Grilling season is heating up quickly, so we checked in with our Resident Chef Kyle Shankman in Alpharetta, Georgia (where they grill — and barbecue — all year long) to get his tips. Read on for easy ways to improve your game at the grill this summer.
Hi Kyle! So let’s start at the beginning: what’s the difference between grilling and barbecuing?
Barbecuing refers to that low and slow style of cooking that we associate with preparations like ribs, pulled pork and smoked brisket. Generally, this is done with mostly indirect heat, over charcoal and with the grill or smoker lid closed. Grilling, on the other hand, would mean that we are cooking over super high, direct heat with the lid up. We grill when working with proteins and vegetables that don’t require long cook times to become tender.
So what’s the basic grilling process — let’s say for a steak?
First, I make sure to give myself some room for error. I would rather have a two-portion one-pound NY strip than a thin, 8-oz piece. It may take a bit longer, and I would have to carve it, but I’m definitely in more control of the sear and the doneness with a thicker steak.
From there, I like to air-dry it uncovered overnight in my fridge. That helps to create a really strong crust. About an hour prior to cooking, I move the steak to room temperature. If you start with an ice-cold piece of meat, it’s almost destined to be unevenly cooked. Preheat the grill at least 30 minutes before you plan on starting. If it has time to heat up slowly, there is less chance of having unevenly heated grill grates.
Less than 2 minutes before cooking, I season. Salt, if left to sit on the meat, will start to pull the moisture out, undoing that whole drying overnight thing we just did. The thicker the protein, the more salt you need. Remember that the interior is and will remain unseasoned; you need to offset that with an over-seasoned exterior. Also, a lot of that salt will fall off during the cooking process.
With a heat-proof brush, oil the grill with a good, high-smoke-point oil like canola or vegetable. If you are cooking multiple steaks, give them some room—at least a couple inches apart.
Keep in mind that recipe times for grilling will always be at least a little bit unreliable. There are too many factors (temp of the meat, temp of the grill, thickness of the meat, etc.) that would throw the time off. Instead, look for three things before turning the meat:
- It should look cooked around the edge.
- When lifted, it should pull away with no resistance.
- It should have a deep golden brown crust that you can see clearly.
If it passes the first two tests, but doesn’t have the color you want, lay it back down and just wait until it does. Flip and repeat!
At this point, I recommend checking the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. For a medium rare steak, you would want to serve it at 135 degrees Fahrenheit. That would mean pulling it to rest at closer to 130. If, after cooking the steak on both sides, it isn’t quite cooked all the way, I typically move it to a cooler portion of the grill and close the lid. That way, I don’t over-sear the outside for the sake of getting to the internal temperature I want. When the meat is ready, allow it to rest for at least 75-100% of the cook time (if the steak took 10 minutes to cook, allow it to rest for 8-10 minutes before carving/serving). I like to rest meat over a wire rack to give the juices somewhere to go. I pretty much follow the same steps for any and every protein.
What about vegetables? Do they get the same treatment?
Vegetables are WAY simpler. I find the trick is in how they are cut prior to cooking. You want to break the vegetables down in a way so that they have big, flat sides. For example, cauliflower is awesome grilled, but you would want to cut it in wide “steaks” from top to stem, rather than florets.
Also, I tend to oil the vegetables instead of the grill to guarantee a faster char, since the cook time is generally pretty short. Like meat, I still want any grilled veggies to start as dry and as close to room temperature as possible. Since almost any vegetable is technically ready to eat raw, “doneness” will be more about texture and your personal preference.
So what about the lid—should you grill with that open all the time? When do you close it?
If you walk into a nice steakhouse’s kitchen, you’ll see that their grill is without a lid. If direct heat can’t get a particular protein cooked to a specific doneness, the meat is transferred to an oven to finish. I would follow that same rule at home, but instead of moving it to an oven, I would just move the food to a cooler part of the grill and close the lid. Leaving the lid open for the majority of the cook time gives you more control over an even doneness. When you close the grill, it cooks not only directly but also indirectly, causing the side touching the grates to cook more than the opposite side. Of course, this is less of a big deal for well-cooked meats like chicken or in an hours-long barbecue situation.
What are some big mistakes most home grillers make?
Folks LOVE to “mess” with the food—constantly poking it, moving it and cutting into it. The reason we tend to like a grilled steak more than boiled meat is what’s called the Maillard reaction. That refers to the crust that’s created when the natural sugars in meat caramelize over high temperatures. If you keep moving the meat, it never quite has a chance to develop the sear that we’re after. Think about it this way: A pot of water will never boil if you keep stirring it. As hard as it is in the beginning, you have to be patient.
What are your tips for becoming a better griller?
Grill as much as possible! You have to not only get to know your grill, but you have to see how different foods react to different temperatures and parts of the grill. There is no better way to improve at anything than with practice and experience!
So if you’re about to buy a grill, how do you choose between charcoal and gas? Is one better than the other?
Some chefs are incredibly opinionated on this topic; I’m not so much. Charcoal, although more “pure” of a heat source, also takes longer to heat and is a bit tougher to manage. That’s not always realistic for every home. On the flip side, charcoal grills tend to be much more affordable than high-end gas grills.
Gas is fast and efficient, but it doesn’t create as much “smokiness” as charcoal. In the end, I would choose a grill that inspires you to use it.
What about all this grilling cookware? Food doesn’t just go right on the grill grate?
You know, it depends on the food. Some proteins and veggies are built well for grilling. A firm piece of salmon or a bell pepper can go straight on the grate. However, a whole snapper or thin asparagus don’t necessarily have the structural fortitude to make sense on the grill. That being said, the flavors created by the grill work really well for snapper and asparagus. They just need some help so that you can actually turn them and remove them from the grill. I’m a big fan of using grilling baskets—I just have a fish-grilling basket that I use for fish and vegetables. With one of those, you can grill whatever you want!
What grilling tools do you recommend? Will regular kitchen tools work here?
Generally speaking, your regular kitchen tools aren’t designed for the type of heat created by an outdoor grill. For indoor grilling, go for it! Since it doesn’t always make sense to grill outside, a good grill pan—cast iron or enameled—is a great investment. Lodge, Le Creuset and Staub make some incredible cookware, and cast iron will do the best job of making indoor grilling taste like outdoor grilling.
For traditional grilling though, you need long, heavy-duty metal tongs and spatulas. You also need a heatproof brush for oiling your grill.
How about cleaning the grill—any tips there?
Clean your grill while it’s still hot. As long as your grill is cleaned after every use, you really just need a long-handled wire grill brush. Scrub off any cooked-on food and then lightly oil the grates before closing the lid to let your grill cool off entirely.
What are some of your favorite things to grill — aside from the classics?
Fruit! Grilled stone fruit like nectarine or apricot is delicious over an arugula salad with soft goat’s cheese.
Do you have a current favorite grilling recipe to share?
Back to the fruit theme, I make a charred, bourbon-glazed pineapple that is beautiful on its own and even better over vanilla bean ice cream.