How to Grill and Get the Most Out of Your Cookouts

Man grilling chicken, corn and shrimp
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Strictly speaking, grilling is done by placing food directly over a hot flame. In the old days, this meant a fire and something to keep the meat from falling into it. Today it can be a little $20 charcoal grill or a $15,000 gas grill. There are a lot of bells and whistles on grills these days but the basics never change so you can learn how to grill regardless of the kind you have.

Hot and Fast: For thin cuts of meat and smaller items like kebabs, steaks, chops, burgers, and dogs you want to turn up the heat and go quickly.

This means you need to keep a close eye on the grill, and more importantly, the food. So how hot is hot? The Rule is to (carefully) hold your hand just above the cooking grate and start counting seconds

  • 5 Seconds - Low
  • 4 Seconds - Medium
  • 3 Seconds - Medium High
  • 2 Seconds - High
  • 1 Second - Crazy

This is true for gas or charcoal. When cooking hot and fast you want your fire at High.

Turn, Move, and have an Escape Plan: It's a myth that you shouldn't turn foods too frequently. Flip when you need to. You want even cooking and you can't do that over direct heat without flipping occasionally. You also want to move your foods around the grill. Take advantage of all that space you have. Think of this, when you put a steak on a hot grill the cooking grates create grill marks, but cool down in the process. Moving to a new space when you flip will give you better grill marks. The other reason to move your food around, particularly on a gas grill, is to avoid Flare-Ups.

Flare-ups are going to happen and you need to be prepared for them. Your best bet is to move food out of their path and not run for the spray bottle, which is never a good idea.

Control the Heat: Hot and fast isn't the way to go for everything. Fish, chicken, vegetables, and fruit (yes, fruit) are better grilled at lower temperatures.

Aim for medium heat with these foods. For a gas grill this means turning down the knobs, for charcoal it means going smaller when you build a fire. You still need to watch these foods closely, but they are generally going to take longer to cook because of the lower temperature.

Take it Indirect: Indirectly grilling is when you have the fire on one side and the food on the other. Yes, this is basically baking, but you still get the light the grill so it is still cool. You use indirectly grilling for large foods like whole chickens, roasts, racks of ribs, and any other food needs a lot of time to cook. Indirect grilling allows you to get big foods cooked through the middle before the outside turns to charcoal (not the kind of charcoal you burn, but just as tasty). Don't know what kind of grilling method to use? Don't worry. All my grilling recipes tell you which way to go.

When is it Done?: This is the secret to the art of grilling. While there are general grilling time guidelines you can use the simple truth is that knowing when food is done is a challenge. What you need to remember are the three laws of successful grilling. Law 1: You can cook more, but you can't uncook. Of course, this leads us to Law 2: Undercooked meats can kill you.

Sounds serious, but that's just because it is. What I am saying is that you need to work your way up to done and not just hope to get lucky. So what is the real answer? Law 3: Trust by Verify. Experience is the best tool you have to getting the foods you grill done, but a thermometer is necessary to make sure you have it right.

These basics will help you learn how to grill. For basic grilling techniques remember to follow these rules:

  • Rule 1: Always keep your grill grate clean to prevent sticking.
  • Rule 2: Oil the food, not the grill. Oil burns away at high temperatures so it is pointless to oil the cooking grate.
  • Rule 3: Always give yourself plenty of time. Don't leave your family and/or guests waiting.
  • Rule 4: Always keep an eye on what you’re grilling.
  • Rule 5: Do not use spray bottles of water to control flare-ups. Flare-ups are caused by too much fat and too much heat. Trim excess fat and when you turn meat on the grill move it to a different part of the grill.
  • Rule 6: Do not add sugary sauces or marinades to meat on the grill. This causes burning.
  • Rule 7: Keep your grill away from anything flammable like lighter fluid, fences, your house, etc..
  • Rule 8: Spice up your food a good hour before you grill. This lets the flavor sink in.
  • Rule 9: Have the proper grill tools to do the job.
  • Rule 10: Place grilled food on a clean plate.

While all these rules and laws will help you learn how to grill I know that you are probably interesting in grilling something specific so here are some additional resources to help you out.

How to Grill:

These days you can spend anywhere from $100USD to $15,000USD on a gas grill. Generally, gas grills are pretty simple to operate. While there are some Common Gas Grill Problems most gas grills are reliable and do a good job of cooking your food. To make the most of your grill investment you can learn how to grill so that you can cook most anything. Of course, I know that many people are only interested in grilling burgers, chops, and dogs, but if you are reading this you are probably interested in more.

First of all, let me tell you Secret One. Just because you are a guy (don't worry Ladies just keep reading) you are not born with a gene that makes you a great griller. I know that there is this belief by many that men are born with this skill. It simply isn't true. If you buy a gas grill and expect to turn out something great the first time you are being a little naive. Successful grilling takes practice. (Ladies, nearly 40% of all grilling these days is being done by you so don't take a backseat.)

Secret Two: Practice, practice, practice. I know a lot of people who fire up their gas grill a few times a year and then wonder why they have problems. If should seem obvious. Like any skill it takes time and practice so take Tuesday Nights dinner out to the grill and get some practice before you invite all your friends to a cookout.

Gas Grill Operation: Hot and Fast: For thinner cuts of meat like kebabs, steaks, chops, burgers, and dogs you want to go hot and fast.

Follow these instructions:

  1. Uncover your grill and turn on the gas supply.
  2. Turn on the control valves to high and light the grill (follow your grills instruction manual).
  3. Preheat your grill. A good grill should be hot in about 10 minutes.
  4. Take a grill brush and clean off the cooking surface.
  5. Place your food on the hot grill and stick around. These foods will cook quickly and if you leave you run the risk of burning what you are grilling.
  1. Flip when necessary and remove when done.
  2. Leave the grill running on high for a few minutes.
  3. Take your grill brush and clean off the cooking surface.
  4. Turn off the control valves and fuel supply.
  5. Allow the grill to completely cool and replace the cover.

Open or Closed? Most gas grills work best with the lid closed. Only with the lid down can they generate the kind of intense heat necessary for high-temperature grilling. Of course, you must have the lid down for lower temperature cooking to get foods cooked through to the middle and for indirect grilling.

Grilling Everything Else: For Fish, chicken, vegetables, and fruit you want to turn down the heat and grill slower (but follow the basic instructions above). Depending on your grill a setting between medium and low on the control valves is probably right, but you are going to have to keep an eye on the food to make sure it is not burning. Practice will let you know how to set your grill for these more delicate foods.

Indirect: Indirect grilling lets you grill all those things that take too long to sit directly over a live fire. Live roasting in your oven, indirect grilling takes time and a controlled temperature. To set up your gas grill for indirect grilling, simply turn on some of the burners while leaving the others off.

What you need is enough space to place what you are grilling (like a roast or whole chicken) to sit on the grill without out any of the burners under it on. If you have a large grill with several burners it is best to place this food in the middle and light the burners on either side. If your gas grill is too small for this, place the food on one side and light the burner on the other. You will have to rotate the food to get it to cook evenly. Read Indirect versus Direct Grilling for more information.

Aside from these basics there are a couple of other things you should know to be an expert gas griller:

  • Read your Gas Grill's manual. There is a lot of grills out there that function very different so you need to understand how your grill works.
  • Keep your grill clean. A clean grill doesn't flare-up as much and cooks better.
  • Practice. Did I say this already?
  • Experiment. You can grill almost anything so be adventurous.

How to Grill on Gas Articles:

Charcoal grilling is much more an art form than gas grilling. It isn't as convenient or as predicable but it gives you a more authentic grilled flavor and cookout experience. When you look at your charcoal grill, no matter how expensive or fancy it might be there is not control valve on there to let you pick the temperature. You control the heat by the way you build a fire, how you adjust the vents, and how you good you are at keeping the lid on.

Here's what you need:

  • A Clean Charcoal Grill - Ashes and debris block vents and make fire control difficult
  • Working Vents - Rusted or corroded vents are hard to adjust
  • Fireproof Gloves - Charcoal grilling requires you to touch hot things, be prepared
  • A Charcoal Starter - Whatever works dependably for you to light charcoal
  • A Safe Place - The #1 safety problem with charcoal grills is them getting knocked over
  • Grilling Tools - All the usual tools you need for flipping food
  • A Good Stick - Actually anything you can use to move burning coals around inside the grill
  • Patience - Charcoal grilling is a longer process so take your time
  • Practice - Charcoal grilling takes time to master, but is worth it

Rule 1: Have a safe place for hot coals. You've finished grilling and closed the vents on your charcoal grill to snuff out the fire. How long will those coals stay hot? Answer: Up to 24 hours! Don't dump hot coals in the garbage can or you can have a fire.

The #2 safety problem with charcoal grill is mishandling hot charcoal and ashes. Even a tiny ember can start a fire so you must make sure that ashes are properly extinguished before they go anywhere that a fire can start.

Rule 2: Conserve Charcoal. A good charcoal grill can be shutdown when you are done.

With the lid on and the vents closed the lack of oxygen will stop the charcoal from burning. Though they will stay hot for up to 24 hours, you can save this remaining charcoal for next time. So when you are done, remove the cooking grate, stir up the charcoal, replace the lid and close the vents. Next time you cookout, add fresh charcoal to what was left behind and light. If you are careful you can cut your charcoal consumption in half and save yourself some money.

Rule 3: Keep it Clean. I'm not just talking about the grill here. There are a lot of charcoals out there with additives, sometimes pretty nasty additives. Cooking over a real charcoal fire is a very natural thing to do so why add petroleum based lighter fluids or self-lighting charcoal with all kinds of chemicals. Buy natural charcoal without chemicals, light naturally with a charcoal chimney, electric starter or natural charcoal lighters. Your food will taste better and you won't fill the air with noxious fumes.

How to Build a Charcoal Fire:

  • Charcoal takes about 10 to 15 minutes to reach the proper temperature
  • When Charcoal is ready for grilling it will have an ashy coating all around, appear white or gray, and be very hot
  • Light the charcoal, then spread it to build your fire.
  • For a medium fire spread your charcoal in a single layer on the coal grate
  • For a high fire light enough charcoal for a double layer of coals on the coal grate
  • For an indirect fire push all the charcoal to one side of the coal grate and cook on the other side of the grill

Remember, this is supposed to be fun. Leave yourself plenty of time to build a fire and do the grilling. Charcoal grilling isn't hard and once you get the hang of it you will love doing it. Charcoal grills (at least the good ones (see my list of the best charcoal grills)) can hit temperatures above 700 degrees F. or hold temperatures around 200 degrees F. This means that you can sear a steak better than you can on a gas grill, and still cook low and slow for those things you want slow roasted.

Many charcoal grills have rotisserie options and can most anything a gas grill can and for a much better price.