A Grilling Primer

There is nothing like grilling on a hot summer day or a cold winter night or at 3 a.m. any season when you simply gotta have another piece of charred, sizzling meat.Don't ever, ever be defensive about grilling meat. The smoke keeps bugs, neighbors and children away, and the smell of fat vaporizing on red-hot coals will send any vegetarians in the neighborhood fleeing as fast as their frightened, undernourished legs will carry them.You can put lots of things on a grill -- tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, onions, weeds, lumber, the kids' toys, bills, the wife's wigs -- but there is only one thing that goes perfectly with the grill and what the grill was made for, and that is meat.Like most everything else in life, successful grilling depends on good planning. So plan.The most important things to decide before you start grilling is where to position yourself so that when you pass out drunk you don't fall on the hot grill (you don't want grill marks on your face), and whether you want your meat dead or alive when you start cooking it. Most people prefer their steers, chickens, lambs, turkeys and pigs dead before grilling, but there's always room for different attitudes.Start With ...A grill. There are all kinds of grills out there: kettle grills, gas grills, cheap grills, expensive grills, big grills and little grills. Any grill will do. Just make sure you get one that is large enough to do all the cooking that you plan to do.This might sound stupid, but it's very important: Before you start grilling, make sure the grill is outside. Grilling inside can cause the house to burn down and can cause you and anyone else in the house to die of carbon monoxide poisoning.Once the grill is outside, clean it out. That means dump out all of the ashes, open any vents it might have and use a wire brush to clean off the black, sticky, fatty residue that was baked onto the grilling surface during the previous grilling session. Make sure the vents are open and clean. Why? Because they allow air to circulate between the coals. And if you remember your science, you know that a fire needs oxygen to keep burning.CharcoalThe next thing is the charcoal. Most grilling experts recommend high-quality, top-of-the-line briquets. For all we know, the cheap ones might be held together with chemicals culled from a toxic waste dump or stuff destined for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. I recommend against using the instant start briquets. The instant start stuff gives you less time to drink beer. And once when I used them, they imparted a bad, starter-like flavor to my meat.I also recommend against using starter fluid to light your coals. The big whoosh of flame you get upon lighting coals soaked with starter fluid is an inspiring sight if you're an arsonist or a pyromaniac, but that smell lingers, and unless you're some kind of weirdo, you don't want your expensive steaks smelling like a distillate of petroleum.You can also buy real charcoal, which is pieces of trees that have been burned just enough to turn them into charcoal. Bags of real, or natural, charcoal cost a little more than briquets, but they're worth the fun and money.Start your coals by using a chimney starter. This is a round, chimney-like metal thing with vents on the sides and bottom and a handle. You fill the thing up with coals or natural charcoal, stuff two sheets of newspaper in the bottom space and light them. The burning newspaper will light the bottom layer of coals, which will then light the other coals. Chimney starters cost less than $10 at any big hardware outlet.When you see flames shooting up near the top of the chimney starter, it is time to dump the coals into the grill. Wear an oven mitt or a potholder, as my ma used to call them. The mitt keeps the hairs on the back of your hand from singeing. You don't want to smell singed hair when you hold a can of ice-cold beer up to your mouth.Spread the coals out in an even, single layer in the grill.Proper TemperatureIt generally takes 20 to 30 minutes from the time you light the coals to the time they're ready to cook over. They're usually ready when they're covered with a gray ash and glowing red. But you want to be a little more precise because temperature is an important element in cooking beef and other meats. If the coals are too hot, the outside of the meat can become charred and overcooked long before the inside has cooked. Most beef is best grilled over medium temperature coals, which is between 350¡F to 375¡F.You can check the temperature with a grill thermometer, if you have one. Start grilling when the temperature is 360¡F. The preferred way for a true griller to check the coal temperature is to hold your hand over the coals at grill height. If you can hold your hand there for four seconds without screaming, it's time to grill. A warning here: If your hand immediately blisters and starts smoking, the coals are too hot! If this happens, douse your hand with beer and do like a modern-day U.S. citizen and find someone or some group to blame it on.The MeatOf course, before you've ever started the coals, you'll need to have the meat, especially if you're cooking dead meat. The National Cattleman's Beef Association has these tips for selecting steaks: -- Choose steaks that have a bright cherry-red color, without any grayish or brown blotches. -- Look for steaks that are firm to the touch rather than soft. Make sure the package is cold. -- Select steaks that do not have excessive purge or juice in the package, which may be an indication of improper storage or beef that is past its optimum shelf life. -- Check the sell by date and make sure you're not buying beef that is past the sell by date. -- When shopping, select beef last before checking out. Why? Because you'll be walking around the store and you don't want your expensive cut of meat to go rancid. Beef steaks will usually hold three to four days in a refrigerator.The Perfect SteakGrilling the perfect steak is easy if you follow the rules. First, marinade your meat in the refrigerator. Tender beef cuts need to be marinated only 15 minutes or up to two hours. Marinating beef for longer than 24 hours can result in a mushy surface. And this real important: If a marinade is going to be used later as a basting or sauce, reserve it before putting the meat into it. If a marinade that has been in contact with raw meat is used for a sauce, it must be brought to a full rolling boil before hand.Leave a thin layer of fat on steaks during cooking to preserve juices. Trim fat after juices. Add salt or seasonings containing salt after browning. Salt added before cooking draws moisture out of the meat and inhibits browning. Turn steaks with tongs, never a fork. Forks pierce the meat and allow flavorful juices to escape.Many people prefer to sear their steaks on each side before fully cooking them. Remember to have a cutting board or platter on hand on which to put your meat after taking it off the grill. And remember, remove steaks with tongs and not a fork.The best way to check the meat to see if it's done is to use a meat thermometer. Most meat thermometers have a dial or gauge to show when various types of meat are done. Beef is medium rare at 145¡F, medium at 160¡F and well done at 170¡F. Make sure to stick the point of the thermometer at least two inches into the meat, and also make sure it isn't resting in fat or touching bone. And never ever stick the pointed end of the thermometer into someone's eye.Happy Grilling!

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.