First and foremost I have to say something. Cooking over an open flame has been shown to increase the carcinagenic levels in food. Every time you have fat and juices dripping onto the heat source, the vapor causes cancerous qualities. Always be aware when you grill to not drip directly onto the heat. Move the coals or put down a fireproof pan.
In this two part series, I will attempt to give a well rounded view of factors that play into this delicate and delectable dance of food and flame. The first section will outline the basic and the second will focus more on food specific concerns.
This is one of the easiest things to overlook when you are getting ready to cook but the fact remains, if you keep your grill clean and seasoned, it will produce better food. Period. Here are some things to remember.
It is easier to scrape your grill when everything on it is crusted. You can do this when you are finished or just before you put new food on. Any gunk that is left on will not "add flavor," it adds stank. Oils and fats will become rancid and lend an off-flavor to anything left on. If you like a little more "grill-y" flavor to your food, clean it off with your scraper, just don't use the wire brush as much. Also, check any additional grills or surfaces that might be dirty as these will increase in temp and add an unsavory smokey flavor.
Flair-ups generally happen when an overly fatty or marinated item is put on the grill. The fat drains too quickly and is ignited by the heat source. Common culprits are ground pork and very fatty, well-marbled cuts like ribeye. Not only does the burned fat have a very distinct flavor that it adds to the meat (so much so that any somewhat knowledgable grill chef will know your error should you try to hide it) but if the flame reaches high enough, it can light the source and then you have a full scale emergency on your hands. A grease fire can spread very quickly. It is a good practice to have a large amount of baking soda or rock salt on hand to douse the flame, should they get out of control.
All grills have heat zones. On a propane grill, even with all burners at 100%, will have places where it is much hotter or cooler than other spots. In charcoal or wood cooking, directly under the heat source is your hot zone.
Cooking with Zones.
Once you understand where your heat zones are you can use them to your advantage. Use your cooler zones (or turn the flame on propane grills down by 50%) to finish foods without burning them. These are also great places to melt cheese or cook other items that burn faster (like buns). Your hot zones are used to place those great "grill marks" on your food. This is really very easy and only has to be done on the presentation side of you want. Simply take your steak, burger, zucchini, whatever and glaze it with a thin layer of high temperature oil (read the "Oils" section for more info on what is a good choice) and dust with a layer of rock salt. Get your hot zone up as high as you can (500 to 600 degrees is best, check out "Temping" for how to know how hot your grill is) and use your wire brush to get every particle off (this can be painful work but a little pain is a testament to your tenacity)! Place the meat on the hottest part of the grill and leave it for about a minute and a half. Once that is done, turn the meat a 1/4 turn and place onto another open spot on the hottest part of the grill (that has not had food on it). After another minute and a half you can flip the steak or burger and continue to cook it on the hot part of the grill for rare to medium rare or transfer it to a slightly less hot zone (400ish) and finish to Medium/Medium Well. The ensuing "Ooohs" and "Aaahs" will make it so worth the effort.
This is a very vital skill. If you have a little money you can buy an infrared thermometer that you just point at the grill and it tells you how hot that spot is. If you're a bit more rustic like me, try this:
The best way to temp your grill is to place your hand about a foot over it. If it is so screaming hot that you instantly have to remove your hand, your grill is pushing in upwards of 600 degrees. If you can have it on there very briefly you're probably around 500. If you can hold it for 1-2 seconds you're around 400, 2-3 at 300 and 5 seconds or so (depending on your tolerance), around 200. If you can keep you hand over it, check your propane or get a new batch of coals going in your chimney starter; your fire is out.
If you have been following me for any length of time, you know what I'm going to say. Don't cook at high temperatures with Olive Oil of any kind. It denatures, burns and becomes carcinogenic when it hit's is smoke point. You can cook at medium temps (300-400) with butter or lard but if you are grilling you really want a pure coconut oil. Try and avoid mutant "vegetable" oils as they are mostly soy and although Canola is an effective substitute, it is made of rapeseed with up to 80% of the cultivars used being genetically modified.
In my opinion, the only seasoning a good steak or burger or veggie needs is salt. I use Morton's Kosher salt but you can also use more exotic (read, expensive) types. Salt for most people is like wine. Buy the good stuff if you want to impress someone but chances are none of you will actually taste the difference.
Salt liberally. Salt plays several roles during the cooking process. The initial and during applications serve to draw out minerals and sugars and help caramelize and use the food's own juice to flavor. Salting at the end (also known as adding, "Finishing Salt") is what gives you that great salt punch. This does amazing things for your palate and works with the food's own natural flavor. Almost universally people comment with horror over the amount of salt I use and then with euphoric praise when they try the food. Sodium is not bad for you. Processed foods with offensive amounts of sodium are bad for you.
Also, it is a common misconception to use pepper while cooking. Pepper burns easily and can taint the flavor of the food. Only use pepper when pulling food off the grill or plating.
Most spices will burn and not have the effect you want if you add them while you are cooking. Spices will add flavor while marinating but with relatively few exceptions, don't add spices while grilling.
This is a little different than "overcrowding" when sautéing. If you overcrowd a grill, everything will cook eventually. You do however, want to keep some open space so that you can move things in and out of Hot Zones in order to have greater control over your cooking.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I'll overview some great food specific topics.