Grill Upgrade: Grill Better with American Test Kitchen

When we have questions about home cooking tips and tricks, we often turn to our friends at America’s Test Kitchen. Their crews spend countless hours grilling, so we asked Dan Souza, Editor-in-Chief of Cook’s Illustrated, for a guide to grilling. He talks to Managing Producer Sally Swift about different fire settings, the proper use of grilled vents, and why a small torch can be useful. Try the expertly hand-cooked Mojo Marinated Skirt Steak from America’s Test Kitchen cookbook.
Sally Swift: I want to start with some of the mistakes people make when grilling. Can you tell us about some common mistakes?
Dan Souza: Many people only grill when the weather is warm. So, a whole year goes by and then they pick up some bad habits or never understand the best practices. There are a few places where it’s not hard to get it right, but it’s easy to get it wrong.
First, if you’re using a charcoal grill and want to fire it up quickly. Many people will opt for lighter liquids, which seems like a good choice. But when testing with lighter fluid and spontaneously igniting charcoal, we found that most of it burns, but you can still get a lingering flavor from lighter fluid, especially if you’re cooking very soft food. We recommend staying away from lighter liquids. A good option is to use a chimney starter. They can be found anywhere, they are not expensive and last a long time.
SS: When you use the starter, how do you know when the coal is ready? Do they have to be all white? Does it have a flame?
DS: You shouldn’t be able to see the flame when it’s done. You will see flames and a lot of smoke at the beginning of the process, then it will die down. When the coals are ready for shipment, they should be sprinkled on top with a small amount of white ash.
DS: Yes. If they are still black, then they are not ready. You are looking for that thin layer of ash. You will also see them sinking slightly into the chimney. That’s when they’re ready to go. If you drop them ahead of time, you run the risk of the fire going out or heating up unevenly.
DS: Let’s start with charcoal, which has three main modes: single stage, two stage, and centralized. A single-layer fire is when coal is poured out evenly over the entire surface. This is useful when you want to roast and cook at the same time. Think small pieces like sausage or boneless, skinless chicken breast. You’ll get a nice charred outside, but you’re also cooking at medium speed.
Two heat levels is good when you have a large piece and need to lightly brown it to the middle, but you also want to brown it and get some charring. All you have to do is flood the entire chimney half way down the grill, so you have these two zones: a very hot zone and a cold indirect zone. Place the bone-in chicken breasts in a cool place over indirect heat and cook until they are almost cooked through. Then you simply move them to the hot side to fry. This is a good method for large foods that require these two different calorie levels.
The final setting is what we call focused fire. Here we circle the coals to a small area. Sometimes we use a disposable aluminum grill pan with the bottom cut off, put a full charcoal flue in it and cook right on it. This works for things like cooking steaks and hamburgers where you need a big difference between outside and inside. So, for a steak, we want a good charred steak with a lot of charring on the outside, and inside we need about 125 degrees or medium rare. We want this difference.
DS: That’s a good question, and an important one. If you’re using a gas grill, they usually don’t have the power of a charcoal grill. Therefore, we often recommend keeping the lid ajar when using a gas grill. Never light a gas grill with the lid down as it can trap gas and cause some problems. Light it with the lid open, but in most cases when you are cooking on a gas grill, the lid should be down. This will make it hotter inside.
The opposite is true when you’re using a charcoal grill, as it’s all about airflow. If you remove the lid from a charcoal grill, more air will pass through it, so it will burn harder. If you’re cooking dishes like burgers and steaks and need a really hot fire, cook without a lid. If you are cooking something lower and slower, such as grilling or indirect roasts that are about to char, you will have to cook with a lid on.
Use charcoal, it will slow down if you put on the lid. This leads to another benefit – slatted vents. I think a lot of people don’t understand what to do with grilled vents and what they are for. They actually have a big impact on the temperature of the grill. As I mentioned, the airflow is for controlling the fire with a charcoal grill. The grill vents are located at the bottom and top of the grill. If you leave them fully open, you will get more air and your grill will be hotter. If you start to cover them, maybe half or three quarters, you will cool the fire. If you close them completely, you may put out the fire because there will be no more air flow.
DS: Yes. Cleaning is a big deal and it definitely starts with an ash bucket. If it becomes clogged, it will restrict air flow. If you have a grease trap on your gas grill, you’ll need to open it up and look inside to make sure it’s clean. If you have a lot of fat and have a fire, you can get a lot of fat, which can be dangerous and definitely uncomfortable.
SS: I have a question about when you want something to be charred on coals. I have seen people place fuel canisters next to them and then spit out flames to start the flames. It works?
DS: It’s a little risky to say. Burning oil is dangerous, it is highly flammable. But even more than that, it’s not a good idea. When you see such a flame on a grill, we call it a flame explosion. A little will go. If you have a charcoal-grilled burger and some fat drips and gives off a small flame, that means the oil and juice are evaporating. Much of this flavor will come out and actually stick to the food, providing a great BBQ flavor.
We have the technique I mention when we cook the tenderloin on the cooler side of the grill. On the spicier side, we had a slice or two of bacon, which we crumbled on a kebab sitting over a fire. When it starts to cook and simmer, you get those little drops of fat and juice that burn and give the tenderloin a smoky flavor. But I would say that this is an exception to the rule.
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Post time: Nov-14-2022
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