When it comes to vegetables, the line between grilled and sacrificed to the fire gods is thin. The goal of grilling proteins is to grill them until cooked sufficiently to eat. With vegetables and fruit, the goal line can, and should, move. Sometimes we seek only a wispy waft of smoky flavor, or a crosshatch of grill marks, or deckled edges of finishing char. Other times we want the food cooked through, good and plenty. A key to grilling vegetables is to decide the end game, to know the answer to "Why am I doing this?" Reliable grilling recipes can light your path and teach you the basics, but no matter where you're headed, no matter the recipe, here are a few tips that make it a better ride.
1. Sometimes you have to retreat from the heat.
In general, fruits and vegetables benefits most from direct grilling over high- or medium-high heat, but their higher natural sugar content increases their chance of burning or igniting. Create two heat zones, one high and one lower where you can move the food if things get out of hand. You can also use the two zones for an initial sear followed by a longer finish, analogous to searing on top of the stove and finishing in the oven. Another option is to begin with indirect cooking on the cooler side of your dual-zone fire followed by a high-heat finish to get color and crispness on the outside.
2. Oil is your friend and your enemy.
No matter what you are grilling, make sure the grill grate is clean, hot, and lubricated. Yes, the most important use of oil is on that grate. Vegetables should be oiled lightly, only enough to keep them moist and prevent sticking. Excess oil drips onto the heat source and causes incendiary flareups.
3. The raw and the cooked.
Large chunks of hard, raw veg cannot cook through solely on a grill. The outside will inevitable char beyond edibility before the centers begin to warm or soften. Items such as potatoes and other root vegetables need an initial parboil before finishing them on the grill. Sometimes the goal (such as with ripe fruit or cut tomatoes) isn't cooked through at all — only kissed with grill marks for a hint of flavor.
4. It's all about the cut.
Cut any single type of vegetable into pieces of similar size and shape so they cook at the same rate, just as you would with a stir-fry, sauté, or braise. As with any cooking method, small pieces cook more quickly, but too-small pieces are more likely to burn. No matter the size, choose cuts that increase surface area that maximize delicious contact with the grill, such as cutting zucchini into planks instead of rounds.
5. Baskets can be useful.
A mesh grilling basket can save your sanity when trying to keep small, skinny, or unruly vegetables from falling through the grill grate. Another option is to thread small items, such as asparagus or scallions, side by side onto skewers as though constructing a raft, but this is tedious work.
Read more: How To Grill Even Better Asparagus
6. You don't have to mix and match.
To steer clear of mixed and mismatched cooking needs when constructing kebabs and skewers, thread only one ingredient per skewer. Put the slabs or wedges of onion together, peppers on another, cherry tomatoes on another, mushrooms on another, and so forth. When each is ready to serve, slip them off the skewers and toss together on a serving platter, delivering the best of all worlds.
7. I'm all ears.
People are conflicted (if not hostile) over how to grill corn on the cob, arguing whether it should be shucked before or after cooking — so much so that this veg merits its own mention. Neither technique is wrong, but they yield different results. Tossing un-shucked ears onto the grate until the husks are charred creates corn that is sweet and a bit smoky. Shucked ears grilled over high heat until the kernels are well-browned with charred spots give more robust, caramelized corn flavor.
Get the recipe: How To Grill the Best Corn on the Cob
8. Burning, man.
The skin of some vegetables is prone to burn no matter what you do. This is not necessarily bad. Consider eggplant: Let the skin blacken and the vegetable collapse, and then scoop out the tender, smoky flesh. You can sometimes salvage other vegetables (such as onions) that get more blackened than you intended by peeling off the charred outer layers to reveal the delectable, smoky interior. Any char left on a vegetable should be a flavor benefit, not a distraction. Each of us appreciates the difference between a good sear and a mouthful of cinders.
Read more: How To Roast Peppers, 3 Ways
9. Marinades finish last.
Many grilling recipes call for soaking raw vegetables in marinades before they go on the grill. Nope. In my experience, trying to marinate hard, raw vegetables is like trying to marinate marbles: they'll float around and get greasy, but they cannot absorb a thing. On the other end of the spectrum, marinating spongy, absorbent vegetables turns them into soggy mush before they even hit the heat. Cooked vegetables, on the other hand, have softened and become accepting of the flavor and moisture of a delicious marinade, so toss or brush them with a little marinade as soon as they come off the grill, while still warm and amenable, similar to judiciously dressing a salad.
It's also fine to brush and lightly baste with marinade during cooking — just don't waterlog them. If you are seeking pre-cook flavorings, consider dry seasonings such as rubs and good ol' salt and pepper. They add flavor, don't drip, and require no lead time, enabling spontaneous creativity.