For some, grilling is as easy as it appears. You pop a slab of a prime cut of your choice onto the searing grill, flip it a couple of times, and voila. After all, it’s how the first humans cooked their food after discovering fire—some half a million years ago.
Such simplicity won’t do for most enthusiasts in places that take BBQ seriously, like Texas and the Carolinas. Regardless of whether you run or work at a BBQ place, you’d want your grilled meats to satisfy even the pickiest palates.
Your current skills on the grill may still work, but the following tips and techniques will help make BBQ worthy of a pitmaster’s praise:
1. Marinate right and on time
Any effort to make the best steak possible begins before firing up the grill, specifically with the choice of meat and marinade. By itself, meat is nearly flavorless without the right ingredients to spruce it up. You may need to do some research to get creative with your grilled dishes.
There’s no shortage of recipes that call for a complex marinade of oils, sauces, and spices, which are commonly used by services offering catering BBQ in Houston and other places. Fortunately, enthusiasts and grill experts agree that you can’t go wrong with a simple salt rub. While not the most sophisticated, it’s readily available at home.
Even when using marinades, salt is still a crucial ingredient because of its ability to draw out the meat’s juices from the fibers. The time required is generally a matter of preference, but a rule of thumb is at least 40 minutes. That’s why the best time to marinate using this method is before popping the meat onto the grill.
As for complex marinades, one recommendation goes that the base should at least have equal parts of oil, juice, and soy sauce. From there, you’re free to add other ingredients to create your unique blend. The time required depends on the toughness of the meat; tough cuts of meat will take longer (a full day at most) than tender ones.
2. Preheat the grill
Failing to preheat the grill before placing the first marinated slab is a common mistake. Similar to ovens, grills need to be heated beforehand for several reasons:
- It allows the grill to reach the optimal grilling temperature, shortening cooking time.
- Unheated grates won’t leave sear marks, which are flavorful by themselves, on meat.
- Flipping may be harder without preheating, as the flesh might stick to the grates.
- Related to the reason above, cleaning the grill later will be less burdensome.
It usually takes 15 minutes to preheat a grill, but the technique depends on the type of fuel the grill uses. Preheating gas grills boils down to cranking the burners to the highest heat setting, with the lid closed. Once the temperature has reached 400OF, pop the meat into the grill and adjust the heat to the desired level.
On the other hand, charcoal grills require an extra step before preheating: lighting the charcoal lumps or briquettes separately. Consider using a chimney starter for this purpose, heating two to three quarts of charcoal for 25 minutes. After that, evenly distribute them on the grill, close the lid, and let it heat up for an additional 15 minutes.
Here’s a pro tip for charcoal grillers: arrange the lumps or briquettes in a grid pattern instead of a pile to help distribute heat evenly across the grill. A grid of lumps or briquettes five or six across and five or six down will be enough to cook two steaks. Add another layer (arranged in the same grid pattern) for grilling large volumes of meat.
3. Direct for slabs, indirect for wholes
There are two ways to grill: direct and indirect cooking. As the terms suggest, direct cooking involves grilling over the open flame, while indirect cooking involves reflected heat. Each of these methods is good for specific cuts.
Direct cooking is ideal for cuts that take less than 30 minutes to thoroughly cook—hamburgers, steaks, sausages, and so on. These meats will benefit from quick searing to lock in their flavor, after which you can set them aside on the less hot part of the grill to cook.
Meanwhile, indirect cooking is advisable for large cuts like turkey and lamb legs and whole meats, as direct cooking will result in charring. Instead of over the open flame, the meat sits close enough to the heat source. This part of the grill is still hot enough (between 275OF and 350OF) to cook the insides.
While direct cooking is fast and easy, indirect cooking allows for various grilling methods like:
- Smoking – burning wood chips or dust to flavor the meat via the smoke produced
- Rotisserie – cooking the meat as it constantly spins; also known as spit roasting
- Plank grilling – cooking the meat on a wood plank to allow the plank’s flavor to seep in
4. Never grill without a meat thermometer
The internal temperature of a cut of meat determines its doneness. Here’s a breakdown of the different levels of doneness for cuts of beef (take note that FoodSafety.gov advises meat should be internally cooked at no less than 145OF):
- Rare – 120OF to 125OF
- Medium-rare – 130OF to 135OF
- Medium – 140OF to 145OF
- Medium-well – 150OF to 155OF
- Well-done – 160OF
Grilling steaks and other cuts can be tricky; they can appear cooked outside while not cooked enough inside. You can count the minutes, but meat can continue to cook by ten more degrees for at least ten minutes after getting off the grill.
That’s why experts say you should never grill without a meat thermometer on hand. By sticking its end into the side of the meat, you can get an accurate reading of its internal temperature. Also, at less than USD$10 apiece, there’s no excuse for you not to get one.
You don’t have to be an actual pitmaster to make a great BBQ. Keeping these fundamental tips in mind will produce steaks and grilled dishes a BBQ enthusiast will surely enjoy. Then again, if you’re ever considering a professional career in the grill, you’ll need to take these basics to heart as you go.