Eric Devlin has enjoyed cooking outdoors for as long as he can remember, but about six years ago, it dawned on the Dix Hills event manager that grilling "isn't just a matter of throwing meat on a hot grill." Devlin, now an avid competition barbecuer and editor of the online barbecue magazine Smoke Signals, realized that to get better results, he was "going to have to become more systematic about grilling, pay more attention to basic skills."
Here are his top 10 tips for becoming a better griller:
1. Clean the grill when it's hot. Food won't stick to a clean grill. And, what's more, Devlin said, "the crud left over from last night's meal will impart an acrid flavor that you don't want." There are scores of grill-cleaning products out there, but Devlin's method is simple and cheap: "As soon as you take the food off the grill, use a good grill brush to scrape it down."
2. Pay attention to your fuel. Devlin isn't a fuel snob. For his Weber kettle, he prefers Kingsford original charcoal in the blue bag. For more wood flavor he'll add chunks of fruit- or hardwood, which he buys from lifirewood.com (delivering to Nassau and Suffolk). For gas grills, he recommends bumping up the flavor by using a metal box filled with wood shavings (available at Jetmore in Wantagh). Most important for gas grillers: "Make sure you always have a second tank of propane."
3. Be mindful of direct vs. indirect heat. Thin, uniform cuts (steaks, chops, eggplant slices) should be quickly grilled directly over hot coals or heating elements. Larger, irregularly shaped objects (chickens, whole eggplants) benefit from indirect heat, which means having the heat on one side of the grill, the food on the other. With a gas grill, simply turn one burner to high, the others to low, or off. For a charcoal grill, Devlin said, "you'll need to build a bi-level fire. You can use fire bricks to wall off a third of the grill's base and put the coals there, or buy special coal holders that can be placed either in the center or at the sides of the grill."
4. Don't grill cold food. Bringing food to room temperature will ensure even cooking. Unless you like your steaks blue, take them out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before grilling. Thicker pieces of meat will need even longer to come to room temperature.
5. Marinate and sauce smartly. Devlin, a beef purist, "would never marinate a steak." But chicken and chops are fair game. He'll grill a marinated chicken (or marinated parts) with indirect heat, then just sear it over direct heat for the last few minutes. He is particularly cautious with marinades and sauces high in sugar, such as classic barbecue or teriyaki sauces. "Sugar burns really quickly," he said. "You should be almost finished with the cooking, and then brush on the sweet sauce and give it just a few minutes over direct heat."
6. Use oil to prevent sticking. A clean grill is the best insurance against sticking, but judicious use of oil on the food can help, too. Unless he's grilling meat that has been given a dry rub, Devlin applies oil directly to the meat. If the meat has been rubbed, he lightly coats the grill grates with a wad of paper towels dipped in flavorless oil. "I have a pair of welding gloves that allows me to rub it directly on the grill, but you could also use a pair of tongs to hold the towel."
7. Don't futz with the food. Devlin acknowledges the temptation to poke and prod. "It won't ruin what you're cooking," he said, "but it isn't good for it." Once a steak goes on the grill, wait at least three minutes before checking to see if it's ready to be flipped. "If you are going for those nice, cross-hatched grill marks, try to hold off for 2, 21/2 minutes before turning the steak 45 degrees. And always use tongs; never poke."
8. Keep the grill covered. Leaving the cover open on a gas grill "means you're fighting against the grill," he said. With charcoal, it's essential that the top be lowered because the amount of oxygen available to the fire is what controls the heat. "Your default should be that the vent on the cover is open and the sliding vent on the bottom of the grill is at least partially open. Use the bottom vent to regulate the heat." (For a hotter fire, open the vent to allow more oxygen in.)
9. Use a thermometer. "These days, you can get a pretty good instant-read thermometer for less than the cost of a steak," Devlin said. An analog Taylor thermometer costs less than $5, but his probe of choice is the Thermapen digital thermometer (closer to $100), whose sensor is at the very end of its needle-thin shaft. Devlin also recommends a grill thermometer that can be placed directly on the surface of the grill to measure cooking temperature. (Models start at less than $10.)
10. Let it rest. Resting meat off the heat stabilizes the juices (so they don't run out) and allows the heat from exterior areas to penetrate the interior, making a more evenly cooked piece of meat and raising the internal temperature by anywhere from 5 degrees (for a thin steak) to 10 to 15 degrees (for a large roast). "Other than sausages," Devlin said, "there's nothing I make that I don't rest -- although with burgers it's not a big deal since you have the bun to sop up the juices." Devlin lets a thin cut such as a hanger steak rest for five minutes, a thick porterhouse up to 10 minutes.
Check out Devlin's recipes for:
Pig candy (candied bacon)
WHEN IS IT DONE?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's "recommended safe minimum internal temperature" guidelines call for poultry to be cooked to 165 degrees. Last year, the USDA lowered the pork temperature recommendation from 165 to 145. Both of these recommendations will yield a nicely cooked piece of meat.
The USDA also recommends that steaks, chops and roasts of beef, veal and lamb be cooked to 145 degrees, but I have never met a professional chef (or a good home cook) who adheres to those guidelines.
For rare, cook red meat to an internal temperature of 120 to 125, 125 to 130 for medium rare, 140 for medium, 150 for medium well, 160 for shoe leather. As meat rests, the internal temperature rises, so if you want your steak medium rare, take it off the heat at 122 degrees and give it a few minutes.