Grilling food over an open fire is one of life’s great pleasures, if you set yourself up for success. Here’s our guide to the fundamentals and a handful of techniques to master, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced cook, using either a gas or charcoal grill.
You can cook over direct heat, meaning over the glowing coals of a fire. Or you can cook with indirect heat, meaning near the flame but not on top of it. Both methods have upsides. But they are not the same.
Cooking over direct heat means that food is placed directly over the coals or flame. It should be used for food that will cook through before it burns, like steaks, kebabs, hamburgers and seafood.
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Using indirect heat means that food is cooked on a cooler part of the grill without coals or flame beneath it, usually covered. It is essential for ingredients that need slower cooking, for smoke-roasting and for finishing food that you’ve seared on the outside and now want to cook through near but not over fire.
When you build a fire in your grill, it’s best to do so with zones for direct and indirect cooking. Even when you’re grilling a steak over high heat, you want a cooler area where you can move it if it’s cooking too fast.
To create the two zones in a charcoal grill, build the fire under only half the grill. On a gas grill, leave one burner off. If your grill has an upper rack, you can place the food on it for indirect cooking (it’s far enough to count as indirect heat), but remember that heat rises and the ambient temperature at the top will be high.
Chicken is an extremely popular grilling meat, though it is more complicated to cook well than many think: It dries out easily without added moisture. Always marinate chicken breasts, and pound them thin before placing on the grill. For barbecued chicken, which is where the novice griller should start, baste the chicken pieces with thinned barbecue sauce, which will then reduce on the surface of the meat, creating a luscious crust.
Barbecued chicken does well on both charcoal and gas grills. For the fire, pile the coals on one side of the grill, leaving the other side free of coals; when they are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the coals for five to seven seconds), you are ready to cook. For a gas grill, turn one of the burners to high and one or two down to low or off, then lower the cover and heat for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine one cup barbecue sauce with one cup water.
Season the chicken (use bone-in, skin-on pieces, white meat and dark) with salt and pepper. Place the chicken directly over the hottest part of the grill, turning the pieces every few minutes so they develop a crust and do not burn, for about 15 minutes. Move them from the hot side of the grill to the cool side and allow them to cook until they are juicy, crisp and cooked through, an additional 15 to 20 minutes or so. Apply thinned barbecue sauce when you turn the chicken, allowing the sauce to reduce rather than burn.
The first step for preparing boneless, skinless chicken breasts is to use a meat pounder to even out their thickness, so there isn’t a fat part of the breast and a thin one. This increases the likelihood that your meat will be evenly cooked.
Submerge the pounded breasts in marinade or give them a quick brine in a gallon of water into which you’ve stirred a little less than a cup of kosher salt. Either treatment will do its work in the time it takes to heat the grill. Because the chicken has very little fat, you will want to have a medium-hot fire and a clean, oiled grate above it. (Both gas and charcoal grills are fine here.)
Skinless, boneless chicken breasts cook quickly, just a few minutes per side. If you’re using an instant-read thermometer, pull them from the grill at 160 degrees and they will continue to heat through to 165 as they rest.
Beef, Pork and Lamb
Grilled meat is cooking at its most elemental. You can do so simply, as with a chop seasoned only with salt and pepper, or add complexity with a marinade or rub. As a rule, meats with bones take longer to cook than those that are boneless, and they often develop a deeper flavor over the fire. Here are methods for grilling burgers, pork ribs and lamb chops.
We cook a lot of burgers on fat-slicked cast-iron skillets. But sometimes what you want is a true fire-licked grilled burger.
Use about 6 ounces of ground beef per patty, and choose meat that’s about 20 percent fat. Form the meat into 3/4-inch burgers, then make a deep depression in the center of each burger with your thumb. Season both sides aggressively with kosher salt and black pepper. Place burgers on a hot grill (charcoal’s better here) and cook, without moving, for about three minutes. Use a spatula to flip the burger. If using cheese, lay slices on the meat.
Continue to cook until the burgers are cooked through, about another three to four minutes for medium-rare. Remove the burgers from the grill and allow to rest for a few minutes while you toast the buns. Top the burgers as you desire.
Baby Back Ribs
You can grill baby back ribs relatively quickly, flipping them often and basting them with barbecue sauce thinned with water, which will lead to a delicious crust.
Build a fire in your grill, leaving one side free of coals. When the coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the coals for five to seven seconds), you are ready to cook. For a gas grill, turn all burners to high, lower cover and heat for 15 minutes, then turn burners to medium. Meanwhile, combine one cup barbecue sauce with one cup water.
Remove the papery membrane on the inside of the rack of ribs by inserting a butter knife between it and the meat and prying it loose, then using your fingers to peel it off. Sprinkle salt and pepper generously on the ribs, then place on the grill directly over the coals and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, turning once every five minutes, and basting with the thinned sauce, until a peek inside with a knife shows that the meat is no longer pink at the center. Take the ribs off the grill, let them rest for five minutes, then cut them into individual ribs and serve.
The smoky, rich flavor imparted by a charcoal grill complements the earthy flavor of lamb, and grilled chops are just terrific.
Trim excess fat from the chops and then rub the meat with minced garlic and season aggressively with salt and pepper. Place the chops over the hot side of the grill for two minutes a side, or until nicely browned. Then move the chops to the cooler side of the grill to cook through, an additional six to seven minutes, turning a couple of times.
For those who love seafood but don’t like to prepare it indoors, the grill is a gift. Use medium to medium high heat to cook everything, including whole fish, smaller fillets, oysters and shrimp. A clean grill is always important, but it is crucial for cooking fish, which will stick to the grate.
To cook shrimp, some people use skewers or baskets to help prevent them from falling into the fire. (Soak bamboo skewers in water before threading them with shrimp.) Regardless of what you use, shrimp cook quickly, particularly when they’re peeled, about two to three minutes a side for shrimp sold as “16/20,” meaning there are 16 to 20 in a pound.
Season with salt and pepper, rub lightly with oil and then grill over direct heat, turning once. And remember: Larger shrimp are better for the grill.
Whole fish can be placed directly on the grill or into a grill basket; choose the method you’re most comfortable with.
To start, rub the cleaned, gutted fish all over with oil, and salt it inside the cavity and out. Stuff the cavity with herbs and sliced lemon, if you like.
Build a fire in your grill, leaving one side free of coals (or heat the gas grill to medium high). Grill over the coals until the skin is crisp on both sides and the flesh is just opaque. If you’re not using a basket, use two spatulas to turn the fish. If your fish is very large, you may need to move it off the heat if the outside starts to burn before it’s cooked through.
Remove from the grill and allow to stand for five minutes or so before drizzling with more olive oil and serving.