You’ve been cooking outdoors for years. Yet all too often you end up with underdone drumsticks or charred hockey pucks (er, hamburgers). With the help of experts Steven Raichlen, the author of The Barbecue Bible ($23, amazon.com), and Jennifer Chandler, the author of Simply Grilling ($25, amazon.com), Real Simple put together this easy-to-follow guide to setting up your grill. Once you’re ready to bring the heat, check out this cheat sheet to learn how to grill practically everything.
Lesson 1: Direct vs. Indirect Heat
Your most important grilling decision is, of course, what to grill. Your second-most important? What type of heat to use. Choosing the right one—direct or indirect—can have a huge impact on how your food tastes, says Steven Raichlen. So what’s the big difference? With direct heat, you place small, quick-cooking items, like burgers, directly over the fire. When you use indirect heat, the fire is lit under only part of the grate. Slow-cooking food, like a rack of ribs, is placed over the unlit portion and cooked covered. “The effect is similar to roasting in an oven,” says Jennifer Chandler.
How to Set Up a Charcoal Grill
For direct heat: After preheating the grill for 10 minutes, rake the coals so they cover two-thirds of the bottom grate. The empty third is a safety zone, where you can move food that’s flaring up. Put on the top grate, place the food directly over the coals, and cook, uncovered.
For indirect heat: After preheating the grill for 10 minutes, rake the coals into two piles on opposite sides of the bottom grate. Put on the top grate, position the food over the empty space between the coals, and cook, covered. If you’re cooking for more than an hour, place a disposable aluminum pan between the coals and add an inch of water to keep drippings from burning.
How to Set Up a Gas Grill
For direct heat: After preheating the grill for 10 minutes, position the food directly over the lit burners and cook, uncovered.
For indirect heat: After preheating the grill for 10 minutes, turn off one burner, position the food over it, and cook, covered.
Once you decide between direct and indirect heat, use this guide to check the temperature of your grill.
Lesson 2: Flavoring the Fire
The secret to robust flavor is not a robust pit-master—it’s wood chips. “They add a delicious smokiness to all kinds of grilled foods, even quick-cooking items, like shrimp and boneless chicken breasts,” says Chandler. Here are a few to try.
Apple: Match this sweet, fruity pick with poultry and pork.
Hickory: A traditional rich southern flavor (think hickory-smoked bacon). Stands up to pork chops, ribs, lamb, and poultry.
Mesquite: Used in the Southwest to cook everything from chops to fajitas, this strong, earthy favorite pairs well with beef, poultry, and salmon. Stick with items that take 20 minutes or less—much longer and your food will start to taste bitter.
Oak: The mild, woodsy scent is delicious with beef, pork, fish, and shellfish.
How to Use Wood Chips
At least 15 minutes before grilling, soak a handful of chips in water or a flavorful liquid, such as apple juice or beer.
With a gas grill: Put the chips in a small disposable aluminum pan or a smoker box (available where grills are sold, $10 to $16). Preheat the grill and place the pan on a burner, below the grate. When smoke begins to appear, start cooking.
With a charcoal grill: Add a handful of soaked wood chips to burning coals just before cooking. When smoke begins to appear, start cooking.
Lesson 3: The Trustiest Tools
Forget novelty items, like meatball baskets and jalapeño grillers. These seven basics are all you really need.
Basting brush: A long handle—at least 12 inches—makes applying glazes and sauces a breeze.
Chimney starter: For charcoal grills only. The foolproof way to start a charcoal grill without lighter fluid. Look for one with a 5-pound capacity—enough coals for about 45 minutes of grilling. (Available at hardware stores and where grills are sold, $10 to $20.)
Disposable aluminum pans: Use the 9-by-13-inch version of these workhorses for transporting food to and from the grill and as drip trays. The 8-by-3-inch size can hold wood chips for smoking.
Instant-read thermometer: Takes the guesswork out of deciding when your steaks are done. (For temperatures for specific cuts, see How to Grill Anything.)
Spring-loaded tongs: Use these instead of a fork to turn food. No puncture holes means flavorful juices stay inside meats, where they belong. Buy a pair at least 12 inches long to keep hands clear of the flames.
Stiff-wire grill brush: An essential for removing stuck-on food from hot grates before and after grilling. Choose a brush that’s 18 inches long with brass bristles, which won’t rust.
Wide spatula: The go-to tool for flipping fish and burgers. It should be at least 14 inches long and have an offset handle.
Click here for a printer-friendly PDF of this information.