May is National Barbecue Month, and Memorial Day is the official start of summer on America’s East Coast. I have lived in New York for a great many years, and to this day, I dread East Coast outdoor cooking. You see, I grew up out in Colorado, where the west begins, and that means cooking outdoors year round. Yes, I have had steaks right off the grill for Christmas and at New Year’s. And my wife is from Alabama, where they invented barbecue. We take cooking outdoors seriously, and you could improve the quality of life here immensely if you did, too.
First off, let’s understand what it is we’re doing here. I am talking about grilling, not barbecue. The difference is about 10 hours worth of hard work. That’s barbecue, meat slowly cooked over low heat — I lack the patience and the talent to pull it off. If you find someone who is good at it, propose marriage immediately, changing your sexual orientation if need be. Barbecue experts are few and far between. Grilling, on the other hand, is cooking food quickly on much higher heat, which is easier and less time-consuming. That’s the topic for today.
The first mistake made in this neck of the woods is the gas grill. They are expensive, and for all the good they do the meat, you may as well just put a hot dog on a fork and hold it over the gas burner of your kitchen stove. Yes, they heat up quickly — so does a microwave, and you don’t grill with those either. And I’ve seen the kind of gas grills that come with the smoker and the other accoutrements to give it that “real outdoor taste.” Save yourself a few hundred bucks, and get a charcoal grill.
OK, so we have a charcoal grill, and that implies that we have charcoal, which needs to be set alight. And that’s where the second mistake usually comes in. Never, ever buy the charcoal that can be lit with a match. This stuff has accelerant throughout, and it will leave an oily, nasty taste on anything you put near it, to say nothing of the cancer and other crud you’ll contract from ingesting petroleum products.
If you must use lighter fluid, use it sparingly. It’s the same horrible stuff that the match-ready charcoal has soaked in, but you don’t use as much, and it is only on the surface of the fuel. There’s a chance it will all burn off, but purists say it doesn’t.
You’re infinitely better off with a charcoal chimney or an electric charcoal starter. The chimney is a very simple device, just a cylinder that you put the charcoal in with a second chamber beneath it for crumpled-up paper. Light the paper, and the charcoal will catch. Electric starters are like the cigarette lighters in cars, an electric coil that gets hot. Cover it in charcoal, plug it in and wait.
Next, when the coals are covered lightly in gray ash, spread them out. If your grill is big enough, don’t spread it evenly. Instead, create a hot and not-hot section so that you have more control over the temperature. And then add some wood chips.
Charcoal is great, but adding wood smoke to the recipe is even better. As a rule, I use hickory for pork and chicken and mesquite for beef. I know that has offended just about every Texas brisket fan in the Lone Star State, but we aren’t barbecuing here — y’all take a deep breath and relax. Whatever you do, don’t just grab some wood from the backyard. Pine, for instance, will give your food that “just-doused-in-turpentine” flavor that will cause you to wake up screaming even decades later. The wood should smolder as you cook, not burst into flame.
At last, we come to the food. Season it ahead of time, a few hours ahead if you have that much time. Onion soup mix for the burgers (turkey or beef) with a dash of barbecue sauce. Marinate the steak in a little red wine. Use some lemon on the chicken or give it a dry rub of herbs and spices (store-bought rubs are perfectly OK). It doesn’t much matter what you use, but you need to use something. The definition of disappointment is the feeling you have when you bite into a piece of chicken that tastes only of chicken.
There is one exception to this, and that is any kind of sausage. Hot dogs, brats, kielbasa, none of them need any extra help. However, I happen to take the view that they must all contain pork. I realize that this upsets at least two major religions, and a Nathan’s dog at Coney Island is a “must-do” for any New Yorker. However, in my back yard on my grill, there will be pork in the sausage.
After an appropriate seasoning, give the grill a quick wipe with a vegetable-oil soaked paper towel. Then, put the food on. If you are cooking beef, and it comes out a little under-done, just put it back. When it comes to chicken or pork, though, you want to make sure that it’s cooked all the way through. Do yourself a favor and use a meat thermometer. It’s not the way the cowboys used to do it, but there is such a thing as progress.
And feel free to put veggies on the grill, too. Those who don’t eat meat often complain there is little for them at a cookout. That is the cook’s lack of vision. Eggplant, zucchini, corn on the cob, peppers, asparagus, and, yes, even pineapple grill up beautifully. Just use a little oil on them before they hit the heat.
Lastly, the sauce. Do not put any sauce on any meat until you’re just a couple of minutes away from taking it off the grill. There are sugars in virtually every sauce out there, and they caramelize quickly. It will make your food look burned even if it doesn’t taste that way. I prefer Big Bob Gibson Red sauce for beef and White for chicken, either variety with pork. You have to order that online unless you live down South. If that’s a pain, Bull’s-Eye and Cattlemen’s are both great. If you prefer to experiment, you can always buy the sauce from Heinz or your store brand and jazz them up.
Happy grilling, and may you never eat a kosher dog cooked on a gas grill.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist to TheBlot Magazine.