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How to Grill

I've said that even someone with my culinary talents can prepare meat that's worth standing in the rain to grill. Here's how it's done.

Get to Know Your Grill

The very first step is getting acquainted with your grill. It will take a few sessions with a grill, to learn the finer points of how it works. You'll probably find that there are hot spots and cool spots. You'll also learn how heating instructions in cookbooks apply to your grill's flame controls and actual grilling time.

I've got a fairly simple grill. It has a valve for the left burner, and another for the right. Each valve is marked with a range of "low" to "high," with an even higher setting for lighting the flame. That's the set of controls I refer to in the how-to-grill instructions. I call a heat setting half way between low and high "medium," although there's no "Medium" marked on the valves.

Keep the Lid Down

After it's lit, the grill's lid should be kept down as much as possible. Each time it is opened, heat escapes, and you lose some of the smoke that adds to that grilled flavor. However, the only practical way I know of to keep track of what the food is doing is to look at it.

My compromise between culinary vigilance and energy conservation when grilling hamburger is to check no more than about once every two minutes, until very near the beginning and end of the process. With steak, I try not to check more often than every five minutes.

Theoretically, hood windows let you see what's going on, but in practice they soot up pretty fast. And, since I don't believe in working any harder than necessary at grill maintenance, I haven't put a lot of effort into de-sooting.

Again theoretically, it should be possible to precisely calculate the required grilling times, but in practice differences in the meat's starting temperature and outside conditions make observation the reasonable choice.

Getting back to food safety for a minute, I'm concerned about fluids from raw meat staying on the spatula, or other tools used to handle the meat, especially in the early phases of grilling.

To make sure that little tiny stowaways don't survive the voyage from freezer to serving plate, after putting meat on the grill, I leave the spatula (or whatever tool I used) over the grill for about a minute. That cooks whatever remains on the tool. My grill has slots in lid's side, which makes it possible to close the lid over the spatula handle.

If I Can Grill These, So Can You!

Don't let those fancy cookbooks fool you. Grilling doesn't have to be complicated. All you need is a grill, some fuel, simple tools, and the willingness to pay attention.

Before grilling, I scrape any charred grease, left over from a previous grilling session, from the grill before fresh food goes on. The spatula, turned upside down, makes a good tool for this. If you're finicky about using the spatula as a scraper, you can use any similar tool. I find it easier, and more effective, to scrape after the grill has heated up.

Hamburger Patties

This family buys pre-ground, frozen hamburger patties by the tube, usually with quarter-pound slices. If you grind and shape your own patties, make them thin: a quarter-inch thick or less. That way, it is much easier to get the meat evenly heated.

For us, preparation for the grill consists of taking the tube out of the freezer, chipping off the desired number of patties, putting them on a plate, and carrying the plate to the grill.

Not exactly Cordon Bleu cookery, is it?

I like to pre-heat the grill, running it on the high setting for at least two minutes, before putting hamburger patties on. That ensures that the side facing the flames gets seared quickly, sealing that side of the patty.

The grilling times that follow are from my experience with one grill during summer. You'll find that outside temperature and your grill's design will affect grilling time. You may find that it takes longer to grill things when the tank is nearly empty, too.

Let the patties grill over high heat for about a minute, then take the heat down to medium.

After about 3 minutes, I check the patties. If the juice on top is red, or the meat on the least-done patty is still pink, Close the lid and check at 1 or 2 minute intervals until the least-done piece is tan with clear juice.

At that point, flip the patties. Put the least done ones near where the most done ones lay. I use the spatula, turned upside down, to scrape grease off the grill again at this point. It's almost certain that some charred grease has accumulated.

I flip the patties so that the lines from the grill, which are now on top, are aligned in the same direction as the bars of the grill. This isn't necessary, but I like to develop a crisscross pattern on the finished meat.

Let the freshly flipped patties grill on high heat for a minute, searing what is now the bottom. The idea, again, is to seal flavor in. Then take the heat back down to medium.

Give them about 3 minutes, then open the lid and see how they're doing. Just about the only way to be sure that they've gotten done is to lift one from a cool spot, and see if it is completely tan. If it isn't, check at 1 or 2 minute intervals until it is.

Flip the patties again. If your grill has very noticeable hot and cool spots, switch the patties from cool areas to hot, and hot to cool, again.

Since I like a crisscross pattern, I turn the patties 90 degrees at this point, so that marks from the grill are now running across the grill bars. It doesn't make any difference in the taste of the meat, but I like the pattern it makes. As a bonus, when you're done folks can see that you're a dedicated griller, having grilled the meat twice on each side.

I generally turn the flame to high for a minute at this point, but that isn't necessary. After flipping, about 3 minutes at a medium heat should be enough. Check the patties. See if they're brown on the bottom, with black streaks where they touch the grill's rack. Theoretically, you should use a meat thermometer, but I've never done that.

If they are, flip them again. If not, check at 1 or 2 minute intervals until the right color combination is there. I do what I call a ‘straight flip,. so that the lines on the side that lands on the grill are at right angles to the lines that will be grilled on this time. This is just my personal preference. And, I think that you get better-looking burgers.

You don't need to turn the flame to high for a minute at this point, but I usually do: and then return to medium heat. After 2 or 3 minutes, you should check the patties. If they're brown with black streaks, they're done. If they're not, check again at 1 or 2 minute intervals until they are.

Since we often grill 5 or 6 patties at a time, I turn the flames to low when the patties are done, and stack them on the grill. That keeps them hot. I lift the stack onto a clean plate, and one of my daughters carries them in, while I shut off the grill. (Unless you're going to grill something else immediately, you should set the flame controls to ‘off,. and close the LP cylinder's valve when you're done grilling.)

We've started grilling turkey patties recently. They take a little longer to finish, and don't get charred as easily.

Hot Dogs

Preparing hot dogs for the grill is about the same as hamburger. We take the block of hot dogs out of the freezer, chip off as many as we want, and take those to the grill on a plate.

Once again, the idea is to keep things as simple as possible. Those hot dogs will pick up a grilled flavor, just hanging out with the hamburger patties in the grill.

(These grilling times come from one summer's grilling experience. You'll find that your grill's design, and outside temperature affects grilling time. It may take longer to grill things when the tank is nearly empty, too.)

Hot dogs heat up much faster than hamburger patties. When I'm grilling only hot dogs, I use medium heat, and check on them at 1 or 2 minute intervals. As they start browning on the bottom, I turn them, to keep one side from charring. When they swell, and start turning black, they're done.

The family's tastes being what they are, I often grill a mixture of hot dogs and hamburger patties.

When I do this, I keep the patties on one side of the grill, preparing them as described under "Hamburger Patties." I keep the hot dog side at low heat, and place the hot dogs as close to the outside of the low heat side as possible. I turn them over at 1 or 2 minute intervals, and flip then end for end at least once.

Even so, the hot dogs often get very sincerely done long before the hamburger patties do. When that happens, I take the hot dogs off the grill and have them carried inside.

Steak

I usually start with a formerly frozen steak. The cuts of meat we use are fairly thin: an inch thick at most, usually less. This makes it easier to heat the meat evenly all the way through.

Preparing a frozen steak for the grill is a little more complex than chipping off hamburger patties.

After removal from the freezer, the steak is kept in its vapor-proof wrapper and placed in a temperature-controlled, high-airflow environment. In other words, we put the steak, still in the plastic it was frozen in, on a plate in front of an air register. In winter, the meat is bathed in warm air several times an hour, and since we keep the furnace fan running in summer, then there is a constant flow of warm air.

A few hours of this thaws the steak. Take it out of whatever it is wrapped in, put it on a plate, and take it out to the grill.

(The grilling times here are from one summer's grilling experience. Your grill's design, and outside temperature, affects grilling time. It may take longer to grill things when the tank is nearly empty, too.)

I like to pre-heat the grill, running it on the high setting for at least two minutes, before putting the steak on. That's to ensure that the side facing the flames gets seared quickly, sealing that side of the meat.

I leave the steak on high flame for at least a minute, sealing that side of the meat to retain flavor. Then, turn the flame to medium.

Steaks are thicker than the hamburger patties I grill, and they take longer to heat all the way through. I usually don't check a steak until it has been on the grill for 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes, I carefully work the spatula under the steak. The steak has usually gotten stuck to the grill. It's very likely that more juice will be squeezed out of the steak at this point. If the juice gets on the spatula, I heat the spatula until the juice sizzles. Food safety, you know.

Close the lid when you have freed the steak from the grill, and check again in about 2 minutes.

If the bottom of the steak is a light tan, with dark brown lines where it touched the grill, it is ready to flip. If not, try again at 2-minute intervals until it is.

I suppose this is obvious, but you have to turn the steak most of the way over to see the bottom. I really wouldn't suggest trying to get your face close to the edge of a cooking-hot grill in an effort to peek under the edge of a sizzling steak.

I flip the steak so that the lines from the grill, which are now on top, are parallel to the bars of the grill. This isn't necessary, but I like the steak to have a crisscross pattern when I'm done.

After the steak is flipped, I leave the flame on high for about 2 minutes, to seal in flavor. Then, after 5 minutes on medium heat, I check the steak. In addition to seeing if the underside has turned tan, I press the top of the steak with the spatula. It often has the same ‘feel. as raw meat, and red juice comes out. If the bottom of the steak isn't tan, and the juice isn't clear it isn't quite ready to be flipped.

I usually press the entire top surface of the steak, from one side to the other, with the spatula at right angles to the bars on the grill. I start at about a half inch from one side of the meat, pressing a line across the steak. Then I press another line, about a half inch from the first, until I reach the other side. The idea is to tenderize the meat a little, and to let you know how done the steak is.

When the steak is tan on the bottom, and the juice that comes out s clear, flip it again. At this point, I have the grill lines running across the grill's bars, to get that crisscross pattern I like. You don't have to, but it does say, "the one who grilled this made sure that this steak was thoroughly done on both sides" to whoever receives it.

I often put the flame on high for a minute at this point, but it isn't necessary. With the flame on medium, leave the steak on the grill for 5 minutes before checking.

I often press the entire top surface of the steak again at this point. The steak should have lost almost all of its raw meat feel by this time.

If the underside of the steak is brown, it is ready to flip. I make this a ‘straight flip,. to have the grill lines running across the grill bars again.

After about 5 minutes, the steak should be ready. Don't trust the clock, though. Press the steak with the spatula. If it feels squishy, it isn't done. At least, not by my standards. If it isn't done, check the steak at 1 or 2 minute intervals until it is.

Remember: Each time you open the lid, heat escapes and the length of time it will take to finish the steak increases. If there doesn't seem to be much change from one check to another, wait longer.

Eventually, the steak will be done. At that point, take it off the grill, put it on a clean plate, and take it inside. There's nothing left to do but cut into it, and eat it.

Speaking of cutting into it: On occasion, the steak won't be done all the way through. This is particularly likely if the steak is thick. If that happens, put the steak back on the grill over a medium flame, and try again in about 5 minutes. Repeat if necessary.

Chicken

Preparation of chicken for grilling is the most exacting of any dish I work with.

But it is still far from gourmet cookery.

The chicken pieces should be wrapped in foil, each package about the size of your hand. Be sure to crimp the edges, keeping the juices in. Crimping also helps you avoid what I call fireball fryers. I discuss this phenomenon in Safety: Fire.

As with every other grilled food, I prefer to pre-heat the grill for at least a minute or two.

Place the foil-wrapped chicken on the grill, leaving room for at least one more packet. You'll be using that open space when it's time to flip.

Leave the packets in place for 30 minutes over a medium flame, with the lid down. When you lift the lid, there should be a whole lot of sizzling going on inside the packets. Flip the packets, putting packets which were in hot spots on cool spots, and those that were in cool spots on hot spots.

After another 30 minutes, the chicken should be ready. Remove the packets with spatula or tongs, put them on a plate, and take them inside. Obviously, something that's been heating over flames that long will be very hot, so be very careful about unwrapping the packets!

I'd also cut into the largest piece of chicken. If it isn't done all the way through, re-wrap and put it on the grill for another 5 minutes, or heat it on the stove, and test it again.

(That 30 minutes is for summer grilling. When it's five below zero, you might want to either use a high flame or leave the chicken under the hood longer.)

Other foods

Outdoor grilling isn't limited to hamburgers, hot dogs, steak, and chicken. I've run into recipes for everything from vegetables to onion salad. Most are much more complicated than I want to consider.

Here's one grilled food that's become a family favorite, and then one that we aren't likely to try again soon.

Potatoes

Grilling potatoes takes less effort than anything else I do on the grill. Here's how it's done.

Clean and wrap potatoes individually in foil. Place them on the grill over low flames. I suggest putting the largest potatoes on the grill's hot spots. Leave them for a half-hour. At the end of that time, flip them.

A half-hour after that, use a tongs to put the potatoes, still wrapped, on a plate and take them inside.

Judging from the goofy safety warnings I see, like "Caution: Coffee is Very Hot," I need to write the following. I still feel silly, doing it. Grilled potatoes, fresh off the fire, are hot. Very hot. Your fingers will not feel good if you grab them. Enough said?

Corn in the Husk

I tried this. Once.

I put unhusked corn on the cob on the grill, with a high flame, for about 20 minutes. I turned them about every five minutes. Even with tongs, that was trickier than it sounds. I had no idea that the husks could make so much smoke.

By the time I was done, the husks were black around the edges, and charred at the ends.

The corn didn't taste very good, but at least we didn't get blisters, peeling those hot husks.

Now I hear that we could have put a little butter on the corn on the cob, and wrapped them in aluminum foil.

Next: You've Grilled It, Now Serve It

Copyright 2005 Brian H. Gill