Anyone can slap a hunk of meat on the grill, but if you want to barbecue like a pro, there’s plenty of finesse involved. If you’re looking to improve your summer barbecue game, these essential grill hacks can help you level up in a hurry.
These grilling tips range from knowing how to select the best steak for your dollar to the practicalities of preparation and technique. True mastery takes a lifetime, but better grilling starts right now.
Check Your Propane Level With Hot Water
Running out of food or drink is awkward at any backyard barbecue, but running out of gas is even worse. Sure, you can take the food inside and finish it in your kitchen, but that doesn’t really count as a cookout.
If you don’t have a gauge on your tank, you can avoid embarrassment with nothing more complicated than a large glass of very hot water. Pour it slowly down the side of the tank, then follow the path of the water with your fingers. Where the tank is warm it’s empty, but where it stays stubbornly cold there’s propane. If you’re running low, have an extra tank on hand to ensure you can keep grilling all afternoon.
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Buy the Right Cuts
The best steaks for grilling are the tender and heavily marbled rib or rib eye, T-bones and porterhouses and the various strip steaks. Those all come from the upper part of the steer, and they’re all tasty, but they can be pricey.
Top sirloin is a good alternative to those costlier steaks, but the beef industry has also developed new, tender cuts such as ranch steak and petite tender, which are often great bargains. So-called “bistro steaks,” which come from the underside of the steer and include flank, skirt and flat iron steaks, must be sliced thinly across the grain after cooking to increase tenderness. Chefs love them, so you might have to sweet-talk your butcher into putting one aside for you.
Grill Your Taco Shells
If some of the meat on your grill is destined for tacos, clear a space for some corn tortillas. It’ll save you running between the grill and a skillet or — even worse — settling for crunchy supermarket taco shells.
Try grilling the tortillas flat over the gas flame, turning them rapidly, or draping them over the bars of your grate so they hang down and form the familiar shell shape. Either way works, but molding them across the bars of the grill is space-efficient, and allows you to warm more tortillas at once.
Double Down on the Skewers
If you’ve ever admired the flat, sword-like skewers at a Middle Eastern restaurant, you might have noticed they serve a purpose beyond making the meal more dramatic. Unlike the usual round bamboo skewers, flat ones hold meats and vegetables neatly in place as they’re turned.
That doesn’t mean you have to run out and splurge on metal skewers. You can still use the bamboo skewers you already have, but use two instead of one for every kabob. This will keep the food from spinning in place as you turn them, ensuring even cooking on all sides.
Master Indirect Heat
Blasting meats at maximum heat in a cloud of smoke can be intensely satisfying, but it’s not necessarily the best way to cook. If you want to barbecue like a pro, you’ll need to master indirect heat, which involves creating different temperature “zones” on the grill. Bone-in chicken, ribs, sausages and larger cuts of meat like thick steaks are best when cooked more gently, in a cooler area a slight distance from the open flame. Otherwise you’ll get char on the outside and raw on the inside.
To cook with indirect heat, heat the entire grill on medium until it reaches the desired temperature. Then, turn off one side of the grill or move the coals over, and set your food over the unheated area. Close the lid and adjust the burner until it maintains a low, steady heat at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit. This method helps you prepare some foods in advance: Once the big steaks and bone-in chicken are ready, you can crank up the heat and turn out gourmet hamburgers and thinner cuts to order over higher heat.
Sear at the End
Many grilling recipes advise searing large cuts of meat over high heat, and then finishing them at a more moderate temperature. That technique works, but doing the same things in the opposite order works even better.
Science-minded barbecue gurus such as Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn of Amazing Ribs note that cooking thick steaks and other large cuts over low heat, and then finishing them with a blast of high heat provides more even cooking and a better sear. It’s a technique that works just as well with roasts in your indoor oven, so it’s well worth learning.
Smoke Is Your Friend
If fat dripping on the flames is the only source of smoke when you grill, you’re missing out. That hint of smokiness in the food is part of what makes grilling so magical, and “smoke flavoring” in your sauce doesn’t always cut it.
Hardwood pieces for smoking cost less than $5 for a small bag, and you only need a few pieces at a time. Wrap them in heavy foil, poke holes to allow the smoke to escape, then place them over the burner in your grill. Arrange your meat on the grill, close the lid to trap the smoke, and enjoy a rich, smoky flavor in your grilled meats and vegetables. If you do this a lot — and you should — you can pick up a reusable smoke box to hold the wood, in place of the foil. They start at under $15.
Grill Your Salad
Running back and forth to the kitchen getting your side dishes ready can take the fun out of a summer barbecue, and frankly it’s a pain in the posterior. It’s much more practical to prepare your sides on the grill whenever possible — even your green salads.
A surprising number of salad vegetables get a boost of flavor from cooking on the grill — from kale and sturdy romaine lettuce to mushrooms, avocados, tomatoes and peppers. Grill them before your guests arrive and toss them in your favorite dressing while they’re still warm, and then you’re ready to move on to the entrees. No fuss, no bother and no trips in and out of the house.
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Grill Your Dessert
Veggies aren’t the only produce that get even better on the grill. Most fruits — from bright citrus and sturdy apples or pears to pineapple and even grapes — also grill nicely. Plus, they make delicious desserts. Cut large or firm fruits into grill-friendly slices, and skewer smaller pieces or use a basket to keep them from falling through the grill grates. Brush on a simple sugar syrup, or sprinkle sugar on sliced fruits, to help them caramelize.
For baked desserts, such as seasonal crumbles or even pies, set your baking pan over the unheated side of your grill. Then, close the lid and adjust the heat until it reaches your normal baking temperature for that dessert. By the time you’re done eating, it’ll be baked and ready to devour with a scoop of ice cream.
Ditch the Wire Brush
No meal is really over until the cleanup is finished, and that applies to your summer barbecue as well. When it’s time to clean the burned-on gunk from your grate, you probably reach for a wire brush to do the job. Unfortunately, those bristles have a nasty habit of falling off, and if they get into your food, can force a rather unpleasant visit to the emergency room.
Some brushes use abrasive pads in place of bristles, but there’s another solution as close as your kitchen cupboard. Just grasp a ball of crumpled aluminum foil with your barbecue tongs and use it to scrape away the charred-on meat, sauce and cheese fragments. It works like a charm, and you won’t need to worry about errant bristles.