Grilling VS. Barbecue
These two terms have become somewhat interchangeable for many folks. We’re going to stick with more of an origin version.
Barbecue is the low and slow smoke filled process of cooking food.
Grilling is the fast and furious hot version of cooking food.
Because both are done out of doors and often in our own backyards, they have crossed over enough to be confusing. We are going to focus on that slice of Americana outdoor grilling.
From burgers to steaks to chops, or onions to asparagus to squash, you can throw a huge variety of food on the flame licked grills and get great results to eat for you, and your family and guests. This is food cooked on racks or grates open to the flame source, not on a flat metal surface, also often called grilling. We’ll share our best tips and knowledge about a number of different aspects of this style of cooking.
Flame and fire sources
There are three basic sources of open flame used in outdoor grilling; charcoal, gas, or wood/pellets.
Charcoal is by far the most common outdoor grilling material. This is most likely due to it being so readily available in the market, as in every grocery, hardware, or department store in every city…you get the idea. The most common grill for this method are kettle grills – see our favorites here. Being a wood based product charcoal will impart a nice level of flavoring to your food. It is also very easy to use. And when we explore accessories, you will see how to make it even easier. Charcoal is ideal because it the surface temperature is over 1000 degrees or more. It will also hold temperature for decent amounts of time allowing you to accomplish all your cooking tasks. The biggest negatives are waiting for charcoal to get going and cleaning the ash after cooking.
For pure heat, gas, usually liquid propane (LP), is the most common source. It is clean burning without adding noticeable flavors to your food. Cooking with gas is also much quicker, instant on, instant off, and generally everything in between. Turn it on and you have flame, let your metal components heat up and you are off to the races. The negatives are re-filling your LP tank, and sometimes having it run out while cooking. Because gas doesn’t impart flavor from the source, compared to other sources, some foods may be lacking that outdoor cooked flavor.
Almost all home grilling done over wood is done with the wood in a pellet form, although there are classic options like a hibachi that can work with open flame wood cooking. Pellet cooking does offer great flavor profiles. The pellets are made from actual woods, some of which is labeled by variety such as Hickory, Apple, or Maple. This type of grilling will fall somewhere in the middle between charcoal and gas as to how long it takes to get hot enough to cook.
The marketplace is crowded with different outdoor grilling choices. We will focus on a few that we think are superior and share some pros and cons related to that. Probably the most well-known device for charcoal grilling is the kettle style. There a few solid reasons why that is, and why it really is an effective device. The distance of food from the coals allows you to spread the charcoal around slightly keeping a more moderate temperature for grilling food that may scorch easily. Put a more solid layer of coals in there and the shape will direct the heat right up to give you well over the 500 degrees mark that makes for great grilling. Kettles also do dual duty for roasting at controlled temperatures for larger cuts up to whole turkeys.
Gas grills are fairly straightforward, as in one or more elements consisting of a tube with small holes each of which is a little jet of flame when lit. This offers a point of comparison because generally the BTU consumption for the available cooking surface will give you an idea of heat output between devices. The surface choices for gas grills are where you will see the most variation. They will range from heavy wire grates to the built-up infrared grates. Standard grates we prefer to see in a device are porcelain clad iron, on both styles stainless steel is the most durable option. Look for heavier weight for heat retention and better grill marks on your food. Infrared grates will have less area exposed to direct flame and as a result need longer to preheat. They don’t mark the food as well, but they significantly reduce flare ups and add more ‘smoke’ flavor to food than a standard grate.
Pellet grills are really designed for roasting and low and slow smoking. As a roaster, capable of holding controlled temperature, in essence working as an oven that brings great smokey flavors. Whole chickens, turkeys or bone-in sections are really tasty when cooked this way. While that is technically not grilling, we are fans of all good food. Most pellet devices will say they have a grilling mode, which they do, but it is generally so-so at grilling well. These devices work with a small hot box with an electric heating node and forced air to start, and keep, the pellets burning. The emphasis is on small, so when you expose it to use ‘grilling mode’ it does not offer much area that is has high enough heat. If you are cooking small-ish batches this may be no problem for you, but it is limiting.
So, you have your fuel choice, your device is heated up and it is time to cook. Your must have list of utensils are;
Make sure they are long enough to keep your hand out of the flame. They also need to be heavy duty enough to lift a half chicken, a couple pounds, or more. There are a multitude of choices out there. Stainless steel is the best material for longevity and ease of clean up. We recommend a decent sized area at the end of the tong to grab with. Too small and you can grab a steak that decided to stick a bit and tear it to chunks. One of the best designs will have teeth on one side of the grasping surface. You use these to drag along the grill as you grab the meat and help it release better. They almost all offer a simple mechanism at the end locking them closed for easy storage.
You almost cannot grill without at some point doing burger or patties of some kind. Once your grill is going, you’ll also find yourself warming the buns, grilling bread in general, onion slices and a multitude of things that will benefit being lifted off the grill instead of grabbed buy tongs. Again, long handles for safety, stainless for cleaning and durability. Perforations or slots will let some juices and oils run off as is appropriate. We also recommend a spat that is wide enough to hold almost the entire surface of your burgers of choice so they don’t break apart.
This is optional. There is not much you can do with a fork that you cannot do with tongs or a spatula. With practice though, a fork is actually faster flipping pieces of solid meat than tongs. This requires a well-seasoned grill that won’t stick, and as mentioned some experience. Virtually all grill kits will include a fork, and they can be useful in your other hand when using tongs or a spat, to help the process. Same provisos; safe length and stainless steel. Well tapered tines will make for easier release of the food as well.
This one is unique, so if you like to brush with sauce of any kind while grilling you need this device. Most will have synthetic bristles and sturdy nylon handles. Some will have metal handles, again you need a device with enough reach to safely apply the sauce without getting burned. The newer styles with silicon bristles may take a bit of getting used to, but they are very easy to get clean.
Start your journey with an equal mix of salt, pepper and granulated garlic. This basic combo will let you enjoy the flavors of the food, working simply as seasoning. Don’t misunderstand, we do love using rubs, and this is truly an area of unending choices. From coffee rubs to jerk seasoning to Cajun blends; take a walk down any seasoning aisle and you will see the multitude of choices. Have fun and experiment. A couple thoughts for you as you explore. Watch sugar contents in your seasoning blends. They work great for low to mid temps, but can scorch when you hit them with proper high grilling temperatures. Salt is your friend when cooking, but there are some mighty fine salt free alternatives to consider. These will use pepper combinations to help open up the flavor profile of the foods you use them on.
Best Grilling Accessories
There are a few accessories that are truly essential to making your outdoor cooking life safer, easier and more productive. We are going to address the big three and let you explore the marketplace for other items that catch your eye.
You are cooking food. You need a reasonable level of clean to do that. Fortunately, you are using flames and heat, so you get a good degree of sterilization by the time everything is heated up and ready to get cooking. You will still want to give your grill a once over with a sturdy brush. It is much easier and more effective when the grill is at temperature. That means a long enough handle to be safe is important. There are sturdy bristled brushes, but after time even the best of them can throw wire bristles loose, sometimes ending up in your food. The newer designs will use stainless steel filaments bundled together to avoid that issue.
Heat resistant gloves
We’ve been consistent that grilling is all about getting high heat to your food. Open flame, scorching hot metal pieces, you get the idea. Protect yourself with a decent pair of heat resistant gloves. Depending on the size of your device, something that covers the wrist and somewhat above is recommended. Your fabric choices are extensive. From natural leather to silicone to fireproof synthetic weaves, there has never been a better selection for you to work with. Preferably oil resistant, and you might as well get a dark color, because they will end up that way eventually.
If this is your fuel of choice, this is your must have accessory. These make starting your charcoal as easy as it gets. Fire up the chimney and then you can pour the coals into place in simple placements for even heat. You do not have to use starter fluid, which will give some flavor to your food. Chimneys are quick, getting you a great batch of fired up coals within about 15 minutes, using just some balled up paper to get it going. If you are in a rush, you can cheat a little bit with starter fluid only on the paper underneath which will not carry through to your coals and the food. We do not recommend the match start style charcoal because it comes with extra chemical flavors.