Eric Devlin has enjoyed cooking outdoors for as long as he can remember, but about six years ago, it dawned on the Dix Hills, N.Y., 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 BBQ 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 tips for becoming a better griller:
-- Clean the grill when it's hot
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Food won't stick to a clean grill. 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."
-- 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 online. For gas grills, he recommends bumping up the flavor by using a metal box filled with wood shavings.
-- 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.
-- Don't grill cold food
Bringing food to room temperature will ensure even grilling. 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.
-- 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, and 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.
-- Use oil on the grill and the food
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.
-- Keep the grill covered
"There's an old adage in barbecue," Devlin said. "If you're looking, you're not cooking. And the same holds true for grilling."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.
-- 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.
-- 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.
-- 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."