Lobel's Prime Time GrillingRecipes and Tips from America's #1 Butchers
John Wiley & SonsCopyright © 2007 Stanley Lobel
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-471-75682-8
Chapter One A BUTCHER'S EYE VIEW OF GRILLING BASICS
Before the grill, before the fuel, before the perfect summer afternoon, you need good meat. This is our first and most important piece of advice: Buy the best you can afford, handle it with care, and then, when the fire is hot enough, when the meat has been allowed to come to cool room temperature, and when you start to get hungry, carefully lay it on the grill rack and anticipate an outstanding meal. Our second rule is: Use a grill you enjoy and trust.
Various grill experts tout the virtues of a particular kind of grill. We admit to having our favorites, but when you get right down to it, what you have or what you like is the best grill for you. Make sure the grill is large enough, that neither the grill rack nor the firebox is rusted, and that you are comfortable cooking on it. If these criteria are not met, perhaps it is time to consider buying a new grill. For instance, there's no good reason to hold onto a flimsy tabletop grill with short, stubby legs if you would be more at ease with a waist-high standing grill.
Some aficionados swear by brazier-style grills with racks that can be raised or lowered, but we prefer grills with covers and stationary (but removable) grill racks. By opening the cover, you can use the grill as a brazier and by replacing the lid, you can raise the temperature of the cooking chamber and thus affect the cooking time. Opening and closing the vents in the lid can influence cooking temperatures, too.
Covered charcoal grills can be round or rectangular. Very few are equipped with racks that move up and down, so all food is cooked about six inches from the fire. We tested the recipes in this book with such grills, as well as with gas grills. We have observed that a majority of charcoal grills available at hardware stores and large discount chains are either covered grills, hibachis, or inexpensive tabletop grills-the sort you might take to the beach but that are next to useless for serious grilling, although for a few burgers or some hot dogs they are just fine.
With covered grills, the grill lid traps the smoke, which infuses the food with outdoorsy flavor, while at the same time smothering flare-ups. But don't think for a minute that the smoke "smokes" food (which in fact is a form of cooking) the way a smoker does. Most covered charcoal grills have vents, or dampers, on both the top of the lid and the bottom of the grill, making it easy to control the heat. If the fire is burning too slowly, open a bottom vent to add a little oxygen to feed the fire. If the food is cooking too quickly, open a top vent to allow some heat to escape.
The most popular covered grill is the kettle-style grill, which is round with a domed lid that, rather than being hinged, lifts off completely. The round kettle reflects and deflects the heat evenly, which is particularly advantageous when you are cooking large pieces of meat such as turkey breasts, standing rib roasts, or even whole chickens.
Covered grills are small or large, with some table-top models suitable for balcony or boat-deck grilling. With these versatile grills, you can cook over direct heat or not, depending on how you arrange the coals. You can sear the meat on the open rack, marking it nicely with grid lines and sealing in the juices, and then cover the grill to keep the fire hot and the food cooking evenly. At the end of cooking, remember to remove the lid so that the meat develops a crispy crust.
Hibachis are small, Japanese-style brazier grills that are generally well made and just about perfect for some grilling needs. If you have a small backyard and a small family, there is a lot that you can cook perfectly well on a hibachi. These approximately 10 x 15-inch iron grills are excellent for grilling steaks, chops, and chicken breasts that need hot, direct heat. For success, lay the pieces of food close together on the grill rack so that they nearly touch and cover the rack almost completely to hold in heat. When the party is over, move the hibachi to a protected place-it will rust in the rain.
Gas grills have surpassed charcoal as the most popular kind of grill for backyard cooking. Their prices have dropped since we worked on the first edition of this book and although they still cost significantly more than charcoal grills, they are affordable for most families, particularly since with care they last for years. Even as we confess to a slight preference for charcoal grills because of the flavor imparted to the food, we admit that we grill on gas grills all the time. Why? They are so convenient! A gas grill essentially is an outdoor gas stovetop. The fire is lit and the heat is controlled by the turn of a knob, and because there are always at least two burners or grates-and sometimes more-it is an easy matter to move food to the "cooler part of the grill" for slow cooking and push it back to the hottest part of the fire when necessary. You just turn one burner down or off and leave the other going full blast or less. Most gas grills don't burn quite as hot as the hottest charcoal fire, but they reach temperatures more than adequate for backyard grilling needs (the exception to this are gas grills with very high Btu, as explained below). Grill makers now also offer what they call hybrid grills, which are gas grills that serve as sizable, standard backyard grills and are relatively easy to carry with you for grilling in the park or at the beach.
Some gas grills are connected to the main gas line coming into the house, making them as ready to use as the kitchen stove. These often are built into the patio or deck as a feature for an outdoor kitchen, a concept that is growing in popularity, especially in warmer climates. However, most gas grills are fueled by canned propane gas. The propane is inexpensive-usually you refill the common 20-pound cans at a local gas station or hardware store-and one can lasts for up to nine hours of grilling, or for 20 to 25 meals. For some folks, this means only one or two fill-ups during a summer, while for others (like us!) it can mean multiple trips to the gas station. We have two cans that fit our grills, and keep the second one filled and on hand in case the first one runs out while the turkey is roasting or the burgers are sizzling. This is safe. Keep the filled propane can out of the sun and away from house, just as you do the grill.
What to Look For in a Gas Grill
Big, sleek gas grills can be extremely fancy, with multiple grates (burners) and side burners (similar to those you have on the stove) suitable for keeping the sauce warm or boiling the marinade. Others are pretty basic: two burners and removable grill racks. The higher priced gas grills might have built-in thermometers; removable pans for wood chips, charcoal, or liquids that you might want to use to flavor food; warming racks; storage cabinets; side tables; removable ash pans; infrared burners for quick searing; built-in coolers for beer and soda; and enough Btu to fuel a small rocket ship!
British thermal units (Btu) are a measure of the heat output. The most basic gas grills have 20,000 to 25,000 Btu, while the high-end grills can go much higher. Some boast 12,000 Btu for each burner (with four burners, or grates, that means 48,000 Btu). A burner that puts out 12,000 Btu reaches temperatures of 1,600ºF, while a single burner on most gas grills reaches about 600ºF. When you cook on a grill with very high Btu, you will sear a thick steak in no time, but you could also incinerate a more delicate duck breast before you know it.
But don't obsess about Btu! Instead look for a grill's versatility. This means the size of the grill and its cooking surface, the configuration of the grates (they should be close together so that food does not slip through them), and the material used to make them. We recommend porcelain-coated cast-iron grates, although porcelain-coated steel and plain stainless steel are also good. The coated cast iron conducts heat beautifully, which is why it gets an enthusiastic nod from us.
Finally, when you invest in a gas grill, remember that what is right for your neighbor may not be exactly right for you. Only you can decide what features on a grill will enhance your own cooking style and the needs of your family.
Charcoal grills need charcoal, and when you meander down the supermarket aisle these days you may be astounded by the variety available. This is good news because it means it is now easy to buy our fuel of choice, hardwood lump charcoal, which may also be called natural charcoal. We like it because it burns hotter, longer, and cleaner than standard briquettes, and although it is irregularly shaped and so a little clumsy to use, we go for it every time. These lumps are made from hardwoods such as oak, maple, cherry, mesquite, and hickory. Some people wrongly assume that burning mesquite or hickory charcoal will give their grilled food a distinctive flavor. On the contrary, these charcoals may smoke a little more than other types of coals, but any perceptible imparted flavor will be subtle at best.
If a noticeable wood-smoke flavor is your goal, buy hardwood chunks. These are pieces of wood-not wood that has been compressed into charcoal. The wood requires a good 40 or 45 minutes to get hot enough for grilling, burns more quickly than charcoal, and never reaches the same high temperatures-but the flavor of the wood is easily discernible on the food without being unpleasant. Wood also produces more smoke than charcoal. For these reasons, charcoal is generally the favorite fuel of the backyard chef. Experimenting with wood, however, can be fun. For a distinctly smoky flavor, you need to smoke the food. We address smoking later in the chapter.
None of this is to say that standard briquettes are not good fuel. They are evenly shaped and less expensive than hardwood lump charcoal-two attributes that many folks appreciate. But they burn more quickly and a little cooler than hardwood lump charcoal, so you may need more briquettes if you are grilling for any length of time-such as cooking a roast or large whole chicken. Unless you buy the super-duper discount special (the cheapest you can find), standard briquettes burn evenly and cleanly. However, we caution against extremely cheap charcoal. It burns "dirty," partly because it has been made with fillers such as second- or third-rate sawdust, and it also burns quickly, so you will need more, which can quickly counteract any financial savings.
We also do not recommend self-lighting briquettes, which are saturated with chemicals so that they ignite with a match as easily as a wad of newspaper. This convenience product imparts an unappetizing oily flavor to the food. The manufacturer may claim that the chemicals "burn off" once the charcoal reaches cooking temperatures, and while many do, we can't help but notice a residual flavor-even if it's only in our imaginations.
Like wood chunks, wood chips provide real wood flavor. However, these cannot be considered fuel, but merely flavoring agents. They may be labeled "smoking chips" and commonly are from woods such as oak, cherry, maple, aspen, hickory, apple, and-the all-time favorite-mesquite. Some companies even market wine-infused chips. The small pieces of wood, sold everywhere from gourmet specialty markets to hardware stores, smoke just enough to give food a mild, smoky flavor. The chips must be soaked in water to cover for 20 to 30 minutes before they are scattered over the hot coals or the hot heating elements in a gas grill to produce a good smoke cloud. Too many chips can dampen the fire or extinguish it completely, so use wood chips judiciously. Also, it's important to use only recommended hardwoods for chips or for chunks-soft woods such as pine, spruce, or cedar produce billows of bitter, acrid smoke. Don't confuse the smoke from wood chips used in a charcoal or gas grill with smoking. Smoking is a completely different cooking method, which we discuss on page 11.
Water-soaked fresh herb sprigs, citrus peel, and cinnamon sticks also can be used to make aromatic smoke. However, don't expect any of these smoke makers to flavor the food very much. They are no replacement for spice rubs and marinades. But they make the air smell wonderful and enhance the entire grilling experience-which is why we love them.
Building and Lighting the Fire
When figuring the amount of coals you will need for most grilling, estimate that about five pounds of standard briquettes or three to four pounds of hardwood lump charcoal are adequate for 30 or 40 minutes of grilling in a standard-size kettle grill. Another way to figure this amount is to spread the briquettes in a single layer in the firebox so that the surface area is slightly larger than that of the food. If you will be grilling for longer than 30 or 40 minutes, you will need to add six or seven fresh coals to the fire to maintain the temperature and then add more every 25 or 30 minutes after that.
There are several ways to light coals. One of the most popular is to use a chimney starter. To use these sturdy, inexpensive metal cylinders, pile the charcoal in the larger, top section of the chimney, stuff crumbled newspaper in the bottom, and light the paper. The coals ignite as the heat from the paper fire sweeps up the chimney. When the top briquettes are barely covered with gray ash, pour them into the firebox, and spread them out for direct cooking or stack them for indirect cooking. (The firebox is the bottom portion of the grill that safely contains the coals during cooking and then, when you are done, as they cool.)
Electric starters are effective, too, although the grill must be close to an electric outlet. The looped heating element is attached to a heatproof handle. To use, spread briquettes in the firebox, lay the electric starter over them, and then pile more briquettes over it. In a very short time, the coals near the starter will be smoldering. Remove the starter and push the coals into a mound until all are covered with gray ash. Some charcoal grills come equipped with a built-in electric starter, which makes the chore of starting the coals easier than ever. Any grill with an electric starter or electric cooking elements needs a nearby outlet.
You can also use solid starters, which are small blocks of pressed wood fibers that are saturated with flammable chemicals and ignite quickly. Unlike self-lighting briquettes, the amount of flammable chemicals is so tiny that the starters impart no unpleasant flavors.
Liquid starter, or charcoal lighter fluid, is the most popular ignition agent in America. If not used correctly, it is a backyard accident waiting to happen. To use a liquid starter properly, pile the briquettes in the center of the firebox and sprinkle evenly and thoroughly with the lighter fluid (read the instructions on the bottle for best results). Let the fluid permeate the coals for about one minute, and then light the coals in several places with long safety matches. When the coals are covered with gray ash, spread them out for grilling. Some people complain that liquid starters make the food "taste funny," but in fact, the starters burn off long before the coals are ready and no residual flavor remains. However, they do smell oily while they are burning, which may be the cause for the complaint.
Liquid starters turn dangerous when impatient grill chefs squirt them onto already hot coals to "speed up the process" or if they are not sure the coals actually ignited. Too often this results in scary flare-ups and perhaps singed eyebrows, or worse. For this reason, never let children use liquid starters and never use gasoline!
Direct and Indirect Grilling
You may be perplexed by these terms, although they are quite logical. Because the heat of a grill cannot be regulated by the turn of a knob as it can on the stove, backyard cooks have come up with two basic ways to cook: on hot grills and on not-so-hot grills. It's as simple and sensible as that, and as you become accustomed to your grill and your own likes and predispositions, you will probably find yourself using these methods or combinations of them without really thinking about them.