How to Use Your Grill Like a Boss (And Cook Everything)
Nobody wants to turn on the oven in the summer. And when it’s light until almost 9 p.m. every night, I’d much rather head outside and fire up the grill. The best part? No matter what food or recipe I'm trying to tackle, I can grill it.
No joke: You really can grill it all. Here are some basic techniques to keep in mind, plus advice on how to cook almost any kind of food over the coals.
Looking for recipes? Here are 50 Grilled Fruit and Vegetable Recipes That Prove There's More to a Barbecue Than Just Meat
Brush and oil the grill grates, basket, or foil before you do anything else. If you’re using a nonstick spray instead of oil, use it before you turn on the grill. Most foods appreciate a little lovin’ with a brush of olive oil or a little bit of time in a marinade as well, before being set on the grill.
Whether it’s a slab of watermelon, cantaloupe, or pineapple, a handful of pickles, or some soft-shell crabs, pat everything dry with a paper towel to remove the excess moisture that could keep your food from taking on a golden color.
Heat up Your Grill...the Right Way
Prepare a hot and cooler side of the grill. Yes, we want those awesome grill marks. But larger proteins, such as a whole spatchcocked chicken, can’t handle that intense type of heat for as long as it takes to cook the meat. It'll turn out burned on the outside and raw in the middle. So once you get those grill marks, you want to be able to move it to the cooler side and close the lid, which turns the grill into an oven.
Other, more delicate foods like herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, mint) or foods with a high sugar content (fruit, or anything basted with a sugary liquid) could easily burn on the hot side.
Get yourself a good meat thermometer for those things that require it. For everything else, look for other markers of doneness: grill marks, browning, softening, or bubbling. In summer, most of your produce needs barely any time at all.
Here, we categorize some of the more challenging foods to grill and assign ways to simplify them.
How to Grill Different-Shaped Foods
Foods that are narrower than the space between the grates—like asparagus, carrots, scallions, or green beans—should be set on the grill perpendicular to the grates. This also makes it easy to scoop them up and flip them with a pair of long-handled tongs.
Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, tiny tomatoes, shrimp, jalapenos, and berries are all susceptible to falling between the grill grates to their fiery demise. Many of these items can be skewered, but that takes time. (You can also cut larger round foods like apples, pears, eggplants, tomatoes, fennel, and citrus into slices.) Instead, toss them into a grill basket where they’ll still get kissed by the flames, and you’ll be able to stir them without worry.
Foods like mollusks, broccoli florets, halved avocados, wedges of stone fruit, or potatoes are all large enough to stay above the grates, but their uneven makeup can char the part that sits on the grill before the rest of the food is cooked. Or, if it forms a little cup, like oysters or an avocado-and-egg boat, you risk losing what’s inside should one tip.
To remedy this problem, lay a piece of aluminum foil on the grates, set down the food, and close the lid. While you won’t get grill marks, you’ll still have smoky flavor, easy cleanup, and the satisfaction of not turning on your oven.
Some foods—like potatoes, cubes of squash, and artichokes—will benefit from a little bit of par-cooking. For example, steam or boil potatoes until just tender, and simmer halved artichokes just until the leaves can be gently tugged free, then finish them on the grill for that smoky flavor.
Cabbage, cauliflower, fish, heads of lettuce, onions, pizzas, and paninis can all leave a little bit of themselves behind when flipped on the grill.
Cutting cabbage and cauliflower into thick steaks makes them hardy enough to stand the heat in one piece. Halving heads of romaine, radicchio, or iceberg lettuce with the root end intact will help hold them together.
Tongs (and spatula-tongs) are useful for turning, but for something floppy like a sandwich, you really can’t beat a large metal spatula. This same tool is key for removing grilled pizzas with all their toppings in place.
For flaky fish, you could try a fish basket, but the trick with whole fish is to oil the skin well and don’t turn it until it’s ready—it should release easily.
For a banana split, slice a banana in half lengthwise, keeping the peel on. Grill over indirect heat until it gets good marks and softens.
For salsas, salads, and tacos, think about which of the items would taste great on the grill—whether it’s one component or every ingredient. Can coleslaw veggies be grilled first? You bet. Or take panzanella, a bread salad: You can skewer tomatoes, peppers, onion, cheese, cloves of garlic, and the bread; let it cool before tossing it in the dressing.
Or look to things in a recipe that require cooking, such as baba ghanoush: You have to broil the eggplant anyway, so why not get it smoky on the grill?
For out-of-the-box foods, your cast iron skillet is your best friend. Heat it directly over the flame, and you can grill whatever you’d normally cook on the stove (including notoriously crumbly homemade veggie burgers).
Pancakes? Check. French toast? Check. Bacon? You bet. Pasta? In the time it takes to bring water to boil in a large saucepan, you can have finished pasta by cooking it in a large skillet; this makes it an easy task for the grill.
Just about any fruit pie without a bottom crust can be made in a skillet rather than a pie plate; ditto for cornbread. Just remember to treat your grill like an oven by closing the lid. Sauces like mojo, quick tomato, or warm fruit compote can simmer away in a heatproof saucepan on the cooler side of the grill. For paella, cook your meats on the grill and add them to the rice that’s cooking in the pan.
Kebabs, burgers, dogs, corn on the cob, or camembert cheese are all fair game. Whenever you pick up a piece of produce or protein (or look at a recipe), ask yourself, “Can I grill this?”
With a little bit of boldness and some willingness to experiment, the answer will be YES.