Over the long winter, the grates of your grill have probably gotten rusty -- as have your grilling skills. With summer almost here, it's time to clean and oil those grates, and to brush up on grilling techniques, too. Here are our top 25 grilling tips:
1. Keep the grill clean and oiled. It's easiest to clean when it's hot. Just before you put on the food, scrape down the grate with a grill brush. Then moisten a balled-up paper towel with vegetable oil and use long tongs to oil the grate.
2. Leave the food alone. The No. 1 cause of food sticking to the grill is moving it too soon. Unless you are dealing with a very thin steak or delicate vegetable, don't touch it for at least 5 minutes. Walk away if you have to.
3. Pick the right fish. Use firm, meaty fish such as tuna, swordfish and mahi-mahi. Make sure pieces are no thinner than 1 inch, and use steaks rather than fillets.
4. Grill fish over direct heat. Use indirect heat only if you are grilling a whole fish.
5. Don't overcook fish. It's done when the flesh just turns from translucent to opaque. (Use a sharp paring knife to take a peek.) Exceptions: Salmon is best just before it turns opaque, tuna when it's essentially raw in the center.
6. Get the form right. Keep the mixture loose and make regular, equal-size patties so they cook evenly. Use your thumb to make a shallow impression in the center of the patty (both sides); this will prevent "grill bulge." Keep patties under 1 inch thick unless you like them rare.
7. Use the right cut. The classic burger cut is chuck, which has great depth of flavor and good percentage of fat, from 15 to 20. A leaner mix, such as sirloin, may become dry if a burger is cooked beyond medium-rare.
8. Grill over high heat. Otherwise, you'll never get a good crust. If you get a good crust on the burgers but they're still not done enough in the center, take them off the grill, cover tightly with aluminum foil and leave for 5 minutes. They will continue to cook.
9. Cheeseburgers. Apply cheese about a minute before burgers are done and cover the grill to melt it.
10. Use moderate, indirect heat. Build a bilevel fire by piling the coals on one side of the grill; on a gas grill, achieve the same result by turning half the burners to high, the others to low. Lay chicken pieces on cool side, skin-side down, and leave for 10 minutes. Then rotate 45 degrees for pretty grill marks. Only after 20 minutes have elapsed should you think about turning them over. Breasts should be done in about 40 minutes. If, when the chicken is cooked through, it isn't brown enough, move it directly over the hot coals/high burners and give it a few minutes longer.
11. Use the grill cover. The goal is to try to approximate your oven, to 350 to 400 degrees. You can pick up a grill thermometer for about $10.
12. To cook a whole chicken, butterfly it. Lay bird so legs face down and back is facing you. With shears, cut on either side of the backbone and remove it. Place chicken on cutting board, turn legs so they are knock-kneed, not bowlegged. Press down to break breastbone and to flatten. Grill, starting skin side down, over indirect heat.
13. Hold off on the sweet sauce.
Sugar burns, so if your barbecue sauce contains sugar (or molasses or honey or agave syrup), brush it on only at the very end.
STEAKS AND CHOPS
14. Use the right cut. Well-marbled steaks such as T-bone, porterhouse and rib-eye are ideal for single servings; hanger or flank steaks for feeding a crowd.
15. Build a bilevel fire. Pile the coals on one side of the grill; on a gas grill, achieve the same result by turning half the burners to high, the others to low. Sear meat over hottest part. Once meat is nicely browned on either side, take its temperature. If it's not done, move to a cooler area and continue.
16. Cook pork to medium. Even the USDA agrees, there is no longer any real threat of trichinosis in pork, so you don't have to cook it to death. It is perfectly safe to eat pork medium, when the internal temperature reaches 145. (Take it off the grill at 140 and the temperature will increase while it rests.)
17. Let it rest. All meat should rest off the heat before serving. Give steaks at least 5 minutes.
18. To skewer coil sausages. Unroll the coil onto a wide, flat surface, then re-form the sausage into a loose coil, with at least a half-inch of space between sausages and no larger than a foot in diameter. Using either bamboo or metal skewer, spear coil starting at the outer cut end, going through the center and ending up directly opposite the point of entry. Adjust sausage on skewer so the spacing is preserved. Pierce a second skewer perpendicular to the first, again going through center. This will now cook evenly and flip easily.
19. Use big pieces. The larger the slices, the less likely they'll fall through the grates.
20. Cut them evenly. Shoot for slices about 1/3 inch thick.
21. Leafy or layered vegetables. For fennel or radicchio, cut in half (or quarters or eighths) always through the core, which will prevent it from falling apart.
22. Zucchini and eggplant. Buy smallish eggplant, medium zucchini, about 6 inches long. Cut off stem ends, then slice lengthwise.
23. Peppers. Cut off bottom and top so you have a box. Make one slit lengthwise and lay opened pepper on flat surface. Remove seeds and pith, cut pepper into large pieces where there are natural creases so it will lie flat.
24. Onions. Cut root and stem end off large onions and peel. Cut each onion into wide rings. Thread each slice with two thin metal skewers about an inch apart. Or just grill scallions: Barely trim off roots and trim tops to get rid of any bruised leaves, then lay perpendicular to grates.
25. Don't overlook fruit. Peaches, pineapple, even bananas are delicious when grilled.
TIMES AND TEMPS
The best way to tell if your meat is done is to take its temperature with an instant-read thermometer. Lift the steak (or burger or chicken breast) with a pair of tongs so you can slide the thermometer in horizontally.
Beef and lamb:
125 degrees for rare,
130 for medium-rare, 140 for medium,
150 for medium-well, 160 for shoe leather.
145 degrees for medium,
160 for well-done
Chicken light meat:
Chicken dark meat:
175 degrees (also chicken sausage or chicken or turkey burgers)
130 to 140 degrees
All meat should rest off the heat before serving. During this time, the juices will stabilize (so they stay in the meat) and, more important, the heat from the exterior areas will penetrate the interior, making a more evenly cooked piece of meat. This migration of heat also will raise the internal temperature of the meat by anywhere from 5 degrees (for a thin steak) to 10 to 15 degrees (for a large roast). So, if you want your steak medium-rare, take it off the heat at 120 to 125 degrees. Wrapping cooked meat with aluminum foil will raise its temperature even more.