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Barbecue 102: Grilling

Grilling
by John Raven, Ph.B.

The most popular method of barbecuing is grilling. While not technically barbecue, grilled products can be found nearly anywhere food is cooked. The basic grilling unit is simply a container for the coals and a grill that holds the food over the coals. The Japanese hibachi made of cast iron is probably the most durable of the grills, provided it is cleaned after each use so the ashes don't get damp and form acid that will erode the cast iron.

Next step up is the familiar backyard grill with a cover to contain the smoke and heat. These vary greatly in price and quality. Usually you get what you pay for. The more expensive models will be made from better, heavier materials and will last longer. There are many backyard smoker/grills made from discarded fifty-five gallon drums. Before I made or bought one of these, however, I would really want to know what the drum contained before becoming a cooker. I would not want to cook my food in a drum that once contained agent orange.

The Brinkman-type water smoker is becoming very popular. It has a pan of water that sits over the coals and under the food. It's more of a steaming process than anything else. These cookers are easy to use and don't require a lot of attention once the cooking starts.

Grilling Fuel

Now that you are ready to start grilling, there are a couple of things to consider. The most popular fuel for backyard grilling is charcoal. Charcoal is made by heating wood in the absence of oxygen. The original method of making charcoal was to set fire to a pile of wood and then cover it with dirt and let it simmer. The bulk of today's grilling fuel is charcoal briquettes. These little molded pieces of fuel are made of wood with a clay binder to get them to mold. There is some speculation among the purists as to what kind of wood goes into the briquettes. I've heard that some of the popular brands of briquettes started life as freight pallets. I don't know; you decide. I have not heard any evidence that anyone has ever been harmed by burning a charcoal briquette in the proper manner. I would steer clear of the "match light" briquettes. There has to be a lot of chemical residue in them. Pure wood charcoal is available. You will have to scout around a little to find it. It comes in chunks rather than being molded into briquettes.

If you want to be a real purist, you can make your cooking coals with real wood. You'll need a place to build a decent-size fire and, when the wood burns down to embers, transfer them to your grill. This is lots of work and really hot in the summer.

Before you put any type of fire in your grill, you might want to line the bottom with foil to make clean-up easier, and it will also reflect heat. Most of the covered grills come with a pan of some sort to contain the coals. You can line this pan with foil and save a lot of wear and tear on yourself and your grill. Also, before using your grill, you will want to give it a good spraying with non-stick spray just like you would use in your frying pan. Again, it makes clean-up easier.

Starting the Fire

Now it's time to start the fire. There's more than one way to go about it. The most popular method is to stack your charcoal in a neat pile and saturate it with charcoal lighting fluid, let it set a couple of minutes and then apply the match. Charcoal lighting fluid is naphtha, a fairly clean-burning fuel. It does, however, have a petroleum taste when burned. You will want to remove your grill completely while the naphtha burns out of the charcoal. Even a minute amount of grease on your grill will collect fumes and flavor from the naphtha and transfer them to whatever you cook. There are also electrical charcoal lighting devices and containers that stack charcoal on top of a sheet of crumpled newspaper and use that to start the coals glowing. You can also use a small propane torch to start your coals. Whatever works for you. Just be careful, whatever method you use.

Grilling Accessories

There is a whole industry based on manufacturing tools for backyard grilling. The basic instruments you will need are:
  • A good pair of "hot mitts" to keep from burning your delicate fingers when handling the grill and appliances
  • A pair of tongs to manipulate whatever you have on the grill
  • A spatula of good size and length of handle to turn flat things on your grill
  • A brush or mop to apply your sauce
  • A sharp knife
  • A squirt bottle full of water to control those nasty "flame-ups" you get when fat drips on the coals.
What other tools you buy depends on your budget and how much space you have for storing such items.

Everything you buy for backyard grilling will come with instructions. Read them and heed their cautions. The best way to learn grilling is to have a friend who is very good at it and take lessons from him or her.

Dealing with Flame-Ups

One word about those "flame-ups". It can look scary, big flames all around your expensive wieners and burger patties, but don't panic. Take your squirt bottle and direct a couple of squirts to the hottest part of the fire. Then close the lid on the grill (if your grill has one). This usually calms down the worst flame-ups. Deprive the fire of oxygen, and it dies. Don't let your brother-in-law squirt the fire extinguisher on your grill unless the nearby buildings or fences are smoking. Also don't let the kids play with the squirt bottle. You will have either no fire or no water in the bottle when you need it.

Grilling is a quick cooking method. This is the primary difference between grilling and barbecueing, which is a slower cooking process. The grilling fire is hot, and it doesn't take long to do the job. The novice griller will do well to stick to thinner cuts of meat while getting to know his or her grill. Anything over one inch thick will be a problem. It takes a while to learn to manipulate the food, fire and grill to produce the expected results. If you start out with a two-inch sirloin and burn the outside while the inside is still cold, you will be disappointed with your grilling. Ease into it. In one season you can learn just how much charcoal you need and how to add extra coals, if needed. You will learn where the hot and cool spots are on your grill. You'll learn how to bank the coals to one side to keep from burning your food. Then you will be ready to do that whole turkey or brisket on your grill.

A Place to Start

Something a little different and very good to start your grilling education is grilled porkchops. Get some fairly lean pork chops cut one-half to three-quarters of an inch thick. While your coals are getting ready, season your pork chops with some McCormick's Grilled Steak Seasoning, if you can find it. I know it says "steak" seasoning, but it's wonderful on porkchops. If you can't find this seasoning, use what you think will taste good, or just use plain salt and pepper.

The chops should come to room temperature before putting them on the grill. Ice cold anything is hard to cook. Put your chops on the grill over a fairly hot bed of coals. Watch them, listen to them sizzle. Turn them when they start to brown on the first side. When you think they are about done, take a sharp knife and make a small slit and look to see if the inside is white. You can get away with cooking pork a little on the rare side nowdays, but when it turns white, it's still juicy.

Side Dishes for the Grill

A good side dish that you can prepare on the grill with your chops is scalloped potatoes. Peel or leave the skins on medium size baking potatoes. Slice them into about one-quarter inch thick slices. Put a thin slice of onion and a small piece of cheese between the potato slices, give a brushing with some melted butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap tightly in foil and place on the grill about an hour and a half before serving time. When the potato slices feel soft through the foil, they are done.

Something I really enjoy from the grill that goes with almost anything is grilled tomatoes. I prefer cherry tomatoes. Wash them, dry them, brush with butter or olive oil and sprinkle with a little chopped basil, fresh or dried. Set the tomatoes on a sheet of foil or in a shallow pan and grill them until they just wrinkle.

This is more than enough information to get you started. We'll revisit grilling from time to time to include more of the fine points.

TexasCooking.com contains a wealth of information about barbecue, grilling, briskets and other traditional Texas foods. Read John Raven's continuously updated section Traditional Texas Food for a complete listing of his articles.

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