The mysteries of the Grill

There are challenges with any style of cooking. The challenges of regular cooking, the pots-and-pans, pour-and-stir style of cooking, is mostly one of "volume of material." There are so many methods, so many different ingredients, and such obscure terminology, that it's difficult to get going. Trickier is leaning how to combine ingredients in a way that tastes good, and getting interesting combinations of textures and flavors, that it's just a matter of getting through the material and remembering it, at least to reach a certain level.

Baking is a bit different. Baking has a lot more required knowledge of chemistry and biology in order to get things working at all. There are magical proportions of ingredients, certain order of adding things. If that were all, it wouldn't be so bad, but because there are so many factors that have to be just right in order to work, and there's enough variation in materials available to the home cook, that you can't usually rely just upon the numbers; instead, you have to get a feel for when things are working and when they aren't, so you can make adjustments to a recipe if, for example, your flour doesn't have as high a protein-content as it did the last time you bought it.

And then there's grilling. Grilling is, in many ways, the simplest of the three styles of cooking. It's basically a single style of heat application, or maybe two styles, depending on how fancy you're getting. However, as with anything simple, this means that there are fewer steps to get wrong, so if you do mess something up, it'll be more noticeable. Add to that what would appear to be an impenetrable black box of whatever it is that you're cooking, and you have what seems like some sort of voodoo.

It doesn't help that much of the grilling knowledge is passed down, father-to-son, in family bonding rituals. The side effect of this is that, if there were something that the dad didn't know, it's likely that he wouldn't ask anyone else, or look it up, he'd just make something up that sounded good and pass that information along to the next generation. Not a good scenario.

Fortunately, I'm here to help, with what will hopefully be simple and useful tips on grilling techniques. First, consider that the primary method of grilling involves high amounts of radiant heat hitting the item being grilled. Your hamburgers, your steaks, your rotisserie chickens, these are all applications involving that radiant heat. The secondary method is a lower energy heat, some radiant, some convection. If you close the lid, the air inside will get very hot, though not as hot as whatever is right over the coals. The tertiary method of cooking is conduction. While the conduction cooks very little of the food percentage-wise, it's responsible for the ever-important grill marks, which are almost as vital to grilling as a pair of tongs, both in flavor and presentation.

The second thing to consider is how big the critter you're grilling is. Oh, sure, you could be grilling vegetables or making some sort of crazy coal-fired bread oven, but the trick to grilling is learning to cook meat so that it's flavorful and juicy. The other applications are interesting, but not the main focus; the meat, if you will. You won't? Okay, fine: the main focus.

For our grilling purposes, there are two types of meats: thick and thin. Thin meats are your steaks, your hamburgers, your pork chops, and so on. The thick meats are your chuck roasts, your legs of lamb, and the like. The thick meats, in many ways, are relatively simple to cook and know when they're ready. Generally you'll cook over indirect heat, with a searing at the beginning or the end, and you'll use a probe thermometer or an instant-read thermometer to determine their doneness. There are plenty of sources on the internet for the temperature at which any given meat is both safe to eat and tasty, so use those as necessary. Bear in mind that you'll want to cook it under temperature by 5-10 degrees, then let the meat rest for 10 minutes covered in foil to let the residual heat finish cooking the rest of the way. This gives the meat a chance to reabsorb some of its juices, for a tastier meal.

For the thinner meats, this is where the voodoo comes in. To be sure, you can still use a thermometer, but it's a little trickier to hit the center of a thinner piece of meat, and besides, it's far less satisfying. No, when grilling properly, you want to learn how to feel when the meat is cooked. At the early stages of your grilling career, that means literally feeling the meat, not making an emotional connection with it. As you increase your skills, well, the sky's the limit.

Hold out your right hand, as if telling oncoming traffic to stop: fingers splayed in a relaxed manner, palm out. Using your thumb and forefinger of your left hand, feel on either side (front/palm) of your right hand until you locate where the bones meet for the thumb and index finger. The muscle that comes out from that part of your hand inside the angle formed by those two bones, that's what we'll call your Steak Zone. I know, it's very appetizing, but stay with me.

Do you feel how tight the muscle is just away from the bones? That's a well-done steak, or as steak lovers call it, an over-cooked steak. Don't let your steak get this firm, for that means failure. Yes, I know, that's harsh, but there are realities to grilling steaks, and one of those realities is that a well-done steak is not good to eat. Another reality is that steak sauce is not good to eat on a properly done steak either, but we'll get to that later.

Back to the Steak Zone. Continue out from the over-cooked/well-done section towards the open air. Stop when you've reached the part that feels more or less like raw steak, but not as cold or wet (hopefully). That's your range of feeling. Divide that into 4-6 distinct areas, and you have all you need to know to get started on your path to zen grilling. The closer it feels to the inside muscle, the more done it is. The closer it feels to the outside, the more rare it is. Combine that with lots and lots of practice, and you'll be a grill master in no time. I know, it hurts, having to cook and eat a series of steaks just to increase your skills, but sacrifices must be made.

So, back to the steak sauce. A proper cut of meat, properly cooked, needs but salt, pepper, and, if you're exceptionally decadent, a smidge of butter to reach perfection. If you feel the need to break out the steak sauce, chances are that you've just skimped on the salt, because steak sauce is generally pretty heavy with salt. Add some on, and you should be good. Try it out; if it doesn't work for you, then enjoy your steak sauce, but I think you'll be surprised by the difference.

Above is about 75% of what you need to know to successfully grill meats of various descriptions. Oh, sure, details will vary, recipes and spices will be thrown in, and we've completely avoided talk of what kind of grill to use, but the important thing is that you don't have to be born to grilling; it can be learned, and you can do it.