By: Mark R. Vogel
Nothing epitomizes summer cooking more than grilling. However, grilling can be very confusing. The more recipes, cookbooks, and perspectives you encounter, the greater the diversity of opinion that arises. When do you apply the barbeque sauce? Gas or charcoal? Flip the food only once or frequently? High heat or low heat? Dry rubs or marinades? Cover closed or open? It can make ya nuts. Let's explore the different variables.
Barbeque sauce. It is generally recommended to add it toward the last 20 minutes of cooking since it is high in sugar and can burn easily. Some question whether applying it near the end limits how much the sauce will infuse the food. You can marinate the food in the barbeque sauce beforehand but be sure to remove all the excess before cooking. Then add more toward the end.
Gas or charcoal? That depends on how ga-ga you are for that smoky charcoal flavor in your food. Some hate it, some won't live without it. Charcoal grills are cheaper but more troublesome to light and keep at a steady temperature. So do you want that charcoal taste or ease and better control? If you have large parties with extended periods of cooking, I'd go with the gas.
To flip or not to flip? Many people place their food on the grill and then immediately start moving it around and/or flip it frequently. They think this will prevent sticking but actually they are encouraging it. Just as in a sauté pan, high heat is what prevents sticking, (in addition to wiping the grill with oil beforehand).
High heat sears the outside of the food and creates intense flavor. This is what grilling is all about. The seared exterior also prevents sticking. Frequent flipping lowers the temperature of the food and prevents a proper sear. To summarize, wipe the grill with oil, get it very hot, place the item on the grill, leave it alone, and flip it once half way through.
Heat level depends on the type of food and your objectives. As stated, high heat is necessary for searing the exterior of most grilled items. However, a thick on-the-bone chicken breast will take some time. If you leave it on high heat the exterior will look and taste like an ash tray by the time the center is cooked enough to prevent a salmonella outbreak.
Start it on high heat to create the sear, then move to the rack above the grill or turn the gas down to low for the remainder of the cooking. You would also not use as high a heat for more delicate items such as shrimp, vegetables or fruits.
Wet marinades or dry rubs? A marinade is a combination of liquids and/or spices while a dry rub is just that: a mixture of dry ingredients. For tougher cuts of meat such as London broil, flank steaks, skirt steaks, etc., definitely go with the marinade. The marinade will help tenderize the meat somewhat. On tender foods you can use either.
Steaks and chicken are best if marinated overnight. Fish on the other hand should not be marinated more than an hour. Its' delicate meat will break down and turn to mush if marinated too long. For dry rubs, coat the food with olive oil, apply the rub, and allow it to sit for 5-10 minutes.
The number, type, and ratio of ingredients for marinades and rubs are endless and largely depend on your preference. (We're talking about making them from scratch of course. The store bought processed stuff is needlessly high in calories and chemicals and certainly will not taste like homemade).
Typical marinade ingredients include various oils, vinegar, wine, citrus juices, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and hot sauces, in combination with aromatics (onion or garlic), herbs and spices. Dry rubs can include any and all dried spices you can think of. I like a combo of salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and thyme.
Now the cover issue. Generally speaking, it is best to keep the lid closed. Doing so helps the food retain its natural juices and enhances flavor. Remember though, that closing the lid increases the heat. With the lid closed, your grill becomes a combo grill/convection oven. The food cooks from contact with the grill as well as from the increased heat surrounding it.
If you're cooking something that requires lower heat and longer time, (like that on-the-bone chicken breast we discussed), you will probably need a lower heat setting with the lid on. A grill thermometer sure comes in handy here. If you're using coals, you may want to use less or spread them out so as not to burn the chicken. Delicate items that cook very quickly do not necessitate closing the lid.