Grilling uses two different cooking methods: indirect and direct heat. In direct heat cooking, food is placed on the cooking rack directly over hot coals. Indirect heat is used for more delicate foods and for longer cooking times used for larger cuts of meat, as when you're barbecuing a turkey. The grill is always covered when cooking with indirect heat.
Learning the temperature of the coals is the only trick in direct grilling. If you use a gas grill, pay attention to the heat settings. The ceramic coals should be ready when 3/4 of them are coated with ash. On a charcoal grill, if you are very careful, you can check the temperature by holding your hand, palm down, over the coals at the cooking height and count the number of seconds you can hold your hand there before you have to pull it away.
- 5 seconds = Low
- 4 seconds = Medium
- 3 seconds = Medium-High
- 2 seconds = High
Use the following descriptions to check cooking temperature by observing the coals:
- Ash coating thickens, red glow less visible = Low
- Coals covered with light gray ash = Medium
- Red glow visible through the ash coating = High
For two-level grilling, or a hot side and a cooler side, arrange 3-4 layers of coals on one side of the grill; just 1 layer on the other. This method lets you control temperature as you cook. Sear foods on the hot side, then move to the cooler side to cook through.
For indirect cooking on a charcoal grill, place an equal number of briquettes on each side of the grill pan, leaving an empty space in the center. Light the briquettes. When you're ready to cook, place a drip pan between the coals and add water to the pan to a level of 1/2". Place the food over the drip pan and cover the grill. You will need to add 5-6 briquettes to each side of the pan as needed to maintain even heat, about every 45 minutes.
For indirect cooking on a dual burner gas grill, set the drip pan on the lava rocks on one side of the grill and add water to 1/2". Preheat the other burner on high for 5-10 minutes. Turn the temperature down to medium, then put the food on the rack over the drip pan and cover.
For indirect cooking on a single burner gas grill, preheat the grill on high for 5-10 minutes. Turn the temperature down to low, and place a large foil baking pan on the rack. You can also line half of the cooking rack with a double thickness of heavy duty foil. Place food in the pan or on the foil, cover and cook.
Cooking The Food
- Never leave the grill alone when you are cooking food. Flare ups can quickly become a fire, and it's very easy to overcook or burn food on the grill. Once you start, stay there and pay attention!
- Adding wood chips and chunks can add marvelous flavor to your food. Soak mesquite, alder, hickory and pecan chips for one hour before scattering over the hot coals.
- Wooden skewers should be soaked in water for an hour before use. They are best used for very quickly cooked foods, like veggies and fruits.
- Metal skewers should be flat, with long handles. Round skewers cause the food to roll when turned, so foods won't cook evenly. Use metal skewers when cooking meat kabobs.
- Follow the recipe cooking times carefully, and make sure to cover the grill if the recipe calls for it.
- Sauces containing sugar and fat will cause flareups and the food may burn. Unless the recipe instructions are different, apply sauces and glazes during the last 10 minutes of cooking time.
- Grilling times are affected by the weather, and how long the food is being cooked. Maintaining cooking temps is an art, but there are some rules to follow.
- When you want to lower the cooking temperature, raise the cooking rack, spread the coals apart, or close the vents on the outside of the grill pan halfway.
- To raise the temperature, lower the cooking rack, tap ash from the coals, move the coals more closely together, or open the vents. You can also gradually add more charcoal to the outer edges of the coals.
- If the weather is cold, you will need more briquettes to reach an ideal cooking temperature. Grilling will take longer.
- Wind will make the fire hotter.
- On a humid day, the coals will burn slower.
- The temperature and thickness of the food when it's placed on the grill will affect the cooking time. Cold and thicker foods will take longer to cook.
- The closer the cooking rack is to the coals, the faster the food will cook.
- Hardwood fires will burn hotter than charcoal briquettes.
- The most reliable way to test when food is done is by using a thermometer. There are many types available on the market, from instant read thermometers to complicated thermometer forks.
- Follow the recipe instructions for doneness tests. See Food Safety for more safety and doneness tests.
- Move the food around on the grill for the most even cooking results; this is where building a two-level fire is handy. Don't turn food too often, and use tongs to handle the food instead of a fork. Piercing the food with a fork will release juices that you want in the food, and can cause flareups.
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