Anyone can toss a few pieces of meat over a hot fire. The hard part is making sure you end up with tender, juicy, succulent meat. No one wants to eat bland burgers and chewy steak. A great barbecue doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. You just have to know how to work your flames and source your protein. Clean grates, a good fire and quality meats are the key ingredients to making the most of your weekend grilling. We rounded up the best advice from expert chefs and seasoned pit masters for you here. Grab a few spatulas and tongs and start flipping some superb grilled eats.
Start with a clean grill
You wouldn’t eat dinner off of dirty plates, so why cook on a filthy grill? Regular grill cleanings will make your barbecue and grill maintenance more manageable. Food and oil stick to your grates after each barbecue, and all that gunk can transfer onto whatever you cook next. Last week’s charred remains can produce a bitter seasoning for your new round of burgers. Cleaning your grates will preserve the integrity of your meat’s taste and appearance. It’s also important to oil your grates, according to Melissa Cookston, Pitmaster and owner of Memphis Barbecue Company, “This will help prevent sticking and give you professional grill marks.”
Choose your charcoal carefully
When was the last time you ordered a burger seasoned with lighter fluid? A good grilling session should produce quality meat that’s not chemically-flavored from propane or accelerants. Propane, while easier to regulate temp and flame intensity, can impart a funky taste in your meat, so skip the gas for charcoal briquettes. Next, while it may take a few extra minutes to get your fire to roar, skip the lighter fluid. Burger aficionado Brad Farmerie of Saxon and Parole suggests investing in a starter chimney and using natural hardwood lump charcoal instead of instant lighting charcoal, which often contains lighter fluid. The lump charcoal will add a great smokey flavor, he says.
While briquets are okay, some contain chemicals and compressed paper that could alter the taste of your meat. Using better quality charcoal takes a little more time to come up to temp, so remember to get your grill going long before you actually cook. “Start your coals a while before putting your meat so the fire has time to burn down and the heat is nice and even,” advises Farmerie. “This will prevent you from burning your meat on a bed of hot flames.” How do you know when you’re ready? “When your charcoal turns an ashy gray color, you’re good to start,” says Cookston.
Learn your grill’s hotspots and how to use them
You can control your grill temperature by creating specific heat zones in the middle and edges of your grill. The center of the grill, or directly over the coals, is the hottest, while the edges are cooler, using indirect heat. This allows you to cook various foods requiring different temperatures. “For most items, a two-zone fire is the best set-up: one hot side for searing and one cooler side for allowing items to cook more slowly,” recommends Cookston.
Pay attention to the hue of the smoke, too. It’s important to cook with clear, blue smoke rather than thick foggy white smoke. Jonathan Fox of Fox Bros. BBQ in Atlanta, Georgia explains, “Dirty smoke can leave your meat or veggies dark in color and give you a heavy bitter smoke taste.” Unless you want the entire neighborhood to know you’ve seriously charred your meat, avoid sending out smoke signals.