Grilling the perfect meal is not quite as easy as it looks, especially if you’re working with a barbecue that should be condemned. Do you even know where to start if you need to buy a new grill to replace that pile of rust oxidizing out on the deck? Be prepared for your next backyard party. Let our own Belly Buddy Brian Bailey give you a lesson in buying, maintaining and mastering your grill. And all you guys who think you know how to grill may just learn a thing or two as well.
By the way, if you traditionally purchase frozen burgers in a box (“Grade ‘F’ Meat: Mostly Circus Animals, Some Filler”) from anyone except your local butcher then skip this article, buy the first grill you see at Target, close your browser and never visit us again.
By Belly Buddy Brian Bailey
We at the Belly would like to take this opportunity to extend our thanks to the George Hirsches and Bobby Flays of the world. Because of the efforts of these wonderful chefs, the art of grilling and barbecuing has become almost an obsession with many folks who drool at the idea of a perfectly smoked and charred hunk of meat. In the past, one may have made reference to summer being “Barbecue Season.” Not anymore. Any season is the perfect season to get in touch with your basic instincts—fire and food.
Grilling and barbecuing are most likely the oldest forms of cookery known to mankind. Back in the days of Neanderthals, before microwaves and fondue pots, the only way to cook up a piece of mammoth was with a hot open fire. The barbecue was born. Since then, people all over the world have been using this incredibly simple technique to tantalize taste buds. Of course, Brian’s Belly fully supports this trend.
But if barbecue is enjoying one of its greatest moments, why then, is there so much bad barbecue? The answer is simple—too many people do not know what they are doing. It is time to go to school.
Lesson One: Techniques.
Grilling and barbecuing are different techniques, and each will yield a very different result. If the wrong technique is used the results can be disastrous.
Grilling is when you cook a smaller piece of meat over a direct, hot flame. This causes a great charring and quick cooking. Obviously, this technique is used with burgers and some steaks and chicken. Fish is also wonderful when grilled. You must be careful and alert when grilling foods, because overcooking can easily occur–and that is a cardinal mistake. Overcooked meats can be drier than powdered water, and almost as tasteless.
Barbecuing is quite different. Here you use a low, indirect heat to cook food slowly, slowly, slowly. This results is tender, juicy, smoky food that has an awesome flavor and texture. Usually tough cuts of meat like ribs and briskets work best in a barbecue. The long, slow cooking allows the fibers of these cuts to break down into tender morsels of wonder. Mmmmmmmmm.
Lesson Two: Understand Your Fire.
Our apologies to the great George Hirsch for paraphrasing the title of his television show. This simple principal can turn a ho-hum meal into a gastronomic delight. Most gas grills have temperature settings. Learn about them and use them. Even charcoal and wood grills are being made with thermometers. We cannot stress this point enough—make certain that you are using the proper heat and temperature. Just because you are grilling food does not mean that it needs to be blasted at four hundred degrees. Use common sense. A burger can withstand a higher flame than a delicate piece of fish or poultry.
Some people like to parboil meat before grilling to ensure proper even cooking. To this we say, “UGHHHHH!” Why would anyone waste this opportunity to maximize flavor just to save a few minutes on grilling time? If you are cooking something that needs time to cook or burns easily, such as chicken legs or sausages, simply lower the flame and cook the food slower. It gives the food time to cook evenly and develop the smoky flavor that grilling allows. After it has cooked through, crank up the heat to get the pretty grill marks that so many people love.
Along this same line, people often feel that they need to move their food around to prevent it from sticking. Not true. In fact, moving food too soon will cause it to stick, not the other way around. Leave the food alone. It needs time for the outside to sear and actually pull away from the grill. After this has happened, feel free to rotate or flip your grub. However, most grillers recommend flipping the food only once during cooking.
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Lesson Three: Take care of your existing equipment.
Back when I was in college, my housemates and I cleaned our grill… never. We thought it added flavor to our food. We were stupid drunks.
In fact, a dirty grill can be an outdoor chef’s worst enemy. When food particles carbonize on the grill it can become stickier than a piece of Velcro flypaper. Nothing you do will prevent sticking. Also it is widely held that these bits of carbon can cause cancer.
So clean your grill. Constantly. Scrub it down before you put anything on it. Scrub it down after you are finished using it. A strong wire brush can do wonders. Note that if you have a porcelain finish on your grate you will need special brushes to keep it clean… a hard steel brush will damage the surface whereas a brass-bristle brush will be more gentle. Also it may pay off to use a cloth dampened with a little bit of veggie oil on it to wash down a grill. If the grate is rusty, toss it out and buy yourself a porcelain-coated replacement for under $25. Do you really want it to last? Get a stainless steel one.
If you use a gas grill, once a year (at least) you should remove the grilling surface to get to the grate below it and clean it off. Empty the cart of any debris that may build up and block the drain. Clean the burner too… if you have a cast iron burner, wire brush it with a strong steel brush and if necessary, drill out the holes of any rust that may have sealed them off. Stainless burners should be wiped clean. When all the holes are clear, gas will leave the burner more evenly. You know how those push button ignitors are notorious for working for about a year before you have to switch to tossing a match into a cloud of gas? Lightly clean the ignitor prongs with a a small piece of sandpaper to restore it back to working condition. If your grill has them, consider replacing the brickets every year as well if your grill is used frequently.
These few minutes of maintenance will keep your grill, regardless of model and style, working hard for you for a long time.
Every few years you can give your grill a brand spankin’ new paint job. And we’re not talkin’ Earl Shribe… Rust–Oleum has a line of high heat paint. It’s designed to keep your grill looking like you just put it together, comes in five colors and resists heat up to 1200°F. Got a stainless steel grill? Do NOT paint it.
Lesson Four: Choose the proper fuel source of a new grill.
If your old grill is just plain shot–all the major parts are rusted out and replacements would be expensive or hard to find–then it’s time to finally put it out to pasture.
We have all heard the gas-charcoal debate. Resolved: a charcoal grill is superior to a gas grill. But as Col. Potter would say, “Horsehockey!!” Those who would have you believe that charcoal is the only way to go ignore the benefits that gas grills afford.
Gas grills provide two main advantages: quickness and reliability. When you want a good cooking fire it is only a button press away. When you need to control your flame, it is as simple as turning a dial up and down. Choosing between direct and indirect heat can be done by simply turning half of the grill off. With a properly tuned and kept gas grill you will not have to worry about hot spots and cold spots; a concern that always comes with a charcoal grill.
Now there is going to be a charcoal enthusiast who will point out that gas grills do not provide the flavor that good old charcoal does. That may be true, but you can easily get around that. Invest in a small metal tray that can withstand high temperature. Take some soaked woodchips and put them in the tray. As the tray heats up you will achieve the same smoky environment that makes charcoal so popular. Just make sure you put the wood in the tray or you will have a fire on your hands- a fire that you don’t want. Instead of having hickory smoked ribs you will have ribs that taste like a forest fire.
There are benefits to charcoal grills too. Charcoal holds heat for a long time, and it does add to the flavor of whatever is being cooked. But it can take a long time to get to proper cooking temperature. It also takes a skilled hand to control the temperature. This is done by controlling airflow into the fire. If you are a hands-on person, who likes to control every aspect of their cookery, this is the choice for you. Most barbecue aficionados believe there is no substitute for charcoal or even wood. Our advice to you if you are dead set on charcoal, is to buy yourself a Weber chimney starter. This is an inexpensive device that works on the principal that heat rises to help speed up the process of heating coals. It makes starting a fire simple and it does not require nasty lighter fluid. It is the choice of true charcoalers.
Electric grills wax and wain in popularity. They do provide convenience and low cost of fuel. That’s about it. The coils that heat up the grill operate on the same principal as a common toaster oven. This technology should stay in the toaster oven. Stay away from electric grills.
Infrared cooking systems are popping up all over the place too. These grills use radiant heat from ceramic burners. They burn nice and even, and get hot fast, but can be rather expensive. Cost has been coming down the past few years, enabling manufacturers to put at least one (rear, for rotisseries) and possibly two (side searing) infrared burners onto a grill.
Lesson Five: Choose the proper grill.
Depending on where and when you plan to use your barbecue your needs will be different. Barbecues come in all shapes and sizes and in all price ranges. You can get a simple gas or charcoal grill for under fifty bucks or upwards of five grand. Most grills at Lowe’s or Home Depot hit the $200 to $300 sweet spot, with good, lasting, stainless steel grills coming in around $500 to $700.
Large gas grills (500 cubic inches and up) can achieve high BTU output, such as 80,000 and greater. These are the grills that can get the cooking surface up to 600ºF in under 10 minutes. These grills usually have four or more burners for awesome control of the cooking surface. Slightly down the scale, average sized grills (375-475 cubic inches) can achieve anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 BTU’s and can have from two to four burners. For most people, two burners are acceptable. Four burner units typically have more features and are on grills that start at about $500 and only go up. Two burner units usually have an oval or H shaped burner. H burners distribute heat better in average sized grills. Smaller grills usually have oval shaped burners and tend to deliver a paltry 25,000 BTU’s or less. Burners made from stainless steel and/or brass will last forever.
Some grills offer an extra side burner so all of your cooking can be done out of doors. If this interests you, you may want to keep in mind that unless the burner can achieve temperatures of greater than 15,000 BTU’s they will only be good for keeping things warm. Also, depending on the location of your grill, side burners that rise above the side counter surface will end up getting too much wind and become practically useless. Look for side burners that are partially shielded and sit below the counter surface. And as mentioned above, infrared side burners are becoming very popular options… they allow use as a traditional burner to heat a pot, but can also be used to sear food before transferring it to the main burner. Or simply lower the infrared flame and continue to cook your food on the side.
But its not just about the burners… the cooking surface should greatly influence your choice of grills as well. Stainless steel grates are the best due to their ability to withstand corrosion. Up until recently, stainless grates, burners and other stainless parts were only in expensive (read $1000 and up) grills. But stainless can now be found for as little as $300, as well as in stuff we would trust more like Weber and Jenn-Air (made by Maytag) although this year Jenn-Air could not be found at Lowe’s… which is too bad because Belly Buddy David owns two of these fantastic grills and rave’s about them like they were his stainless steel children.
Recently, manufacturers have reduced the amount of stainless steel in a grill to keep prices down. Watch out for parts that look stainless but might actually be painted steel. A silver-colored plastic knob may look nice now, but wait until next year.
But back to the cooking grates… slightly cheaper and also good choices are porcelain-coated cast iron and porcelain-coated steel in descending order. Bare cast iron or (shudder) steel grates should be avoided. They will rust and eventually tear up your food if not maintained frequently.
For whatever reason, warming racks always seem to be made of steel… a few months into your $1000 purchase you’re putting your hamburger buns on a rusty mess. Why is this? So the grill manufacturers can save money. Does anyone sell replacements in stainless?? Let us know.
What we consider a no-brainer is a thermometer. You won’t know what’s going on beneath your lid without one–still, there are grills sold without this crucial add-on. If you’re hooked on a grill (or stuck with a grill) without this gauge, even a moron can install one with 5 minutes and a drill. Are you a moron without a drill?… or maybe just want to supplement your built-in grill gauge for some gauge-on-grill action? Get a Surface Thermometer (or two) for some real thermal accuracy.
Some grills have rotisserie attachments (very cool) or smoke pans. A few grills still seem to be made with a fryer/warmer on the side. This may be nice if you want fries with your burger, and it does get the danger of the deep fryer out of your kitchen, but all we see is potential for improper use and overheating while you’ve got this thing on your wooden deck. A fry basket is probably something you don’t need in a grill. You do not have to spend a fortune on features that you’ll never use.
And fuel gauges are generally useless… we have found that all those $15 add-on gauges actually do are reduce the amount of gas that can get to your burner, generally reducing the BTU output of your grill. And because of the pressure reduction, they tend to read empty when you might actually have another hour or two of burn time left.
Additionally, you just may need to look at the wheels on the grill you are considering. If you have a deck or don’t usually move your grill around, then four casters may be adequate. If you’re going to be dragging your grill around the yard a lot, you may opt for a model with two large wheels instead.
Lastly, all we can say is use your common sense when choosing a grill. Ask yourself some questions… Will I use my grill as my main source of cooking? Will I be entertaining for large amounts of people? Do I eat a lot? Will I be using my grill for tailgating? Will I be grilling or barbecuing (remember there is a difference)? Do I have a large backyard or am I going to be grilling on my fire escape?
So now you completed BBQ School. I don’t care if its December or August, Football season or Baseball season, get out there and grill. It’s always barbecue season. The Neanderthals knew it. Now you know it too.
If you are shopping for a new grill, we’ve created a very good starting point. See our grill directory on the next page.