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by Richard C. Ross

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Are you ready?  Because just thinking about my previous article (Patio Dining) makes me want to grill something tonight...  The season is truly in full swing now!  Well, actually for me, the season is always in full swing; I am one of those guys who needs very little reason to fire up the grill -- no matter the month or the temperature or the time of day (I usually grill something 3-4 times a week).  Of course, I am also one of those guys who wants a perfect lawn.  Lawns are definitely a guy thing -- which makes me wonder sometimes whether grilling is also purely a guy thing...  But I don't think so; my mom was a champ when it came to grilling.  Not that my dad couldn't or had no desire to grill.  I just think that since my mom was the chief cook and bottle washer in our house, that kind of naturally led to doing the BBQ thing as well.  A bit more on that later...

Today of course, grilling (or BBQing, or whatever else you might call it) is almost a national pastime, and -- at least in the Midwest -- when springtime rolls around, so do the sales on grills.  They come in all shapes and sizes, (from "The Egg" on up) depending on your wants, needs and desires.  There is the ultimate in inexpensive types that is literally disposable after a single use (less than $10);  they are pretty slick for a picnic.  For a few more dollars, my choice is the table-top variety.  They are still portable and range in priced from about $25 up to perhaps $60 or so, depending on brand.  I have a really old Sunbeam -- a gas model -- that I bought for around $20.  Other than replacing the burner and char-rock grate, it still works like a champ!

For home use, there are inexpensive "portable" grills (simply meaning they have wheels and can be moved from one side of your patio to the other) available in a price range starting at about $150 to perhaps $300.  And then there are the giant-size, professional versions that are pretty much the equivalent of an entire outdoor kitchen, and can often cost as much as $2,000 (or more)  just for the starter version.  Obviously there is everything in-between, for every budget and every taste, and every grilling need.  There are specialty grills, too.  If you are into smoking meats, for instance -- and that is a totally separate genre in the grilling game -- there is an entire other group of grills that you will want to consider.

I'm probably not telling you anything you didn't already know...  If you have done any grilling at all, you likely already have a preference in terms of brand names.  Without naming any specific manufacturer, there are a few very important questions that you'll want to consider -- not in any particular order --when looking for a new grill:

  • What's your preference: charcoal, gas or electric?

  • How often do you use your grill? (once per month, once per week, several times per week)

  • How many people are you serving? (1-2; 2-3; 3-4, 4-6)

  • Do you have a budget figure in mind?

  • What about the "extras" offered? ( things like Rotisserie Kits, side burners, infrared burners, and a dozen other things you may have never even heard of...)

Charcoal grills are generally preferred by the "old school" and purists among us.  Most who use them claim that the flavor in the cooked food comes from the charcoal smoke.  My mom was an absolute genius with a Weber charcoal grill; she could grill a standing rib roast with the best of  'em.  Keep in mind though, there is a real trick to timing the correct cooking temperature provided by a charcoal grill... and the chef has to be fairly attentive in the process.  I'll be the first to say that really good charcoal grillers are a definitely a notch above the rest when it comes to outdoor cooking.

Electric grills are great, but often tend to have issues with the thermostats/temperature controls; they also seem to be more susceptible to temperature changes, wreaking havoc with cooking times and temperatures.  I draw the line at small counter-top models used for things like shrimp...

Gas grills have become my weapon of choice for several reasons, not the least of which is ease of use: they are easy to light, preheat quickly (in almost all weather conditions), provide pretty much the same flavor as charcoal; when your food is done, simply turn off the gas and enjoy a great meal.  I get a lot of argument about the flavor thing.  The short answer is that I use lava rocks under the cooking grates.  As the juices drip on the hot lava rocks, the smoke flavors the food.  Good enough for me -- if I want more wood-smoke flavor, I can always add water-soaked apple or other wood chips.  Purists will argue with me all day long, but I just like the convenience of  a gas grill... period.  And the flavors are just fine, thank you. 

All that said, the real key to outdoor grilling is... experience.  As simple as that sounds, achieving that perfect steak, burger, whole chicken (or fillet), pork roast or chop, fish fillet or grilled veggie is something that is not as easy as one might think.  And there are a large number of factors that will contribute greatly to the kind of results that you achieve; the more times you grill a given type of food, the better you will get.  Here are a few of the important aspects to remember:

  • For the grill itself

First, the thickness of the metal and the structure of the grill -- i.e., the number of open spaces it has -- along with the outdoor temperature and amount of wind, will play a huge role in determining how constant the temperature will remain... and therefore how efficiently your grill will function and how evenly your food will cook.  Pay attention to the weather conditions and you will learn to get more repeatable results.

Second, a reliable second thermostat is great investment; get a good one that you can place inside the grill, as the one that comes with the grill may not provide the true temperature reading.  And, make sure that you have a good meat thermometer as well, that can be inserted into the meat to verify proper temperature.  Meat that is too rare or too well-done is neither appetizing nor healthy.

Third, a clean grill is a happy grill... and one that will provide longer and more reliable service.  Nothing lasts forever, and it almost seems as if  today's products are designed to fail more rapidly than those of years past (my father used to call it "planned obsolescence").  In any case, get a good grill brush and clean your cooking surface before and after every use (you don't want burned bits of the chicken on tonight's steak!).  Also, try to give the grill a thorough cleaning at least once per year.  Your investment will require replacement much less frequently.

  • For the food you cook

Keep in mind that every cut of meat has a different fat content and importantly, the more fat content in the meat, the greater the cooking time required to achieve a specific internal temperature.  A one-inch thick rib eye will always take longer to achieve a medium-rare doneness than will a one-inch thick fillet, all other factors being equal; lean meats cook very quickly (beef, poultry or even fish).

Whole chickens and roasts are generally best cooked at a lower temperature using indirect heat -- meaning light the burners on one side of the grill and cook the food item on the other side.  And remember that poultry requires an internal temperature of 180 degrees to insure that it's safe to eat.

Any food item with bones -- whether whether beef, chicken or pork -- will take longer to cook due to the amount of water in the bones.

  • For the look and texture you desire...

You may or may not have noticed that the grilled items you receive in a restaurant have a finished appearance referred to as "checkering" and actually look pretty nice on your plate.  It's easy to accomplish and is a nice touch -- especially when the checkering is done on a steak served to guests.  Simply make sure that the grill is nice and hot before starting to cook.  (this works best with just about any meat except some fish...)

Apply a light coating of oil ( spray cans of Pam or olive or canola oil work well) to the grates to ensure that food doesn't stick.  Place the food "best side down" first and allow to remain in the same position for roughly one-fourth of the required cooking time, then turn the food approximately 60 degrees to the original angle for the second quarter of the cooking time.  Flip food over for the remaining cooking time; the grates have seared a perfect grid pattern onto the food!

"Squash burgers" are a great gimmick for a chain restaurant...  However, never squash them at home on the grill.  Cook them on one side at a time, moving only to checker them; do NOT squeeze them down with a spatula!  You'll squeeze the juice and flavor right out of them and make them tough besides.  Turn them once to finish cooking and then serve them.

Steaks require a bit of time to "rest" after grilling; cover with foil for a few minutes and use the time to open a nice bottle of wine before a great meal!

Fish: it is absolutely outstanding when cooked on the grill.  It cooks very quickly; be careful to not overcook it, as that is easily done.  Overcooked fish is dry, tough and not very appetizing!

Grilling is a great way to prepare a meal -- breakfast, lunch or dinner -- especially during the summer months when heating up the kitchen is not a preferred option.  But it can be fun any time and on any occasion and for any meal.  I hope my suggestions have proved helpful and that you will fully enjoy the BBQ season.   Bon Appetite!!





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