Grilling season is finally here, and that means one thing: It’s time to step up your game. Even if you think you’ve got a handle on the whole grill thing, there’s a trick or two you might not have heard before, which is why we reached out to chefs around the country to ask for their best grilling hacks.
Check out the tips below and get ready to serve up the tastiest, juiciest and most flavor-packed barbecue of your life.
1. Avoid dry chicken like the plague
The secret to juicy grilled chicken is twofold. First, brine it — more on that in a second — and second, grill it over high heat to sear before finishing cooking on the cooler side of the grill or in the oven. Skip the boring brines in favor of this flavorful mix created by Jay Zubov, executive sous chef for Sea Salt in Nashville, Tennessee. Combine candied ginger, rosemary, salt, sugar, oranges, lemons and limes, then brine the chicken in the mixture for 24 hours before cooking. Grill the chicken over high heat to get some nice grill marks and finish cooking in a 400-degree F oven until the chicken reaches a 160-degree F internal temperature.
2. Get smokin’
Smoking your meats (and even veggies) may seem like a task best left to the professionals, but it’s not that hard to do yourself. Choose a hardwood, then set a chunk of it on top of the hot coals in your grill. Once the wood is burned until it’s releasing smoke but no longer actively flaming, your food will be ready to go on the grill.
From there, you can experiment. Scott Simpson, executive chef of The Depot in Auburn, Alabama, suggests getting creative. “Try your own custom blend of whole spices and fresh herbs,” he says. These can be thrown onto the wood, mingling with its smoke to create a unique flavor. His best tip for smoking with unusual ingredients? “Use pistachio shells to add a nutty, rich flavor when grilling fish.” Uh, yum!
3. Choose the right fish
Grilling fish can strike fear into even a veteran cook’s heart, but it doesn’t have to be quite so scary. If you’re making fish tacos, Chef Jose Mejida of Pacific Beach Fish Shop recommends a firm white fish like mahi-mahi or Hawaiian ono. “The firmer the fish, the less likely it is to break on the grill,” he says.
For a standalone entrée, Chef Juan Munoz of Pacific Beach Fish Shop says that two of the best fish to grill are swordfish and ahi, seared. “These come out looking like juicy steaks,” he says. Much better than a flaky white fish that ends up falling through your grill grate when you try to flip it.
4. Skip the sweet marinade
You might be tempted to marinate your meats in barbecue sauce before throwing them on the grill, but think again. Historian and BBQ master Chef Aaron Robins of Boneyard Bistro in Sherman Oaks, California, says, “When grilling at high temperatures, you should never use sugar in your marinade because sugar burns no matter if it’s honey, agave or standard granulated sugar. Reserve all sugar to season your sauce and wait to apply once the meat is off the grill.” Pork may love sugar, but only after it’s done cooking at high heat.
5. Avoid cross-contamination
Steven Raichlen, the grill master of Busch’s BBQ Bootcamp, has some tips for avoiding cross-contamination. The first? “Wrap your platter with plastic wrap before taking raw meat out to the grill. After the meat is on the grill, you can remove and discard the plastic wrap. That way, you can use the same platter for serving the cooked meat.”
And if you’re worried about having to wash your tongs after putting raw meat on the grill, fear not — according to Raichlen, the heat from the grill will sterilize the tips of the tongs.
6. Use hot & cold zones
Who knows better than Guy Fieri, who recently partnered with Planet Hollywood in Orlando on a new section of their menu, how to perfectly sear food on a charcoal grill?
“To do a quick sear, keep your coals hot and piled in the center; after searing your food on the grill directly over the hot coals, push it off to the cooler sides of the grill. Moving food to where the coals aren’t piled high and the heat is indirect allows it to cook through to the middle without burning the outside,” says Fieri.
7. Use fresh herbs for fresh flavors
Fresh herbs don’t have to be relegated to garnish status. Instead, Clint Cantwell, the editor of Grillocracy, recommends this: “If you want to make kebabs but don’t have skewers on hand or simply want to add some additional flavor to the meat and vegetables, use rosemary, lemongrass or sugarcane to hold everything together.”
But that’s not all. Instead of buying a basting brush, “simply take a few sprigs of fresh herbs like rosemary, sage, oregano or thyme, and tie them to the handle end of a large wooden or metal spoon with butcher’s twine to create a flavorful mop.” Easy!
Now that you’ve heard from the pros, it’s time to grab the tongs and get grillin’.