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outdoor grill tips for a newbie

  • n

just started grilling recently...taking advantage of an abandoned old charcoal grill on our roof/walkout area. searched chowhound but i think most people here already know what they're doing so i couldn't find any beginner tips!

so let me start with my basic questions:

my father always grilled with the cover on, after the coals stopped flaming, and only flipped meats once.

my roommate grills with the cover on, as soon as coals START flaming, and says you have to constantly flip.

which is correct? i have been using my father's method and while the burgers have been juicier than my roommate's, that could be just that he lets them cook too long. also, mine always turn out a sort of yellowy-beige color rather than brown. does that mean anything?

what about cooking times? and level of heat? i have been assuming 3-4 minutes per side for a burger at high heat. how long for a chicken breast? how long for potatoes? or bell peppers? should veggies be pre-cooked first? does that depend on whether it's on a skewer on the grill or if wrapped in foil? and if i grill things wrapped in foil, will it taste significantly different--i.e. steamed--compared to direct grilling? if i add wood chips (i read you soak them first so they don't burn) do i throw them in while the fire is still going, or after the coals are ashed over?

someone posted earlier about grilling pizzas outdoors. LOVE this idea. but does this involve a pan ON the grill, or putting the crust directly on the grill? again, what level of heat and covered or not?

thanks for any help you can give...i know these are really basic questions!

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  1. oops! didn't catch this mistake--my roommate says the cover should stay OFF.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Nancy

      go to a book store & get a copy of "The Barbecue Bible" by Steve Raichlen. It will answer all of your questions & probably some you did not even know you had. He also has lots of receipts. Some are kind of bizarre but many are great & it is a good starting point.
      As for your questions: I think you might have started an argument of epic proportions w/o even realizing it. ":^)
      The reason your roomie has to constantly flip is b/c he/she did not allow the flames to die & therefore has to flip to keep things fr/ burning. Your dad is correct there but unless you are smoking I would leave the lid off the grill. Vegetables are great & should not have to be preboiled at all. Get a grill basket for cooking them & you will love the results. There is a special griddle for pizza but good foil works as well & you will find that--besides a good pair of tongs & a chimney starter--your best friend when grilling is aluminum foil.

      1. re: Lan4Dawg

        oops--let's hope the argument never starts! thanks for the quick reply!

        would covering the grill by any chance account for the odd color of the meat? it's certainly cooked through and tastes fine, it's just this weirdly yellower shade than i'd expect.

        1. re: Nancy

          you have me there. I could guess smoke, residuals fr/ the grill cover, type of wood/charcoal?

    2. Your father's method is exactly as "Weber's Big Book of Grilling" by Purviance & McRae(excellent book, by the way) describes. Flip burgers once halfway through because excessive flipping loses too much of the juices. Cooking covered minimizes the chance of flare-up. Purviance recommends cooking burgers at medium heat(350F) for about the amount time you've been grilling burgers(that's with 3/4" thick burgers.)

      I don't think cooking uncovered is wrong; it's just a different method. "Grilling and Barbecue" by the Editors of Cooks Illustrated prefers uncovered because they feel the accumulated deposits inside the lid of the grill imparts an "off" taste to food. They recommend covering the food with a disposable aluminum foil pan instead of using the lid if you need to produce the roasting effect that you get with covered cooking. They do say that using wood chips or chunks masks the "off" taste allowing use of the lid for cooking with indirect heat. This book prefers a medium-hot heat and less cooking time for burgers(also 3/4" burgers.) No mention of frequent flipping in that book. Both books warn against pressing down on the burgers with a spatula as they cook, again too much juices lost.

      I cook using the Weber method and haven't been plagued by "off" tasting food.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Chimayo Joe

        Slight correction. The Weber book recommends cooking burgers for 8-10 minutes at 350F for a burger cooked to medium doneness.

      2. d
        Danny Patterson

        Americans are just about the only ones that grill with a lid. Covered is more for the BBQ than the grill, but whatever. Experiment, try different techniques. My father-in-law still uses a large grilling fork for flipping steaks and chops on his charcoal grill. He never marinates. He also covers the grill grates with aluminum foil and then places the meat over this(fry method, like many like to pre-boil chicken and finish on foil on the gas grill). He continuously pokes and stabs the meat to expell as much 'juice' as possible and flips constantly. When the meat has taken on a leathery appearance, and there is NO juice left he places them on a plate, squeezes lemon juice over the top and eats it with a salt shaker in one hand and the large chunks of 'meat' on the fork in the other. No side dishes, no veggies, no potatoes or rice, no nothin', just the shoe leather he prefers. Define, for yourself, what you prefer, and experiment. A few misses are still good enough to eat...

        1 Reply
        1. re: Danny Patterson

          haha! grilling seems to be an area where people become VERY stubborn about their methods...so i guess i should figure out my method before getting that way!

        2. Your coals should be white hot before cooking. There should be no areas of black on the coals.

          If you begin cooking too early and use a cover the meat will be more "roasted" than broiled, hence the brownish/golden color you mentioned in one of your posts.

          Burgers should be turned once. Constant fussing says more about the nervousness of the cook than about proper technique. I usually push a spatula between the burger and the grill surface about 30 seconds after I first start cooking but then leave the burger in place - this prevents sticking.

          Even after they are heated fully some grills get hotter than others. I'm going to say something heretical here - time the burgers. Once the coals are white hot try 2 minutes a side for burgers. Get a cheap Casio stopwatch - it costs about $15 bucks and will last forever.

          Adjust the cooking times based on results. For things like burgers an extra 60 seconds can mean the difference between medium rare and well done so timing them will insure consistent results.

          1. You do a grilled pizza directly on the grill, first sliding the plain dough on an oiled grill, then flipping and topping and finally taking off the grill. You may gather from this that you will definitely need a pizza peel and should have your toppings ready to go before you put the dough on.

            Maybe others have other methods?

            1 Reply
            1. re: lucia

              I have a thick square pizza stone that stays in my oven year round, except in the summer! I put the stone on the Weber and cook pizza outside. It works like a charm!

            2. Lid on or lid off depends on what you are doing. For burgers, steaks, sliced vegetables and anything else that will be done in a few minutes off is the purist's method, but you can leave the lid on if you are worried about flareups (hint: if you leave the lid off, simply move the meat out of the flame. Quickly moving the meat around doesn't lose any juice.) There are two reasons to leave the lid on 1) you can go do other things rather then watching the grill as there will be no flareups 2) you are cooking with indirect heat (anything that takes a half hour or more like chicken, roasts, etc...)

              As stated below let the coals become covered completely in ash before cooking. If you use a chimney to start your coals, great for you. If you use lighter fluid, then here is a tip. Build your pile of coals and pour on the lighter fluid. Light and immediately place the grate on the grill. When the coals are ready use a combination of oven mits and improvised tools to remove the grate and spread around the coals and then replace the grate. The reason to do this is the grate will be very hot. Food doesn't stick to a very hot grate and can be moved around.

              Cook things until they are done. While briquettes burn at a fairly uniform temperature, the humidity, ambient temperature, wind direction and speed will all affect the temperature of your grill. For example, if you are in a northern climate, every spring after the thaw it takes one or two good fires in the grill before it cooks normal. As a general guideline burgers are 2-5 minutes per side, the same for steak, salmon, and other firm fishes. A little less time for a lot of your vegetables. Wrap potatoes individually in aluminum foil, several layers, and grill for about an hour. You can place the potatoes on the grate or directly in the coals. Slice the potato into three pieces and place a slice of onion and butter in between each section, then wrap in foil and cook for an hour.

              Cooking in foil on the grill or in the oven will probably lend the same results, except you're not using the oven on hot summer nights. Butter/oil up some foil. Salt and pepper a whole trout and then stuff with fresh herbs and a pat or two of butter. Squeeze on some lemon, seal inside the foil and cook on a covered grill. Keep the lid on the grill, but over hot coals 10-15 minutes should be good depending on how well done you like your fish. Soak corn, still in the husk, for at least 15 minutes up to several hours in cold water. Place on the grill for 15 minutes turning once. This is essentially steaming the corn, some people like to husk it and grill it directly. For those hamburgers you want, it will take 30-60 seconds to toast the bun over hot coals. Maybe 2 minutes or more away from the heat. You don't have to butter the bun to toast it. People butter their bun to toast it because add butter to nearly anything and it tastes better. Also, grilling bacon works very well.

              Anything you grill for more then a total of 10-20 minutes cannot be placed directly over the coals (potatoes in foil excluded) or it will burn nicely. You can figure out the basics of indirect grilling with proper use of the Internet, but I'll point out a few things you won't see. If you are grilling a cut-up chicken or thick pork chops, you can build a fire as normal, just place the meat around the outside of the grill. With the design of a kettle grill, the outside ring is essentially an indirect heat area. A thick-cut pork chop takes 15-20 minutes per side (just had one for lunch cooked a total of 40 minutes, still very juicy). Chicken takes a total of 45-50 minutes. When you use indirect heat, taking the lid off the grill is like opening the oven door. On the other hand as a newbie, you have to get a feel for what is indirect heat, what is way off the heat and what is still on the heat (don't think of it as burned, think of it as a homemade hockey puck).

              I've noticed that one person's hot is another person's slow simmer. Charcoal will not only get hot, but the more you add the hotter the grill. I've found a lot of people to be afraid of heat when it comes to cooking, especially grilling, but that is what your eyes and sound judgement are for. You shouldn't be rolling steel on your grill, but the most common thing I see in friends trying to cook is a lack of heat. On the other hand they can cook directly above the coals for quite a while and never burn anything. That said, remember that because no two grilling fires are ever identical, you need to acquire skill through practice and there will be some meals that are ruined or at least poorly prepared along the way.

              As for your beige burgers, all I can think of is that you have fat and water pooling on top of your burgers. This is normal, leaving it on is abnormal. Do you have (we'll call it burger snot) something that looks like burger snot forming on the outside of your patties? It would be beige, but can be wiped off to show a nicely grilled burger below? You can flip the burger to shake it off before removing the meat to its bun? If this is not what you're experiencing, then I can't imagine what you're doing.

              3 Replies
              1. re: muD

                Your long and detailed post was excellent. My only quibble/question was with the statement -

                "Food doesn't stick to a very hot grate and can be moved around."

                I have not found that to be the case in 20 years of grilling on a wide variety of charcoal and gas grills. A hot grill will tend to initially form dark brown markings on meats and they will stick to the surface unless I separate them from the grill with a spatula. Within 60 seconds of exposure to high heat a stiffer layer forms on the surface of the meat which is immune from sticking.

                PS - There must be a more felicitous phrase than "burger snot" but it doesn't come to mind. I'll never be able to cook a burger again without thinking of that one. :-(

                1. re: Bob Martinez

                  Maybe it is the high heat layer you reference, but in 15 years over charcoal and wood I've never had problems with something sticking to the grill other then salmon fillets, but they seem to droop between the rods and get stuck (a function of gravity?) A cold grate can give me problems though.

                2. re: muD

                  i know EXACTLY what you mean by burger snot! it's not a liquidy thing making the beige color, the meat itself is beige. but again, i have been grilling with the cover on so for whatever reason that might be the cause.

                  what a wonderful, detailed post! thanks so much...i'm saving this whole thread for all great tips. and really excited to try out a few new grilled items...

                3. I agree with those who feel burgers should be turned ONCE. I turn them according to the color of juice running off the surface. If the burger is yielding up red liquid freely, I know the burger is ready to flip if I want medium rare. A little later when it begins to yield up clear liquid, I know I can flip it for medium. One the thing is flipped, I cook it for slightly less than I cooked the first side.

                  My brother, Clams248, believes he improves on my one-flip method by turning the burger ninety degrees clockwise halfway before flipping it, in order to create the criss-cross grill pattern. His theory is that the scorch marks add flavor.

                  On the other hand, Clams248 also PRESSES the burger shortly before he adds cheese (or removes it from the grill) in order to cause flareup. He thinks flareup adds flavor. That's why I'm better than he is.

                  (Although I concede his criss-cross technique seems clever.)

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Clams247

                    i think criss-cross would be a cool look, if nothing else.

                    flare-ups are what my roommate aims for as well. his theory for putting meat on while the coals are still flaming is: the fat drips out of the meat and makes the coals burn even more, but they have to be flaming already for the "grease fire" to occur.

                    i'm not sure what that means either.

                    1. re: Nancy
                      Bob Martinez

                      When the coals turn completely white they are actually *hotter* than when they are initially flaming. Very hot coals cause the meat to release grease and which ignites when it hits the coals. The hotter the coals the more likelihood of flames.

                      With flames, like a lot of things, a little is good and a lot is bad. Constant flames that are too high will result in a piece of meat that is burnt outside and raw inside.

                      1. re: Bob Martinez

                        Not to mention, the smoke of a big grease flare-up is not tasty! It's just grease smoke, imparting no carmelized meat flavor, nor any woody smoke flavor. Not all smoke is tasty.

                        Smell the air. The smell of the meat surface carmelizing smells good, really good. Now start a grease flare-up. Doesn't smell good; smells like burnt. Why do that to a burger.

                    2. re: Clams247

                      "That's why I'm better than he is."
                      Har, har. I like that very much in this context.

                      I do the criss-cross thing, gently. It's fine on all meats, and I'll do it with boneless chix parts. Must be gentle.

                      It looks cool, and gives a little more carmelized surface area, which sorta does add more flavor.