You have stupid barbecue and grilling questions. We have answers.
So let’s get right to them, shall we?
Stupid question #1: What’s the difference between barbecuing and grilling?
A lot of people will tell you that grilling is all about cooking hot and fast directly over a fire and barbecue is totally different. That is, cooking low and slow to the side of a fire. Not quite true. The term barbecue comes from the word barbacoa, a style of outdoor cooking that dates back to the 1500s, when people in what are now the West Indies and areas along the southeastern coast of North America were cooking on branches elevated over a fire. They weren’t barbecuing baby back ribs and brisket and the other items people associate with barbecue today. No, no, no. They were cooking fish, turtles, iguana, alligator and snakes–pretty much anything they could catch and slaughter. So really, barbecue just means cooking over fire. It’s a broad term, and grilling is just one style of barbecue. Grilling is usually hot and fast, but it is not a distinctly different method.
Stupid question #2: Which is better, a gas grill or a charcoal grill?
They are really different pieces of equipment that do pretty much the same things, but the experience of cooking on one versus the other is like night and day. Anyone with half a tastebud can tell when foods have been grilled over charcoal, and the process of building the fire and managing its heat is thoroughly interactive. With a gas grill, the more elaborate technology removes some of the variables, so the fire is much easier to control. I should note that today more and more top-rated barbecue restaurants are using gas-powered, thermostat-controlled cookers with electric rotisseries turning racks of meat like a Ferris wheel. The new smokers burn wood logs as well, but much more for flavor than for heat. You can do something similar with a gas grill that has a smoker box for wood chips.
“Hold the palm of your hand above the cooking grate at a distance of about one beer can. If you have to pull your hand away within two to three seconds, you have a high heat.”
Stupid question #3: How do you organize the charcoals in the grill and get them ready for cooking meat?
If you set up your grill for one type of heat only, your options are pretty limited. What if something is cooking faster than you want? What if your food is flaring up? What if you’re grilling two very different foods at the same time? You should have at least two zones of heat: one for direct heat (where the fire is right under the food) and one for indirect heat (where the fire is off to the side). That way, you can move your food from one zone whenever you like. So spread your lit charcoal across about two-thirds of the charcoal grate, leaving the other third empty. Put the cooking grate in place, close the lid and let the grate get hot. When the coals are gray with ash, they are ready for cooking.
Stupid question #4: How many charcoals should I use?
For a standard-size kettle grill, you should start with 90 to100 briquettes. That’s how many fit inside most chimney starters, which are the best tools for lighting charcoal.
Stupid question #5: How do you know when the charcoals are hot enough to put the meat on the grill?
Each type of meat does best over a certain level of meat. Steaks less than an inch thick should be grilled over direct high heat (450°F to 550°F). Pork chops need to cook all the way to their centers, so medium heat (350°F to 450°F) is better for them. Bigger, tougher cuts of meat, like a pork shoulder, require indirect low heat (about 250°F.) You can see how great it would be to have a thermometer on the grill’s lid. If you don’t have that, there is the “beer can test” where you hold the palm of your hand above the cooking grate at a distance of about one beer can. If you have to pull your hand away within two to three seconds, you have a high heat. If you have to pull it away after five to six seconds, that’s medium heat. For low heat you should be able to hold your hand there for eight to nine seconds. Please don’t curse me when your hand hurts. Get a grill with a thermometer on the lid. It’s safer and more accurate.
“Never prick fresh sausages before grilling. That would let out delicious juices. For the same reasons, turn sausages gently with tongs. Don’t stab them with meat forks.”
Stupid question #6: What’s the easiest thing to start barbecuing with, and how should I do it?
Probably the easiest are sausages. They start out with so much fat and flavor that the odds are stacked in your favor. Here are some tips for doing them just right.
1. The char of grilled sausages beats the blandness of boiled meat every time, but be warned. Fresh sausages cooked over high heat burst apart and lose a lot of juice. If you notice flames, it’s a clear indication that you are squandering precious juices.
2. Fresh sausages do much better over direct medium or even medium-low heat minutes. That way they are nicely browned but not burnt. Even then, you might get some flare-ups, so set up your grilling with safety zone of indirect heat so you can move links to a cooler spot.
3. To play it really safe, you can also cook the fresh sausage from start to finish over indirect medium heat. If they look like they are cooked before they are browned, move them to direct heat for the final couple minutes.
4. Never prick fresh sausages before grilling. That would let out delicious juices. For the same reasons, turn sausages gently with tongs; don’t stab them with meat forks.
5. Another safe option is to pouch fresh sausages first. Simmer them in beer until fully cooked and then take them to the hot grate for final browning. Or you can brown them first over direct medium heat and finish them in beer where they will sit warm and happy until your guests are ready to eat.
6. You can check the doneness of fresh sausages with an instant-read thermometer. Those made with beef, veal, lamb or pork should be cooked to 160°F. Another way to check for doneness is to insert a thin metal skewer from one end into the center and then immediately touch the top of your hand. If it feels hot, the sausage is cooked.
7. When fully cooked, a fresh sausage should be firm to the touch but it should not look shriveled.
8. Emulsified and fully cooked sausages, like hot dogs and kielbasa, do well over direct medium or medium-high heat. That way you can give them a little char while reheating them.
9. You can also butterfly emulsified sausages open like a book and lay all that exposed surface area on the grate over direct heat. You can also cut the links into chunks and grill them on skewers. Or you cut the sausages on the bias and brown them right on the grate
10. Be very careful with low fat sausages like those made with poultry or seafood. You can’t afford to lose what little juiciness they have, so get them off the grill just as soon as they are hot, usually in 5 to 7 minutes.
Stupid question #7: What’s up with the lid? Should I keep it on or off while I’m grilling?
Some people really believe the lid is just to keep the rain out. Wrong. It is there to keep too much air from getting in and too much heat and smoke from getting out. When the lid is closed, the grate is hotter, the grilling times are faster, the smoky tastes are better, and the flare-ups are fewer. So put a lid on it. Having said that, don’t forget to open the vents of a charcoal grill’s lid at least halfway. Every fire needs a little air to keep on burning.
Stupid question #8: What’s something I could grill or barbecue that’s not too tough but would impress my girlfriend? My male neighbors?
A full side of salmon presented on the cedar on which it was cooked makes an impressive statement. The key to cooking the fish perfectly is an instant-read thermometer to tell you the moment when it is just opaque but still moist inside. That way, you don’t have to cut the salmon open and ruin the sensational presentation.
In a container large enough to hold the plank, immerse your (untreated) cedar plank in water for 1 hour or longer. Lift the plank from the water and rinse it. Season a salmon fillet (about 16 inches long, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds) and place it, skin side down, in the middle of the plank. Cook the salmon (on the plank) indirectly over high heat until the middle of the salmon is just opaque but still moist, 30 to 40 minutes. The cedar should smolder and flavor the fish during this time. The internal temperature of the fish should be about 125°F when it is done.
Stupid question #9: What’s the final word on burgers? Flip once or flip many times?
Give ¾-inch burgers 8 to 10 minutes total over medium-high heat to reach a medium doneness, turning them only once or twice; any more and you run the risk of ripping the surface before it has turned into a tasty crust. Oh, and don’t ever smash burgers with a spatula!
“When the lid is closed, the grate is hotter, the grilling times are faster, the smoky tastes are better, and the flare-ups are fewer. So put a lid on it.”
Stupid question #10: What’s the absolute best way to light briquettes?
The best way is with a chimney starter, which is an upright metal cylinder with a handle on the outside and a wire rack inside. Fill the space under the wire rack with a few sheets of wadded-up newspaper or a few paraffin cubes, and then fill the space above the rack with charcoal. Once the charcoal is lit, some impressive thermodynamics channel the heat evenly throughout the fuel, meaning all of the pieces burn evenly and you can start cooking with consistent temperatures all the way across your charcoal fire. When the briquettes are lightly covered with white ash, put on two insulated barbecue mitts and grab hold of the two handles on the chimney starter. The swinging handle is there to help you lift the chimney starter and safely aim the coals just where you want them.
Stupid question #11: Lighter fluid—helpful or a waste of time?
Waste of time and full of nasty chemicals.
Stupid question #12: What’s the biggest mistake beginning grillers make?
We all like food when it is seared to a deep brown color with plenty of beautifully charred bits. The trouble is, many people move their food so often that it doesn’t get enough time in one place to reach that desirable level of color and flavor. In nearly all cases, you should turn food just once or twice. If you are fiddling with it more than that, you are probably also opening the lid too much, which causes its own set of problems.
Stupid question #13: What’s the biggest mistake beginning barbecuers make?
Cooking with dark smoke. Clean streams of whitish smoke can layer your food with intoxicating scents of smoldering wood. But if your fire lacks enough ventilation, or your food is directly over the fire and juices are burning, blackish smoke can taint your food with sooty flavors.
Stupid question #14: What about grilling for my dog?
I love my dog… even more than some humans in my life, but for her all meats taste pretty much the same and she swallows them without regard in just a couple seconds, so I reserve great meats like steaks for people and give the bones to my dog. Serve yours big, dense bones only–the ones your dog can’t swallow whole or splinter.
More about the stupid-question answerer: Jamie Purviance is one of America’s top barbecue experts and Weber’s master griller. Since graduating from Stanford University and the Culinary Institute of America, he has written several cookbooks that have sold millions of copies around the world. His recent books include Weber’s Way to Grill™ (a James Beard Award finalist), Weber’s Smoke™, and Weber’s New Real Grilling™—all New York Times bestsellers.