Grilling tips: How to cook the best burgers, steaks, chicken and more

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Time was, a grilled meal usually comprised hamburgers and hot dogs, chicken doused in bottled barbecue sauce if you were really ambitious. But now many home cooks move their kitchen outside in the warm weather, grilling everything short of soup and nuts.

No matter what you’re grilling, 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.

A clean grill will minimize sticking, but the number one cause of that unfortunate situation is futzing with the food too soon. The point at which burgers (or lamb chops or fish or eggplant) develop a nice crust is the point at which they will start to loosen themselves from the grill. Unless you are dealing with a very thin cut of meat or delicate vegetable, don’t touch it for at least 5 minutes. Walk away if you have to.

Read on for advice on grilling burgers, chicken, steaks and chops, fish and vegetables.

Burgers

Get the shape right. Keep the
(Credit: 123rf.com)

1. Get the shape 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 on both sides; this will prevent “grill bulge.” Keep patties less than 1 inch thick, unless you like them rare.

2. Use the right cut. The classic burger cut is chuck, which has great depth of flavor and a 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.

3. Grill over high heat or 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 with aluminum foil and leave for 5 minutes. They will continue to cook.

4. For cheeseburgers, apply the cheese about a minute before the burgers are done and cover the grill to melt the cheese.

Chicken

Cover the grill. The goal when
(Credit: 123rf.com)

1. Cover the grill. The goal when grilling chicken is to try to approximate an oven set to 350 to 400 degrees — hence the cover. If your grill doesn’t have a thermometer, you can pick one up for about $10.

2. Use moderate, indirect heat. Build a bi-level 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 whole, bone-in chicken pieces on the cooler side of the grill, 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. Bone-in breasts should be done in about 40 minutes, thighs may take a little longer. If the chicken isn’t brown enough when it is cooked through, move it directly over the hot coals/high burners and give it a few minutes longer. 

3. Boneless chicken pieces, especially when cut or pounded to a thickness of less than an inch, can be grilled over high heat without covering the grill.

4. To cook a whole chicken, butterfly it. Lay bird so the legs face down and the back is facing you. With shears, cut on either side of the backbone and remove it. Place the chicken on a cutting board, turn legs so they are knock-kneed, not bowlegged. Press down to break the breastbone and to flatten. Grill, starting skin side down, over indirect heat.

5. 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

Tomahawk steak and lamb chops on the grill
(Credit: Gordon M. Grant)

1. Use the right cut. Well-marbled steaks such as T-bone, porterhouse and rib eye are ideal for single servings; choose hanger, skirt or flank steaks for feeding a crowd.

2. Cover the grill for any cuts thicker than an inch. Thin cuts such as skirt steak are best grilled without a cover.

3. Build a bi-level 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 the 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.

4. 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.)

5. Let it rest. All meat should rest off the heat before serving. Give steaks at least 5 minutes.

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Fish

Stock photo of grilling salmon on cedar plank
(Credit: 123rf.com)

1. Pick the right fish. Use firm, meaty fish such as tuna, swordfish and mahi-mahi. Make sure the pieces are no thinner than 1 inch, and use steaks rather than fillets.

2. Grill fish over direct heat. Use indirect heat only if you are grilling a whole fish.

3. If you don’t want to deal with the challenge of flipping fish, grill on a wooden plank. Soak them in water according to package directions, place seasoned fish on top and grill over indirect heat — otherwise the plank may over-char.

4. Cubes of fish on kebabs have a tendency to spin around the skewer so you can’t actually turn them. To avoid this problem, either use flat skewers, or use two regular skewers (parallel) for each kebab.

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.

Vegetables

Stock photo of grilled mexican corn with chili,
(Credit: 123rf.com)

Use big, even pieces. The larger the slices, the less likely they’ll fall through the grates, and if they’re all the same size they will cook evenly. Shoot for slices about  1⁄3-inch thick.

1. Leafy or layered vegetables: For fennel or radicchio (or even a small head of romaine), cut in half (or quarters or eighths) always through the core, which will prevent it from falling apart.

2. Zucchini and eggplant: Buy smallish eggplant, medium zucchini, about 6 inches long. Cut off stem ends, then slice lengthwise.

3. 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.
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.

4. Corn: If it’s very fresh, place shucked ears directly over a medium-high grill and cook for 3 to 6 minutes, turning frequently so they don’t burn. Older corn can be nuked or steamed and finished on the grill. You also can grill unshucked ears of corn, but it will take closer to 30 minutes for them to be done and unless you’re planning a corn-only meal, that’s 30 minutes you could use to grill something else.

5. Don’t overlook fruit. Peaches, pineapple and even bananas are delicious when grilled.

Times and Temps

Checking the internal temperature for spatchcocked chicken in
(Credit: Johnny Simon)

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

Pork 
145 degrees for medium
160 for well-done

Pork sausage
150 degrees

Chicken light meat
160 degrees

Chicken dark meat
175 degrees (also chicken sausage or chicken or turkey
burgers)

Fish
120 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.

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