There are a few different methods of grilling with your gas grill, your charcoal grill, or your bbq smoker.
There is direct grilling, indirect grilling, and smoking.
Let us start with direct grilling.
Direct grilling involves cooking your food inches over the flames. This would be done with thin cuts of meat, fish, shellfish & fruit or vegetables. These foods tend to cook quickly and can benefit from the searing heat of the flames.
With this method of cooking you generally do not need the lid of your cooker, and should stand close watch over the food to make sure it does not burn. You should never leave your grill unattended anyway, but direct grilling takes a much closer watch. You also want to make sure that you have separate heat zones. A heat zone is a way to control temperature. This is so you have an area to direct grill or even sear your food, an area to cook the food, and so you have an area to put food that is already done or almost finished. More or less, your safety zone.
If you are cooking for a larger crowd, you will want three cooking zones. One for searing, one for cooking, and one safety zone.
With a charcoal grill, this can be obtained by starting your coals, and when about ready, raking then into separate leveled layers.
1) a double layer: your searing zone;
2) a single layer: your cooking zone; &
3) leave a third of the grate with no coals, giving you your safety zone.
With a gas grill, simply adjust your burner’s controls. Have one burner on high heat, two on medium, and keep the last burner off. (If you have less cooking zones, use your top rack for your safety zone.)
When cooking for smaller groups & less items to cook, work with a two zone method. With charcoal just use a double layer & single layer of coal or spread it out evenly & try to leave a smaller section bare. With gas, just preheat half of the grill and leave the rest turned off. And again if you have less burners, use your top grate for a safety zone. I’ve been making shrimp skewers and putting them directly on the top rack for a slower more even cooking of the shrimp. Less burning occurs(especially with wood skewers.)
A lid is not necessary with the direct grilling & your heating zones. Again this is for cooking thinner cuts of meat,burgers, fish, and vegetables. Quicker cooking foods. If your meat is a little thicker, you may want to close the lid for a few minutes. This will speed up the cooking process a little & capture some smokey goodness in whatever you’re cooking. When cooking with an open table grill or hibachi, you may need to add some grilling time for thicker cuts of meat, or throw a foil pan over the top for a few minutes.
Indirect grilling is used to cook larger, thicker, and tougher cuts of meat at a slower rate. Items like baby back ribs or pork loins, even whole chickens, benefit from cooking this way. The indirect method allows you to cook these items through without burning the exterior. Just like cooking in your oven.
Indirect grilling with a gas grill is a bit simpler than charcoal, so we will discuss that first. If you have a 2 burner gas grill, turn one side off and leave the other one on. If you are working with a 3-4 burner unit, turn the outside burners on, leaving the center as your cooking area. You typically want to keep your temperatures at around 325-350 degrees for this application. If you are working with very fatty cuts of meat, like lamb, you may want to place them in a shallow foil pan to cook. This will prevent possible flair ups due to extra greasy drippings.
Always remember to have extra fuel on hand! You do not want to start a large piece of meat and run out of gas halfway through the cooking process. If you’re at home you can always finish inside…but if you’re tailgating, you’re meal is ruined!
Indirect grilling with charcoal, especially with larger or tougher pieces of meat, can be time consuming. But, patience is a virtue, and you will be rewarded for it. Start by making yourself an aluminum foil drip pan to place in the bottom with your coals. Your food should be placed over the drip pan. Now given the size of your grill, and the size of the item you are cooking, will determine how to set up your coals. After you get your charcoal started you can split it in half by separating it to both sides, then placing your foil pan in the center. If you are working with large item, like a turkey, you may want to just keep all the coal to one side, and keep your cooking area on the other. You control your heat by adjusting the top & bottom vents of your grill.
If you are cooking something that requires long periods of time, you will need to replenish your coal. Do this by placing 8-12 fresh briquettes or lumps on each side and leave the grill uncovered. This will allow fresh air that the coal needs to light. It will also keep any of the harsh smoke from the newly lit coals away from your food. Wait about 5-10 minutes before putting the lid back on. As I said this can be time consuming, but you will produce culinary masterpieces from your charcoal grill. Always remember to have extra charcoal on hand. You don’t want to run out in the middle of cooking!!!
Finally! We come to my favorite form of grilling. Smoking!
Smoking food dates back to days of no refrigeration. It was a great way to preserve food. Brining and smoking meat would give it a much greater shelf life.
Most enthusiasts think that smoking food is what true barbecue is all about. The rest is just grilling. But smoking food is a method of indirect grilling.
Smoking adds flavor, tenderizes, and can make a really tough cut of meat, melt in your mouth like butter.
A traditional way to cook this way is is to use a bbq pit, smoker box or bbq smoker. Not everyone has one of these units. Seeing as we are talking about methods of “grilling”‘ we are only going to discuss smoking with a charcoal grill or gas grill for the time being. Now that we know what smoking is about, we can go on to discuss the differences of charcoal & gas grills when it comes to bbq smoking. We can also touch on different ways to achieve the smoke that is so needed to cook this way; types of wood, chunks to chips, and smoker bags and cans.
Let’s start with the smoke itself.
Barbecue smoking is a form of indirect grilling done slowly over low heat while surrounded by wood smoke.
Many people prefer fruit wood to smoke their food, cherry, apple, peach to name a few. Many prefer Hickory or Mesquite. Typically any hardwood will do, Oak & even Alder. I know some smokehouses that use corn cobs. (Don’t knock it til you try it…some of the best bacon I’ve ever had was cob smoked!)
Depending on your method of cooking, bbq smoker, gas grill, charcoal grill, can determine the form your wood takes. A bbq smoker or bbq pit can handle split logs and even branches. Your traditional grills aren’t typically capable of handling the heat of a full log of Oak or Mesquite. They do make some grills and smokers heavy duty enough nowadays to handle logs, but not everyone has one of those. For the rest of us with our regular charcoal and gas grills, we have chunks of wood, or chips, that are more readily available online or in stores. You just soak the wood chips,(or chunks) for about an hour & you’re ready to go.
There are many items out there now to help achieve that smokey flavor. Wood pellets in cans, wood planks, foil smoker bags lined with wood & wood oils. They even have smoker boxes that can be used on your stove top or in your oven for periods of inclement weather when you still want to get your smoke on.
So,we’ve come to the actually cooking with smoke. I think we should start with charcoal here, because I believe it to be, by far, simpler than smoking with a gas grill.
Set up your charcoal grill just as you would for regular indirect grilling. After your chips or chunks of wood have been soaked, and your charcoal is ready, toss a nice handful of wood on each charcoal mound. A bit less than a cup. (I know of a woman that throws chunks of onion right in with the wood and charcoal for extra flavor.) Adjust your vents to get a desired temperature. For smoking you want to be in a 200-225 degree range. For foods that need to smoke for long periods, like brisket, you will need to replenish your charcoal & wood chips or chunks periodically. Roughly about every hour. (Real barbecue smoking can take anywhere from 1-2 hours up to 16-20 hours.)
To be safe, meats need to be cooked to a proper internal temperature. Most meats should be cooked to at least 145 degrees & poultry to at least 165 degrees. To get real tender bbq you want a higher final temperature, say 180 degrees. Brisket is a good example here, because of the toughness of this particular cut of meat. You want it cooked long and slow, to let the smoke sink in, but also to tenderize the meat. This is not a piece of beef that should still be pink on the inside. You want a higher final temperature. Then you know your brisket is cooked & will be nice & flavorful & tender.
So, we have already discussed different methods of grilling.
Direct grilling, or right over the flames, and different forms of indirect grilling: away from the flames, essentially baking with your grill, and cooking your food low & slow with smoke.
Smoking with a gas grill is fairly simple if you have a higher end grill that comes with a smoker box or an area that is dedicated to a smoker box. The rest of the grilling world, with our standard gas grills, have to figure out other ways to smoke our food.With the wonderful world of the internet and many inventive people out there, “the rest of us” now have many options for smoking with our gas grill.
There are many great things out there to use: smoker cans, smoker bags, smoker boxes to hold chips & release smoke through holes, wood planks, etc. But, you can still always just make one yourself, with some heavy duty aluminum foil. Just wrap about a cup or two of soaked wood chips or chunks in a foil pouch. Poke a few holes in the pouch to release the smoke.Place your foil pouch directly over a burner & turn the burner up to high.( Try to find your hottest spot. That may be by the tube with the pilot light, but hopefully you know your grill well enough to know your hot zones.This holds true for smoker cans & smoker boxes too.) Once you see the pouch start to smoke, turn the burner down to get your desired temperature. Again, if you’re planning on smoking something like a brisket, have another foil pouch or two ready to go for the next couple of hours.
The gas grill will still not produce the level of smoke that you would get from a traditional bbq smoker or even a charcoal grill. You’ll still get some smokey flavor, but not quite as intense. For some people that’s ok. Not everyone likes it so intense. If you like intense though, maybe you want to go out & get yourself an alternate grill (like a charcoal one) just for smoking.
In conclusion to all of this grilling talk, I hope you have been inspired to get out there & try something new. Let’s get cooking!
And as always, remember to have extra fuel. Extra wood chips & extra charcoal are a must! That goes for propane too.You don’t want to run out of fuel one hour into a brisket! Oh and a fire extinguisher or a hose near by should be a must as well!