Fourth of July Grilling Tips, Part 1
With the Fourth landing on Sunday, it's a good time to fire up the old Webster and get to grilling.
But mastering the art of fire, heat, metal, and meat takes serious know how. It also takes time and patience, and an understanding of how this age old cooking method actually works. Without proper technique, your Fourth of July burger bash could turn into a hockey puck hoe down. But fear not, fellow grillers. Charlie's got an in depth grilling rundown to get you up and smoking in no time.
Today: Part 1 -- It's Getting Hot in Herre
Choosing Your Heat Source
If you're like most
Americans (nearly 75% in fact), you've got a barbecue grill on your
porch or backyard. But what kind of grill you have is another story. Is
it the old reliable bucket grill, perfect for outfitting with charcoal?
Or a big propane beast, churning out reliable BTUs (that's British
Thermal Units, a method of measuring heating capability) across a big
cooking surface? Or maybe you've got both like me. Either way, it's
perfectly fine: you can turn out great grilled food using either
method. But each does have some pros and cons.
do have the benefit of reliability. As long as you've got propane in
your tank (we'll get to that in a minute) you're pretty much good to
go. The heat these grills turn out is very reliable, and provided you
come to know your grill's high and low spots, you can achieve very
predictable results easily. Newer models often come with nifty features
like a temperature gauge, multiple burner "zones," cast-iron grates for
better heat retention, side burners, and multi-tiered grates for
warming foods or cooking slow and low. Yep -- you really can't get much
easier than the modern propane grill.
On the con side, propane
grills don't provide the woody, smoky flavor to foods that cooking over
wood or charcoal does. Older models usually don't have as many features
and have poor grates or heat spreaders, resulting in lots and lots of
heat loss each time you open the lid (or if you keep the lid open, slow
cook times in general). Low BTU models can be a real pain to work with.
Plus... when's the last time you cleaned your propane grill? Without
care, they can get pretty gunky and the grates can get rather nasty
(that's true of all grills, I suppose). These grills also tend to break
down and rust over time. And it's also pretty easy to run out of
propane mid cook session if you're not careful. Check yours out before
the big day.
Charcoal grills, like that good ol' bucket
model you've been trucking around to Dolphin's games and parkside
picnics for years, have plenty of pros and cons too. The flavor of
cooking with real wood or charcoal is unmatched by a propane grill, for
example. It'll turn steaks, burgers, chicken, and pork into pure
carcinogenic deliciousness. if you've got a little skill with coals,
these grills can hold low temperatures much better than propane grills
can, allowing for slow cooking methods, though still not as low and
slow as an actual smoker (ribs and pork come to mind). This method is
also pretty much portable. Small grills are easy to truck around, and
charcoal can be lit just about anywhere and is safer to transport than
propane. And if you're going to a park or the beach, you probably don't
even need to bring your grill -- chances are there's a bunch there
already. Finally, cooking with charcoal or wood is manly! Fire, good!
about the cons of charcoal cookery? Well, to be honest, there are many.
Everyone has had the experience of standing around a pile of charcoal
with four or five guys just trying to get the sonofabitch lit. Then, of
course, there's the problem of heat variance and reliability -- it
takes a bit of skill to maintain an even temperature over the course of
one grill session. It takes longer to get the coals to the proper
cooking stage as well, and a lot longer to cool the grill down if
you've got to. Clean up ain't exactly easy, either.
So which to
choose? Well, it's really up to you. Do you want to take the extra
steps and time to cook with real coals, or do you value the ease and
got your grill and your food prepped. You're all set to grill and then
it hits you. You're out of propane. Or the bag of charcoal you bought
last week got soaked outside in the rain. It might seem obvious, but
having your fuel ready to go before the big grilling day is important. Follow these rules to make sure you'll have a safe and successful cook out.
Always check the level in the tank the day before you plan on grilling.
This is especially important on the weekend or on holidays, when places
to refill or change your tank are likely to be closed.
quickest way to check your propane level is to pour hot water down the
side. Propane is a cold gas, and so condensation will appear on the
side of the tank and reveal the level its at. Another method is to
weight the tank. Usually the letters "TW" are printed on the side of a
tank along with a number. This is the empty tank weight. Subtract that
from the total amount your tank weighs, and you'll know how much
propane is inside. Math nuts: Liquid propane weighs 4.23 pounds per
gallon, and a gallon of propane contains 91,690 BTUs. Your grill's
manufacturer can tell you how many BTUs your model will burn in one
3. If you need more propane, getting your tank refilled is
easy. Safely remove the tank from the grill by first ensuring the gas
valve is turned completely to the right, or shut position. Then unhook
the gas hose from the tank via the black screw cap. When transporting
your tank in your car, secure it so it doesn't knock around loosely as
you drive. It usually costs under $20 to refill a typical, 20-pound
tank. As long as your tank is in decent condition, you can also do a
propane exchange at most Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart Stores. But if
you ask Charlie, it's far better to go to your local, independent grill
store and refill it there.
1. Charcoal is
pretty easy to find at just about any supermarket or home supply store.
But there are lots of different kinds to choose from. There's
briquettes, lump, and even wood chunks out there, and what you choose
can impact your cook out dramatically.
2. Briquettes are what most people typically think of as charcoal. They
come in bags of all sizes, and are usually "self-lighting," which means
you'll only need to use half a bottle of lighter fluid to get it going (We kid. You're going to need to use all of
it). Briquettes are basically smartly engineered pieces of portable
fuel. They burn for a long time and are stable in temperature. But they
also produce a ton of ash and are chock full of chemical compounds that
can produce an off smell, at least at first. For the charcoal beginner,
though, briquettes are probably the way to go.
3. Lump charcoal is what the pros prefer. It looks like big chunks of
burnt wood because it is exactly that. It burns hotter and cleaner than
briquettes, and usually has no chemical additives. It also burns
faster, which means it can be more expensive to use.
4. Wood chunks are available in most grill stores and are getting
popular in supermarkets too. Publix, for example, has a variety of
Greenwise wood chunks including hickory (mmmm, hickory!). Wood lends a
great flavor to grilled items and is very clean burning. It produces
thick smoke -- watch out! It can be tricky to light and burns faster
than coals. If you want the wood flavor without the wood hassle, you
can pick up a bag of wood chips and toss them over your regular coals
5. Store charcoal in a cool, dry place and it will keep virtually forever.
6. Lighting charcoal can be a pain. Rather than douse your grill and
your friends with lighter fluid and risk setting your entire house on
fire, get some kindling like dry twigs and brush or a newspaper and
create a little hollow for them. Light that, and pile your charcoal
close around it to allow it to catch. Make sure the flame has plenty of
oxygen. Even easier is a charcoal starter, which looks like a chimney
with a handle. You place the charcoal in the top, and a crumpled up
newspaper below, then light. Once the charcoal catches, you can
transport it to the grill.
Tomorrow, putting meat to flame!
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.