Let’s pretend you really like to drink milk. You have a favourite glass from which you drink it. You drink milk a lot, so the glass doesn’t make it to the dishwasher. Whatever milk didn’t make it into you dries and hardens on the glass.
But you really like to drink milk, so you just pour more fresh milk in the glass. Sometimes the hardened stuff dissolves in the milk, sometimes it doesn’t. Pretty soon, you can’t drink as much milk in your favourite glass, because you have this semi-soft layer that smells a little like cheese congealed on the sides.
You’re probably doing the same to your grill.
Remember in school, in math class, when you had those word problems and the teacher made you show your work? But you didn’t care, you just wanted to show the answer and get the marks. Well, turns out the teacher was right.
For any skill you wish to acquire, it’s the path to the result with which you should concern yourself, not any specific result. This is no less true for cooking than for math problems. Focusing on one meal won’t enable you cook hundreds. But learn some techniques, master some tools; respect a few physical principles. Before you know it, you’re making some tasty recipes, without anyone else’s help.
I’ve mentioned this before: I started to teach myself how to cook when I bought my first barbecue. I figured I spent so much money on it that I better cook more than burgs and hot dogs. I didn’t realize at the time that I bought the most basic of models.1
That was four years ago. Since then, every summer, I’ve grilled virtually every day. Every day for four months, for four years. A man should have learned a thing or two about grilling in that time. So herewith, an introduction to the absolute basics of grilling.2
Let’s start with heat.
Specifically, I mean the two types of heat used in cooking: direct and indirect. It’s best to think of the most common sources for each: stove and oven. Direct heat is what is applied when you fry an egg in a pan on the stove, say. The heat is transferred by direct contact with the heat source.
Indirect heat is applied by the oven to a chicken, say. The air in the oven gets really hot, which transfers to the thing you want cooked.
The barbecue has both direct and indirect heat. That’s what makes it so great. You can cook a steak or a roast with the same appliance. And there are rarely pots and pans to wash up afterwards. It’s no wonder the barbecue is a favourite of mine: it’s so efficient.
Direct heat is best for small cuts of meat or vegetables, such that by the time the inside is cooked, the outside is just getting nice and brown. Large cuts or meat with bones are best prepared with indirect heat. They require long cooking times; direct heat would make the outside inedible before the inside was cooked.
You may see some dishes use both; now that’s fancy. Typically, that’s to get some colour on the outside with direct heat before moving to indirect to finish cooking.
Finally, in most recipes, in addition to the type of heat, you’ll see the temperature: low, medium and high, just like stove heat. There’s a bit of a disconnect, though: most barbecues come with an honest temperature gauge with degrees in Celsius and Fahrenheit. I tend to go by the following translation:
- Low heat is around 300F
- Medium is around 400F
- High is around 500F
It doesn’t have to be that precise though, just accurate. So if a recipe calls for medium, and the temp of the grill is 390 or 425, I’m not going to get worried.
Every time you spark that grill up you should follow a consistent routine. Here’s mine:
- Start the grill as instructed. Close the lid to let it heat up.
- Get it hot, like high heat or higher, about 10 minutes.
- Brush the grates clean of last time’s residual food.
- Adjust temperature to that required by the recipe
- Cook until done
- Shut down the grill.
- I follow that every time. You can, if you wish, brush the grates after you’re finished cooking, but you have to bring the temperature back up to high in the meantime, which wastes gas. And you might forget all about it, until halfway through dinner when everybody is surprised by a loud expletive as you run out to turn the barbecue off before the house explodes. Again, if you wish.
- Remember that milk analogy? I’ve seen too many grills with caked-on black shit. If you’re grill looks like that, hang your head in shame. What every grill needs is a wire brush with a long, solid handle, wood or hard plastic. When you brush the grates, make sure you get all that stuff off. Use your muscles, fellas! Your grates should be as smooth as the day you bought them. Brush every time, thoroughly, and you don’t need to do much else.
If you grill daily, though, you should give your grill a more thorough clean about once a month. Carbon will build up on the walls of the barbecue as well as on the gas tubes, retarding the flame so it takes forever to heat up.
Your grill should come with a manual to explain the details. I promptly forgot mine; I just use a scraper tool to get the carbon off the sides and some steel wool to clean the bottom of the grates, the flavourizer bars and the gas tubes. The great thing about my Weber, and one of the reasons I bought it was the removable bottom. I can slide out the bottom of the grill and dump everything I scraped off into the garbage. The whole operation shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes.
There are a few essential tools you’ll need to enjoy cooking on your grill.
- Tongs – you’ll need a few sets, all metal; none of these silicone or plastic varieties. They’ll be useful in the winter too, so it’s a good buy.
- Cookie Sheets – to transport you’re delicious food from kitchen to grill and back again. They’re also great for baking, I hear.
- Thermometer – before you get the hang of telling when meat is done by touch or appearance, a thermometer is a must so you don’t kill people. I wish I could recommend a good digital instant-read, but I don’t trust them. Also good for oven roasts. Noticing a theme?
- Flipper – metal, like the tongs. I only use them for burgers and fish, so one is enough.
You know those giant flippers and tongs you see in every big box store’s barbecue section? You’ll only need those if you cook big cuts like pork shoulder or brisket; or if you have a small penis.
Now that you’re steeped in grilling knowledge, you’re going to want to practice. I understand. Take a look at the recommended posts below. And stay tuned for more. We’re barely into summer.