Instant Expert: How to Grill Like a Pro

prepared meat and different vegetables an grill
Ready to become master of the grill? Just follow these seven easy tips.

With temps on the rise, it's official — barbecue season has begun. And while there's nothing more exciting than finally getting to invite over a few friends and firing up the grill, there's nothing worse than an overdone burger or steak (it could even be considered a crime, if you ask us). If you don't exactly consider yourself to be a whiz in the kitchen (and maybe even if you do), grilling can seem a little intimidating. Practice will most certainly help improve your grilling game over time, but pair that experience with these quick tips and you'll be master of the barbecue in no time.

1. Keep it clean. This seems obvious, but keeping your grill in tip-top shape will make your life a lot easier and will result in better tasting food. Goop and grease can prevent your food from cooking evenly and can even start a fire if it's allowed to build up, neither of which are ideal scenarios. At the beginning of grilling season, give your grill a tune up with a good clean and making sure everything is in working order. Then, after each use, give it a good scrub with a grill brush while it's still hot, so that the next time cook it's ready and raring to go.

2. Light that fire. You wouldn't put a cake in the oven without preheating it first would you? The same goes for your grill. Don't wait until the last-minute to start up the grill. You want the grates to have an even (and hot!) temperature and a good fire going before you start cooking, or be prepared for some serious sticking. This is especially important if you're planning on searing meat or fish, which requires some serious heat.

So just how hot does it need to be? It really depends on what you're cooking. If you're lucky, your grill will have both a thermometer built in and a key on it that gives you a list of different types of food and their ideal temperature (most new grills have these features). If not, here's what you need to know: high heat (450 to 600°F) is best for quick-cooking foods like steak, medium-high heat (375 to 450 °F) is tops for cooking vegetable and fish, medium heat (325° F to 375° F) is ideal for chicken and pork and medium-low heat (250 to 325 °F) works best for reheating. Don't have a thermometer? Use the hand test. Hold your hand five inches above the grill and hold it there until it's hot enough that you have to pull it away. That should be about 1 to 2 seconds for high heat, 2 to 4 seconds for medium-high heat, 4 to 5 seconds for medium heat and 6 to 7 seconds for medium-low heat.

3. Create heat zones. The best way to approach cooking foods that require different temperatures at the same time is by creating heat zones on your grill. That doesn't mean you don't have to create microclimates for everything you throw on the grill — two heat zones should be sufficient, one direct and one indirect. The direct heat zone will have a higher temperature and is what you'll use for searing and indirect zone will have a lower temperature and either a lower flame, or no direct heat source at all. The indirect side is good for finishing in the case of steak, but for foods that need to be cooked through, you'll do just the opposite. For a charcoal grill, this entails concentrating the coals on side (the direct heat) and placing one or two coals on the other side for indirect heat. With a gas grill, you can create zones by adjusting each of the burners. You start by heating the entire grill, then adjusting the flames on the burners you want to use for indirect or low heat.

4. Properly prep. To give create a nice crust on meat and make cooking a little bit easier, pull meat out of the refrigerator 20 minutes before cooking to bring it to room temperature. Planning on seasoning meat with a marinade or rub? You should allow 30 minutes for the flavors to really take hold (unless you're using a marinade injector), so you'll need to factor that in as well.

5. Grease it down. Just like a pan you'd use on the stove top, your grill needs a bit of greasing to help prevent sticking. Pam formulated for the grill isn't a bad way to go, but you can also brush on any oil that is tolerant of high heat as well, like canola oil. To grease the grill, heat it up, then use tongs to dip a paper towel into a small bowl of oil (make sure it's not dripping — this could cause a flare up) and quickly drag along the grates of the grill. Close the cover for a few minutes to bring the temperature back up and then you're good to go! Quick tip: Another thing that helps with sticking, is to avoid flipping food too soon. It needs to develop sears, which will ultimately release it from the grate. If food feels like it is sticking, allow it to cook for a minutes longer.

6. Avoid overcrowding. A crowded grill poses a number of problems. Firstly, you reduce the temperature of the grill grates, meaning your food might not get that nice sear you were hoping for and it is less likely to cook properly. Secondly, those heat zones we talked about? Well, if you load up the grill, there won't be any space to really make good use of them. And lastly, if food starts to overcook or there is a flare up, you won't have a place to move around all of those perfectly seasoned burgers or just-picked veggies.

7. Know when to play with your food. The key to achieving juicy burgers is the exact opposite cooking up the perfect steak. While flipping steak frequently after an initial browning will result in even cooking, you'll want to take a more nonchalant approach to your burgers. One flip should suffice and flattening them with a spatula is a big no-no.


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