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Tastes of Texas: A Grilling Primer

Spring is here. It is time to grill.

The original spirit of this article was going to celebrate the fact that spring is here, and that we're all looking forward to cooking as many meals outdoors as humanly possible in the upcoming months. Unfortunately, as many of you across this great state are aware, winter keeps rearing its ugly head after we let our guard down from protracted periods of warmth (my deepest condolences to those of you up in Lubbock dealing with snow in the middle of April). Regardless, this blustery siege will eventually end, and we all will be enjoying our time in the back yard soon enough.

In that theme, I wanted to move away from the BBQ tips and tricks and talk a bit more about grilling. After all, BBQ takes an enormous amount of preparation and commitment, and we don't always have the time or energy to execute a perfectly slow smoked piece of beef or pork. That's where the grill comes in. While I will always prefer the art of BBQ, grilling certainly has its place in the outdoor cooking world, and I would consider BBQing and grilling to be opposite sides of the same coin. Some foods need to be cooked hot and fast to achieve the best flavor profile, and the smoker certainly isn't the tool for that job, so let's dive into some of the more common grilling related questions.

Disclaimer: I know a lot of this will be second nature to a lot of y'all, but I wanted to cover some of the basics for people who may not yet be masters of the grilling arts.

Gas vs. Charcoal
One of the most common questions in the grilling world is whether you should cook over gas or charcoal. There obviously isn't a definitive answer to this question, but there are benefits and drawbacks to each approach.

Gas grills are infinitely more convenient than charcoal grills, and the temperature of your cooking surface is much easier to maintain. When it is time to grill, all you have to do with a gas grill is fire up the burners, regulate the temperature to your liking, and cook. However, the ease comes with several drawbacks. First, gas grills are usually much more expensive than charcoal grills. There are cheap gas grills on the market, but if you want a solid, reliable grill you're probably looking at spending a decent amount of money on a good set up. Second, the flavor of gas grilled meat is (arguably) not as good as charcoal because there is no smoke flavor imparted into the food. However, the superior flavor of cooking with charcoal presents its own challenges because it is much more difficult to maintain a consistent temperature when grilling with charcoal.

Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes
Assuming you make the decision to grill over charcoal, the next question people often have is what type of charcoal to buy. Generally speaking, there are two types: lump charcoal and briquettes. Lump charcoal is charcoal naturally burned down from wood and contains no additives. Briquettes, on the other hand, are heavily processed, contain a lot of filler material, and require lighter fluid to start. On the surface, one would assume that lump charcoal is the clear decision for grilling, but briquettes do have certain advantages. Because briquettes are so heavily processed they will burn hotter, longer, and at a more consistent temperature than lump charcoal. Additionally, briquettes can be started with lighter fluid while lump charcoal normally requires a separate chimney starter. Which brings us to...

Lighter fluid or not?
The standard way of starting a charcoal grill for years has been to stack up the coals, pour on the lighter fluid, and toss a match. Recently though, many have cried out against this technique claiming that it makes the subsequent grilled food taste like a petroleum byproduct. Personally, I have never been able to tell a difference, but if you're convinced that lighter fluid adds a bad taste to food, you can purchase a chimney starter at most stores. To light with a chimney starter, fill the chimney up with coals, set the chimney on a solid surface, light a piece of paper with a lighter, and place the lit paper under the chimney, lighting the coals from the bottom up. This process takes much longer, but it should alleviate any concerns you have using lighter fluid.

When are the coals ready?
Generally speaking, the coals are ready when they are completely greyed over. If you cook most foods before this point your fire will have an inconsistent temperature, and you are much more subject to flare ups. That said, if I'm cooking something like a steak that won't be on the grill for long I will sometimes start grilling before the coals are completely ready because I want my fire as hot as possible, and flare ups won't hurt the finished product IF you pay very close attention to the degree of the flare ups. Assuming the former situation, when your coals are completely greyed over in a pile, spread them out, and then place your grate on the grill to preheat.

Why is my meat sticking?
Your cooking surface is likely not hot enough, or you are turning the meat too quickly, or both. The biggest mistake I see people make when grilling is not letting the cooking grate preheat long enough at the beginning. Always let the grill preheat at least 15 minutes to get the cooking surface hot enough to sear the seasoning onto the meat (the Maillard reaction). When this reaction happens the meat should not stick to your cooking grates.

How often should I flip the meat?
This is a widely debated topic. Many grill purists will say to flip the meat only once during cooking to achieve those perfect grill marks, but there are some practical problems with this approach. First, you obviously don't want to burn the meat if you have built an especially hot fire. This situation can occur when you are cooking meat that takes a long time to get ready such as thick pork chops or bone in chicken. You have to have a big enough fire to finish the cook, but that also means the cooking surface will likely be too hot at the beginning, forcing you to "babysit" the meat, flipping it constantly. Second, different parts of your grill are going to be hotter than others, so you may have to flip and move the meat to different areas to ensure everything is ready at the same time. Essentially, if you can pull it off, only flipping everything once will create a very aesthetically pleasing product with perfect grill marks, but it certainly isn't necessary. If you have a perfect fire, go for it, but don't ruin an otherwise good cook out for the sake of presentation.

When is the food ready?
The easy answer? Use a meat thermometer and pull the meat off a few degrees before it reaches the perfect internal temperature (remember the meat keeps cooking after it leaves the grill). Otherwise, grilling by "feel" without the use of a thermometer is simply a process that takes time and practice to perfect.

What did I miss, BONizens? I'm sure there are questions you have that I didn't discuss. Likewise, I realize there are a multitude of grilling techniques out there, and many of you probably have different tried and true methods. I look forward to discussing all of this with you in the comments.

Happy grilling.