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Whether you cook over a shoebox-size hibachi or in a state-of-the-art gas-powered "kettle," you know that grilling imparts an incomparable flavor that no other cooking method can. The intense heat, the savory smoke, and the pleasure of cooking (and eating) outdoors all enhance the natural flavor of top-grade steaks, plump chicken breasts, sparkling seafood, and garden-fresh vegetables. You can even bake breads on the grill.
Before you light the fire, spend a few minutes to assess your grill and utensils, bone up on techniques and flavor-enhancing tricks, and review safety procedures.
Types of Grills
You can cook food over a wood fire built in an open pit, but most people appreciate the convenience of a modern barbecue grill. The most sophisticated grills allow you to adjust the heat by turning a knob, and even the most basic have adjustable racks so that you can place the food at the right distance from the fire.
Fueled by charcoal briquettes (pillow-shaped blocks made from hardwood charcoal) or natural hardwood charcoal chunks, these grills are relatively inexpensive. The simplest is the Japanese-style hibachi, a small cast-iron grill just right for a pocket-size patio. For more ambitious grilling, choose a large covered "kettle" with adjustable vents. In between is the versatile uncovered grill, sometimes called a brazier. Look for a charcoal grill made of heavy-gauge metal; the legs should be sturdy and positioned to keep the grill stable.
Today's popular gas grills, fueled by bottled propane or natural gas, can be as easy to light and control as your kitchen stove. They are available with a variety of options, including electric ignition, fuel gauge, extra burners (for simmering sauces or side dishes), warming racks, and storage cabinets. Some have porcelain-enameled cooking grids for easy cleaning. Gas grills may be grand enough to cook two dozen burgers at a time or to smoke a whole turkey. You don't sacrifice that delectable barbecue taste because the firebox of a gas grill contains ceramic "briquettes" or lava rocks (made of natural volcanic rock). Meat juices dripping onto these hot "coals" produce a savory flavor.
The latest thing in grilling is the electric barbecue. Like gas grills, most electric units have artificial briquettes for authentically smoky flavor; these may be removable, so you can also grill indoors, smoke-free. There are large electric grills to use in the backyard (within reach of a grounded electrical outlet) as well as tabletop models for small families and for all-weather indoor use.
Cooking over hot coals calls for some specialized tools, and there are also optional gadgets to consider for easier grilling of fish, kabobs, etc. Here are the basics, plus some extras.
- Grill topper: If you often grill delicate foods such as seafood and vegetables, you'll want a grill topper — a perforated metal sheet or mesh screen that provides a nearly smooth surface for grilling. Food is less likely to break up or fall through, and you can virtually "stir-fry" cut-up foods over the coals.
- Grilling baskets: Another option for delicate or small foods; there are classic fish-shaped baskets (which hold whole fish) as well as square and oblong baskets with long handles to hold kabobs, baby vegetables, or fish fillets. Once the food is inside and the basket is clamped shut, you can turn the entire thing at once — easy!
- Tongs: Better than a fork for turning foods, because they don't pierce the surface and release juices. Barbecue tongs should have heatproof handles and rounded ends that won't cut into the food.
- Spatula: Use a long-handled one with a heatproof handle for flipping burgers and moving food around on a grill topper.
- Skewers: Long metal skewers are a must for kabobs. Choose skewers with flat shafts rather than round ones; food will be less likely to slip or turn as it cooks.
- Basting brush: A heatproof handle and a long shaft are two definite brush requirements. Natural bristles will stand up to the heat better than synthetic ones.
- Instant-read thermometer: This handy tool is about the size of a medical thermometer but made of metal. Insert it in food, and the dial at the top will give you a reading in seconds.
- Grilling mitts: More serious versions of oven mitts, these are longer, to protect more of your arm, and better insulated, to protect you from higher heat. Heavy suede mitts are excellent.
- Water spray bottle: The kind used to mist plants, adjusted so that it emits a narrow stream to quash flare-ups.
- Brass-bristled scrub brush: Use this to clean the grill rack. It helps to remove the rack as soon as you've finished cooking, wrap it in dampened newspaper, and soak the whole thing with a hose. When you unwrap it, burned-on food will be softened. (Another time-saver: Line the firebox with heavy-duty foil before you grill.)
For the Fire
Gas and electric grills are easy to light; just follow the manufacturer's directions. A charcoal fire requires a little more finesse. Be sure to leave enough time after starting the fire for the coals to burn down to gray ash before you start cooking. Allow 40 minutes to be on the safe side.
Getting started: You don't want to run out of heat before the food is cooked, so start with enough briquettes. Estimate the right amount by spreading an even layer of briquettes over the bottom of the firebox. Before lighting, stack the briquettes into a pyramid to allow air to circulate among them. The following are options to help you get the fire going:
- Chimney starter: An open-ended metal cylinder with a handle. Place crumpled newspaper in the bottom, top with briquettes, and light the paper through an opening in the bottom. The briquettes will quickly burn to ash-covered readiness.
- Electric starter: A loop-shaped heating element with a handle, this device is placed in a bed of briquettes; plug it in, and the charcoal briquettes will ignite.
- Self-starting briquettes: These are impregnated with starter fluid. A match will ignite them immediately. Don't add them to a fire that's already hot.
- Liquid fire starter: Saturate briquettes with the liquid, then let stand for a minute before lighting. If you wait until the coals are ready for proper cooking, the fluid will have burned off and will not affect the flavor of the food. Never add liquid starter to a fire that's already burning, or to hot coals; a spark could ignite the whole can.
- Solid fire starter: Place these waxy-looking cubes in the firebox, pile briquettes on top, and light. They're safer to handle than liquid starter.
Fine-tuning: You'll know the coals are ready when they are about 80 percent ashy gray (at night, you'll see them glow red). To test the heat, hold your palm above the coals at cooking height (about 6 inches): If the fire is low (above 200 degrees F), you'll be able to keep your hand there for 5 to 6 seconds. If you can bear the heat for 4 to 5 seconds, the fire is moderate (above 300 degrees F). If you can hold your palm over the fire for just 2 to 3 seconds, the fire is hot (above 375 degrees F). Tapping the coals will remove their ash cover and make the fire hotter. Pushing the coals together intensifies the heat, whereas spreading them apart decreases it. Opening the vents on a covered grill increases the temperature, and partially closing the vents lowers the heat.
- Except for grills intended to be used indoors, always cook in the open air. You're safe under a shelter, such as a carport, or in the doorway (very close to the open door) of a garage, but never use a charcoal or gas grill in a closed building or room; the burning coals will consume the oxygen and fill the room with carbon monoxide, with possibly fatal results.
- Have a bucket of sand or water near the grill in case the fire gets out of hand.
- Never add liquid fire starter to an existing fire. The stream of fluid can ignite, and the can could explode.
- Keep an eye on the grill at all times, especially when children and/or pets are on the scene.
- Don't wear scarves or clothing with loose, billowy sleeves, or fringes, when cooking over coals.
- If the fire flares up or food catches fire, raise the rack and spread the coals apart. If necessary, squirt the fire with water from a spray bottle.
- If you want to coat the grill rack with nonstick cooking spray, do so while the rack is cool and at a good distance from the grill.
When food is to be cooked by intense dry heat — as in grilling — marinating and basting help keep it moist. Although the smoky taste of grilled food is naturally delicious, marinades and seasoning rubs (their dry counterparts) can add an extra dimension of flavor. Marinades often have an acidic component — vinegar, wine, yogurt — which penetrates the surface to a depth of 1/2 inch or so, thus tenderizing meat (if only slightly) and infusing it with flavor.
Here's the easiest way to marinate: Mix the marinade ingredients in a heavy-duty zip-tight plastic bag, add the food, and seal the bag, pressing out most of the air. Put the bag on a platter to catch leaks or condensation. When marinating meat, poultry, and seafood for more than 30 minutes — or if it's a very warm day — place the bag in the refrigerator. Turn it occasionally to redistribute the marinade. If you're not using a plastic bag, place the food in a noncorrosive bowl or pan (glass, ceramic, stainless steel, or enamel) and cover it.
Delicate foods, such as seafood and boneless chicken breasts, can benefit from marinating just 15 minutes, and should not be left much longer (especially in an acid marinade) or they will begin to turn mushy. Large cuts of beef and pork and substantial bone-in chicken parts should be marinated for at least an hour, but no more than 24 hours. A marinade can be brushed onto food as it grills, but since the liquid has been in contact with raw meat, it must be thoroughly cooked before you eat it. Stop basting 10 minutes before the food is done, or the marinade will not have sufficient time to cook. If you plan to serve a marinade as a sauce, you must boil it for at least 1 minute. Discard any leftover marinade; it cannot be reused.
Seasoning rubs are combinations of spices, dried herbs, salt, and, sometimes, moist ingredients such as mustard, oil, or pureed fresh herbs. The mixture is rubbed onto the food before grilling. If possible, apply the rub an hour or two in advance for maximum flavor. A seasoning rub can be used on its own, or complemented with a similarly seasoned sauce. Basting sauces, including bottled barbecue sauce, should be thick enough to adhere to food as it cooks. Sweet sauces, made with liberal amounts of honey, molasses, or sugar, are likely to burn, so wait until the last 15 minutes of cooking time before brushing them on.
Flavoring the Fire
In addition to seasoning the food you'll be grilling, you can also flavor the fire itself, or, more specifically, the smoke that rises from it. This works best in a covered grill, which holds in the smoke. Aromatic woods, such as mesquite or hickory, are well known for the tang they add to grilled meats. Herbs, spices, and other cooking ingredients add their own flavors.
Grilling woods are sold in chunks or chips to be tossed onto a charcoal fire or gas grill. You want the wood to smoke slowly, not burn quickly, so soak it in water before adding it to the coals. Chips require about half an hour of soaking; larger chunks should be soaked for up to two hours. Suit the wood to the food: Use oak and mesquite, which are strongly flavored, for cooking beef and pork; their smoke can overpower fish and poultry. Hickory's sweetness is well suited to turkey, chicken, and pork. Fruitwoods, such as apple and cherry, are mild enough to use with chicken and seafood. If using chunks of wood, add them to the fire from the start; place chips on the coals later in the cooking process.
Dried grapevines give off a subtle wine flavor, and corncobs (dried for a few days after you've cut off the kernels) produce a hickory-like smoke. Partially cracked nuts in the shell, soaked for 15 minutes or so, release their flavors when heated in the coals. Whole spices and fresh or dried herbs can be placed on the fire to complement the seasonings in a marinade or rub. Soak them for about 30 minutes before using. Fennel is traditional for grilling fish, while rosemary, dill, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro are other options. Experiment with other smoke flavorings, such as whole cinnamon sticks or cloves, strips of orange or lemon peel, and whole garlic cloves.
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