With the self-congratulations out of the way, the Czar can mention that he and GorT were discussing grilling the other day; the Czar confessed that we do not write about this enough. The Czar, in particular, loves grilling, smoking, and barbecuing foods. His pork ribs, in particular, are a favorite among everyone who has experienced them.*
Grilling and smoking are what the Czar knows best, and he would like to make some comments about the craft in no particular order. Probably he will be motivated enough in the future to post some recipes and more intermediate and advanced techniques. But here are some things to get you motivated as Summer begins.
First, you can grill an entire meal, and there is an awful lot you can grill you may never have considered. The Czar has grilled a huge variety of meats, dozens of vegetables…yes, corn on the cob, but also peas. Every tried grilled peas? Fruits, too: the Czar has done apples, peaches, and especially pineapples. How about a salad? The Czar loves Thai beef salad, and it is better grilled. Yes, desserts, too. The point is that the same grilling techniques you use to make a hot dog, believe it or not, can make an entire meal that will astonish your guests.
Gas or charcoal? The Czar gets asked this a lot, and the answer is unquestionably both. Some meals are just better on a gas grillhot dogs and hamburgers are better on gas if you want even cooking and better control over final temperature. Garlic bread, fruits, fish, and other temperature-sensitive foods are better on gas. But charcoal reigns unbeaten for ribs, shoulder, briskets, and other slow-cooked foods that benefit from smoke.**
The Czar knows it is an added expense, but he uses both gas and charcoal. Ultimately, the cooking techniques are pretty much the same, but the design of the grill might require you to adapt slightly.
First, for all grills, obey these rules. We see these violated all the time by people who ought to know better. See how simple these are? They will make a massive difference in your ability to grill a good meal.
- Clean your grill. Yes, your dad made great burgers, but if the grille itself was encrusted in black clumps of coal, you were taking in too many carcinogens. A seasoned grill is one thing, but a filthy one is pathetic. Use oven cleaner, soap, and a lot of hot water. Get the grille (the part you actually cook on) as new-looking as possible. Clean out the firebox (the thing under it that holds the coals or burners) of ash and grease. Get that baby clean; like a good car, a clean grill will last a long, long time. And produce superior results. Clean it before you fire it up, or right after the food comes off.
- Lubricate the grill. Use non-stick spray, or wipe the grille with inexpensive vegetable oil, or smear the unused part of an onion all over the top of the grille rack. You don’t have to use much, but a well-slicked grate will let you flip and reposition food properly.
- Keep the damn lid down. If you grill with the lid up, or keep checking the good every minute, all your heat is escaping. You are wasting charcoal or gas every time you do it. Food will cook faster if you check every 3-4 minutes or only as absolutely necessary. When the Czar sees his host trying to cook steaks or pork chops with the lid up, he knows dinner will be quite late.
- Know the difference between direct and indirect cooking. More on this in a bit.
- Use the right tools. For goodness sake, grilling implements are cheap. Get a good spatula with a long blade and long handle (the Czar’s has a serrated edge, a slicing edge, and built-in bottle opener, which is used more often than we should admit). Get long-handled tongs. The Czar nearly wept to see a home owner use little kitchen tongs when trying to grill, and she kept burning her hands. Third, get a metal grill brush to clean the grill. See step one.
- For the love of God, stop squishing the food with the spatula. The Czar could punch a dude in the eyelid everytime he sees someone use a spatula to press down on a burger. All you do is squish the fat out of the burger, making it a cardboard drink coaster.
- Lean to read the meat. When the juices pearl up on the top of the meat, flip it over. Not before.
- Learn to read the meat. Know the difference between rare, medium rare, medium well, and well done. Guess what? You can tell the internal temperature of the meat by poking each piece with your tongs. Seriously.
- Let your foods rest when done. Never cut right into meat or fish seconds after pulling it off the heat! Juices inside are well past the boiling point, and if you cut in, they escape out in the form of steam. Put a piece of foil over the meat and let it sit 5-10 minutes while you finish up some vegetables or something. Trust us: the steam will condense back into juicy flavor. Then you can cut and eat it.
Get at least a three-burner grill. Yes, we know it costs a helluva lot more, but there is very little you can properly cook with a two-burner gas grill. Sorry, but it’s like buying a 60-watt microwave oven. Why three burners? Because you need to leave one burner off at all times.
Okay, that seems like a waste, but with two burners cooking your food, you need one burner off to be a safety area. Ideally, get a four-burner grill. Better yet, get one with a side-burner as well (although to be honest, we hardly use ours except for melting butter or warming a glaze).
Direct grilling is cooking the meat right over the fire. Hot dogs, burgers, thin or flat chicken breasts, thin pork chops, vegetables, cubed meats, and so on, all work well this way. Fire up all but one burner, close the lid, and let the grill heat up. When the temperature is about 400°, at least, put the meat directly over the fire and let it sear.
Generally, meats need about 3 minutes over the fire; then, open the lid and quickly rotate the meat about 90° to create the #-like grill marks. Close the lid. After another 3-4 minutes, lift the lid and check to see if the blood or juices have bubbled up on top of the meat. If so, flip it. Close the lid, and give it another 3 minutes. Repeat the 90° spin, and let it go 3-4 minutes. Check the doneness and if you think you got it right, pop in a meat thermometer to confirm. Otherwise, let it cook a bit longer.
If you try to direct cook thick meats, we can assure you your guests will get meat burned on the outside and raw on the inside. To cook anything thicker than your hand, you need to use indirect cooking.
How to do this on a gas grill varies by manufacturer. Generally you turn on two burners and leave one or two off. On one grill we had, it was the outer two you turned on, and the inner two you left off. On the Czar’s current grillsame manufacturer, oddlyyou turn off the two left burners and turn on the two right burners. Whatever.
The point is, you place the meat over the cold burners and let the other two warm the air. This turns your gas grill into a powerful convection oven. The internal temperature of the grill will stay around 350°. You will use less gas, and the cooking time is about the same as an indoor oven. So thick pork chops might take 20 minutes this way, but they will be absolutely perfect to serve when done. Yeah, you can flip them and get grill marks and everything guests like, but without the risk of burning them on the outside just to get raw meat when cut open.
Whole chickens and turkeys must be done indirectly, as well. This is a powerful grilling technique that is easily learned and produces incredible results. Most grilling recipes will indicate which method to use, and your grill manual should indicate which burners to turn on or off.
- Never use lighter fluid. It is a huge waste of money, and puts oily-black smoke on your food. Seriously: if you have lighter fluid, get rid of it. Use it on a fire pit or something. And don’t use charcoal with built in starter fluid. This is a huge waste of money.
- And don’t waste money buying expensive lump charcoals or fancy-ass borax briquettes from Spanish hardwoods. You want to know what charcoal all the world-famous grillers use? And which brand the experts use? The Czar bets you do. But keep this a secret.
- With good charcoal, you need to light it correctly. Learn to use a chimney starter.*** If you don’t have one, or wind up at someone’s house who doesn’t have one and expects you to take over the grilling (ahem), you can place newspaper under a mix of charcoal and twigs gathered from the yard.
- Learn how vents work. Close the lid and open the vents at the top and bottom to increase airflow.
No trick to it. Find the hottest spot over your coals by hovering your hand over the grill. Place your meats here. Find the coolest spotthis is where you push your meats if they start to burn or you want to equalize the cooking time between different pieces.
Otherwise, follow the same steps above. 3-4 minutes, rotate. 3-4 minutes, flip. 3-4 minutes, rotate. 3-4 minutes, check the doneness. And keep the grill covered as much as possible.
This is easier on charcoal because they all do it the same way. When you pour your coals into the firebox, push them into two piles, one on each side. Leave a gap in the middle.
Place a disposable aluminum drip pan (or make one out of thick aluminum foil) in the center, and put the grille on top.
Place the meat over the drip pan.
Cover the lid, and open the vent all the way. Turn the lid so the vent is over the meat, and not over either coal pile.
You’re now indirect grilling. That’s easy, but remember to check the internal temperature. And if you have to add more charcoal because you’re making a big turkey, you need to figure out how to do it carefully without burning yourself or dropping the food into the firebox. Be careful. This is why we like the gas grill for indirect grilling, by the way: it’s easy to control the heat.
In the future, we’ll look at tips and tricks for simple meals like hot dogs and hamburgers (yes, you can improve them with a couple of easy steps), and tackle some exotic meals with some very simple techniques.
Last word: experiment. You will learn a lot by making mistakes.
** But if you want to invest in a smoker, you will be able to make proper, lacquered ribs, shreddable brisket and pork shoulder, smoked salmon, andyes!home-made bacon.
*** Get the Weber-brand one. It’s only $15 at Home Depot, and lasts a long time. Plus, it is really easy to use. Trust us. It’s a great investment, and will light your coals in less time than any other technique.
Божію Поспѣшествующею Милостію Мы, Дима Грозный Императоръ и Самодержецъ Всероссiйскiй, цѣсарь Московскiй. The Czar was born in the steppes of Russia in 1267, and was cheated out of total control of all Russia upon the death of Boris Mikhailovich, who replaced Alexander Yaroslav Nevsky in 1263. However, in 1283, our Czar was passed over due to a clerical error and the rule of all Russia went to his second cousin Daniil (Даниил Александрович), whom Czar still resents. As a half-hearted apology, the Czar was awarded control over Muscovy, inconveniently located 5,000 miles away just outside Chicago. He now spends his time seething about this and writing about other stuff that bothers him.