It’s easy to cook well on a grill. Cook with coal and not gas. Use lots of kosher salt. Have the grill be hot on one side and cold on the other. A few simple maxims that I have elaborated on in the past will guide any American through a lifetime of grilling.
And yet there are still so many ways to mess things up.
So let me do something this year that offers some real value. Let me lift the burden of error off the shoulders of a misled nation by highlighting five grilling mistakes to be avoided:
Clean Grills are Overrated. This will no doubt be the most disputed of my assertions, and I can already hear the “Ews” and “Fehs” coming from the lips of meticulous homemakers – the kind of people that buy $8000 chrome-plated grills and then use them to boil water for corn. I have made a lot of grills dirty in my time: greasy, black, crusty, hideous. And if the choice were between scouring off all that grime and having it smear onto your food, I agree, there would be no choice at all. But that grill sits atop a bank of hot coals, and those hot coals have a tendency to burn off most of the dirt. A few quick swipes with an oily rag will get off the remainder, and what it doesn’t, won’t bother you. You don’t want your fish, eggplant, or meat to stick; but the grill doesn’t have to look like new, either. Looks, like ease of lighting, is very overrated.
Don’t Overmarinate. There’s no question that if you leave a spare rib or a piece of skirt steak in a potent brew of red wine, oregano, orange zest, garlic, and 45 other things, it will take on those flavors. But it will take on those flavors in 15 minutes too. And the big pieces that you are so often advised to let endlessly steep in fluid? Only thinnest nimbus of flesh actually gets affected by it. The one exception is that of long, enzymatic tenderization, such as happens with unripe papaya or buttermilk. If you are looking to do enzymatic tenderization, knock yourself out. If you are trying to jam some extra flavor into a lean piece of beef or a salmon steak, just throw it in the marinade when you first light the coals. By the time they’re ready, the meat or fish will be as well. And if it isn’t? You can always apply more as it cooks. In fact, do that anyway.
Woodchips Are Not Just For Smoke. Generally, your cooking-fuel choices are presented to you in the following way. If you want convenience at all costs, and are too lazy and indifferent to bother cooking with live fires, there is propane. Then there is conventional charcoal, and lump charcoal. The first burns more evenly, lasts longer, and costs less; the other one tastes better, burns hotter, and is is made up of 100% wood (conventional charcoal has various fillers, including coal dust.) But there’s a third option, and it’s actually better than any charcoal: actual wood, of the kind usually found in plastic bags at Lowe’s or Home Depot. These are invariably prescribed as smoke elements; you are meant to soak them in water and add them to fires as incense. Which is fine, but why not just set them on fire? They are wood; they burn; they taste good when they burn; and many of the things you want to cook in summer, like burgers and steaks, aren’t big enough to take long smoking. If you want them to taste like wood, cook them over wood.
Don’t Grind Your Own. Part of the artisanal burger revolution that may have gone too far has been the over-reliance on home grinding. Grinding is a miserable business. It’s a huge mess, involving industrial machinery no home was ever meant to have. The custom flavor profiles (Beefy and robust from short rib and sirloin; sweet and light from brisket; mellow and lush from shoulder chuck) aren’t worth the trouble. The fact is that it doesn’t matter if you are using dry-aged wagyu porterhouse tips; once you cook a hamburger beyond medium (which is to say a juicy pink), it’s all basically Whopper meat. And even Whopper meat is better, well-seasoned, than butcher cuts cooked nude. The fact of the matter is that the 80% lean bulk ground beef sold in most supermarkets is perfectly delicious, and actually safer than the meat you got from the lovable old coot at the Grimy Grotto butcher shop down on the corner (or Fleshlight Provisions, its hipster rival downtown.) Don’t even get me started on metal shavings and mold.
Meat Juices Are Not a Biohazard. We’ve all been trained to regard the slightest hint of cross-contamination as tantamount to a battlefield blood transfusion. And maybe they are. (I myself am utterly indifferent to the threat, a fact to bear in mind if I ever cook for you.) But whatever the dangers of raw meat juices, either mixed or singularly, there is no question that the hot meat juices are the very life-essence of your food. And as such, they need to be preserved. That means letting the meat sit until they have settled, and lovingly coating each sliced piece on both sides with it. Most of all, it means mixing it in with whatever sauce you have come up with, whether it’s some food-mag clipout recipe, or simply a bottle of Heinz 57. The more juice is in it, the better it will be for everybody. Trust me on this.
Yes, there are plenty of other mistakes we all make when we grill. We cook things too much, or not enough; we let it sit around and get cold; we forget to bring out things from the kitchen until the moment we need them, and it’s too late. I would tell you not to make these mistakes, but I make them myself. Everybody does. But there are a few mistakes I don’t make, and now hopefully you won’t either.