An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Grilling (AKA Everything You Are Afraid to Ask)
It’s officially my favorite season: grilling season! All the tell-tale signs are out in full force — people are swarming the green lawns and public barbecuing spots in my local town park, the once-packed shelves of burger and hot dog buns at the supermarket are quickly beginning to empty, and all I can think about is spending an evening on the patio with a cold beer in hand, cooking dinner over a fire.
So, whether this is your first season in charge of the grill or you’re a seasoned grill master looking for a refresher on the basics, here are the answers to your most burning grilling questions.
Q: Should I buy a charcoal or gas grill?
Gas. Both gas and charcoal grills have their strengths (I actually have both), but gas grills are better for beginners. With just the turn of a knob, the grill heats as quickly as an oven, meaning you’re more likely to put it to work during the week (and build your grilling confidence more quickly). The steady and consistent heat of a gas grill is easily controlled by the dials and monitored using the temperature gauge that sits upon the lid of most models.
Charcoal grills require more time to get the fire going (it can take at least 30 minutes for a chimney starter full of charcoal to get hot and white with ash). Plus, the learning curve is steeper with charcoal grilling — it takes time and experience to learn the best way to position the pile of coals, and how to adjust the air vents to reach and maintain the ideal grilling temperature.
Q: Talk to me about propane.
Gas grills use propane as their heat source. Most home improvement stores and some gas stations have kiosks for purchasing and refilling or trading propane tanks. The tank will be quite heavy to lift when full, and light when empty. Once the tank is empty, go back to the propane retailer to trade your empty tank for a full one. After each grilling session, make sure you not only turn off the temperature knobs, but also the valve on the propane tank.
You can leave a disconnected tank, covered with the grill cover, under the grill during grilling season. Extra disconnected tanks should be stored outside in a dry, well-ventilated location away from flammable materials. Do not store propane tanks in a shed or garage, even if they are empty.
Q: How do I light a gas grill?
Open the lid. Turn the burner closest to the ignition switch to high or “light.” Press the ignition or auto-light switch or button. Once the first burner lights, turn on the other burners and adjust heat as desired. If the ignition switch doesn’t light, locate the “manual lighting hole” — it’s often found on the side of the grill. Turn on the burner closest to that hole and carefully insert a lit match (using the grill’s match holder or a long match) into the hole to light the burner.
Q: I’m not convinced. Tell me about charcoal grills.
Charcoal grills are often less expensive than their gas counterparts, but you’ll need a few extra tools to get started. Specifically, you’ll need a chimney starter to hold the charcoal as it lights, newspaper and long matches or a stick lighter for ignition, and natural lump charcoal for fuel. Natural lump charcoal is the best choice for a charcoal grill because it provides that signature smoky flavor without the chemical residue (and flavor) of lighter fluid.
Q: How do I ignite charcoal?
Open the grill vents. Lightly coat a few pieces of newspaper with vegetable oil and stuff in the underside of the chimney starter, then fill to the top with natural lump charcoal. Set the filled chimney starter on the lower grate of your charcoal grill and light the newspaper with a long match or stick lighter. After 30 to 45 minutes, the coals should be white, ashy, and very hot. Carefully dump the coals onto the lower grate and place the cooking grate over top. Replace the lid and wait 10 to 15 minutes for the cooking grate to heat. Adjust the vents on the underside of the grill and the lid to increase or decrease airflow into the grill. More air (and more oxygen) means a hotter fire, whereas partially closed vents produce a cooler fire.
Q: How do I prep the grates (either gas or charcoal) for grilling?
The first step is to clean the grill grates. Heat the grill grates to burn off any food or buildup. Then use a grill brush or a wad of aluminum foil (maneuvered with a pair of long tongs) to scrub off the ash and buff the grates clean.
Cut an old kitchen towel in thirds. Roll one piece of towel into a cylinder and tie with a few pieces of twine. Dip the towel in vegetable or canola oil, but do not saturate. (Although you may see high-heat nonstick sprays designed for grilling in the grocery stores, I find those cause flare-ups, leave a sticky residue, and don’t do a good job oiling the grates, so you’ll want to opt for oil). Use tongs to rub the oiled cloth over the hot grates. When you’re finished grilling but while the grates are still hot, scrub the grates with a grill brush to loosen any stuck-on bits.
Q: What is zone cooking?
Zone cooking refers to the location of the heat source on the grill (either the lit burners of a gas grill or the location of the pile of lit coals in a charcoal grill). Direct heat cooking means that the food is placed directly over the flame. Indirect heat means that the food is placed on the grate adjacent to the flame. On a gas grill, that means one or two burners are lit and the food is placed over the unlit burner(s). On a charcoal grill, that means arranging the coals into a pile on one side of the grill, then placing the food on the opposite side of the grill for indirect cooking.
Q: When do I close the lid, and when do I leave it open?
A good rule of thumb is that if the food is 3/4-inch thick or less, leave the lid open. If the food is thicker than 3/4-inch, close the lid. When you close the lid, the heat stays in and acts as a convection oven, with the hot air rising from the heat source and circulating around the closed grill. The hot air escapes once the lid opens, but the heat still radiates from the bottom, akin to cooking on a stovetop. Open grill cooking is where golden-brown grill marks form best.
Q: How do I know when to turn the food?
The food will tell you when it’s ready to turn. If you’ve started with cleaned, well-oiled grates, the food should easily release from the grates once the grill marks have formed. If the food sticks, leave it on the grill for another minute or two before attempting to flip again.
Bonus tip: For classic crosshatch grill marks, place the food on grates at a 45-degree angle to the grill grates. Once grill marks appear, give the food a quarter turn and cook until the crosshatched grill marks appear.
Q: What are the essential grilling tools?
My grilling tool kit includes long tongs, heavy-duty aluminum foil, an instant-read thermometer, a timer, hot pads, metal and soaked wooden skewers, a basting brush, and a grill basket. I also always keep two rimmed baking sheets nearby — one for raw food and another for cooked. Don’t forget about the supplies mentioned earlier, including a grill brush, chimney starter (for charcoal grills), and long matches or stick lighter.
Ready to get started? Here are the 5 things every beginner should learn how to grill.