It may not come as a huge surprise that the Fourth of July is the biggest grilling holiday of the year. A backyard barbecue is the perfect excuse to gather a group of friends, get outdoors, and grab a drink or two. We’ve laid out the foundation for setting yourself up to be a grill expert. Now, check out these simple tips that will get you grilling delicious grub and impressing your friends in no time.
What to Grill
First thing’s first: pick out what’s going on the menu. Use a temperature guide to to gauge the done-ness of whatever type of protein you throw on the grill.
Grilled beef and steak are quintessential barbecue staples, and are always a crowd-pleaser. It’s up to you whether you want to grill up your steaks rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, or well done–all you’ll have to change up is the time you cook each side. Remember, steaks will continue to cook after you take them off the grill and let them rest. Generally, if you remove a steak from the grill and let it rest for 10-20 minutes (which you should), the internal temperature will rise about 5-10 degrees. Keep that in mind when adjusting the cook time.
Ideal internal temperature: Rare (120-125 Degrees), Medium Rare (130-135 Degrees), Medium (140-145 Degrees), Medium Well (150-155 Degrees), Well Done (160-170 Degrees)
Make sure to use your thermometer when grilling pork, as it is unsafe to consume if undercooked (so no serving pink pork, please!). Like beef, pork will continue to cook after it’s removed from heat, and should rise between 5-10 degrees while resting.
Ideal internal temperature: Medium (140-145 Degrees), Medium Well (150-155 Degrees), Well Done (160-170 Degrees)
Grilling poultry brings out the flavors and crisps the skin, especially if it’s pre-seasoned with a marinade or rub. Make sure the grill is cleaned and oiled well, because poultry tends to have less fat to protect from the heat and prevent the meat from sticking to the grill. When the meat’s finished cooking, the juices should be clear and never run red.
Ideal internal temperature: 160-170 Degrees
Fish tends to require less grilling time than other meat, so pay attention to the timing. Some fish like salmon will form a natural crust outside after a few minutes of cooking that will allow it to pull away smoothly from the grates, but others flake easily. Consider leaving the skin on the fish while cooking to help prevent the more delicate meat from falling apart, or cook it in a packet. To keep it moist, oil it up with olive or canola oil. With shellfish like shrimp, cook until the pearly consistency has turned opaque to make sure it’s good and ready to eat.
Ideal internal temperature: 130-140 Degrees
Ahi Tuna: 115-120 Degrees (as tuna is often served on the rare side to retain flavor)
Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and vegetables are ridiculously good when grilled. Skip out on peeling vegetables before cooking, because the skin will protect them from sticking to the grill. When grilling fruits, firmer types will take the heat best and caramelize well. Try drizzling fruits like peaches or apples with honey for a pop of flavor before throwing them on the grill.
Can’t decide on what type of meat to grill? Well, you don’t have to. Throw them all on a stick and you’re good to go! Steak, chicken, and veggies can come together to create one tasty mix of grilled perfection. And not to mention, kabobs look aesthetically impressive despite how easy they are to make, which is always a bonus when seeking to impress quests.
While meat and veggies are an obvious choice, the options for what can and can’t be barbecued aren’t as limited as you may think. Grilled pizza is an unexpected option for grilling but is always a hit (especially when you have your guests assemble their own). Grilled quesadillas, sandwiches, and other unconventional meals all get an added boost of flavor when cooked in this manner. It’s best to just explore all your options and find your favorites!
Just because you’ve mastered the main course doesn’t mean that sides can be neglected. No barbecue is complete without potato salad or some good old fashioned mac and cheese. Corn on the cob is also another barbecue staple that a great cookout shouldn’t go without.
Get the Grade
The USDA assigns a grade to meat according to the amount of fat, weight, and muscle contained in the cut. From highest to lowest quality, grades are as follows: prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, and finally, utility. Prime, choice, and select are the most readily available at the butcher or at the market. If you can, avoid pre-packaged steaks over fresh cuts for improved flavor.
Prime makes up about 3% of the cuts on the market and will usually be found at top steakhouses, whereas choice composes around 55% of the other cuts and is the most common at restaurants that serve steak. Prime cuts have the most marbling, while choice has less. In fact, select cuts tend to have the least amount of marbling, which makes them a leaner (but also typically less juicy) option. If you can swing the price tag, USDA Prime or Certified Black Angus steaks come at a more affordable while still offering prime flavor.
Make the Cut
Before you make a trip to the store, it’s a good idea to have in mind a general idea of what you’d like to cook. If you’re unsure what cut(s) to purchase, have a conversation with your butcher, who will gladly tell you which cut will work best for the type of recipe or event you’re planning. Good butchers will even be able to recommend different meats and cuts for you based on your level of expertise.
Do a bit of poking around. If you have to buy pre-wrapped meat, poke it with your pointer finger. The meat should bounce back when you remove your finger. If it doesn’t, it probably means the meat isn’t as fresh as it should be and might have sat on the shelf for an extended period of time.
Juice is good for when you’re cooking, but not when it comes to packaged meat. If you can see red juice inside the container, the meat likely got too warm at some point during the packaging process and will not be as tender as meat that has been stored at proper temperatures.
1. Heat it Up
Before putting anything on the grill, turn your grill on and let it heat up for at least ten minutes. It’s important to allow it to reach optimal cooking temperature before adding any food to the flames. Cooking food while the grill heats will cause it to cook unevenly. If you don’t preheat your grill, you run the risk of drying out your food and not being able to get those perfectly charred grill marks – the sign of a true grill master. You want that seal of approval, don’t you? Preheat your grills, gents.
2. Let it Rest
If you’re grilling meat, once you remove it from the grill, it’s best to let it rest for at least ten to fifteen minutes before cutting into it or serving it. This allows the meat to continue cooking a little, and it also prevents your meat from drying out by giving it time to retain and absorb that juicy goodness. When meat sits, the muscle fibers relax and the moisture seals inside. If you cut into a steak too soon, for example, all the juices will run out and you’ll lose all the flavor you worked so hard to get right on the grill. We know it’s hard not to dig in right away, but the taste will be worth the wait.
3. Don’t Flip Out
It might be fun to show off your expertise by flipping your meat on the grill, but ideally meat should be flipped as little as possible. If you want to flip food, save it for the pancakes. The impact of flipping meat repeatedly to see if it’s done makes you lose out on precious juices. Try using a thermometer instead of playing the flipping game. Avoiding frequent flips also helps achieve those perfect grill marks.
4. Don’t Press
Sure, we all know pressing down on the meat creates that gratifying sizzling sound. But that sizzling sound is also the sound of the flavor draining from the meat and going up in flames. Avoid pressing down on your food – especially if it’s meat – so you don’t run the risk of losing flavor and drying it out.
5. Don’t Overdo it
You can always throw undercooked meat back on the grill, but there’s no cure for overcooked meat. It is important to try to err on the side of undercooking your meat (this is especially true for steak) rather than overcooking it because the meat will continue to cook slightly during that resting period we mentioned earlier.
Types of Thermometers
Cooking meat is a job that should always be well done (pun intended). The cooking stages of different meats vary, and the temperature matters depending on what type of cook (rare, medium, you get the drill) you want. A thermometer can make all the difference between a steak (or any dish, really) that is medium well and one that is overcooked and inedible.
Within two to five seconds, thermocouples display the final temperature on a digital display using a thin needle, and usually have a margin of error less than 1 degree Fahrenheit. Because they work so quickly they are recommended for large meat like turkey that needs to be checked in multiple places to make sure it’s all cooked thoroughly.
Thermistors take generally around eight to ten seconds. They are used on most types of meat, with the conductor in the tip of the device to make checking temperature simple. With these, it’s best to check food towards the end of its cooking time.
Like the name says, leave-in meat thermometers remain in the food for the duration of its cook time. Leave-in thermometers come in different forms depending on what type of job you want done, and work especially well with meats with long cooking times.
No Thermometer? No Problem
A good rule of thumb for checking your meat without a thermometer is to use just that–your thumb! With an open palm, use your pointer finger to feel the pad of your hand at the base of your thumb. This is what a steak should feel like cooked rare. Still feeling the base of the thumb, connecting the pointer finger and the thumb mimics the consistency of medium rare, the thumb and the middle finger mimics medium, thumb and ring finger denotes medium well, and finally the pinky and the thumb together points to well done.
Marinating meat can be the recipe for a perfect barbecue if you like to amp up the flavor. Tender foods like fish and seafood do the best with a short soak of about thirty minutes, and it is best to include something acidic (like lemon or vinegar) in the marinade to tenderize your proteins. Red meat is the most difficult for marinades to season and therefore needs to be marinated overnight (or for at least 12 hours). Any good marinade usually includes salt, because salt’s molecular structure can penetrate even the toughest foods and seal in moisture.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, don’t poke holes in the meat to try to make marinade soak in more quickly. This actually drains the juices. It’s recommended to marinate foods in glass bowls or plastic bags because these are nonreactive materials – steel and other metals may interfere with the flavor. Whether or not you marinate your meat is totally your call, but in our opinion, if you’re cooking steak, salt and pepper should suffice just fine. Kabobs, chicken, fish, and tofu, on the other hand, develop delicious and intense flavors when marinated properly.
Put your new-found knowledge to the test and try out a recipe. Or two. Or three. It’s perfectly understandable to get addicted to grilling. Keep experimenting with recipes and techniques until you find your niche.
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