This weekend was dedicated to renewing my relationship with one of my favorite summer pastimes – grilling. I missed the traditional start of grilling season, Memorial Day, so I decided to make up for lost time. Lamb burger, anyone?

If you are a novice to the fine art of grilling, let me be the first to tell you that it is much more than putting meat on a grate and cooking it to within an inch of its life.  That’s not grilling, that’s burning.  To grill is much more than that.  There are many elements involved in proper grilling.

First and foremost, you need a grill. Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary for a novice griller to run to Home Depot and purchase an expensive Weber grill for hamburgers and hot dogs.  Take baby steps – buy a decent charcoal grill to get your feet wet. I paid $50 for my grill, and it works just as good as the expensive Weber. Make sure that the grate is adjustable, so you can control how close your food is to the heat.  That is very important in grilling. Some foods can cook really fast on the grill, so you want to be able to control how close or far they are from the charcoals. I actually use a cast-iron grate on my grill, thanks to an incident in Hains Point where the original grate was left after a failed cookout attempt during a monsoon. (The party responsible will not be mentioned; however, you know who you are.)  The cast-iron grate provides more even heat to my food, and the food doesn’t stick to the grates, which is awesome.

Once you have the grill set up, it’s time for charcoal. Yes, charcoal is important to a novice griller. I’m not talking about getting mesquite chips or Apple wood or anything like that – that’s advanced grilling. This is Grilling 101. For the novice, charcoal choice is simple: regular charcoal or Match Light. Regular charcoal requires the manual addition of lighter fluid to ignite the flame. You should add lighter fluid until the briquets appear glossy, and make sure to evenly coat all of the charcoal.  Match Light charcoal has been pretreated with lighter fluid, so all you have to do is add the charcoal to the grill, light the briquets, and let it burn. The type of charcoal you use will come down to your preference in the end.  Stack the charcoal in a small pyramid, no more than about 25 pieces. Light the briquets and let them burn until the fire is out. You don’t want huge flames jumping up while you are cooking – that will make your food cook too fast on the outside and not enough on the inside. Once the briquets begin to turn white, you are ready to cook. If needed, use a stick or find a tool to move the briquets around so that you can increase your cooking area. Also, make sure to leave the vents open while you are cooking. Continuous flow of air to the briquets helps keep them warm longer.

Now that you’ve got some heat, it’s time to cook! Hopefully you have marinated your meats and veggies in advance, so all you have to do is put them on the grill. Before you start loading up your grill, find your hot zones – these are the areas that are generating the most heat. It’s important to know where your hot zones are when grilling so that you know where to put meat that is not cooking fast enough and where to put meat that is cooking too fast.  When cooking meat, I try to cook things that don’t need much attention first, like hot dogs, sausages (bratwursts are awesome on the grill!), and chicken (I love dark meat, so I normally cook thighs, which take longer than breasts).  This way, I can finish other preparation while they are happily doing their thing on the grill. I prefer rubs to sauces when grilling, but if you like sauce, add them about 15 minutes before you take the meat off the grill so that the sauce doesn’t burn on the grill. Meats like steaks and burgers go on when I can devote my attention to the grill. I love my steaks cooked medium and my burgers medium well. My boyfriend, on the other hand, likes his steaks medium well. To grill a perfect steak, you have to time it perfectly and make sure that you let the meat rest for about 10 minutes before cutting so that the juices can redistribute in the meat.

There are a few tools that I think are good to invest in if you want to master grilling. The first, and most important, is an instant-read thermometer. They look like a large needle with a temperature gauge at one end, and they test the doneness of your meats without you having to cut into them and lose flavor. There are also digital versions available. For more information about internal grilling temperatures, check out this link: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/is_it_done_yet/Thermometer_Placement_and_Temps/index.asp

It’s also good to invest in a grilling basket if you want to grill whole fish, shrimp, and vegetables that may fall through the cooking grates. Don’t forget about your tongs and a grill spatula.

One last thing: be creative! Grills aren’t just for hot dogs and hamburgers. I’ve cooked a whole chicken, corn on the cob, and a corned beef brisket on my grill. The corn is my favorite. I throw them on in their husk and let them roast. The result is sweet corn yumminess. A great reference to help you in your mastery of grilling is I’m Just Here for the Food, version 2.0 by Alton Brown of Food Network fame. It really breaks down how the grilling process works. A must-have for foodies!

There you have it – a crash course in grilling. Now get out there and let’s get cooking!

Happy eating!

The Fab Foodie

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