Best BBQ Grilling Tips, Tricks and Techniques

When Wilbur Bellybone cuts loose, nothing in the culinary world is safe. The acclaimed grill master unlocks the mysteries behind the often confusing, manly art of live fire cooking, and shares the carefully guarded tips, tricks and techniques used by top chefs to make mouthwatering, finger lickin’ good barbecue …including the best-ever recipes for backyard cookouts!

Complete strangers at live-fire cooking clinics, demonstrations and cookouts will often come right up to me and say: “Are you Wilbur Bellybone?” and “…you’re shorter than I expected. What’s the secret to great barbecue?” or “Where’s the bathroom?” While these are the most common questions, there’s also quite a few from experienced grill jockeys concerning different cooking methods, and how to improve their cooking skills.

The answer is No, I’m not Wilbur – I just write about him ….and I’m only this short in public – at home, I’m six foot-five and don’t have a beard. What’s the secret to great barbecue? It depends on a lot of things – but as a BBQ guru, Wilbur Bellybone wants everyone to keep one basic, essential culinary principle firmly in mind when it comes to preparing barbecue …Don’t leave your back yard!

Aspiring grill jockeys all over the country need to understand the dangers of ignoring this vitally important culinary rule. For instance, most people involved in traffic accidents – aren’t in their backyard. Most people who see UFO’s or get abducted by aliens – aren’t in the backyard either. There’s strong statistical evidence that most people who do leave their backyard are afflicted with a medical condition known as jobs syndrome ….and feel a compulsion to work!

Plus you might get shorter and grow a beard …but these are only a few of the most pressing problems of going out in public – I’m sure you encounter many strange and bizarre occurrences in your daily lives without realizing how much it affects BBQ. More importantly, most grills are located on a deck or patio in the backyard and that’s where great barbecue starts – in your backyard! Live-fire cooking is easy to master and here’s some tips, tricks and techniques needed for perfectly grilled food. We covered how to select the proper grill in an earlier article, and will concentrate on the basics of using them in a series of on-going articles – starting with grilling.

Live-fire cooking isn’t brain science or rocket surgery, and it doesn’t take a lot of complex, high falutin’ cooking techniques like you find in upscale restaurants with signs saying “No shirt – No Shoes – No Service”. The whole idea behind a cookout is to have fun while turning out great tasting food using one of these 5 methods.

Grilling: Is the most popular form of cooking on an outdoor grill, especially gas grills, and there are two basic variations of this technique. Direct Grilling is cooking food directly over hot coals or fire – at about 450 to 650 F. Direct grilling is best for thinner cuts of meat that cook quickly, like steaks, chicken breasts, or fish fillets. They get nicely browned on the outside in the time it takes to be done in the middle.

Indirect Grilling or Smoke Roasting: is a variation that’s used to cook larger cuts of meat, like roasts, whole chickens, or pork shoulders, because you don’t want them to burn on the outside before being done in the middle. Most Indirect Grilling is done at temperatures ranging from 325 to 400 F, with the fire on the opposite side of the grill, or on either side of the food. There’s no heat directly under the food as it cooks. By adding wood chunks or chips to the fire, you can get a smoke flavor that’s almost impossible with Direct Grilling, and most foods don’t have to be turned while cooking. With the lid closed, your grill becomes a sort of outdoor oven with this method.

Barbecuing: This is a low-heat, indirect method that uses wood smoke to flavor and help cook the food at about 225 to 300 F. It’s a long, slow cooking method that uses lots of wood to get a true, down-home smoke flavor – and meat tender enough to pull apart with your fingers. Charcoal grills and smokers are the best equipment to use for barbecuing because of the amount of wood needed and the long cooking times – gas grills just don’t do as good a job. While any kind of meats can be barbecued, the less tender cuts like briskets, London broil, or pork shoulders are the better choice

Slow Smoking: For many people, especially true barbecue fanatics, smoking is the ultimate live-fire cooking method for making meats tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, and getting that great smoked flavor barbecue is famous for. It’s an indirect, extremely low heat cooking method (200 to 250 F) that sometimes takes up to 20 hours for beef brisket.

Spit Roasting or Rotisserie Grilling: Cooking meat on a rotating spit has been around for centuries, and is ideal for roasts and poultry on a grill. It’s also a great way to prepare whole hogs, beef, lambs and goats over an open pit filled with hot coals. On most grills, the fire is usually in the back portion of the fire grate and the meat is cooked with indirect heat, with an open pit it is most often cooked directly over the heat. The secret to spit roasting is that the slowly rotating meat bastes itself on both the inside and the outside as it turns. The temperatures will range from about 250 F and up depending on the type of meat – larger, denser cuts or whole animals will cook at a lower temperature. Spit Roasting poultry is perfect for producing crisp, flavorful skin and moist juicy meat with little chance of burning it..
Although these are the most common live-fire cooking methods, there are several alternatives and endless variations …such as the one involving exuberant Labrador Retrievers, and unstable, lit grills – known as the “Flaming Deck” cooking method.

Grilling Tools are essential for safe and easy live-fire cooking. Having the right tools makes all the difference in the world when it comes to cooking intensely flavorful foods to perfection, and makes clean-up a snap. Some people may disagree with the tools on this list, and feel that some have been omitted, or that others should have been, – but the fact is, I’ve seen Wilbur prepare exquisite meals in the bush with nothing more than sticks, salt and matches. Once, to prove a point, he prepared a platter of appetizers using cat food that were snapped up in minutes and had people raving for more! So if Wilbur says that these are the tools essential for great grilling – I have to agree.

1. At least two pairs of long handled, spring loaded clamshelltongs– I cringe every time I see someone trying to use tongs that look like spatulas or bent wire on the ends. Tongs are like an extension of your hands, and clamshell tongs offer the most dexterity and gripping power of any design out there – professional chefs won’t use anything else, and neither should you.

2. Two different types of long handled, wide bladed spatulas are needed. One should have a thick, heavy blade for breaking food loose from the grill grate or used for shoveling hot coals in a pinch. The other should have a thin, flexible blade for lifting delicate foods such as fish without breaking them apart.

3. Basting Brushes for basting food as it cooks, or applying table sauces when served. Slow, low temperature live-fire cooking tends to make food dry out and basting it keeps it moist and juicy. Anymore, I just get the cheapest, two inch, general purpose fiber paint brushes I can find and use them after running them through the dish washer a time or two, but stay away from the foam type. Once they become too beat-up to use over, just toss them in the trash.

4. A long handled, wire bristle brush for cleaning the grill grate. The best ones have long flexible bristles, and can be picked up at welding supply or hardware stores anywhere in the world, and come with long handles.

5. A Charcoal Chimney to make lighting the charcoal fast and easy. Two are better if you do a lot of cooking for bigger groups of people.

6. HD Aluminum Foil has a million uses at a cookout – it’s used for everything from steaming vegetables, heat control, and making smoke pouches to emergency repairs. It doesn’t matter what brand, or whether the shiny side is in or out. Just get the widest, thickest foil available.

7. An assortment of ddisposable foil pans in various sizes and shapes, and plain cotton dishtowels have infinite uses besides wiping your hands or cleaning up spills and can always be cleaned for reuse.

8. An Instant-read meat thermometer for making sure food is fully cooked to within 10 degrees F of the correct doneness. Food will continue cooking for 10 to 30 minutes after being removed from the heat – waiting until the thermometer reads med-well before removing it, will result in food that’s well-done or even over-done after it rests.
And there you have it – every tool needed to make grilling fast and easy. Observant grill jockeys will say “Where’s the long-handled fork? …Where’s the spray bottle of water for putting out flare-ups??”

The answer is simple: You Don’t Need Them! Spray bottles are handy for applying thin, watery basting sauces or fruit juices while cooking – but if the fire and grill are prepared correctly, flare-ups aren’t a problem. As for forks ….my best advice is to use them in self-defense against the hordes of giant, ravenous BBQ-liking bugs found in Florida during the spring and summer. Other than that, I can’t think of a single practical use for a BBQ fork. Anyone who spends hours tending a hot, smoky fire, and cooking food to juicy perfection – has to be an idiot to puncture it with a fork and drain all that flavor. Actually, I’m not sure they are smart enough to even qualify as idiots.

Preparing the Grill: The only difference between preparing a charcoal grill and a gas grill, is lighting the coals; and a charcoal chimney will make it almost foolproof. A charcoal chimney is a sheet metal cylinder with a raised bottom and several ventilation holes in the lower end, along with an extended, insulated handle. To use it, place a loose layer of briquettes in the bottom, then add a loosely crumpled piece of newspaper, squirt the paper with starting fluid and fill the rest of the chimney with more briquettes. Lightly squirt them with starting fluid. Crumple up another piece of newspaper, squirt it with fluid and then place it underneath the chimney on the grill grate and light it. In about 15 to 20 minutes you’ll have perfectly glowing coals using a minimum of petroleum based starting fluid.

Anyone from the clumsiest Barbecue Bubba, to the most sophisticated Backyard Chef can greatly improve their cooking prowess by keeping the grill grate clean and well oiled. Live-fire cooking is a messy, grubby business – there’s burnt-on bits of food, and all kinds of sauces that get cooked on to the grate. It’s not only disgusting having it come in contact with the food, but a dirty grate causes food to stick and cook unevenly.

Cleaning the grill: Dump the hot coals in the bottom of the grill, and open all the vents, or light the gas grill and turn all the gas burners on high. Then, with charcoal or gas, close the lid with the cooking grate in place. Let the grate get hot, and clean it with a stiff wire brush. A hot grate is a lot easier to clean, and the high heat sterilizes it. Brush it anytime you notice pieces of sticking to it while cooking, and again when you’re done cooking, while the grate is still hot, to make it easier next time around.

Oil the grate: A clean, well oiled grate also gives you much better grill marks. Plain vegetable oil is not only cheaper, it has a much higher flash point than most other types so it lasts longer. Peanut oil may sound good – but it’s also a good way to find out if someone has an allergy.
The simplest way to oil the grill is to soak a wad of paper towels or a rag in oil, and then rub it over the HOT grate using your long handled tongs. It not only oils the grate, but gives it a final cleaning at the same time. Once the grill is cleaned and oiled, let it reach the proper temperature for cooking and you’re ready to go. During the cooking process, if you notice foods are starting to stick, oil it again.

Time Management and Heat Control are the two most critical challenges to live-fire cooking. It’s hard enough to prepare and serve several dishes simultaneously that require different cooking times and temperatures in a fully equipped, professional kitchen. Grill Jockeys have to contend with the added bonus of wind, rain, changing weather and even snow. Whether the recipe calls for it or not, always oil the grate to keep foods from sticking – especially when direct grilling.
This will be the subject of another article, but for now it’s important that everyone know how to gauger heat. Forget about the temperature gauger that comes with most gas grills – it only shows the heat in one specific area, while your food cooks in another. The tried and true method is to hold the palm of your hand about an inch above the hot grate, and start counting “one Mississippi …two Mississippi …three Mississippi ” and so on, until the heat becomes too uncomfortable and you have to pull your hand away. The key is to always hold your hand at the same height each time, and count with a consistent, steady pace – don’t speed up or slow down the cadence. Check the temperature in several locations of the grill to find any hot-spots or cold-spots.

Very Hot = 1 to 2 Mississippi ……..Hot = 2 to 3 Mississippi ……..Med-Hot = 3 to 4 Mississippi ……..Medium = 4-5 Mississippi …….Med-Low = 5-6 Mississippi
and ……..Low = 6-7 Mississippi

For most direct grilling, start with the temperature called for in the recipe and go to it as soon as the coals ash over – the fire is already getting colder. For all other cooking methods, especially if it takes an hour or more, you’ll have to check the temperature and add more coals or adjust the burners to maintain the proper cooking temperatures about every hour or so. That means firing up the chimney starter about 20 minutes before needing the fresh coals! Another tip to help maintain the proper heat, is to lay a handful of unlit charcoal briquettes on top of the coals – it will take awhile for them to ignite, and adds a little extra heat at the end of your fire.

The biggest challenge in grilling is controlling the heat. Especially when using charcoal or wood for the heat source, but even gas grills have problems with it. What makes heat control so tricky is that every fire burns differently. The heat of a single fire will vary depending on how long it’s been burning and the weather conditions. A charcoal or wood fire can lose 100 degrees of heat per hour, and it’s not uncommon for gas grills to lose half that much. As soon as charcoal starts to ash over, it begins to lose heat and a gas grill will lose about half it’s heat every time the lid is opened, so the temperatures will vary widely as you cook. Each individual grill will have idiosyncrasies that result in hot spots and cold spots across the cooking surface. Even the type of grill grate will cause a difference in heat – heavy cast-iron grates hold a lot more heat than thin, lightweight ones.
Obviously rain and snow will make it harder to maintain proper cooking temperatures – but the biggest problem is wind. Oxygen makes fires burn hotter and quicker so gusting winds play havoc with live-fire cooking. So how do you control heat? ….especially on a charcoal grill in the middle of a snow storm??

1. By varying the amount of time between lighting the coals, and when you put the food on the grill. For direct grilling, the food has to be put on the grill as soon as the coals start to ash over. For other cooking methods, let the coals burn longer before putting on the food.

2. Vary the depth of the coals. Spreading the coals into a thin layer, or piling them up on top of one another will make a great difference in the heat output. Coals piled in a double or triple layer will burn hotter than coals in a single layer – and last much longer.

3. By adjusting the vents. For direct grilling, the bottom and side vents should be opened. For all other types, the vents should be adjusted for the proper temperatures. The top vent will control how much heat and smoke is retained – the bottom and side vents control how much heat is produced.

4. By raising or lowering the grate. This should be common sense, but a lot of grill jockeys overlook the fact that coals get hotter the closer you get to the heat source! If there’s a lot of partially burnt coals left after a cookout, chances are this is a problem.

IN THEORY, controlling heat on a gas grill is easier ….all you have to do is turn the burners on. But they don’t reach the desired heat instantaneously, and they are notorious for not being able to reach or hold the proper heat for searing – especially if the lid is open like in direct grilling. If the grill manufacturer recommends letting it preheat for 15 minutes, you’re better off to let it go for another 10 to 20 minutes.

If you’re direct grilling a few small items for only one or two people – a couple of steaks or hamburgers for example – a simple, single heat-zone fire will work just fine. To make a single heat-zone fire, simply spread the coals in a single layer, over 3/4 of the grill – leaving one corner of the grill open as a kind of safety zone to move food if it starts to burn. For a 3 burner gas grill, leave two of the burners at the same temperature setting and leave one off for a safety zone.
The problem with using a single heat-zone fire is that it just doesn’t provide the versatility needed to cook for more than two people, or prepare several dishes at once – the grill grate is either hot or cold.

The solution is to build multiple heat-zones. Start with a triple layer of coals, followed by a double layer, and then a single layer with a safety zone. That will give you a very hot zone for searing, a hot zone for grilling, a medium-hot zone for cooking and a cool zone to keep foods from burning. You can cook several kinds of food at the same time, even if they require different cooking temperatures!
For a 3 burner gas grill, simply leave one burner on high, the second burner on medium-high and the last burner on low or off – depending on your needs.

Finally, when it comes to grilling – avoid the temptation to open the lid anymore than necessary, especially on gas grills. Believe me ….it only doubles the cooking times. When you Do Open the lid to add coals or check on the food – Always Check the Temperature! After a while, you’ll be able to judge pretty accurately how quickly the grill loses heat and can compensate for it.

When you get down to it, spending more time in your backyard learning how to control heat on your grill is the best way to improve your live-fire cooking skills!

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