The Secrets to Barbecue Perfection According to Grilling Experts

Getting those perfectly criss-crossed grill marks on meat and fish is an art form. And chefs have some advice to help you master the skill.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is opening up the hood of your grill too much. As Donatella Arpaia explains, this can cause the juices inside to leak out and can result in overdone food.

1. Know Your Meat

The secret to perfectly grilled steak, burgers and other backyard classics is in the quality of the meat you use. But if you’re not sure how to pick the best cuts of meat, you can’t achieve those grilling perfections.

Zuelly explains that choosing high-quality meat starts at the grocery store. She recommends looking for fresh, dark red meat that’s firm. The smell of the meat is another key indicator. If it smells rancid or has a strange, off-putting aroma, it’s not a good choice.

Also, make sure the meat you’re buying is labeled properly. It should have a sell-by date that’s not too far out. It should also be trimmed of excess fat, which helps avoid flare-ups on the grill and prevents the meat from becoming dry. And don’t forget to rotate the meat regularly while it cooks on the grill to create those perfect diamond grill marks.

2. Know Your Grill

Many barbecue enthusiasts love to cook outdoors because the smoky flavor that grilling produces can’t be replicated in an oven or stove. But you can’t get the most out of your grill if you don’t know how to properly use it.

First, you need to clean your grill grates regularly. Using a stiff-bristled brush for steel or cast iron grates and a scrubber for porcelain-coated or non-stick coated grates will help remove any gunk or grime from your cooking surface.

Also, be sure to always attend a lit grill at all times. This helps avoid burns and accidents. Children, pets, or even guests can accidentally bump into a grill, setting it aflame with little warning. It’s also important to stay within 3 feet of a lit grill at all times. This prevents a dangerous accident, and it also keeps your food from being burned.

3. Know Your Sauces

The best barbecue sauces offer a balanced blend of sweet, tangy and spicy. The sweet component is usually sugar, molasses or syrup. Brown sugar is the classic but agave, maple syrup, honey and sorghum also make great additions or supplements. Salt enhances sweetness and balances tanginess and bitterness. Spicy can be achieved with black pepper, but other options include chiles, hot sauces, garlic powder, habanero rib candy glazes and fruit jelly/preserves.

A savory sauce pairs well with beef cuts such as brisket, and is often a base for marinades. Tangy sauces pair well with smoked pork (such as baby back and St. Louis ribs). It is recommended to wait to baste meat with a thick sauce until it is nearing completion, so that the heat does not cause a flare-up. A lighter mop sauce can be used during the final half hour of grilling to moisten and flavor meats.

4. Know Your Rubs

It is important to know your rubs when barbecuing because they can add a lot of flavor. Isaac Toups, chef and owner of Toups Meatery in New Orleans, says that he prefers using dry rubs to marinades because they provide the same flavors without adding calories and fat. For the best results, use a pork BBQ rub that delivers punch.

He recommends sprinkling salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and cumin on meat and rubbing it in liberally. Then, he says to spritz the rub with water so it doesn’t burn and also to help cook the food through.

To prevent flare-ups, he recommends wiping down the grates with a towel dipped in a neutral cooking oil before you start grilling. He also suggests soaking wooden skewers in water before placing them on the grill to avoid burning them. This will make them pliable and easier to handle.

5. Know Your Temperatures

Temperature is a crucial factor in cooking, not only because it affects food quality and flavor but also because it can pose health risks when food is cooked at the wrong temperature. Using a meat thermometer helps ensure that your food is cooked to the proper internal temperature for safe consumption.

Grills are designed to cook at higher temperatures than stove tops or ovens, which means that they will reach their optimum cooking temperature faster. Keeping a clean grill grates is important for not only taste, but also for safety. The charred residue of previously cooked meats can transfer to the new foods on your grill and cause them to be undercooked.

Most grills come with built-in thermometers, but these read the air temperature, not the grate temperature. A digital or instant-read meat thermometer should be used to get an accurate reading at grate level.

6. Know Your Time

When you’re barbecuing it’s always important to remember that good things come to those who are patient. It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and under pressure when you’re grilling that you can easily lose track of time. And when you do, the results can be disastrous.

Over-cooking your meat will result in it becoming dry and chewy, while under cooking will leave you with a spongy texture that’s difficult to enjoy. Thankfully, these mistakes are easy to avoid if you’re prepared. And, if you do manage to avoid these BBQ blunders, it’ll put you well on your way to becoming an expert griller! So, keep reading for some helpful tips and tricks. And, don’t forget to invest in a top quality chimney starter! It’ll help you to light your charcoal more easily and without making a mess.

7. Know Your Cuts

You can make your burgers and steaks more flavorful by choosing cuts that come from the front of the animal. Front cuts—like the ribeye and loin—are tender and have more flavor. Cuts from the limbs are tougher and may need to be marinated or slow-cooked to achieve tenderness.

Knowing your cuts can also help you avoid flare-ups, which happen when grease drips onto the fire and catches fire. Flare-ups can cause carcinogenic PAHs to form on your food and can burn the outside of your meat before it’s fully cooked. Keep a squirt bottle of water nearby to douse flare-ups. You can also try pushing the coals to one side of the grill or roasting on indirect heat, which can help control temperatures and prevent flare-ups. The skewers you use are important, too. If you’re using wooden ones, soak them in cold water for 30 minutes before using to avoid burning and to ensure they won’t splinter when you flip your food.

8. Know Your Method

It’s important to keep your grill clean to prevent food-borne illnesses. Harmful germs can quickly multiply at room temperature, so it’s essential to thaw meat and seafood in the refrigerator or cold water and wash hands before and after handling raw foods. Also, make sure to clean your utensils and the grill before and after cooking to avoid cross-contamination.

Another tip from Lampe is to find a hot spot on the grill and position your food there, lightly pressing it down. If you’re having trouble getting those coveted grill marks, he says to move your food to a new hot spot on the grill and let it cook until the marks appear again.

When it comes to BBQ, large, tough cuts of meat with sinewy connective tissue benefit from the low and slow process. That’s why you see brisket and ribs at barbecue restaurants — they take time to reach their target temperatures while the collagen in the meat breaks down and tenderizes the protein.

9. Know Your Flavors

It’s no secret that flavor is key when grilling. It’s what makes your burgers, lamb kebabs and zucchini lollipops taste so delicious. But what’s less known is that the way you season your food can affect its final taste as well.

For example, “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio believes that using indirect heat is best for certain cuts of meat because it gives the connective tissues more time to break down, resulting in tenderness. Plus, it helps to avoid flare-ups, which can occur when dripping fat and oil hits the hot grill.

In fact, he recommends putting sprigs of herbs on the grill alongside your food to help infuse the flavors into your grilled foods. (Just be sure to tie them together so they don’t fall through the grates!) Try out these expert tips to take your grilling game to the next level this summer.

10. Know Your Temperatures

Temperature plays a huge role in the food we cook, and it can have significant impacts on both the flavor and quality of our dishes. It’s also a major safety factor, as eating undercooked meat can cause serious health issues.

One of the best ways to ensure your meals are cooked to the right temperature is to use a thermometer. Many grills come with a built-in one, and if yours doesn’t, they’re relatively cheap to purchase and easy to use.

If you don’t have a thermometer, you can try holding your hand about 6 inches above the grate and see how long it takes to get uncomfortable (but remember, never hold your hand over an open flame). This gives you a rough idea of the grill’s temperature.

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