At Cook’s Illustrated, we’re big fans of grilling. Not only does it impart foods with rich flavors, but it also lets us cook outside and make the most of the warm-weather season. Using a live fire comes with its challenges, though, requiring extra safety measures, special equipment, and different techniques than the oven and stovetop. Here are 8 things to know before you get the grill going.
1. Put Safety First
It’s important to take certain steps to stay safe when grilling. First, be sure to set up your grill at least 10 feet away from your home and on a flame-safe surface like a patio or driveway rather than a wooden deck or grass. Keep a good-quality fire extinguisher nearby and to avoid flare-ups, take extra care with food prep; don’t forget to remove excess fat from meat and use a paper towel to pat dry any foods that have been marinated with oil, as fat and oil can drip and catch fire
2. Use the Right Grilling Tools
In case of flare-ups (and for general grilling safety), two tools are mandatory: tongs and grill gloves. We’ve found that the best grill tongs are about 16 inches long, allowing you to stay further away from the fire than standard 12-inch kitchen tongs. We also like to swap our traditional oven mitt for a pair of protective grilling gloves, which have individual fingers for better dexterity. So, if a flare-up does occur, you can use these two tools to safely move your food to a different part of the grill, which will help get the fire under control. (We don’t advise fighting flare-ups with a spray bottle of water, which can result in ash-covered food.)
3. Clean the Grill Grate
We’ve all been there—you’ve successfully prepped your food and placed it on the grill, but a few minutes later, it’s completely stuck to the grate. Avoid this fate by quickly cleaning the grate beforehand. All you need is a good grill brush, vegetable oil, tongs, paper towels, and this how-to video.
4. Allow the Grill Enough Time to Heat Up
We recommend preheating charcoal grills for 5 minutes, but when it comes to gas grills, 15 minutes is better. Since gas flames don’t produce as much radiant heat (which cooks the portions of food between the grill grate) as hot coals, gas grills need the extra time. This allows the items that are between the flames and cooking grate (usually metal bars, ceramic rods, or lava rocks) to convert the heat of the flames into radiant heat, and produces better results when it comes to your food.
5. Learn How to Grill Vegetables the Right Way
The grill isn’t just for meat; it’s a great way to cook up flavorful, crisp-tender vegetables too (read about our favorite methods in the Essential Guide to Grilling Vegetables). You can go the traditional route with a side like grilled onions, which we like to cook in halves, first over the flame and then steamed in a covered disposable plan. But, don’t be afraid to add some new moves to your vegetable grilling game too. Our book, Master of the Grill, includes foolproof recipes for less conventional options like grilled butternut squash (yes, you really can grill it!) and coleslaw made with grilled cabbage.
Onions are often included in a mix of grilled vegetables, but we wanted to make them a stand-alone side. By cutting them in half and cooking them first directly over the flame and then in a covered disposable pan, we got onions that were chargrilled and caramelized with a crisp-tender texture.
6. Freeze Your Burger Meat
Tender, Juicy Burgers are essential for any cookout. To make sure they’re perfectly done, we grind our own meat, incorporate a little salt, and add a dimple to the raw burger to prevent it from bulging. Our method also requires freezing the meat twice before grilling, which helps hold the burgers together and allows them to stay on the grill for a few extra minutes, resulting in a nice char and rosy center. And if someone wants a well-done burger instead? Make a panade. We’ve found that adding this combination of starch and liquid (we use bread and milk) to burgers helps keep them tender and juicy even when cooked well-done.
7. Give Your Steak a Rest and the Right Cut
Once steak is cooked, there are a couple steps you can take to ensure it’s extra juicy and tender. First, give it 5 to 10 minutes to rest after removing it from the heat. As the temperature cools, the protein molecules are able to reabsorb moisture that moved to the center of the meat during cooking, which means the steak loses less moisture when you cut into it (and don’t worry, it'll still be warm when you eat it). Another key to tender steak is how you slice it. We recommend cutting against the grain (perpendicular to the muscle fibers), especially when cooking tough cuts like flank, skirt, and hanger steak. Our video on the science of slicing steak explains why.
8. Put Your Thermometer to Work
We can’t stress enough just how useful a digital thermometer is for cooking. This handy gadget helps you know when meat and fish are done, which not only avoids overcooking but also ensures food is safe to eat. Use your thermometer along with our guide to the ideal serving temperatures for meat and you’ll be on your way to grilling success.