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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 18 2017

8 Primal Grilling Tips and Techniques

By Mark Sisson
33 Comments

Inline_Grilling_Tips_Meat_Veggies_07.18.17First 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.

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.

Monitor Temperature

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.

TAGS:  cooking tips

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33 thoughts on “8 Primal Grilling Tips and Techniques”

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    1. A second for this site and the book Meathead. It’s brought my cooking to a new level. I can fire up and prep the grill about as quickly as I can preheat the oven.

      Mixing sous vide with grilling and barbecuing is another total game changer.

    2. Thanks for posting that link. Looks like tons of great information.

      I love to grill but I do always find myself second guessing myself. High heat vs low heat, lid down vs lid open.

  1. Cedar planked salmon is good and saves any fish getting stuck on the grill.
    You can buy it frozen here with the plank pre-soaked.

    1. I’ve only seen ones with chemicals in the ingredients list. Are there natural ones? If so, where can you pick some up?

  2. What kind of oil do folks use for oiling the grates that’s primal and can withstand the high heat?

    1. Avocado oil is as good as it gets, with a smoke point of 570-F. Conversely, extra-virgin coconut oil is at 350-F.

  3. It took practice and patience but now all my steaks are grilled to perfection; that is, a crusty exterior and evenly cooked interior (red from edge to edge). I get that by searing them over high heat and then moving them to an indirect heat. Same thing for 2lb cuts. For large fish, it’s best to keep the scales on and simply peel the skin off after done grilling….or you can brush your clean fish with olive oil and lay it over a bed of herbs… I wish I could have uploaded a picture or two.

    1. That’s what Meathead of the Amazingribs website calls “sear and slide.” He has a new method he calls ‘Sear in the rear’. Cook slowly to temp on indirect side, then a quick sear on hot side.

      1. looks good but their site could use a face lift 🙂 Would you say that “sear in the rear” is meant for thick cuts only?

  4. Family and I are at a small island just off Belize for the week. We brought our own bottles of ghee and refined coconut oil (higher smoke point) for the chefs to use. It’s truing out beautifully.

  5. I’ve been grilling most of my meals ever since going primal 2.5 years ago. My freshman year of college I was starting a charcoal fire 2 times a day (no gas grill, and the kitchens were horribly constructed and ridden with smoke alarms despite not having a range hood in sight). As a student regular grilling helps me consistently eat home-cooked meals. Exponentially less preparation, cook time, and cleanup than the average indoor recipe.

    No need to bring meat up to room temperature or rest it (for smaller cuts). See the amazingribs.com site for good articles on this. Bringing a grass-fed steak up to room temperature is counter-productive, because you want to keep the center cold so the outside sears without overcooking the inside. I generally don’t rest chops or steaks, but will rest poultry and sausages, as the latter are generally cooked to a much higher temperature.

    Get stainless steel skewers. The bamboo ones just fall apart, even with soaking.

    Most of the time you won’t need to oil the grates as long as they’re clean and hot before cooking. Delicate fish may be an exception.

    Thermometers are very useful for large cuts like thick steaks or roasts, but for the average thinner chops or steaks you can go by feel. The meat gets firmer as the level of doneness increases.

    Salt at least several hours (preferably overnight). Anything less and the meat just ends up tasting salty.

    1. Seriously? Grilling inside can kill you–carbon monoxide. And yeah, bring steaks up to room temp and don’t salt too early…I guess I do the opposite of what you do. To each his own, but be careful indoors.!

    2. Sorry if it was not clear, but I am in fact grilling outside. I have a very large outdoor umbrella in my yard for this very reason. No more need to fear the rain!

  6. Maybe a follow up to this regarding the many articles you read about the dangers of grilling? Maybe just conventional wisdom and not good science behind those assertions? I don’t grill any more, will have some grilled fish or chicken at restaurants from time-to-time and they typically appear not to be cooked too fast / hot which is the real danger as I understand. Not a biochemist but would definitely recommend grilling at as low a temperature and for as long as is reasonable. Sorry to be the buzz kill guy. 🙂

  7. Anything different for those using an electric grill (I’ve got a little forman that sees use twice a day).

    1. Electric grill is a glorified stove top. It pales in comparison to a real fire.

  8. Grill brushes are out due to the possible bristle beaking off and being ingested (I know someone with personal throat surgery experience) there are some serious steel/scubber circular pads wirh a handle that do a great job!! The handle still gives the manly/womanly feeling of keeping the grill in pristine and primal condition.

    1. I use a natural bristle floor brush on my grill. The key is to clean it while it’s still warm

      1. ketchup & soy sauce? really? Try coconut aminos for that extra sweetness; or marinate you steak in good wine as they do in Florence, Italy…. look up the recipe for “Bistecca alla fiorentina”. Personalty, I feel that a premium cut of meat shouldn’t be masked by other flavors, other then coarse salt and freshly grounded black pepper

  9. Love the summer grilling season here in Germany:

    – The meat is usually pre-marinaded in bell pepper which means that it’s cheap AND old.
    – Most grillers use some sort of igniter which at least makes the grilling events faster. A nice side effect is that the neighbours will get their cancer earlier.

    I’d like to grill now and then but I when I think about grilling then I always have the smell of the igniter in my nose. That is so yucky.

    1. Do you have access to a “chimney?” It’s a fat cylindrical device you fill loosely with newspaper to start your charcoal. No need for igniter chemicals.

  10. We bought a Big Green Egg (the minimax size). It is a ceramic cooker, great for grilling and for low and slow barbecuing. I start the lump by using the Weber cubes…they always light instantly, even when dealing with windy conditions, and they leave no residual taste or smell. Vegetables done on the BGE are outstanding! And, of course, meat is fabulous, too.

  11. Planked salmon is definitely a fave in our house…halibut and cod are good too! My husband cuts the planks about 2 inches thick from all different kinds of wood…cedar, maple, are very good. They can be used many times..after taking the meat/fish off the plank, immediately soak the burning underside with water…..I scrub the top well with hydrogen peroxide after each use. I also have planked a whole chicken( butterfly…cut down through the breast bone and split, placing the insides on the plank) and .wow, they are amazing…crispy skin esp good when rubbed with Mexican or Moroccan spices and lime! I would preheat the plank ( which I never soak, if you do that you end up with steam not smoke) and keep the BBQ temp at about 350 degrees, lid down. A 5 lb chicken takes about 1 1/2 hours.