Whether you cook over charcoal or gas, here are strategies that will ensure your success with a variety of foods.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Consider your outdoor grill an outdoor kitchen. A host of possibilities awaits, from salads with colorful grilled summer vegetables to robust entrées of grilled chicken or fish, even grilled fruit desserts. Best of all, anyone can be a gourmet griller once they master the basics.

Grilling, defined
Grilling involves cooking food on a rack over a heat source, usually a charcoal fire or ceramic briquettes heated by gas flames. Direct heat quickly sears the outside of food, producing distinctive robust, roasted―and sometimes pleasantly charred―flavors and a nice crust. If food is cooked over moderate heat, it gains a crust as well as a smokier taste.

Choosing between a gas or charcoal grill is a lifestyle choice; they perform comparably, if not equally. For the most versatility, choose a grill with a large cooking surface and a lid. Most Americans (some 65 percent) choose gas grills for their convenience and the consistent heat provided by gas flames; others enjoy the hands-on approach to lighting a charcoal fire.

Here are a few other useful tools: a chimney starter for charcoal, long-handled tongs, basting brush, spatula, oven mitts, a wire brush for cleaning, disposable foil pans, and a meat thermometer.

Direct versus indirect heat
Direct grilling involves cooking food squarely over the heat source, usually with the lid off. Similar to broiling, this method cooks food quickly with intense heat. This method works best for thin cuts of meat that cook quickly (burgers and several kinds of steaks and chops, for example) and most vegetables. It is not ideal for larger cuts of meat because the high heat will overcook them on the outside before they're done inside.

For food that needs to cook longer (pork shoulder, for example, or whole chickens), use indirect grilling, with which a fire is built on one or both sides of the food and the hot air circulates around it. Indirect grilling requires a covered grill, which creates convected heat. It's a gentler cooking method than direct grilling, allowing larger cuts to cook completely through without overbrowning.

Follow this rule of thumb: If it takes less than 20 to 25 minutes to cook, use direct heat; otherwise, use indirect heat.

The exception is large fish fillets, which yield better results over indirect heat even though they can typically be cooked in 15 minutes or less over direct heat. Fish is so delicate that direct grilling can cook it too quickly and render it dry. (Or it can burn oils in the skin, resulting in a fishy odor that many people dislike.) If you use indirect heat, fish will cook perfectly and remain moist.

Keep it clean
Preheat the rack with all burners on high for 10 to 15 minutes (whether you're using direct or indirect heat). Doing so will incinerate any remaining residue from the last cookout, making it easy to clean off. Then, brush the cooking grates with a brass-bristle grill brush; steel bristles can damage the enamel finish of some grates. (In a pinch, if you don't have a brass-bristle cleaning brush, use a ball of crumpled heavy-duty aluminum foil between a pair of tongs to clean the grates.) Clean the grates vigorously so that they are smooth and free from food that may have adhered from previous grilling. Brush the preheated grill racks each time you grill.

At the beginning of grilling season, preheat the grill with all burners on high or with an even layer of preheated charcoal for an hour before brushing the cooking grates. You should only need to do this one time to bring your grates into shape for the season; it's the grill version of the principle behind a self-cleaning oven―burning everything off.

Light up
If you have a gas grill, simply ignite the burners and place them on high to preheat. If using indirect heat, turn off one side of the grill once it's preheated.

If you have a charcoal grill, the easiest way to light charcoal, briquettes or lump hardwood, is in a chimney starter. It's best to choose a high-capacity chimney starter, or you're likely to discover that you need two starters to light enough charcoal for your grill. (A traditional kettle grill works most efficiently with 50 briquettes.) Use an odorless, tasteless fuel starter or crumpled newspaper to initiate the fire. Let the charcoal burn until it is covered with white-gray ash, which indicates it is at the perfect cooking temperature.

If you use the direct heat method, scatter the briquettes evenly across the charcoal grate. If you are using the indirect cooking method, equally divide the briquettes on either side of the grate and place an inexpensive disposable aluminum pan in the empty spot. The food is placed over the drip pan, which catches drips and reflects some heat back to the food. Many cooks place charcoal on one side of the grill and leave the other empty. But distributing the briquettes to each side of the food (if space allows) creates consistent heat that envelops it.

Control the heat
Maintaining a specific temperature on a gas grill is simply a matter of turning a dial to the appropriate setting. On a charcoal grill, air vents control the heat. To allow airflow, do not cover the bottom air vents with briquettes. Also, leave the vent on the top of the grill at least partially open. The more open the vents, the hotter your grill will cook. If you want medium heat, cover the vents about halfway.

Oil the food
Whenever possible, coat the food (not the grill rack) with oil or cooking spray to promote caramelization and those telltale grill marks, and to help prevent sticking. If you don't coat the food, its natural juices may evaporate as it grills, leaving the food dry and papery―this is especially true when grilling vegetable slices.