Ask barbecue fanatics where they learned their craft and they typically cite their back yards.
They’ll recall their father (always their father, seldom their mother) at the grill, sometimes flipping burgers, other times smoking a whole hog. That sense memory is often the inspiration for a lifelong barbecuing passion.
Not for me. My father rarely cooked outdoors. He was more a Saturday farmhouse-breakfast or weekend spaghetti-and-meatballs kind of guy. The only times I recall my dad even being around a grill is at large family gatherings at a public park, and I was too busy splashing in the pool or chasing my cousins with a water gun to notice anything about the grilling.
So, I was a true novice when, in my early 20s, I moved to Texas in the mid-1970s. I made a lot of mistakes while learning this most elemental of cooking methods. I committed those errors so you don’t have to. Here, just in time for the second half of summer, is my take on 11 mistakes rookies make with their charcoal grills, and how to correct them.
The weekend after I bought my first grill, I threw a party. I put so many hand-formed burgers on the grill it looked like the Beltway at rush hour. Within minutes, I was scooping the disks of meat off the grill, each one more burned than the one before.
Correction: Leave enough space between your food items to comfortably tend to each one.
Pro tip: Live-fire cooking creates different heat intensities. Know your hot spots and move your food around (now that you’ve got the room) to avoid burning.
Shortly after getting married, I squirted a hydrant’s amount of lighter fluid on a mountain of charcoal and torched it with a match. Impatient with the fire’s progress, I did it again. And again.
Each time, the flames blazed with a demonic fearsomeness, as if I were Jimi Hendrix and the grill was my guitar. Watching from just outside the back door, my betrothed, Jessica, voiced her concern.
“Jim, if you kill yourself, then. . . .” She paused in search of the right words. “Then. . . .” Apparently not finding precisely the right ones, she hollered a two-word epithet ending with the word “you.”
I broke out laughing. “Really?”
I was wrong to be cavalier. Lighter fluid is dangerous — and risking self-immolation is no way to start a marriage.
Don’t use it. The odor is foul. The stuff is flammable, so it is a needless accident waiting to happen when stored in the garage.
Correction: Use a charcoal chimney. You simply stuff wads of newspaper in the bottom, put charcoal in the top, light the newsprint and, within 20 minutes, your coals ash over and are ready to use.
Pro tip: Fill your chimney with only as much charcoal as you need for the meal you are cooking. Grilling four burgers? Fill it about halfway. Grilling eight burgers? Fill it to the top.
For more time than I care to remember, I spread hot coals over the entire base of the grill.
That led to two problems. One, I was limiting the grill’s capacity, because all the heat was at basically the same intensity. Two, I burned a lot of burgers because they were all cooking at the same time and temperature, and it was impossible to pull them off quickly enough.
Firing up the whole grill is like having all the burners on your kitchen stove top stuck at the same heat level. No one can cook like that.
Correction: Create two zones, one with fire for direct cooking, the other without fire for indirect. That way, you have plenty of room to maneuver the food to cook as fast or slow as you want.
Pro tip: Sear over a direct fire. Then, more often than not, close the lid when cooking on the indirect side, to gently roast your food.
In Austin in the 1980s, there was a barbecue legend named C.B. Stubblefield. You may know him as the inspiration behind the Stubb’s line of barbecue sauces.
A towering and solidly built man, his presence loomed large at the back of the fabled blues club Antone’s. Nothing ended the dance-drenched night like a plate of his pork ribs — meaty, lightly charred and as tender as an Elvis Presley ballad, so wondrous that I credit them with sealing the deal between my wife-to-be and me. (Full disclosure: Stubb, as everyone called him, catered our wedding.)
My ribs, meanwhile, were the opposite of Stubb’s: tough, dry, with a never-ending chew. Eventually, I figured out that it was because my fire was too hot.
Correction: To cook slower, extend the fire and give the ribs that smoky flavor, set the lid on the grill. You can also cook at a low temperature by using fewer coals or allowing the coals to cool down a little, but both of those techniques are for foods such as fish and chicken pieces, which cook faster, not big meats such as ribs.
Pro tip: Your grill is a convertible. Leave the top off for fast grilling of steaks and chops. Put the top on for slow cooking and smoking of ribs and pork butts, and adjust the vents (more open for faster cooking, less open for slower cooking).
My first experiments with beef brisket were so abysmal that I actually threw out a couple of woefully underdone briskets rather than eat them. One Sunday morning, I called Jessica’s cousin, Red, a family brisket legend, who revealed his secrets. Although my briskets sometimes still don’t quite measure up, usually they’re delicious — and I haven’t thrown one out in years.
The problem is, I was opening the lid too often to see how the meat was doing, as if it were a movie and I didn’t want to miss any of the good parts. That was messing with the temperature, which was messing with the cooking time.
Correction: On big meats, like brisket and pork shoulder, don’t peek.
Pro tip: Fire management and patience are the two most important ingredients for creating great barbecue. Learning how to feed the fire helps with both. Buy a hinged grate to more easily add coals or wood chips to your fire to keep the fire steady over long cook times. If using an offset or other smoker, use larger-size hardwoods, such as chunks and split logs. They’ll help maintain an even fire because they smolder for long periods of time, and the space between the fire and the food will help avoid over-smoking.
There was a chain restaurant known for its ribs that I used to enjoy. The ribs came out shellacked with sauce.
I tried to do that at home. But my ribs inevitably came out as cinders. Then I learned a little chemistry. Sauce has sugar in it. Sugar caramelizes. When put over fire too soon, it burns. Save the sugar for the sweet tea.
Correction: Baste with sauce during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
Pro tip: Don’t use sauce, period. (I rarely do, anymore.) The flavor of meat, spice rub and smoke is sublime. If you must use sauce, offer it as an option at the table.
When I started out barbecuing, my food often stuck to the grate. I would take a spatula and pull a burger or salmon filet up from the cooking surface, leaving some parts of it on the grates.
Like Homer Simpson, I’d blame the fire or the appliance: “Stupid grill.” It took some time, but I finally learned that the fault was not with the flames or the grates — but with myself. There is no self-cleaning function on a grill.
Correction: After cooking, while the grill is still warm, use a hard-bristle brush and scrub the grates. Then, dip a rag or wadded-up paper towel in vegetable oil and, using long-handled tongs, oil the grates. You can also wait until the next time you cook and, after starting the fire, scrub and oil the grates.
Pro tip: Wait just a little longer than you think you should before turning food. Once it caramelizes or gets dark grill marks, the food releases much easier from the grate. Also, you might lightly oil your food — coins of squash, a hunk of steak, whatever.
From everything you’ve read so far, you probably think that all I ever grilled or smoked was meat. Until recently, you’d be right. I was so meat-centric that I regarded chicken as a side dish.
Then I traveled to Italy. Antipasti, especially in Tuscany, inevitably included grilled eggplant, zucchini, onion and red bell peppers. It was a lightbulb moment.
Pro tip: Use the grill as an outside version of your stove and oven. Anything you can cook indoors you can cook outdoors. Liberate your imagination.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. By that standard, I used to be a genius. The quality of my grilled and smoked foods was that inconsistent.
I started keeping a log of seasonings, heat intensity and cooking duration to help me reduce mistakes. My food improved. But it wasn’t until I purchased one simple tool that dependability became part of my barbecue vocabulary.
Correction: Use an instant-read thermometer. Stuck into the thickest part of the meat, it provides a reliable guide to doneness.
Pro tip: Don’t rely on the thermometer alone. I may not use feel exclusively anymore, but I still use it a lot. A thermometer doesn’t tell you whether that brisket jiggles the way it should. Trust your instincts.
As much as you learn, there will always be more to learn. To this day, I will ask a friend a question about something he did on the grill that I hadn’t seen before or inquire how, exactly, he achieved that perfect crust and succulent interior on a brisket.
Correction: Remain curious.
I wasn’t even a rookie for this one, but mistakes can happen to the best of us. In late June, I was in New Orleans visiting my son and helping his crew of friends throw a barbecue. The fire was as ornery as any I can remember. It would smolder at far too low a temperature, then spike horrendously.
The reason? No wood. More accurately, the wrong wood. They only had logs. Adding a whole, big, round log to the firebox of a smoker is more likely to put out the fire (no oxygen) than to keep it going. Which is basically what kept happening.
Correction: Prepare, of course, but also improvise. Even if we had exactly the right wood and it was cut to our specifications, who knows what else might have gone wrong? Live-fire cooking is unpredictable. The climate, the moisture in the wood, the wind, any number of things can impact the way the food cooks. We were cooking two racks of ribs, a mess of chicken wings, some links of sausage, an eggplant and a few wedges of watermelon.
Nowadays, I’m adept enough to handle many different foods at once. I know approximately how long each one takes, over what intensity of flame. On that day in New Orleans, approximate cooking times perished in the slow-fast fire. We ad-libbed furiously, moving foods far from the fire to directly above hot flames, then back again, all the while fiddling with the fire’s intensity with wood chips I found at a local grocery store and split logs provided from a barbecue joint that took pity on me.
Pro tip: Don’t panic, and slow down. Always allow a buffer zone of time of at least an hour for big meats (pork shoulder, brisket, ribs) and 20 minutes for quick-grill items (steaks, fish). If you think the ribs will take four hours, allow five. The extra time allows you to stay calm when things go south. And if everything goes perfectly? Great. Meat should rest, anyway.
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.
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