How to grill: a step-by-step guide for beginners : Life Kit Intimidated by grilling? Cooking over an open flame can do that! In this guide, learn the basics from which type of grill to choose, to how to maintain a fire and create different temperature zones, to tips on tools and safety.

Grilling is easier than you think. Here's how to start

Grilling is easier than you think. Here's how to start

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Plays Well With Butter
Photograph of a hand holding grill tongs and grilling veggies like cauliflower, zucchini and broccoli.
Plays Well With Butter

Grilling isn't just a summer rite of passage for suburban dads – it's for anyone who loves being outside and enjoys that smoky, crispy sear on their meats, vegetables and fruits. But cooking over a flame can intimidate even the most experienced home chefs. There's something about it that feels a little risky!

Don't worry: If you're new to grilling, or feel a little dusty since last season, Jess Larson, founder of Plays Well With Butter, has got you covered. Her tips will help you step up your grill game this summer.

1. Choose your grill

Left: a gas grill; Right: a charcoal grill Plays Well With Butter hide caption

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Plays Well With Butter

Most grills will either be gas or charcoal. Looking for ease? A gas grill might be the way to go. If you're more budget conscious, or excited about learning how to manage a fire, charcoal is your best bet.

Gas grills are more beginner-friendly because they operate more like a kitchen stovetop – you can light the grill instantly and simply dial up the flames or turn them down as needed. "The machine kind of takes out a lot of the guesswork for you," says Larson. "You just set the dials to whatever your recipe calls for and it manages the temperatures."

That's a great bonus when you're also looking to get dinner on the table quickly. But if you're looking for that classic grill look and flavor, charcoal is the way to go.

"A charcoal grill is what comes to mind when you are going to think of grilling, likely that smoky flavor, that iconic kind of kettle look," Larson says, "and it is a great place to start for beginner grillers because charcoal grills end up being a little bit more affordable."

If you're new to grilling, charcoal grills do require a steeper learning curve than gas grills: "Managing a charcoal flame requires just a little bit of experience," says Larson. But once you learn how to do that, you're guaranteed to have that unique-to-grilling charred and smoky flavor you can't get any other way.

2. Light your fire

gif of a hand lighting a charcoal grill with a stick lighter

If you are using a charcoal grill and have to light your own fire, Larson suggests simplifying the process by using a charcoal chimney.

A charcoal chimney is used to light a charcoal grill. Plays Well With Butter hide caption

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Plays Well With Butter
  1. Remove your top grill grate from your grill.
  2. Place your tinder, like lightly crumpled newspaper, at the bottom of your chimney, then turn it over and pour charcoal coals through the top. The more charcoal you use, the hotter your grill will get. Place the chimney on the bottom grate of your grill, and use a long lighter to light your tinder and heat your coals. If you're using lighter cubes, which can make lighting the coals easier, place them directly on your bottom grate and light them before putting your charcoal-filled chimney on top of them. When they're first lit, your coals will glow orange. After about 10-15 minutes, they'll turn a dusty gray, which means they're heated through and ready to use.
  3. Pour the lit coals from your chimney into your grill and arrange them around the charcoal grate depending on what you're cooking and how high you want your heat.
  4. Carefully place back your top grate on your grill. Now, you're ready to start grilling!

If you're using a gas grill, you can buy propane from your local hardware store or connect your grill to a natural gas line if one is available to you.

3. Adjust your heat

If you're using a charcoal grill, create temperature zones by stacking more coals on one end for higher heat, and fewer coals on the other end for lower heat. You can do that by starting more coals in a chimney and pouring them on top of existing coals where you want higher heat.

You can also open vents along the bottom of your grill to let air flow through and burn your coals hotter.

Once you have your heat zones, you can move your food around on the grill to cook it at different heat levels. For meats that can dry out quickly but need to be fully cooked, like chicken, Larson suggests starting it on a lighter heat before finishing it off on high heat for those "crave-worthy charred bits." If you're searing red meat or fish that you don't want to cook all the way through, you could start at a higher heat part of the grill.

If you want to be extra precise or if you're following a recipe that lists temperatures, Larson says you can place an oven thermometer on your grill to get a sense of how hot it is.

4. Embrace ease

Grilling aficionado Jess Larson says grill tongs, an instant-read meat thermometer, a grill spatula and a grill brush are essentials. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Grilling aficionado Jess Larson says grill tongs, an instant-read meat thermometer, a grill spatula and a grill brush are essentials.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

You don't have to do everything the hard way, says Larson. Use lighter cubes, quick-light charcoal or pre-marinated meats if you want to eliminate a tricky or time-consuming step.

And when it comes to grilling, tools are your friend!

Grilling utensils have longer handles, making them safer to use over hot flames. Even Larson, a self-described "minimalist" in the kitchen, says a pair of grill tongs, a grill spatula and grill brush are must-haves – and an instant-read meat thermometer is non-negotiable.

"There's nothing worse than feeling uncertain about when to pull the chicken from the grill so you end up overcooking it and there's just no coming back from that," she says." You can just rely on the tool to do its job and it eliminates all of that uncertainty."

5. Stay safe

The National Fire Protection Association's Susan McKelvey recommends taping bright colored duct tape on the ground near a grill to mark off a boundary easily visible to children. Catie Dull/NPR hide caption

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Catie Dull/NPR

Before you light your grill, read your grill's manual. It'll give you crucial information about how and where to set it up safely. You'll to avoid putting your grill against the side of your house or under a patio roof or someone else's balcony, for example.

"You want to have your grill in open-air so there's a lot of space for the air to circulate and for the heat to disperse itself," says Larson.

If the fire seems like it's getting out of hand, don't panic. "When in doubt, just close the lid [and the vents] and have the fire die out on its own," says Larson. Cutting off the oxygen supply should kill the fire in a matter of minutes. And, just in case, "it's always a good idea to have a fire extinguisher on hand."

"Grilling can unlock a whole different world of flavor for you," says Larson. It can be really fun, too! "It's really just about practicing, and you'll get the hang of it faster than you think."


You can find more of Jess Larson's grilling recipes at Plays Well With Butter or by following @playswellwithbutter on Instagram.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Mansee Khurana. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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