Hard earned grilling wisdom

I’ve been a pretty enthusiastic outdoor cook for the last couple years; I’ve always loved it, but living in New York and New Jersey in apartments limited my opportunities. Not as much as I would have thought, but that’s another story. In the last roughly 3 years, I’ve gone through lots of trial, a fair amount of error, and learned a lot. I realized that there are a couple of key things that I’ve learned:

1. Wind makes grilling hard. It’s always windy here. I’ve learned pretty good vent control, and it’s a fine line to walk; if you let too much air through, it not only makes your charcoal burn faster, but it can simultaneously take more time to cook because the wind fanning the flames also blows the hot air out. In a perfect world, you’d never grill in windy conditions. It’s not a perfect world.

2. Indirect heat – this was a revelation. You don’t have to cook right on top of the fire. It’s great and ideal for some things, but for other things, it’s not great and not ideal. Or something. I use a charcoal grill, so I can move the charcoal away from the food or the food away from the charcoal. I’ve also done it on gas grills; the easiest way is to turn on one side and cook the food on the other. It takes time to cook this way, and some food is best when it cooks this way. For ribs or for a whole chicken, there’s no other way to do it that makes sense. I’ve also had pleasing results for things like hamburgers – rather than just searing them directly over the fire for 8 minutes or so, I’ll smoke them for 45 minutes. They get cooked all the way through, and they’re juicy and great. Hot dogs are interesting cooked indirectly, too.

Indirect cooking works great in conjunction with:

3. Smoke. I use big chunks of wood right in the fire. There are “chefs” who want their smoke to be subtle, but I love good smoke and the more the better. I want stinging, pungent clouds to billow out, and anyone not sufficiently hardcore will be driven away from the food preparation area. You will smell like bacon the next day. And not just any smoke; some meats are better with some smokes:

Hickory: I’d use it for anything except seafood. Ideal for beef, pork or chicken. Burgers and smoked sausages, including hot dogs, are great.
Mesquite: Same thing; it’s also too strong for seafood, even moreso.
Apple: Best for pork and chicken, it’s not quite as strong as hickory but still pairs Ok with beef
Pecan: Like a light version of hickory, it’s great with almost anything. I’d use it gently with seafood still, but it’s even great with vegetables. (Peppers, potatoes, vidalia onions).
Cherry: A unique smoke, almost has an “almond” aftertaste. Pairs great with chicken and pork. Beef is questionable, but that’s up to the individual.

I get the charcoal going, and once I’m about to put the food on, I put the chunks on and let them burn for 2-5 minutes. With enough smoke for enough time, your meat usually takes on a “smoke ring,” a pink layer around the outside. I love the pink layer. The longer and slower you cook with the smoke, the bigger the smoke ring gets, but I don’t know if this is a case where bigger is automatically better, it’s no more an ideal than super dark or super light toast would be – get it how you like it. If your food ends up with one, it’s been smoked well, if it doesn’t, that indicates you’ve done a lighter smoking, and that may be what you want. You can use the presence of a smoke ring to gauge the amount of smoke that gets into your food and fine tune from there. (“Fine tuning” is probably the wrong term; in my world, I find I usually have way too little or way too much smoke, so I’m not personally worried about the small increments.)

If you’re a gas griller, I’ve tried smoke boxes with mixed success, the thing I’ve had work best for me is to soak wood pieces (smaller the better) in water for at least an hour, or very hot water for 30 minutes if you’re caught unprepared, and make a satchel with tinfoil. Poke many small holes in it and toss it basically on top of the burners where it’s not going to block anything important but get lots of direct heat. There’s probably a better way, but in my recent gas grill experiences, it’s been the way to go.

4. Charcoal: I’m not a charcoal snob, but there are different uses for different kinds. If you haven’t been exposed to them, there are people – many of whom I love dearly – who refuse to cook with good old fashioned briquettes. “Too bitter, too much filler, too much ash, not enough heat,” the list is totally true and valid and longer than what I’ve listed. But I don’t mind traditional briquettes, and I often pick them up when preparing to grill if I don’t have time to chase down the good stuff. Lump charcoal has gotten common enough that I have fewer excuses. My main resistance to lump charcoal is uneven quality. I can get a bag home, and it’s mostly useless black dust. A bag of briquettes is very predictable, and therefore a reasonable choice, their filler is strong enough that the briquettes rarely break to the point of unusability. And if you’re going to get your flavor from wood chunks later anyway, the difference is narrower. I will say that if you’re cooking for a long time and will have to re-load your fuel, lump charcoal is generally better. Pressed briquettes have a tendancy to burn with a bitter smoke until they’re covered with white ash, so if you have to reload halfway through you’ll subject your food to the bitter smoke for a little while and the last thing you want to impart to something you’re cooking for 2 hours is a bitter flavor, even if it’s subtle.

I’m not dogmatic about charcoal in the sense that I debate people who choose gas grills, or that I’ll get beat up by a lump-charcoal chooser. I get it. Gas grills start easier, they burn more evenly, there’s less cleanup, and you have really easy control over the temperature. Cheap briquettes are widely available, cheap, and easy to work with. Whatever. I like charcoal, and the fuss is worth the extra effort for me. To each their own, as long as you enjoy the process and the food you get from it.

5. The rub. I use a rub on most meats I cook these days, and I usually make it myself. I may use a mop or a sauce or something later, but I almost always start with a rub. I make my own more often than not, and it’s usually some version of the “classic” barbecue rub: basically equal parts of brown sugar, paprika, and salt. I actually cut the salt in half as I use rock salt, kosher salt or sea salt, all of which comes across stronger than table salt. (Don’t use table salt. Kosher salt is cheap and works much better.) Brown sugar is imperative for a rub for pork or chicken, especially if you’re cooking it “dry.” (No sauce or mop later.) The sugar caramelizes and provides flavor, texture, aroma, and character. 

You can augment the classic rub as you see fit: I’ll flavor that basic mix depending on what I’m using it with, and even if the difference is subtle, I enjoy the difference. If it’s steak, I’ll add black pepper and garlic (and cut down or eliminate the sugar), for example, for pork, it may be fennel seed, onion powder, and rosemary. Celery salt is cool, too. So is Chinese 5-spice powder. Whatever herbs you’d cook a meat with work great for that meat in the classic rub.

I also use MSG; some people freak out, but if you called salt “sodium chloride,” there are people who would stop eating it. I don’t use pounds of it or anything, but I like it and use it. Nobody in my household is sensitive to it, it tenderizes meat, and Japanese wine tasters even have a name for the flavor – umami. If it’s one of the basic flavors in Japanese cuisine, I’m open to including it in my cooking. Again, not tons. It’s made with mangos, for Pete’s sake. I sympathize with anyone who has a sensativity, and I wouldn’t sneak it in any more than I would shrimp or peanuts. I’ll also adjust the amount of sugar in the rub; a steak doesn’t need any, like in a classic Montreal steak rub. It seldom needs more salt, and paprika is a subtler factor regardless of how much you put in.

Anyway, since I have at least some salt in my rubs, I put them on the meat when it’s at room temperature and about 30 minutes before I’m going to put it on the grill. If I were not using salt, I’d consider putting it on as much earlier as I wanted, but the salt changes the meat and more than 30 minutes is too much in my experience and opinion.

No rubs for most seafood, it’s too heavy and too quick-acting. Most good seafood doesn’t need it and can be affected for the worse with one; that’s not to say there’s one out there that’s not great, but I don’t have the confidence to use one on that tuna steak I just spent so much for.

6. The membrane. With ribs, an often-skipped step is removing the membrane from the boney side. It takes 30 seconds and makes the ribs more tender. (Conversely, leaving it on makes them subtly tougher for no reason you’d think of.) It makes all the difference in the world, and there’s no reason not to do it. You just feel around on a corner like you’re trying to find the backing on a sticker, and pull. Some people have reportedly found a paper towel helpful in gripping the membrane, but I usually don’t do anything like that.

7. The beer can. My favorite way of cooking a chicken is to jam a half-full beer can up its ass and use its legs as a tripod. A nice rub on the outside and some indirect heat results in a chicken with a crisp outside and a thoroughly cooked, but tender and most, inside. Some people use vegetable oil or nothing on the skin, then a nice spice rub. (Anything works. The classic rub, bouquet garni herbs suitably crushed, even cinnamon.) I actually use things like maple syrup or yellow prepared mustard, anything I can think of to add flavor during the process. Or whatever I have around. I never use just oil, though. And the beer can doesn’t have to be beer. Ginger ale, 7up, peach or apricot nectar, even Coke. Whatever you can think of. I think the amount that the beverage affects the overall flavor is overrated. It’s real, but not crucial, so whatever is handy.

8. The sauce. I make my own barbecue sauces almost every time. Sometimes I use a recipe, sometimes I don’t, but I definitely have tendencies. I love Asian sauces, and hoisin sauce from a jar makes a great baste. But for my real barbecue stuff, I have just a couple basic combinations I fall back on.

A perfect sauce, for me, has 2 main parts and your extras. You’ve got tang, usually from vinegar, and in my case, usually from cider vinegar (but occasionally white, and never balsamic), yellow or dijon mustard, or Worcestershire sauce. Some sugar, which could come from honey, fruit preserves, Coke, or my favorite, molasses. Then the extras; that could include a second sweetener, for example molasses and then peach nectar, tomato paste, Red Devil sauce for vinegar and heat, butter (no kidding), liquid smoke like Stubbe’s, that kind of thing. And spices. I’ll adjust the spices I use for the meat and the rest of the meal, but I like fennel seeds, oregano, garlic and onion powder, mild red Chimayo chile powder, rosemary, a little sage or thyme, definitely chile powder and/or cumin, and possibly something aromatic, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, or allspice, but sparingly with the aromatics. Black pepper or cayenne as you prefer.

Equal parts of your sweet part and your tang to start with, and everything else to taste. I bring things to a boil at the beginning, especially with fruit preserves like apricot or peach jam, and then I let it almost simmer for as long as I cook, stirring occasionally and tasting as it reduces down. Favorite combinations include:

  • molasses, coke, cider vinegar
  • molasses, apricot nectar, cider or white vinegar
  • molasses, tomato paste, butter, Worcestershire, soy, and cider vinegar
  • mayonnaise and white vinegar in equal parts, plus sugar (for pork and chicken)

It’s surprisingly hard to go wrong; you know what you like, and you add it. It usually adds up just fine unless you love obviously disparate flavors, but nobody was going to make tuna and marshmallow in the same sauce anyway. And your own sauce just brushed on grilled chicken pieces while they’re smoking ends up better than most other food you could prepare. Knowing you made your own sauce is really fun, knowing you didn’t use any recipe is even better. Just use the Force.

9. Marinades. I don’t use them as much as I did 8 years ago, I find that I overuse them, but they’re still useful for some things. A classic marinade has an acid and and oil in it, and I often add sugar and/or soy sauce. There’s some smart scientific reason for it that I’ve let go of, and I just believe it and do it. So a classic oil-and-vinegar salad dressing is pretty ideal. I find myself using marinades mostly for vegetables that I grill and for teriyaki type stuff. For bell peppers, I might use olive oil, key lime juice and balsamic vinegar. (A pinch of ginger or mint if it’s handy.) I’d marinate them for maybe 30 minutes, and then use the marinade to brush as I grill. For vidalias, I like something with mustard, so maybe mustard and olive oil and maple syrup to make it thicker. 

I like both Japanese and Hawaiian teriyakis, you can roll your own pretty easily, and even when it’s not quite right, it’s often better than anything you’d get in a store. For a Japanese or Korean style marinade, I’d pick from:

  • sake or mirin, good soy sauce (ideally low sodium, as it can add way too much salt when it’s a marinade), white sugar, and green onions. Optional flavors include chopped garlic, powdered or chopped ginger, sesame oil, even a dash of rice vinegar. (Not too much, though.)
For a Hawaiian style, I’d pick from flavors like: 
  • pineapple juice, soy sauce, chopped garlic. Optional flavors like green onion, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and sweet garlic chile sauce.
I’ve come to not like meats that have marinated for more than overnight, I used to do it for a couple days in some cases and it wasn’t horrible, but I like the results better with 12 hours or less, especially when there’s soy. (Gets way too salty.)
That’s the meat of my grilling theory. No pun intended. I’ve got specific ideas for specific ingredients, and I’m a huge believer in trial and error, and I’ve tried lots of weird little recipes, even pizza and corn bread on the grill, but basics really provide the confidence for other experiments. When I start with good fundamentals, the errors are rarely tragic and the successes are surprisingly good. Choking clouds of smoke and long lead times are not for everyone, but I’m a big fan of the “slow food” notion; everyone’s in a hurry with everything these days, and I’m not an exception. But making food by hand for your family and friends and spending time talking and just being together while you’re doing it really can’t be the worst thing in the world.