Now that summer has come, it’s time to start some serious grilling.
Grilling is at once the most primitive and one of the most delicious ways to prepare food. It’s not necessary to have an expensive multi-burner grill to make some amazing dishes. You don’t even need to have a big grill.
Hibachis have been used for decades by apartment-dwellers and campers. These tiny grills are very efficient for small amounts of food, and use only a small amount of charcoal.
Small tabletop propane grills are also useful for those without a backyard or any place large enough to store a full-size grill. I avoid charcoal, as real charcoal is expensive and briquettes often contain too many chemicals for my liking.
Propane is a much more efficient and convenient medium for grilling.
Upright grills range from less than $100 to many thousands of dollars, but a simple grill with two to four heat elements will do almost anything the average backyard griller needs.
Propane bottles can be purchased for around $25 and refilled for less than that. Keep a full spare to avoid the heartbreak of running out halfway through a backyard party.
Now, what to cook?
Burgers and hot dogs are the usual fare for summer parties, but a better way to use a grill is to quickly cook small pieces of meat or vegetables. Kebabs are an impressive entrée.
Simply skewer small cubes of beef, pork or chicken along with vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and summer squash and then grill. Steel skewers are available, but bamboo skewers are a cheap and easy alternative. Be sure to soak the bamboo skewers in water before use to prevent them from catching fire.
Chicken should be cooked over low or medium heat. A great trick with chicken is to heat the entire grill at the highest setting, then turn off one or more zones and cook the chicken with indirect heat.
This prevents the mistake of charred skin with raw meat near the bone. Always use a meat thermometer to ensure the chicken is cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
One trick for a juicy, tender chicken is to season a whole chicken and place an open can of beer, soda or fruit juice in the cavity.
Make a base of foil so it stands upright and then grill. The liquid in the can will moisten the chicken and help cook it from the inside as well as add flavor. Be careful when removing the chicken from the heat, as the liquid will be extremely hot.
Steaks — whether beef, pork or game — should be cooked quickly directly over medium or high heat. Proper grilling will leave dark grill marks on the surface, and juicy, tender meat in the center. Pork should be cooked until the center is no longer pink.
Note that a gathering where meat is grilled is often referred to as a barbecue, but real barbecue is a method of slow smoking meats, usually with a sauce, a dry rub or both.
There are aficionados who will come to blows over the definition of “real barbecue” and who protect their secret sauces, rubs and techniques like issues of national security. However, there is no need to buy thousands of dollars of equipment to get the smoked meat you crave.
A propane grill can be used to quick smoke (as opposed to slow smoke) meats. This is more labor-intensive, but much less time-intensive than using a dedicated smoker.
WARNING: Smoking on a propane grill will likely nullify the warranty.
Clean ashes out of the grill often to prevent a fire hazard or damage to the grill. Consider all propane safety precautions before attempting this. Never grill or smoke without proper ventilation.
To quick smoke on a propane grill, you will need:
A grill with at least two elements/zones
Small pieces of hardwood (never smoke with soft woods such as pine): Oak, fruitwoods and other hardwoods are ideal. Make sure the tree has not been sprayed with pesticide or any other chemicals.
A spray bottle full of water to extinguish flare-ups
A large bucket of clean water
Tongs or a meat fork
Spatula if smoking fish
Preheat grill on high. Place wood chunks on the grill over high heat and allow to char. Turn the flame under the wood to low. Turn off all other elements. Place the meat or vegetables on the grill and close the lid. The grill will still be hot, but the heat that cooks the meat should come only from the element beneath the wood.
Depending on how dry the wood is, you may or may not need to presoak it.
If it burns rather than smolders, spray the wood with the water bottle or quickly dip it in the water bucket with the tongs. Getting the wood to smoke properly is the most finicky part of this method.
With practice, just seeing how much smoke is rolling out of the grill will tell you if you need to add more wood or spray the wood down. Always use a meat thermometer to ensure the meat is cooked sufficiently.
Some meats, such as poultry or large pork roasts, need to brine before smoking. Others, like sausage links, small roasts and chops are fine as-is.
Meat is not the only end product of smoking. If you smoke bone-in chicken thighs and legs, remove the bones and use them for stock.
Green Chile Chicken Stew made with smoked chicken stock and meat will wow your friends. Smoke quartered onions and freeze for use in sauces and soups. Smoked garlic is a treat. Summer squash or mushrooms on the smoker have a meaty taste to use in vegetarian entrées. Experiment! One of the best things about smoking is that the wood continues to smoke for hours unless extinguished.
Steve “Mo” Fye is managing editor for the Daily Lobo. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @UncaMo.