Fire and Heat
The essence of great grilling is creating the perfect combination of time, proximity, and temperature for each food.
Sometimes a recipe will tell you exactly how to do that. More often than not, however, you are making judgments and adjustments as you go along.
Here are a few rules of thumb to guide you when it comes to the elements of fire and heat for grilling.
Lighting The Grilling Fire
No need to build a roaring fire that reaches above the roofline. Take a safer, more controlled approach to lighting the grill.
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Arrange charcoal in a pyramid.
Lighting a Charcoal Grill
For safety's sake, make sure the grill is located on a solid surface, set away from shrubbery, grass, and overhangs. Before starting the fire, also make sure the grill vents are open and not clogged with ashes.
TIP: The number of coals required for grilling depends on the size and type of grill and the amount of food to be prepared. Weather conditions also have an effect; strong winds, very cold temperatures, or highly humid conditions increase the number of coals needed for a good fire. As a general rule, it takes about 30 coals to grill one pound of meat under optimum conditions.
To light a charcoal fire, arrange the coals in a pyramid shape about 20 to 30 minutes prior to cooking. The pyramid shape provides enough ventilation for the coals to catch.
Important guidelines to remember to ensure a safe barbecue:
To start the fire with lighter fluid, first read and follow the instructions on the package. Typically, the instructions direct you to pile the coals in a pyramid, douse them with about 1/2 cup fluid, and wait 1 minute to allow the fluid to soak into the coals before lighting with a long-handled match or wand-type butane lighter.
To start the fire with an electric starter, nestle the starter in the center of the coals. Plug the starter into a heavy-duty extension cord, then plug the cord into an outlet. After 8 to 10 minutes, when ash begins to form on the coals, unplug the starter and remove it. The electric starter will be very hot and should cool in a safe, heatproof place.
To start the fire with a chimney starter, remove the grid from the grill; place the chimney starter in the base of the grill. Crumble a few sheets of newspaper; place in the bottom portion of the chimney starter. Fill the top portion with coals. Light the newspaper. Do not disturb the starter; the coals will be ready in 20 to 30 minutes. Be sure to wear fireproof mitts when pouring the hot coals from the chimney into the base of the grill. This method is essentially failure-proof since it does not use starter fluid.
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Chimney starters are practically
foolproof, but require patience.
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Electric starters take some
of the guesswork out of starting a fire.
When the coals are ready, they will be about 80% ash gray during daylight. They will glow, if grilling at night. Spread the coals into a single layer with long-handled tongs.
Lighting a Gas Grill
Be sure all knobs are turned
off before you turn on the gas.
First, open the lid. Failure to do this before lighting could allow a dangerous buildup of gas inside the grill. Make sure all the burner knobs are turned to off, and then turn on the gas at the source. Read the owner's manual and follow instructions for lighting the burners.
If your grill has an automatic ignition, you probably need to turn on one particular burner before you press the ignition switch. You should be able to hear the whoosh of the gas lighting.
If the automatic ignition does not work, you can usually light the grill manually through an ignition hole located in the front or side of the grill. If the grill is still not on after 1 minute, shut off the burner and wait a few minutes for the gas to dissipate before trying again.
Gas grills generally need to preheat for 10 to 15 minutes with the burners on high and cover closed.
Different foods require different grilling methods. Be sure to build your fire or prepare your gas grill accordingly.
Direct or Indirect Heat
The best way to grill a steak probably isn't the best way to grill a whole turkey. The type of food, the size, and the desired results all affect the grilling process. Many recipes will indicate either direct cooking or indirect cooking. What's the difference?
Direct cooking on a grill is pretty straightforward. Just light the fire and preheat the grill. Food is placed on the grid directly over the heat source. For charcoal grills, make sure there is enough charcoal in a single layer to extend 1 to 2 inches beyond the area of the food on the grill.
With gas grills, the burners may be left at the "high" setting to sear the food, and then reduced immediately to "medium." Direct cooking is the method of choice for quick-cooking foods, such as hamburgers, steaks, and fish.
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Arrange coals on one or both sides
of a drip pan for indirect cooking.
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Spread the coals and place food directly
above them for direct cooking.
For indirect grilling, the grill cover is closed and foods cook for a longer time at lower temperatures. You need to leave a space under the food that is flame-free. With a charcoal grill, food is placed on the grid over a drip pan with the coals banked either to one side or on both sides of the pan.
With a gas grill, preheat as usual and simply turn off the center burner under the food and set the side burners to medium. If you want to sear the food first, place it over a side burner, then move it to the center. If you need a drip pan, consult your owner's manual for exact instructions.
Once you've determined the cooking method, fired up the grill, and assembled everything you need to make your top secret recipe for grilled shrimp scampi, the are only a few variables left -- especially temperature and talent. You're responsible for the last one, but there are tricks to understanding the first one.
Checking the Temperature
Obviously, maintaining the appropriate temperature is important for getting great grilling results. So, keep these general rules in mind. The longer the food needs to cook, the lower the temperature needs to be. Raising or lowering the lid changes temperatures inside drastically.
Controlling the temperature on gas grills is simply a matter of adjusting the knob settings. It's a bit trickier when cooking with charcoal. A grill thermometer can be a really good investment, but there are some simple -- though less reliable -- techniques that grill chefs have been using for centuries.
One quick, easy way to estimate the temperature of the coals is to cautiously hold your hand, palm-side down, about 4 inches above the hot coals. Count the number of seconds you can hold your hand in that position before the heat forces you to pull it away.
|2||Hot, 375°F or more|
|3||Medium-hot, 350° to 375°F
|4||Medium, 300° to 350°F|
|5||Low, 200° to 300°F|
To lower the cooking temperature, spread the coals further apart or raise the grid. To raise the cooking temperature, either lower the grid or move the coals closer together and tap off the ash.
That about does it for the basics of barbeque grilling. But most grillers aren't content to simply throw on a steak or make plain grilled salmon. There are many different ways to enhance the flavor of foods prepared on the grill. The next section explains the secrets of flavored smoke and the different rubs and marinades for your favorite grilled recipes.