are basics that will speed up the learning curve and help you side-step disasters.
Simple is a good thing
Start with foods you’re comfortable cooking and enjoy eating. Often, those are foods you may have cooked on the kitchen stove top or in the oven.
Statistically, Americans most enjoy grilling hot dogs, followed by steaks, hamburgers and chicken. Many more choices are ideal for the grill, including pizza, pork, fish, lamb, kabobs, vegetables and some fruits.
Two of the people interviewed for this story said their favorite grill food is salmon cooked atop a cedar plank. Others cited rib-eye steak, chicken and pork.
“Pork is ideal for grilling and very reasonably priced,” said Lars Kronmark, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone near St. Helena. “You can’t go wrong grilling pork. It’s hard to overcook it, just take it off at 145 degrees. I like an aged pork chop.”
Dick Cooper, grill chief at Cooper Vineyards in Plymouth, favors tri-tip steak for beginners. Tri-tip is relatively inexpensive, too.
“Start with a tri-tip with no fat,” said Cooper, who oversees what and how food is grilled and barbecued at special events for nearly 5,000 winery customers and visitors a year. “By no fat, I mean peel it, take it all off. Zero fat.”
Heat up the grill
Preheat and make sure the grill surface is hot enough before plopping food on the grates. You’ll need searing heat, especially for steaks, of around 500 degrees. Searing imparts that golden-brown, crusty-caramelized surface and is not to be confused with charring, which is black and burnt.
“In grilling today, it’s the heat source that is important,” said Kronmark, who has been featured several times in grilling demonstrations at the annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival. “It has to be very, very hot. Restaurant-grade heat. Buy a grill that can produce the heat you need to get that searing crust going.”
Gas grills preheat in 10-15 minutes, while charcoal takes 20-30 minutes.
Searing doesn’t seal in juices, which remains debatable in some circles, but it does create a tasty crust. Timing is everything in properly seared meat. Watch and remain at the grill. Remember, seared is good, charred is bad.
Another benefit of starting with a hot grill is fewer foods will stick to the grates, especially if you brush food with oil. Fish can make a real mess if the grates aren’t hot enough and cleaning the grill will become nightmarish.
Speaking of clean grills ...
You may know a few characters that refer to less than clean grill grates as “seasoned.” All that “seasoning” has drawbacks. Leftover chunks of food and drippings (yes, those chunks and drippings also hide under the grates) can “season” foods in a most unpleasant way. Salmon preceding tri-tip can result in fishy-tasting tri-tip.
Dirty grill grates can cause sticking and excessive smoke and flare-ups. Left to fester over long periods, fat and food buildups on grates may even provide habitat for bacterial colonies.
High heat is your friend in the cleaning of grill grates.
“Get the grill surface as hot as possible with the lid down,” said Kronmark. “Then, right before you’re ready to grill, use a stainless steel brush and work it back and forth. That will clean the grill.”
Scrub the bottom of grates and take out the burner covers on gas grills and clean a couple of times a year for a more thorough cleaning. The more often you grill, the more often you should clean.
Grilling vs. barbecue
Grilling and barbecue are as different as salt and pepper. Grilling is cooking over an open fire (direct heat) for a short period of time and with high temperatures, often exceeding 500 degrees. Many grill lid thermometers register more than 700 degrees.
Barbecuing is slow-cooking (indirect heat) at 200 to 250 degrees and over smoldering wood to impart that heavenly smoky-sweet flavor. Ribs and brisket are more suited for barbecue and a smoker. Patience is a virtue for good barbecue, which can take several hours.
Most folks own gas grills, which aren’t barbecue friendly. Charcoal grills are more adaptable and Weber’s Smokenator accessory converts a kettle grill into a smoker. Or, use grills for grilling and buy a smoker for ribs and brisket. There’s also the Big Green Egg, which does both for around $1,000 (large model).
Stand by your grill
Driving and grilling have the same fatal flaw, distractions. Nothing destroys a cook-out like an abandoned grill. Incinerated food isn’t edible and there are serious safety concerns, which we’ll address later. Fish, pizza, chicken, a marbled steak like a rib-eye and vegetables are among foods that can be ruined within a few seconds of inattention.
“I’ve learned a lot of things over the years from other people and the most important was how to stay out of trouble,” said Dick Cooper of Cooper Vineyards. “Don’t walk away from a hot grill because you have to chase some cows or pick vegetables.”
Added Krycia: “You need to pay attention to the food. I certainly wouldn’t run to the store to buy a bag of potato chips.”
If an emergency does call you away from the grill, ask another to tend the fire. A gas grill can be turned off and vents and the lid can be closed on charcoal kettle grills.
Think ahead, be organized
“Since grilling is a fast process, have sauces and tools arranged and ready before you start grilling,” said Guillen.
That’s great advice but, sadly, too often ignored. Most of us aren’t fortunate to have a BBQ island or an outdoor kitchen with yards of counter space. If you’re blessed with a well-designed outdoor cooking area, there’s still the challenge of being organized.
Gas grills often come with small, side work surfaces where essentials can be easily accessed. However, the work surfaces are small and cramped. Spread out and organize what you’ll need. If your grill doesn’t have a work area or doesn’t allow enough space, set up a nearby table where you can keep sauces, platters and tools.
If you’re organized and the essentials are within arm’s reach, you’ll be much less likely to have to leave the grill to fetch an item. Leaving a hot grill is never a good idea.
Before and after
The “before” is somewhat controversial. That entails taking refrigerated meats and fish out and allowing them to reach room temperature before grilling. Those in favor believe the meat cooks faster and more evenly and are therefore more tender than meats with cold spots.
Those who advocate right out of the refrigerator, claim it is a food-safety issue and that a sufficiently hot grill quickly makes up the extra cooking time.
Should you prefer room temperature, allow 20 to 30 minutes for steaks and 15 to 20 minutes for fish.
The “after” can be a bit of an annoyance because it requires waiting when dinner is off the grill. But, it’s worth the wait. Once you’ve removed meat from the grill, let it rest before slicing. That will allow the redistribution and absorption of juices from the center to throughout. Slicing right off the grill releases the juices all over your platter! It’s why you allow 20 to 40 minutes, depending on weight, before carving the Thanksgiving turkey. Resting time rewards you with a juicy piece of meat.
For grilled steaks, chops and boneless chicken breasts allow five minutes of rest. Roasts, leg of lamb and whole chickens should rest 20 to 30 minutes. Tent with foil to keep them warm and happy. While you’re waiting, finish preparing side dishes or salads and salsas.
Marinades, sauces and rubs are the most popular grill seasonings. They add flavor to enhance your growing grilling techniques.
Marinades: A liquid mixture featuring an oil and an acid (citrus, vinegar, wine). Meats are placed in the marinade, refrigerated and left to tenderize and flavor for several hours. Marinades work well with London broil, pork chops and chicken breasts.
Dry rubs: A blend of herbs, spices and other seasonings that is sprinkled and then rubbed into meats a few minutes before grilling. Rubs eventually evolve into the personal preferences of the home chef. Experiment with flavors you most enjoy. A rub mixture might contain citrus peel, pepper, garlic, ginger, salt, brown sugar and numerous other seasonings. Dry rubs are often used on pork ribs, salmon and chicken.
Sauces: Barbecue sauces are brushed onto meats during the last few minutes of grilling because they begin to burn at 265 degrees. The resulting caramelized crust adds a sweet and smoky flavor. Hamburgers, ribs and chicken are among the foods that marry well with barbecue sauces.
Kronmark of the CIA, also likes mesquite wood chips. “If there’s a way to add a little smoke, try it. A few wood chips in a pie tin can create great flavor.”
Plank grilling, which is cooking on a water-soaked wooden plank, infuses the smoky essence of cedar, hickory, maple, alder and many other woods.
Once foods are removed from the grill, you may prefer flavoring them with pesto, salsas, herb butters and other flavor-enhancing choices.
Flare-ups are the joyless fireworks shows of grilling. What causes flare-ups? When fat from meats, oils in marinades and sugar in sauces meets fire, flare-ups are the result. The flames can vary from gently licking to college bonfire. If you ignore flare-ups, chances are the burgers will be incinerated to a crispy black.
Keeping grill grates clean, including the underside, helps avoid major flare-ups, but they are inevitable. Fatty meats, like some grades of hamburger, are prone to cause flare-ups and grilling over charcoal presents a more formidable challenge.
When fat or oil drips on hot coals there’s a fire. Placing the lid on a charcoal kettle grill can deprive flare-ups of needed oxygen or you can use a spray bottle, but both interrupt the cooking process. Water can also create wet ashes and a mess.
On larger grilling surfaces you can move food to an area away from flare-ups or remove meat and allow the flare-ups to burn out.
Along with maintaining clean grates prior to grilling, other ways to avoid flare-ups include cutting most or all of fat from meats and using less oil. Flare-ups are yet another reminder that backyard grilling calls for your full attention at all times.
Safety first, second and third
Like most popular summer activities, grilling has its dangers. The National Fire Protection Agency says fire departments respond to an annual average of more than 8,000 structure and outdoor fires that involved grills, barbecues and hibachis.
Nearly 18,000 people, according to the latest annual survey, went to emergency rooms with grilling-related injuries.
“I've seen grilling aprons with pouches that hold your beer,” Guillen said. “I would think the last thing you want to have hanging on you as you’re leaning over a hot grill is alcohol.”
It’s best to hold off on drinking alcohol until after food is removed from a hot grill.
Five out of every six home grill fires were caused by gas grills (84 percent). Charcoal grills were responsible for 13 percent of home fires. However, a windy day and sparks from hot charcoals can be a recipe for disaster, along with improperly placing still-hot coals in the garbage can.
Below are safety tips from the NFPA:
Propane and charcoal BBQ grills should only be used outdoors.
The grill should be placed well away from the home, deck railings and out from under eaves and overhanging branches.
Keep children and pets away from the grilling area.
Keep your grill clean by removing grease or fat buildup from the grills and in trays below the grill.
Never leave your grill unattended.
Stay alert when grilling. Do not grill if you are sleepy or when you are drinking alcohol.
Remove flammable materials from around the grill.
Always make sure your gas grill lid is open before igniting.
If you smell gas while cooking, immediately move away from the grill and call the fire department. Do not move the grill.
When you are finished grilling, let the coals completely cool before disposing in a metal container.