Grilling season is upon us. It's that time of the year when people bust outdoors to share a meal with family or friends under the big open sky. More often than not, a grill is involved.
Grilling is fun -- it has become a national pastime -- but cooking over fire can be tricky, so we've turned to a pro to get his personal take on the art of grilling. Adam Rapoport, editor in chief of Bon Appétit magazine and the website www.bonappetit.com, knows his way around a grill. He has edited an entire book on the subject: The Grilling Book: The Definitive Guide from Bon Appétit.
Jennifer Russell: Father's Day is looming, which means grilling and backyard cookouts. With all of those people firing up grills this weekend, what do you think it takes to be confident and successful at the grill?
Adam Rapoport: First of all, you need to have a good grill. A lot of Americans use gas grills, and that's perfectly fine. I'm personally a charcoal fan, just because I find it gives me a more intense, even heat that you don't always get with a gas grill. I love the basic 22-½-inch Weber kettle grill. It has that genius, timeless design -- the perfect marriage of form and function. That kettle shape tends to contain the heat and then ushers it up to the food above. And, they're affordable.
You'll definitely want to buy a charcoal chimney -- they're those cylindrical metal canisters with a handle. You fill the top with charcoal, stuff the bottom with newspaper, light the newspaper, and within 15 minutes you've got glowing orange coals. It's the easiest way to start a fire, and it means you don't have to soak your charcoal with lighter fluid. Charcoal chimneys will change your grilling life -- guaranteed.
So you've got your grill and your charcoal chimney, then you're going to need charcoal. I would recommend non-lighter-fluid soaked briquettes. Or I love hardwood lump charcoals, which are actual pieces of carbonized wood that tend to burn hotter and cleaner than a briquette. It's a more intense heat, and it also burns more quickly, so that's something to keep in mind when you use them.
You're also going to need some tools. You'll need a basic set of sturdy, long-handled, metal tongs and you'll need a sturdy, long-handled spatula, because it's not easy to flip a cheeseburger with tongs. I like a nice wooden brush for applying barbecue sauce. An instant-read thermometer is nice to have on hand, especially if you're grilling large cuts of meat like a whole beef tenderloin or a rack of lamb. The only way to really know if it's done or not is with a thermometer -- there is no shame in breaking out the thermometer. You'll definitely need a grill brush to clean your grill -- a sturdy, metal-bristled brush will work best.
Jen Russell: What should we know about mastering the fire?
AR: One thing to be mindful of when grilling with charcoal is to be patient. It not only needs to catch a flame, it needs to die down to a nice glowing orange. You don't want to be grilling when the charcoal is flaming, you ultimately want to grill with the heat generated from the charcoal. Flames will blacken your food. You'll want to achieve that nice, golden brown, mahogany crust on your steak or chicken.
Personally, when I'm waiting for the coals to get to that glowing orange stage -- and it's usually about 20 minutes or so -- I use that time to do my prep work in the kitchen. It's not like that's time wasted, and if you've done all your prep work ahead, you can just kick back and have a beer at the grill -- that's not a bad way to spend 20 minutes either.
Once the coals are ready, you'll want to bank them -- you'll have a high side and a low side -- think of it like a hill. The high side is where you'll start your steaks, burgers or whatever you're cooking; you'll get that good sear or crust on the meat. When you get flame-ups or flare-ups, which are inevitable when the fats drip into the fire, you can simply slide your meat to the other side of the grill where there are fewer coals. Either let the coals die down before sliding the food back, or leave it there to cook through low and slow. You'll definitely want to have that duel-sided fire.
JR: Grilling is an art, isn't it?
AR: It is! It's not a science like baking where you can often set a clock, walk away and have a great cake baked in 45 minutes. When you're grilling, you've got to be on top of that grill figuratively and almost literally the entire time you're grilling, or you may end up with a wall of flames engulfing that very expensive, dry-aged rib-eye.
Grilling is fun and it can be a challenge. It's sort of a cliché, but sometimes you win, and sometimes the grill beats you. You don't always get the steak a perfect medium-rare, but when you do, you're thrilled.
JR: How do you like to season things before you grill them?
AR: Red meat, especially steak, loves salt. Salt it before you grill it. I usually use kosher salt and cracked black pepper. After I grill it and let the steak rest, I'll slice it and then sprinkle on some Maldon Sea Salt flakes -- those nice big crystals add a nice crunch, and then the inside and the outside of the steak are flavored. Salt and pepper are often all you'll need. Dry rubs are also great, especially for something like spare ribs. A dry rub is essentially just salt, pepper and various seasonings -- cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic salt, whatever is to your liking -- and sometimes a little sugar if you want. I'll throw that on ribs or chicken and it creates a spicier flavor to whatever it is that you're grilling.
JR: What are the things you've mastered and love to grill?
AR: The things I grill the most are "barbecued" spare ribs -- I'll put barbecued in quotes because barbecue purists don't use that word lightly! I'll buy a rack of pork spare ribs, I'll rub them with a basic dry rub -- and then this is my cheater's method -- I put them on a sheet tray, cover them up, bake them for 3 hours at around 300 degrees until they're just fall-apart tender, juicy and delicious. I let them sit for a while and then I'll finish them off over a hot fire, flipping them a few times so they get nice and crispy. I'll shellac them with a sweet barbecue sauce as I do that. So what you end up with is a crispy, glazed rack of ribs that are literally just falling-off-the-bone tender. You hack them up and people go nuts over them.
Recipe: Best Ever Barbecued Ribs
I'm also a firm believer that the steak you make is only as good as the steak you buy, and I will spend the money for a great, dry-aged, rib steak -- rib-eye or bone-in rib-eye, which I love -- with a lot of salt and pepper. Medium-rare is perfect. Let it rest, and then I slice it and lay it over a bed of arugula with a little bit of olive oil, lemon and sea salt. The steak juices mingle with the olive oil and the arugula. It's delicious -- as the Italians would call it, "Bistecca Tagliata."
JR: In the book's introduction, you write about being a kid and hanging out on the deck with your dad at the grill. While he may not have been the best backyard cook, you cherish those memories and the lessons he was trying to impart. You obviously love to grill, and now you have a son. Are there certain traditions you'll want to carry on or begin with him?
AR: Well, I hope so. My son is only 5 now, and of course you don't want your small child running around a grill with a roaring fire. I think what I love about grilling is the time spent doing it, in addition to what it is you're grilling. I love that you are outside and you're hanging out with your kids, family and friends. I love being outside waiting for the fire to mellow out. I love being at the grill flipping the ribs back and forth.
It's adventurous and challenging -- I think as a dad, I would love to pass on what I've learned to my son if he'll listen to me. I look forward to that -- once he's at an age where he's ready to pick up a set of tongs or a spatula and start flipping burgers with me. That'll be awesome.
Rapoport is a firm believer in achieving flavor balance at all meals -- and grilling is no exception. Certain side dishes and vegetables such as grain salads, slaws, sliced heirloom tomatoes or boiled corn are perfect to balance out that smoky, charred flavor of whatever it is you're grilling. He shared an entire Summer-Time Grilling Menu.
Bon Appétit Summer-Time Grilling Menu
Jennifer Russell is a founding producer at The Splendid Table. Before coming to radio, she made historical and arts and cultural programming for public television. She claims to have come out of the womb a food lover -- when other girls played house, she played restaurateur. Follow her comings and goings on Twitter: @jenejentweets.