First off, let’s settle one thing right away. Grilling is not the same as barbecuing. Barbecue means big cuts of meat cooked low and slow. Depending on the animal, it can be an all-day affair with hours of preparation and plenty of leisure. In other words, it’s an actual event. With the time and labor intensity, barbecuing (as Michael Pollan put it so well recently) is the stuff of primal ritual, the site of social cohesion in our evolutionary story. Grilling, on the other hand, offers the smoke and fire experience without the bigger doings. While not as idyllic a prospect, it’s convenient. It means throwing a steak on the grill after work and eating it 20 minutes later. That’s the beauty of grilling. It’s relatively quick, requires very little clean up, and let’s you kick back outdoors while cooking dinner.
In order to relax, however, it’s good to be confident that dinner won’t go up in flames. Luckily, what separates someone who burns dinner from a real grill master is simply practice, plus a few tips and techniques.
Most of the smaller cuts of meat at the meat counter cook well on a grill, like steaks, short ribs, pork and lamb chops, and chicken pieces. A good butcher can guide you to the best cuts for grilling in your price range. Then, of course, there’s seafood, burgers of all types, sausage and veggies. You can throw almost anything on a grill—even fruit.
No matter what you’re grilling, these tips and techniques apply:
Preheat, Clean, and Oil the Grill
Just like pre-heating an oven before cooking, a grill (both gas and charcoal) should be good and hot before the grilling begins. If the grill isn’t hot enough at the start, your food won’t cook properly.
A clean, well-oiled grill also reduces the chances of sticking (especially for fish). To clean and oil the grill, brush the grates with a steel grill brush, then wipe with a damp cloth or paper towel. Finish by rubbing a dry, lightly oiled paper towel over the grates. (Primal Kitchen® Avocado Spray Oil works nicely for this, too.)
Fat is Flavor
When grilling beef, lamb and pork, buy cuts with lots of marbling, which is the white fat throughout the meat, not just on the edges. More marbling indicates more flavor and it means the meat is less likely to dry out on the grill.
For chicken and fish, skin provides a fatty barrier between the heat and the meat. Even veggies need fat, so coat them liberally in heat-stable oil before grilling, then drizzle a little more oil on the vegetables when they’re done.
Don’t Forget the Salt
Marinades and rubs are great (more on this below), but the most important seasoning for anything you grill is salt. In the absence of a marinade or rub, sprinkle enough salt on all sides of the meat, chicken or fish so that the salt is easy to see, like a light snowfall. Salt adds flavor, helps meat retain moisture, and breaks down muscle tissue to tenderize the meat.
The best time to season with salt is a subject of intense debate among chefs and hard-core grilling aficionados. Some swear by salting days or hours ahead of grilling; other swear by salting at the last minute. In the end, it’s a matter of personal preference.
As a general rule, you can’t go wrong seasoning meat, chicken and fish thirty-five minutes ahead of time. This gives the salt a decent amount of time to penetrate the outside of the protein and work its way towards the middle, boosting flavor all the way through.
A secret weapon: sea salt, sprinkled on after grilling. Sea salt boosts the flavor of anything—meat, seafood, vegetables—that’s been grilled.
There are several ways that paying attention to temperature results in better grilling.
First, let protein sit out on the counter 35 minutes or more and come toward room temperature before grilling. This promotes even cooking and makes it more likely that the middle and outside of your steak will reach perfection at the same time.
Second, whether using a gas or charcoal grill, create hot and warm zones, so you can move meat from high heat to lower heat as needed.
Finally, don’t guess when meat is done. Use a digital thermometer to gauge.
Let Meat Rest
Always let meat and chicken rest 10 minutes or more before slicing to retain juiciness and flavor.
Try New Marinades and Rubs
When you’re in the mood for a certain type of flavor, say, Korean short ribs or Cajun chicken, marinades and rubs are the way to go. More to the point of health, marinades and rubs can also mitigate the effects of carcinogenic compounds associated with high-heat grilling by reducing the formation of toxic compounds like HCA and AGE.
The key ingredient is antioxidant-rich herbs and spices. The more herbs and spices, the more protective (and better-tasting) your marinade and rub. What also helps is quality, antioxidant rich fat, like avocado oil. In a marinade, a splash of acidic vinegar or citrus juice will also add protection against toxins, boost flavor, and tenderize.
Tips for Fish
Grilling fish is intimidating, only because it’s all too easy to lose half your meal when it falls through or sticks to the grates.
The most important thing you can do to prevent fish from sticking is to put the fish down on hot, clean and well-oiled grill grates. Use a wide, long metal spatula to flip the fish. If the fish is still sticking to a clean, well-oiled, hot grill then it might not be ready to flip yet. Let it cook for another few minutes and try again.
Thicker fillets or steaks (salmon, halibut and tuna) are easiest to grill. Also, oily, skin-on fish tend to stick less because of the high-oil content. Try grilling sardines, mackerel, skin-on salmon or an entire fish.
Finally, Add the Vegetables
Grilled vegetables make a perfect side for grilled protein—not just for flavor but also because any plant food you eat with your meat, especially the colorful ones, will have a favorable impact on the total meal’s lipid oxidation or mutagenicity.
Vegetables need their own section of the grill, or their own bamboo skewer, to cook in their own good time, so don’t crowd veggies with meat or put them on the same skewer with meat.
If the heat is too high, veggies will quickly burn, so keep vegetables over a medium flame. Cut the vegetables into the same size, so they’ll cook uniformly. Harder vegetables (beets, carrots, etc) can be briefly parboiled before grilling. Before grilling, coat vegetables generously with oil or—for more flavor and healthy antioxidants—a vinaigrette (I have a deal going on for Primal dressings and vinaigrettes now), and season with salt. Then plan to add more flavor after grilling, with additional oil, vinaigrette and salt as needed.
How’s everyone’s grilling season this year? New creations you want to share? Tips I missed? Share your thoughts below, and thanks for stopping by today.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.