The birds are chirping. The flowers are blooming. And, right on schedule, the grill experts are coming out of hibernation to tell you how to cook your meat perfectly this summer over a hot fire.
More power to ‘em. Somewhere mixed in with the grill endorsements, and the cookbooks, and the personal line of grill accessories, is some mighty good info. Of course, there’s usually some extraneous clutter as well.
My only grill credential is this: I grew up with a perennially used bucket of bolts on the terrace which Dad would come home to and grill on every night. Seriously. He would call me and my Mom from Manhattan, before he left work (no cellphones then), to tell us when to start the fire. Since then, I have managed to have a grill near me in every residential situation of my life (even in Manhattan!), and I have personally seen to the medium-rareness of thousands and thousands of steaks.
So, quivering with excitement to get the 2010 grilling season started, I present to you my Five Crucial Grill Concepts, some of which you know, some of which may surprise you:
1). Lighting. No, not lighting the fire. I assume you’ve got that under control. I’m talking about lighting the work space. Yes, I’ve been out there on many occasions with the perfect meat, marinade and fire, only to have the experience ruined by darkness. As you set up your grill area for the summer, make sure to include some kind of overhead light (hanging lantern?) that sheds the watts on your target. I can’t tell you how important this is to me.
2). Dual fires. As you’re building your fire, build two while you’re at it—unless you’re cooking just one thing (like a steak) that screams for a hot fire only. But for many multi-task grill sessions, a cooler fire on one side and a hotter fire on the other side makes a great deal of sense. I use this system for grilled pizza all the time (slow fire first, hot fire to finish), and when I want to make an authentic outdoor paella (the paella pan goes over hot fire first, low fire for most of the rice cooking, then hot fire last to scorch the bottom).
3). The all-important heat of chicken. Chicken is one of America’s most popular backyard grill items, but I’m always running into scorched, incinerated cluckers. A chicken thigh does not cook like a steak! You want crusty exterior on a steak, and a red, juicy interior. You don’t want a red chicken interior—so a hot fire will burn the skin before the inside cooks. Chicken is a different beast: it’s a SLOW thang. Before you grill, know your thang. Then do it, properly.
4). Covering your assets. The cover of, say, a Weber, seems like your friend. But it ain’t, always. Yes, it raises the heat inside, and intensifies the smoky flavor of what you’re cooking. But it also turns your grill into an oven, with, ultimately, the kind of finished-product differences you’d see between a grilled steak and a roast beef. If you want that crusty- exterior/ untouched- rare- interior
balance, leave the cover off!
5). Get your mind in grill mode. The language we use helps create the reality we live. (You didn’t realize this article was about Wittgenstein? He grilled a mean bratwurst!) I cringe whenever someone calls direct cooking over a super-hot fire “barbecue,” as in “We’re gonna barbecue some hamburgers and hot dogs.” I confess that’s exactly what we said around my house all the time—“Let’s have a barbecue!”—but we were wrong. Real barbecue is one of the glories of American cookery, and it involves the long, slow cooking of meat over indirect fire, only the wafting smoke gently pushing the Fahrenheit higher. It’s good for any griller to deeply understand this distinction, lest his or her grill products fall into the purgatory between grilling and barbecuing. Grill food is grill food, brother: hot, hot, hot. Unless you’re cooking chicken.