I don’t know about you but we’ve had a pretty strange Spring in Oklahoma. This month has felt more like January than May but it looks like the cold weather is finally moving out and making room for warmth and sunshine. With warm weather comes grilling season so there’s no better time than now to learn all about it.
Charcoal vs Propane
Before we get started with the technique, it’s necessary to identify and discuss the two different categories of grills: charcoal and propane gas. It’s widely recognized that you can achieve better flavor in your grilled foods with charcoal than with a propane grill but propane has its advantages. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each:
You can clearly see where one grill is strong, the other is weak. This chart covers the basics but there’s more to know about each of them:
If you choose to use a charcoal grill, you must first decide what kind of charcoal to use: lump or briquettes. I prefer lump because it gets hotter and I like a really hot grill. However, it’s more expensive than briquettes so your budget could decide for you. I suggest you try both to see which you prefer. (Read more about the two in this article.)
There’s one more piece of advice I can give you regarding charcoal: do NOT use lighter fluid. Ever. When my dad charcoaled, he lined up the briquettes in perfect rows and columns and evenly doused each of them with lighter fluid (to say that he had obsessive tendencies would be an understatement). If the taste of a grilled steak was completely dependent upon grill tidiness, my dad would be an award-winning pitmaster. But despite his attention to detail, his charcoaled food wasn’t very good. In fact, it was terrible. (Don’t worry, I think he knew it.) Some of that can be attributed to his lack of BBQ knowledge but I think lighter fluid is partly to blame. Not only does it give off a gassy odor but if you don’t know how to use it, you’ll burn all the lighter fluid off before your charcoal gets hot enough to cook your food. Consequently, your food will stay on the heat longer to ensure it’s cooked through and the longer food is on the heat, the more moisture that cooks out of it. You’re left with what my dad called a “steak” but I call a “doorstop”.
For best results, use a charcoal chimney. Place it on the bottom rack of your grill, fill the top full of charcoal, shove some wadded up newspaper in the bottom vented portion, then light the newspaper and let it burn. In 10-20 minutes your coals will start to turn ashy, which means it’s almost time to cook. Dump the charcoal into the center of the bottom rack of your grill. Replace the top rack and cover the grill completely to allow it to heat. (For more on how to use a charcoal chimney, including a video, visit the good folks at the kitchn.)
The average charcoal grill costs less than the average propane grill but the continual cost is relatively close. At one time, bags of charcoal were rather inexpensive but those days are long gone. In fact, a $23 propane tank will last you longer than a $15 bag of charcoal so over time your charcoal grilling could end up costing more than propane. Something to keep in mind.
Propane grills make life a lot easier. If you classify yourself as (or aspire to be) a “casual griller,” this is probably your best option. The grills are usually more expensive than charcoal grills but you can find good deals at the beginning and end of the grilling season. If you’re going to shell out the money for a nice grill, choose one with cast iron grates (as opposed to stainless steel). Cast iron will get hotter and hold heat better, giving you a better sear. I also prefer a grill with four burners that run front to back instead of side to side, which is better for indirect cooking (more about that below). I think I bought my grill at a big home improvement store for about $299 and it fits all my criteria.
When shopping for gas-powered grills, a lot of people judge quality by the amount of BTUs but don’t be deceived… a higher BTU doesn’t necessarily mean more power. BTUs (or British Thermal Units) measure the amount of thermal energy (or heat) put out by all the flames. A large grill that measures 50,000 BTUs is great but a slightly smaller grill with the same amount of BTUs will actually get hotter because it has less surface to cover. Bottom line… compare the number of BTUs with the measurement of the grill in square inches. Around 100 BTUs per square inch is good.
The most annoying thing about propane grills is running out of gas before your food is cooked. You don’t run that risk with charcoal… at worst, you have to make a quick charcoal run before you light your grill. With propane, your tank could easily run empty after you’ve thrown your burgers on and before they’re flipped. After a couple close calls, I’ve learned to keep a backup handy. I make sure my backup tank is ready to go by the time my current tank reaches half full.
Conduction or Convection?
Unlike most cooking methods, you can utilize both conduction and convection at the same time with your backyard grill. Here’s how: when you place your food on the grill grates, directly over the heat source (known as direct heat), the grates conduct heat from the fire to the food. Since the grates don’t come in contact with the entire surface of the food, thermal heat put off by the fire also cooks your food by means of convection.
With indirect heat you place your food on the grill grates over a cooler spot of the grill, which turns your grill into a sort-of outdoor oven. It also gives your food some relief if the fire is too hot… your food will still cook but it won’t get charred on the cooler side of the grill. If grilling with propane, leave a burner or two off and place your food over the cooler spot. (Keep in mind that your grill won’t get as hot when you cook with just some of the burners.) With charcoal, you either place your charcoal just in the center of the grill and place your food around the cooler perimeter or if you need more space, you can dump your charcoal only on one side of the grill, leaving the other side available for indirect cooking.
If you don’t have access to an outdoor grill, you can always move the party indoors. I have a cast iron grill pan that fits over two burners and it’s a great for rainy days (or for when your weather breaks 130-year-old cold records during grilling season… which just happened here). You can buy grill pans that fit over just one burner but I prefer the two-burner guys because I’m pretty sure I always need more than one burner’s worth of pan when I grill. When shopping for a pan, choose cast iron (for all the reasons I stated above and here.) Don’t even bother with a teflon pan… grilling requires high temperatures and teflon at high temperatures is toxic.
In Part 2 of Grilling, I’ll show you how to apply all that you’ve learned today to get the best results from your grill. That’s coming up next.by