Let’s Talk About Grilling Meat
Whether you’re firing up a round of ribeyes or chicken breasts, getting the best result is a journey that begins at the grocery store and ends just before serving. Every step counts—but rest easy, success is all in the small details that we’ve covered, below. Let’s dig in at the market; I’ll meet you at ALDI (the low-price leader where you’ll find everything you need to fire up a summer feast).
Choose the Right Menu:
Before being seduced by the idea of what you want to make, it’s smart to consider a few details like the time of day you’ll be serving the meal, cook time, and the preferences of your guests. For instance, if you’re having an impromptu weeknight barbecue, smoking something low and slow, like ribs, isn’t realistic. However, weekends and holidays—when you have the time to tend a fire—are ideal for slower cooks like smoked pork butt. So, before you dash out to the store, use the following prompts to create the perfect menu.
Is a mimosa involved?
The time of day that you cook is an intuitive way to begin mapping out a meal. A side of smoked salmon or salmon burgers (served with an Asian-inspired slaw and lightly toasted buns) make an impressive brunch spread. Especially when you round out the table with simple sides like herb-roasted potatoes and a big green salad. If you’re having folks over for, say, an afternoon craft beer and game-watching fete, consider a party pack of bratwurst. You can simmer them in a beer bath over indirect heat (in a covered grill) so you’ll have more time to focus attention on Pilsner and IPA’s before you give the links a final crisp on the grill (don’t forget the Specially Selected Brioche Buns and the Burman’s Spicy Brown Mustard).
Are the guests getting restless?
Your time at the grill should be fun and relaxed, not stressful because the chicken thighs are taking longer than you’d hoped (and your guests have plowed through the guacamole and chips). To avoid this situation, take a good look at the time frame of the meal, factoring 30 minutes for the fire to be ready after you light the charcoal chimney. Needless to say, most weeknight gatherings rule out brisket and other slow-smoked options. If time is of the essence, choose a quick cooking option like chicken burgers, kebabs, or wild caught shrimp skewers that need little more than a quick spin over the fire. Keep sides simple, with items like deli salads, olives, potato chips, an assortment of pickled vegetables or steamed rice.
Are you feeding foodies or families?
There’s a big difference between grilling for food-geek friends and friends with kiddos of varying ages. If your guest list includes the former, have a blast pairing wines or beers with a richly glazed, slow smoked masterpiece—like beef short ribs or a bacon-wrapped sirloin. If your cookout is a family affair, there is no shame in embracing Angus beef hotdogs (especially with a mix of basic and dialed up condiments), or burgers. Your people will be grateful for the wafting aromas of the grill, the company around the table, and summer’s most nostalgic flavors (just add watermelon).
How much to buy?
When meat is the star of the show, plan on 8 ounces per person (or up to 3/4 pound if you’re hoping for leftovers).
When meat is a supporting player, as with brats served with buns and a picnic spread, seafood and pasta, or beef-and vegetable-kebabs (served with charred L’oven Fresh pita and Park Street Deli Tzatziki Dip, or Simply Nature Organic Hummus), plan for four to six ounces per person.
Salt before fire
Season meats in advance, up to an hour before cooking (or up to 8 hours in advance in the fridge), before you light your chimney of charcoal. For steaks and burgers, generously season the exterior of the meat with salt and freshly ground pepper and/or your favorite seasoning blend. For other proteins (from salmon to chicken thighs) begin with a drizzle of olive oil (enough to lightly coat the meat) and then season. Allow the meat to marinate at room temp while you prepare the grill.
Keep tools at the ready
Place everything you’ll need for the grilled portion of the meal (say, Simply Nature Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, salt and pepper, tongs, an instant-read digital thermometer, prepped vegetables) on a rimmed baking sheet or tray, to keep beside you as you cook. You don’t want to be hunting for a tool or ingredient while your food is about to get a little too charred on the grill.
Forego flames; wait for embers
If you’re grilling over a charcoal fire, remember that you want to cook over the radiant heat of the coals, not over flames (which can scorch the exterior before the meat is cooked through). Wait until the coals are glowing red and covered with a fine gray ash before you start cooking over them. This usually takes 30 minutes after lighting the charcoal chimney. (If you’re cooking on a gas grill, you’re good to go on hot grates that have been cleaned and oiled.)
Use a two-zone fire
After you dump your chimney of hot coals, bank them on one side of the grill to create a two-zone fire. This gives you a hot, direct-heat zone, and a cooler indirect-heat zone on the opposite side with no coals underneath. This setup is your safety net, because it provides space to move foods that are browning too quickly and avoid flare-ups. (To achieve this method on a gas grill, leave one side of the burners turned off, or, if you have three burners, leave the middle flame off and the two exterior rows on.) Use tongs to transfer items on the grill from the direct-heat zone to the indirect-heat zone midway through cooking. This allows you to get a good sear on the outside and cook the interior more gently afterward.
Choose the right method
For a backyard cookout, most cuts (steaks and burgers) will be cooked “hot and fast.” That means grilled quickly over direct heat, and/or started over direct heat, and finished in a closed grill over indirect heat. Larger, tougher cuts (such as brisket) require a longer cooking process to achieve a tender texture. Cooking for hours at a low temperature allows the connective tissues to melt and the meat to become meltingly tender.
The notion of only flipping a protein once, and achieving perfect cross-hatch grill marks, is outdated. Whether you’re grilling steaks, burgers, or chicken breasts, you’ll want to flip the meat frequently, every couple of minutes or so, until it’s cooked through. Frequent flipping allows you to maintain an even temperature in the cut (by contrast, relying on a single flip allows the upward-facing side to lose too much heat). As you flip the meat, rotate it around the heat as needed for even browning, and move items to the cooler part of the grill, if necessary, to avoid flare ups.
Pull meat just shy of your ideal doneness
Meat will continue to cook after it’s taken off the heat (this is called carryover cooking), so pull it when it’s slightly less done than you like. For instance, if you like your strip steaks medium-rare, pull them at 130°F, then allow the meat to rest 10 minutes before slicing. This brief timeout allows sizzling juices to settle back into the meat, resulting in a better texture, and the internal temperature to reach 135°F. Hey, look at you and your perfect steak!
When it comes to temperature, the safest bet is to use an instant-read thermometer.
General guidelines for red meat:
- Rare — 125°F (cool red center)
- Medium-rare — 135°F (warm red center)
- Medium — 145°F (warm pink center)
- Medium-well — 150°F (slightly pink center)
- Well — 160°F+ (little or no pink)
Finally, just before you serve…
Consider a last minute sprinkle of a flaky salt (such as the Stonemill Himalayan Pink Salt) as the final garnish. Varieties with a crackly, snowflake texture melt on your tongue and bring out the fullest flavor in every bite.
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