Looking to improve my grilling game
June 26, 2017 7:47 AM   Subscribe

I'm an excellent cook, but a somewhat banal griller. Food comes off the grill fully cooked, and tasty enough, but it's never as notable as my indoor meals. How do I get out of my rut?

I didn't grow up grilling (city kid), so I'm just winging it in my back yard. I've mastered "put food on the grill and eventually it's done and no one gets salmonella," but inside I can muster "OMG, I should sell this, I am a culinary genius." I'd like to get some parity between the indoor and outdoor cooking.

I have a three burner Weber Spirit propane grill. I am planning on ordering Grill Grates, which are aluminum heat vanes that add radiant heat to the convection from the grill (and allow higher temps). I don't plan on switching to charcoal or getting a kamado anytime soon. I don't care for smoky flavors in food.

We generally cook skewered meat--kofte and shish kebabs--and vegetables (invariably corn, and generally peppers, onions, zucchini, and sometimes portobellos). The meat generally comes prepared from Whole Foods, and the veg is usually done plain.

So, obviously I could be doing more to marinate and do my own prep work. And I know my two-zone cooking game is weak. Both deficiencies relate to wanting to eat quickly, but I can do better.

I do also periodically soups vide meat first before grilling, which is quite good. Spy's vide burgers are really great, btw.

Beyond those tweaks, what can I be doing? Grill mavens, please enlighten me!
posted by Admiral Haddock to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Unless your meat is super thin, you need to be cooking it through at a lower temperature than you probably are. I'm a huge fan of The Food Lab's reverse sear method. Cook at 250-300 degrees until temp is within 10 degrees of your final, then crank it as high as you can to make a crust.
posted by hwyengr at 8:02 AM on June 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't care for smoky flavors in food

That's the thing that grilling is great for, flavor wise. If you deliberately don't want to take advantage of that, then I don't know that it's ever going to feel worth it to you to put a lot of effort into grilling. Otherwise you're just broiling outdoors, with a slightly larger cooking area to work with. It's kind of hard to tell you how to raise your grill game if you don't want to use smoke --- barbecue, slow cooking, roasting, developing a crust --- all of these sort of more advanced grilling techniques are designed to keep the stuff on the grill longer so you get more charred, smokey flavor.

If you want low effort prep, then I'd start getting into rubs. There are a number of prepared ones ones you can buy, or you can make your own if you keep a fair amount of spices on hand. Since you like kofte, I might start looking into some Middle Easten flavors for inspiration --- za'atar, Lebanese 7-spice powder, loomi/back lime, sumac.
posted by Diablevert at 8:14 AM on June 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

You discount it, but more flavor would probably come from charcoal.. If smoky/grill flavor isn't your thing, what else are you looking for from the grill ? (edit: what Diablevert says)

Do look at your own marinating, but not too much (I marinate chicken, that's it. Beef, venison etc get salt/pepper/spices, but no marinade).
posted by k5.user at 8:16 AM on June 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

the veg is usually done plain

Just adding some garlic salt can help a lot as can adding some oil or butter after cooking as you serve them.

If you don't want a smokey flavor, you might benefit from using cast iron skillets or griddles on top of the grill. The two good things about grilling compared to cooking on the stove are the smokey flavors (which you don't want) and the ability to get a good Maillard reaction and surface dehydration going on meats and other high protein foods. That's not doing your veggies any favors, so you might move towards more conventional cooking techniques (still on the grill) for them.
posted by Candleman at 8:33 AM on June 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Unless we're out grilling in a park, almost everything I do on my Big Green Egg also spends some time in the oven or a sous vide cooker. Anything that wants precise temperature control (white poultry, fish, most beef and pork, etc) is not a great candidate for straight up grilling. Doesn't mean you can't, just means it's a pain in the butt.

You're looking for meat that's resistant to overcooking, tastes good with burnt bits, has enough flavor on its own that smoke won't overpower it, isn't super thick, etc. Stuff like chicken thighs, lamb and skirt steak are hard to screw up.
posted by woof at 8:36 AM on June 26, 2017

I disagree about what others said about needing more smoke flavor. Grilling and barbecue are different animals. I associate smoke with barbecue, not so much with grilling. Grilling to me is high heat and grill lines, not low and slow with a pink smoke ring. Both are worth pursuing but the approach and the type of things you cook are very different.

For veggies, just brushing them with olive oil and liberally sprinkling kosher salt and fresh ground pepper will help them a lot.

Cooking properly is key. I always use an instant-read thermometer (or a probe for roasts/whole birds). I love my Thermapen. They're a bit pricey but worth every penny.

I use both gas and charcoal. The charcoal itself doesn't add a lot of smoke flavor, I add wood chunks for that. I almost always use the charcoal for steak and roasts, though the gas works fine for chicken and kebabs.

If you really want to do something on the grill that will impress you and others, start grilling pizza. It's a technique, an art really, and takes some experimenting, but once you get it down it's amazing. The key is the mise en place. You want everything ready to go... slap the dough down on the grill, brush it with oil, toss some salt down, flip it, do the same, throw your ingredients down and close the lid. Don't burn the crust.

Leg of lamb, either boneless or bone-in, is also great on a grill. I usually do it on charcoal (w/ indirect heat) but it can be done just fine on a gas grill.

For any roasts or whole birds, using indirect heat is usually key. Put a foil drip pan under it (on top of the burner, below the grate)

Learn how to brine. Let me say that again for emphasis: Learn how to brine. This was a HUGE game changer for me. 1/3 cup of salt, 1/3 cup of brown sugar. A couple cups of water. Bring to a boil, poor into some ice to cool it down, throw your (raw) meat in with enough water to cover. Refrigerate for an hour or so (longer if it's a whole roast/bird.). Seriously, pork chops and chicken pieces have never been better. This is probably the #1 thing that improved grilled meats for me.

Keep at it. You'll get it. Everyone has the techniques they insist are the One True Way to cook and you'll discover your own ways.
posted by bondcliff at 8:36 AM on June 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

Don't clean the grates more than the minimum necessary (kind of like cast iron) and the grease and charred bits buildup will flavor all your grilled foods.

Other than that, try fish or chicken with the skin on because skin is fat and fat is flavor.
posted by mattamatic at 8:36 AM on June 26, 2017

Response by poster: what else are you looking for from the grill ?

Grilling lets me sear at higher temperatures than I can get indoors, for one. It's also more fun! It's great being outside, feeling the heat from the grill as you hang out with folks (small kitchen). I just don't like the smoke flavor, but with the grill grates (and other IR systems) you can get the radiant heat associated with charcoal grilling (curing some of the deficiencies of propane) without that taste.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:37 AM on June 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Definitely brining...it does wonders for seasoning meat throughout and it helps widen the window of acceptable cooking times so it isn't as easy to over cook meat (which at high heat levels is easy to do).
posted by mmascolino at 8:40 AM on June 26, 2017

You should address your acknowledged deficiencies in your two-zone game. That will help a lot. I use two-zone for everything, including my veggies. For corn I leave the husks on and don't soak them. The silk will catch fire and burn off, but the husks generally just turn brown without flaming up because there's not enough heat concentrated there (and even if they do flame up, they generally don't stay alight). For stuff like bell peppers I cut them large (three or four pieces per pepper, cut along the ribs) and cook them over high heat until they're charred and blistering, then shift them to the low heat zone and cook them until they're soft (also: only grill green bell peppers. Red and yellow peppers lack complexity when grilled). Squashes I try to slice into thick planks (⅜" to ½") and, again, char over high heat and then cook until just soft over low heat (if you slice them too thin they'll basically just melt instead of giving you something to chew on). For onions, slice them into discs about half an inch thick and cook over high heat until brown, and you can hold them over low heat until you're ready to serve them (or need the space on the grill).

My other big tip would be to use more (coarse) salt. However much salt and pepper you're using now, use more. I tend to toss all my veggies together with olive oil and then salt and pepper liberally. Guests always comment on how good my grilled veggies are, and that's all I'm using. No marinade necessary.

For meat: I have charcoal and I've never used Grill Grates, but I know Meathead recommends them for gas. When I do use gas (without Grill Grates) I find it difficult to get a really good sear on my meat. Whatever method you're using, you want the highest temperature you can get, and to flip the meat every minute for a total of (probably) about six minutes, and then shift the meat to the low heat side of the grill to finish cooking. Also get a probe thermometer. And season liberally with coarse kosher salt and fresh black pepper.

You can do the standard sear-first, or you can do the reverse sear for meat, or you can cook it sous vide and then sear it (which is also a reverse sear of a sort), but the important thing is to cook it at two different temperatures so you're treating the inside and the outside separately. FWIW I do steaks on the grill by searing first, but I've done standing rib roast low and slow with a final sear before bring it in to rest and serve. I've tried the sous vide method for steaks, but by the time I build up enough of a fire to sear it at the finish, I could have just grilled it in the first place. If Grill Grates are as good as they're cracked up to be, you could actually have a practical way to sear after sous vide. Report back. (Me, I'm still pondering just getting a Searzall).
posted by fedward at 8:54 AM on June 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Marinating or dry-rubbing your meat the night before will go a long way towards upping your flavor game.
posted by gnutron at 9:24 AM on June 26, 2017

Serious Eats is generally my guide, and a meat thermometer is critical for the learning curve stages, but from my own experimentation I can tell you that super-high heat is a tool but not the goal. Even on my gas grill, I've learned to do the indirect method with big heat on one side and food on the other, minus a couple minutes for getting marks/char on.

Especially if you're wanting some maillard on the outside, you have to learn to undercook your grill food dramatically so you have some leeway for that heat at the end. It is going to carry over heat longer and hotter than any other cooking method after you pull it off. It is going to dehydrate or fat-dump so fast, with all that hot air. You really need to be pulling chicken off while it's still weeping vaguely pink juice, and visibly bloody for red meat, then tent and rest 5-10 minutes. I use a lot of timers when I grill.

I now only dry brine poultry. So much less mess and fuss, for one thing. I do a lot of chicken on the grill, boneless skinless, breasts and thighs/quarters, and I had to turn a lot of chicken into shoe leather before I got the hang of it, but the dry brine and the undercooking is the trick. (I will prep marinade/sauces but hold them until the chicken is done and rested 10 minutes, then drop them in once I've confirmed they're cooked through. Pretty much anything that isn't fat and salt is going to burn, might as well sauce afterwards.)

For even cooking, you need even thickness. Keep your kofta as round as you can, avoid pointy "football" tips or thin edges. Pound your chicken out as thin as the thinnest naturally-occurring part (you need to at least lightly pound out the thick part or it will puff up and you'll have to cook it to dry stringy floss to get it not raw in the center of the puff - this is harder to do for bone-in breast, and generally not necessary for bone-in thighs since they're pretty even as-is).

And my #1 trick for getting some color on things without cooking it to death: mayonnaise. It's just emulsified fat, it sticks better and longer than oil, and is usually made out of stuff with a very high smoke point. You can use vegan mayo, which really is just literally whipped oil, if the idea of egg-mayo freaks you out. It'll drip a little, you don't need more than a skim coat. It seems to do an especially good job of keeping some moisture inside vegetables, since they want to weep so badly.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:27 AM on June 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nthing brining - makes a really big difference, IMO, especially with relatively low-fat cuts like chicken breasts or pork chops.

Another prep thing - pre-salt your zucchini (like many people do with eggplant): cut it into chunks, salt it generously, and let it sit in a colander for 10-30 minutes. Rinse it off before you skewer it - this takes away some of that zucchini aftertaste which can be really pronounced when you grill it.

Also, if you are skewering multiple kinds of veggies together, think about cooking times, and consider cutting hardier veggies smaller than faster-cooking veggies. You can also buy a special plate for grilling veggies - I prefer that to skewers.

Marinades: a bit of sugar is good to give you that char. I like to grill cheap cuts of steak in a mix of barbecue sauce, amino acids or soy sauce, a dash of hoisin, and a bit of hot sauce. Nice mix of sugar and umami flavors.
posted by lunasol at 9:27 PM on June 26, 2017

« Older I told my mom the wedding is off, but it isn't....   |   Adventures in Stowe that dont involve skiing! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.