A Guide to Latin Grilling for Your Memorial Day BBQ

As long as you're pulling your white pants and straw hats out of storage this Memorial Day weekend, you may as well brush up on some grilling skills, too. While I know most of us grill year-round, there's something about summer that makes me want to launch some kind of special season-opener with my barbecue, a recommitment of sorts to the flame.

Thanks in part to a gorgeous new book by Lourdes Castro, this year I'm reinvigorating my grilling repertoire with a kick of spice.

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Born in Miami to Cuban parents, Lourdes is now a food science and nutrition instructor at NYU, and she is on to her third cookbook, Latin Grilling: Recipes to Share, from Patagonian Asado to Yucatecan Barbecue and More (Ten Speed Press, 2011).

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• And don't forget grilled shrimp with smoked paprika

What Makes Latin Grilling Special?

I chatted with Lourdes about what makes Latin grilling so special, and I asked her for some of her best tips for cooking any kind of food over fire.

1. What makes Latin grilling so special?
If I had to pick one word to describe Latin cuisine, it would be vibrant. Bold, vibrant flavors, like garlic, cumin, chiles, and citrus are some of the ingredients that make up the foundation of Latin cooking. Overall, grilling tends to bring out the natural flavors of foods, but when they are marinated or spiced with Latin flavors, food seems to jump with zest.

2. Is it the ingredients or the technique that sets Latin grilling apart from other cultures' approaches to the barbecue?
I think the ingredients, more than the technique, defines Latin grilling. Specifically, it's the use of herbs, spices, and aromatics that really defines the cuisine and describes the traditional flavors of each country or region. While you will find fiery chiles and cilantro in Mexico, Cuba is focused on garlic and cumin, and Argentina on parsley, onions, and olive oil.

3. I'm grilling steak this weekend. What's your go-to easy grilled steak method?
Skirt steak is definitely my go-to steak for grilling. Its pretty affordable, doesn't require much attention, and is delicious. Lately, I've been alternating between dry-rubbing it with a spice blend then chopping it up for tacos, or marinating it in chimichurri (fresh parsley and garlic sauce) and serving it like a steak.

10 Tips for Cooking with Fire, Latin-Style

Like all masters of the grill, Lourdes says that cooking with fire requires instinct and practice, but also a strong understanding of what works and what doesn't on the grill. She offered these ten tips, which lay the groundwork for top-notch grilling.

  1. KNOW YOUR GRILL
    All grills are not created equal. Each grill has its own nuances—how hot it gets, the hot spots, its tendency to flare. For this reason, you should treat all grilling recipes simply as guides. Once you’re comfortable with your grill’s capabilities, you will be able to better gauge cooking times and to use the lid to increase or decrease the intensity of the heat.
  2. ALWAYS PREHEAT YOUR GAS GRILL
    I always preheat my gas grill at least fifteen minutes before I am ready to grill. I start by turning on the burners to their highest setting and allowing the grates to get very hot. Regardless of the temperature I will eventually cook my food at, this allows for an intense sear at the beginning of the grilling process. After the initial sear, I adjust my grill temperature as required.
  3. INVEST IN A GOOD INSTANT-READ THERMOMETER
    Forget about prodding the meat with your finger or just blindly guessing if your meat is properly cooked. Even professional chefs use thermometers to accurately measure the internal temperature of meats. Get yourself a good instant-read thermometer with a long, heat-resistant handle. I prefer those with thin probes that make small incisions in the meat, and I tend to stay away from those with thick two-prong forks.
  4. EQUIP YOURSELF WITH THE PROPER TOOLS
    There are four specific tools I find indispensable: long-handled tongs, a long-handled spatula, a long-handled basting brush, and a tight-fitting heat-resistant glove. The first three are pretty common, since they make up most sets of barbecue tools; just make sure the ones you use are heat resistant. The tight glove is a discovery I made after I got tired of singeing my hand when reaching the back of the grill—I figured there had to be a better way. I had always shied away from bulky grilling mitts, which were clumsy and never allowed me to feel as if I had a good grip on things. Then one day I found a pair of tight-fitting pit mitts that protected me from the heat of the flames but still allowed a good grip. Now I never grill without them.
  5. ALWAYS OIL YOUR GRATES
    Regardless of what you are grilling, it is always a good idea to properly oil your grates beforehand. Wait until your grill is hot and you are ready to place your food on the grate. I prefer using plain vegetable oil, slathering it onto the grates with a paper towel that I hold with long-handled tongs. This allows me to cover the entire grill area without burning myself.
  6. DEAL WITH FLARE-UPS PROPERLY
    Flare-ups, which are caused by oil or excess fat dripping into the fire, are not always bad, since they can result in a nice char. However, if uncontrolled they can result in scorched food. Here are some tips for preventing and dealing with flare-ups:

  7. • If you’re working with an oil-based marinade, allow as much marinade as possible to drip off the meat before placing it on the grill.
    • If possible, create a low-heat zone on your grill as a safe haven to move your food to when flare-ups occur.
    • If you don’t have enough space for a low–heat zone, pile up pieces of food in a corner where the flare-up is not occurring while you wait for the flare-up to die down.
    • You don’t want to extinguish the flames with water for the same reason you don’t pour water on a kitchen grease fire: the flames will just get bigger.

  8. SOAK WOODEN SKEWERS AND PLANKS SUFFICIENTLY
    I say this from experience: make sure to soak your wooden skewers for at least 20 minutes and your wooden planks for at least two hours. Anything short of that will result in the wood charring and possibly igniting. I place skewers in a pitcher of water and, if they’re not completely submerged, I flip them after twenty minutes to soak the rest. To soak wooden planks, I find it easiest to place them in a rectangular baking dish filled with water and set a heavy pot over the planks to keep them submerged.
  9. HAVE A PLAN BEFORE YOU BEGIN
    Understanding cooking times — and how well foods will hold after they come off the grill — is essential to successfully pulling off a grilling menu. If your menu is varied, begin by grilling the items that can be eaten at room temperature. Keep in mind that meat needs to rest for at least five minutes before you serve or slice it; this resting time can often be used to quickly grill some other items.

    When grilling various cuts of meat, start with those that take the longest, adding the others along the way. This will ensure that they finish cooking at approximately the same time.

    The same premise holds true when you’re cooking the same cut of meat to various levels of doneness. Start with the pieces you want to end up well done, adding the medium well, medium, and so forth so that they all get done at about the same time.

  10. TAKE A WALK (OR HAVE A DRINK)
    One of the biggest mistakes made by grillers is that they put food on the grill and immediately begin to mess with it. My rule is to put it down and walk away. In order for meat or vegetables to get a nice char, they need to spend some alone time with the heat. How long you leave the food alone depends on the food, but at least 5 minutes is a good start. Just enough time to get something cold to drink!
  11. ALWAYS CLEAN YOUR GRILL PROPERLY AFTER EACH USE
    This might sound obvious, but I can’t tell you how many grills I have seen with bits of food caked onto their grates. Food sticks to dirty grates, and by not cleaning your grill, you are sabotaging yourself. Simply get yourself a cleaning brush with stiff bristles and, when you are done grilling, crank up the heat to the highest setting, wait for 5 minutes, and brush off any remaining food or oil residue from the grates. (The Kitchn says: Try cleaning the grill with an onion!)


* * *

Thanks, Lourdes!

So while I'm getting all Latin with my skirt steak this weekend, what kind of grilling voyage are you planning?

Find Lourdes' book: Latin Grilling: Recipes to Share, from Patagonian Asado to Yucatecan Barbecue and More, $14.47 at Amazon

Visit Lourdes' website: Lourdes Castro

Event Alert! If you happen to be in New York City tonight you can check out Lourdes Castro's appearance at the Borders Columbus Circle (Time Warner Center) at 7pm. Details here.

Related: Grilling with Chopsticks: BBQ Parties in Japan

(Images: Lourdes Castro by Tara Donne; fava bean photo by Kathryn Hill)

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Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. She is most recently the co-author of The Kitchn Cookbook, to be published in October 2014 by Clarkson Potter.