A summer gathering wouldn’t be the same without a meal served hot off the grill – and how you prepare it can make all the difference. Get the inside scoop on picking the right grill, selecting the right cut of meat and bringing it all together for an unforgettable season of outdoor entertainment.
Ask 10 people how to properly grill, and you’ll most likely get 10 answers.
Everyone has their own superstitions about barbecuing, whether it’s the grill they use, the meat they like or the techniques they prefer. And that’s OK, because it’s all part of the experience on a warm summer’s day.
Ultimately, we all want the same thing in the end: juicy, succulent, delicious food that satisfies.
No matter what satisfies your grilling needs, it’s important not to overthink the process.
“You don’t have to be a professional to do a great job,” says Brad Vander Heyden, owner of Advanced Chimney Systems, in Rockford.
It Starts with the Grill
Until the 1940s, picnickers and campers were the people you’d most likely see cooking on grills. After World War II, grilling caught on in America, and pretty soon it was something everyone wanted to do in their backyards.
This cooking method has grown even more popular in the COVID era.
“People are spending more money on grills, especially last year when restaurants were forced to closed and people weren’t dining out,” says Vander Heyden. “They were spending more time on quality cooking and the quality of their food.”
They’re still investing in the experience this year, and in order to do it right, one must consider the appropriate tools, starting with the grill.
Believe it or not, grills aren’t a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. The “right” grill depends upon what you’re looking to achieve.
“One person’s idea of grilling is hamburgers and hot dogs, or some steaks and pork chops,” Vander Heyden says. “They may spend 30 minutes grilling, and for that clientele, I think a gas grill fits their needs best.”
Gas grills are perfect for those who are in a hurry. They offer instant heat and start cooking in minutes.
For the more confident and advanced griller, Vander Heyden recommends a pellet or a charcoal grill. These models add more flavor and smoke than a propane grill. They can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, all depending upon the features and brand. Both charcoal and pellet grills infuse natural flavors into the food, which enhances the taste.
“Some grills tend to be disposable after two or three years,” says Vander Heyden. “Or, you can have a lifetime warranty on the better pro-level grills that have stainless steel grilling grids that’ll outlive me.”
Some gas grills now come with infrared technology that cooks using radiant heat. In these grills, the heat is released through an intermediate grate that evenly distributes heat.
These grills can reach 1,500 degrees in just minutes and they’re perfect for searing a steak and locking in those delicious juices.
“Infrared grills heat the meat and not the air,” Vander Heyden says. “Most grills work off convection and heat up the air around the meat. Start to finish, you can cook a steak in 6 to 8 minutes, depending on the thickness of the steak.”
Vander Heyden compares infrared heat to the sun’s rays, especially on a hot day.
“It’s like the sun’s impact on your skin while you’re outside,” he says. “You’ll feel warmer than what the actual temperature is.”
Pellet Grills Make a Surge
There has been a recent shift in the world of grilling. Pellet grills are dominating the scene. And it looks like they’re here to stay.
“They’ve come on strong the past two years, and they’re taking off,” says Kevin Obee, general manager of Benson Stone Co., in Rockford. “We sold a lot of them last year.”
Pellet grills are somewhat of a hybrid between gas and charcoal. Like the latter, they burn wood, so they’ll impart more smoky flavors on whatever you cook. Like a gas oven, they’re easy to operate. Their built-in igniter makes for easy starting, and a built-in control panel regulates the heat, meaning you could foreseeably grill, smoke or even bake with these units.
They even have Wi-Fi connectivity, so they can be controlled through a phone app.
“As long as there are pellets in the grill, you can be cooking for 8 or 10 hours without having to be an expert, because the grill is doing the hard work for you,” Vander Heyden says. “It’s going to maintain whatever temperature you want.”
Their ability to control temperatures makes pellet grills ideal for meats that take a lot of time and patience, like a brisket.
“You’ll be cooking that for at least 8 to 12 hours, otherwise it’s going to look and taste like shoe leather,” Vander Heyden says. “It needs to be slow roasted at a low temperature for a long period of time.”
And if you ask an expert like Vander Heyden, he’ll offer plenty of secrets for making the most of that grill. For example, when he’s cooking brisket, Vander Heyden pauses midway through the cook to wrap the meat in tinfoil. This process creates steam from the juices, thus lending more tenderness to the final cut.
“Some grills make it much easier to cook like a professional,” he says.
Cook it Right
The majority of Midwesterners’ grilling menus begin and end with meat. How you decide to cook that meat makes all the difference.
Jarrod Bush, owner of Countryside Meats & Deli, in Rockford, finds that, for many grill chefs, the fire is just too hot, and that can lead to problems with the end result.
“If all of your coals are right there in the middle, and so is your food, that’s going to be too hot,” he says. “Use the hot spot on your grill to sear the meat, but then put it off to the side and just cook it slow, like it’s in an oven.”
The technique is especially helpful with a tender cut, like a steak. Bush finds too many grillers move their steak around a lot of times and flip it more than needed.
“Steak should really be done in a cast-iron skillet,” Bush says. “If you go to a five-star restaurant, they’re not cooking your steak on a grill out back. They’re cooking it in a cast-iron skillet.”
So, your food is off the “hot zone.” Now what? Use a digital meat thermometer so you’ll know when your meat is done. Certain meats must reach an exact temperature before they’re ready to serve. Chicken, in particular, should be cooked to 165 degrees. Undercooked chicken can result in foodborne illnesses. On the other hand, overcooked chicken is dry and tough.
“I use an instant-read meat thermometer, and it’s not going to lie,” Vander Heyden says. “Many people will overcook meat because they’re worried about it being done enough, but the thermometer will help you not overcook your food. And, it’ll keep your meat moist.”
It’s tempting to slice open a piece of meat to check its doneness, but that’s another common mistake, says Pete Lentz, owner of 640 Meats, in Loves Park, Ill. Cutting into the meat will prompt those tasty juices to run down and into the fire.
Before you serve it, let the food rest for at least 10 minutes.
“When you pull it off the grill, cover it with some tin foil,” Lentz says. “That keeps the heat in, and it keeps all of the juices in.”
While you’re thinking about flavors, consider what you’re using to cook your food. Lentz suggests using lump charcoal, instead of the traditional briquettes found in most homes.
“Lump charcoal looks like real wood, because it’s pretty much burnt wood,” he says. “I like it because it creates a natural flavor, and I don’t have to use lighter fluid or anything like that. You’ll also get more of a wood flavor because it’s just a hardwood.”
How you start the fire can also make a difference. Lentz prefers using the starter sticks that come with a bag of lump charcoal. This method avoids that slight taste that’ll linger whenever there’s been too much lighter fluid at the start.
“The lump charcoal also burns hotter,” he says. “A 17-pound bag should get you about five burns on a regular charcoal grill.”
Keep the grill rack cleaned too, because nobody wants to taste leftover flavor from last week’s dinner.
“I use tongs and a wet towel to clean my racks,” Lentz says. “You can scrape the grates first to get all the char off, then go over the grates with a wet towel. You can also clean your grates with a wire brush.”
The true beauty about grills is that they’ll cook a wide variety of foods. After all, they are essentially an outdoor oven.
“You can cook anything you would put in your oven on your grill,” Obee says. “You can bake a cake, you can do pizzas – whatever you want – and it’s easy to do. The results, most of the time, are better than what you get from an oven, and people don’t realize that.”
In fact, if the grill gets hot enough, you could even take a skillet and saute vegetables like mushrooms and green peppers, Obee says.
The other advantage? No extra heat in your kitchen.
“It’s 85 degrees outside with high humidity, the air conditioning is running and you’re cooking in the kitchen for an hour?” he says. “It’s already hot outside, so just grill outside, and you don’t have to turn on your oven or your stove.”
Bush finds that, in some cases, a little aid from the oven inside can make a world of difference. Baby back ribs, for example, should start in the oven and finish on the grill.
“They can be controlled a little better in the oven,” he says. “You put them in the oven, season them and cook them at 300 degrees for about 3.5 hours, and they’ll be the best ribs you’ve ever had. Or, you can take them out, add barbecue sauce and throw them on the grill to caramelize the barbecue sauce. You’ll know when the ribs are done because they’ll start flaking when you pick them up with a fork.”
Smoking meat is a science, Bush says, and to perfect it takes practice. That’s why he’ll advise amateur grillers to start with something cheaper, like a pork butt, until they get the hang of smoking meat.
“You don’t want to buy brisket at $7 a pound, then ruin it,” he says. “Use the pork butt just to learn how to smoke. It’s all trial and error, because you need to know what flavors you like and what types of wood chips to use. It’s all a process.”
Incorporating wood chips adds another dimension of flavor to grilled food. Fruity woods, like apple and cherry, give off a sweeter, lighter smoke that pairs well with chicken, fish and vegetables. Stronger woods, like hickory and mesquite, give off a more bold, smoky flavor, so they work best with meats that can stand up to them, like pork or beef.
“A lot of people will soak the wood chips, then wrap them in tin foil before putting them on the grill,” Lentz says.
He adds there’s no real need to load up your meat with several seasonings. Instead, he just keeps things simple.
“I’m a simple guy, so I just like salt, pepper and some garlic,” he says. “I sell quality meat that tastes good, so I don’t want to cover it up. When my steak is done, I’ll just roll some butter over it.”
For grillers who are interested in seasonings, Bush sells various blends made by Excalibur, based out of downstate Pekin, Ill. He sells seasonings across the board, including rib rubs, beef roast rubs, five-pepper blends and cajun seasonings.
“It all pretty much does the same thing, which adds more flavor and texture to the meat,” he says. “This type of seasoning is something that no one else in the area has.”
A Summer Tradition
Obee just laughs when people say grilling is hard. He finds it’s a simple activity that nearly everyone can do – if they’re equipped with the right tools and know-how.
“Grilling burgers, hot dogs and pork chops is super easy, and you’ll end up with a flavorful, juicy piece of meat,” Obee says. “No matter what you’re cooking, whether it’s hamburgers, chicken or fish, it’ll all taste better coming off the grill, just because of the way a grill works.”
Being able to feed many guests while having boatloads of fun is a great combination.
“You’re out there on a nice day with your beer and you’re cooking meat on fire,” Bush says. “I just wish we lived somewhere nice where we could grill all year-round.”