When it comes to grilling, there's no substitute for learning by fire--that is, standing in front of one with tongs and the faith that, eventually, you'll get the hang of it.
Here are four experience-tested tales of the grill that will shave some time off your learning curve, plus add great dishes to your repertoire.
Tip: Play with your fire
After years of living in the East, where tri-tip is as common as zebra, I'd lost my tri-tip grilling savvy, especially over charcoal. On my first attempt, the coals, perfect at first, dwindled fast, and the meat took ages to cook. Next I tried grooved coals that burned as hot as a blowtorch. Then I remembered: Play with the fire to get the right heat. I created a coal-free zone to give me medium heat, and moved the tri-tip there. Later, I pushed it back, chasing medium. At the end, I let the breeze fan the coals into a final burst. Cooking over live fire is like driving a stick shift. It feels good to be back in gear.
-Margo True, Food Editor
Tip: Try a baking sheet
Boy, do I hate to skewer things. It takes so much time. Plus I'm afraid of stabbing myself. But how else to grill little chunks of vegetables so they don't fall through the cooking grate? Use a baking sheet. It saves time and pain, and, since the vegetables cook indirectly, I can glaze them with balsamic vinegar, which ordinarily scorches on the grill. And I can cut them into strips, which won't cling to a skewer. The result: creamy, melt-in-your-mouth vegetables.
-Stephanie Dean, Test Kitchen Coordinator
Tip: Use big pieces of firm fruit
While the pastry chef at Boulevard in San Francisco, I tried using the grill with different fruits. Early disasters: strawberries (they fell through or stuck to the grates) and cherries (hard to skewer). Some customers complained that my grilled fruit tasted like meat. My solution: choosing denser fruits like peaches, nectarines, and pineapples ― the first two cut in half, the third thickly sliced. They were instant winners. Also, I cleaned the grill well to let the fruit flavor shine through. I'm glad I kept at it, because warm grilled fruit is perfect with ice cream in summertime, and it makes use of an already hot barbecue.
-Amy Machnak, Recipe Editor
Tip: Turn heat super-high
In 1½ hours, can I make dinner while grocery shopping for the week? On my mark: I toss a flank steak (very thin and therefore fast to cook on a hot fire) in a ridiculously easy marinade, dump charcoal in a chimney, alert husband to light the fire, and call children to set the table. Get set: I'm off to the market, where I careen through aisles, piling food into the cart. Back home, go! Toss meat on grill. Zip in house to make sauce from marinade. Warm up bread. Pile watercress in bowl. Slice meat. Sit down with happy family. Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. Crazed mom does it again.
-Elaine Johnson, Associate Food Editor
OUR LIVE-FIRE GRILLING SECRETS
Gas is no big deal, because the heat stays steady. Charcoal or hardwood is a different game. Here are a few hints for staying on top of yours.
Keep the firegrate ash-free
A big pileup blocks the airflow, choking the fire so it can't burn.
Get to know your coals and how they burn
Start by following the directions on the package (seriously). Kingsford's new grooved coals, for instance, burn hotter and longer than the smooth kind, so a single layer of coals puts out a lot of heat. Hardwood charcoal pops and sizzles and burns unevenly, but gives great flavor.
Create an emergency cool spot
If your grill is big enough, leave an area of the firegrate free of coals. You'll typically use this cool spot at least once whenever you grill.
Measure the heat constantly
Use your grill's thermometer or, if it doesn't have one, your hand. Low heat (250° to 350°) means you can keep your hand 5 in. above the cooking grate for 8 to 10 seconds before you have to yank it away. For medium heat (350° to 450°), you can keep your hand steady for 5 to 7 seconds; for high (450° to 550°), 2 to 4 seconds; for very high (550° to 650°), 1 to 2 seconds.
Move your food around
Once you've identified which spot on the grill has the desired heat, get your food over there (often the emergency spot will have just the temperature you need, if only for a little while.) You may have to move food several times before it has finished cooking. The exception: food that cooks in a flash over a super-hot fire.
Manipulate the fire
Need it hotter? Push coals together or throw on a few more. Cooler? Separate the coals or cover the grill with the lid. Close lid vents to cool it off even more. (Don't close vents under the firegrate, though, or the fire will go out.)