The grill is summer’s gathering place. The waft of charcoal and burgers cooking draw everyone out of the house to the yard to share a meal together en plein air, the only way to eat in the sunny season. While the grill effectively brings the kitchen outside, it does require a different set of skills, tools, and, sure, a different cut of meat. Consider this your guide to doing just that.
Gas or charcoal?
This debate has been raging since the dawn of gas grills in the 1950s. Purists swear by charcoal and the smoky flavors that mouthwateringly manifest when vaporized drippings rise back off the coals. Gas grills can’t create this magic, they say, thanks to the metal plates, ceramic bars or lava rocks used to distribute heat. Of course, those same features allow gas grills to cook more evenly, ensuring consistent doneness. What’s more, gas grills tend to produce more steam, imbuing meat and other dishes with moisture, texture and depth.
From a convenience perspective, gas reigns supreme. A poorly-trained macaque could ignite a gas grill, especially if the fuel line is connected directly to the house supply (read: no fumbling with propane tanks). What’s more, gas grill temps can be moderated with a twist of a knob, whereas with charcoal, this takes years of practice and patience.
What about cost and maintenance? Naturally, because they can perform delicious wizardry like cook a steak in 60 seconds and give you Micheline-level exactitude over every bite, gas grills are more expensive and you can spend more than $30k on a deluxe model. In general, gas grills only require light maintenance — brush off the grates, empty the grease trap, wipe down the exterior and you’re good. With a charcoal grill, there’s no steep price tag, but there’s a damn steep learning curve, not to mention the constant dumping of messy ash. (Of course, for charcoal enthusiasts, this is just another time-honored ritual.)
In deciding between charcoal and gas, it ultimately comes down to personal style. Go with the grill that’s best for your family’s needs and ignore the charcoal snobs and gas gourmands on Instagram.
Do high-end grills really grill better?
The world’s fanciest grill can blacken a hot dog, just like the world’s cheapest grill can finesse a world-class filet. Still, there’s a case for spending more for a nicer model that will last. For instance, cheap burners wear out quickly, so make sure they’re made from thick, high-grade 304 stainless steel versus thin, low-grade 430. (Grillmaster’s Guide: If a magnet can stick to the burner, it will probably only last one or two seasons). If you don’t mind some upkeep, opt for cast-iron burners which have an extra-long lifespan.
Expensive grills come with endless features and the overkill factor is real. Light-up knobs, infrared rotisseries, built-in refrigeration, ergonomic splash guards … deciding what you don’t need is just as important as deciding what you need. For example, if you entertain a lot, you’ll need a large grilling surface. If you want your grill to double as a smoker, consider something with a wood chip smoking tray. Try not to get seduced by features you’ll likely never use.
Bottom line: The cheapest grill is probably a lemon, and the most expensive one has way more than you need. Decide on a few key features and an aesthetic you like, then commit.
Do I need a smoker?
If you’re a time-oriented chef who sticks to the basics — burgers, brats, the occasional steak or pork chop — you probably don’t need to rush out and buy a smoker. However, if you’re a patient man who enjoys the finer (and slower) things in life, it’s a no-brainer.
Why smoke meat? You see, meat is full of fat, and fat is full of collagen. High temperatures cause collagen to become tough and chewy, but low temperatures break it down and make room for water. (This is why brisket melts in your mouth and short ribs fall off the bone.) Achieving and maintaining temperatures between 200-250 degrees is the primary job of a smoker. It can be an all-day commitment, but well worth it.
As with the choice of charcoal versus gas, there are multiple schools of thought when it comes to smoker types. Drum, box, water, vertical, offset, pellet, kamado — they’re all designed to maintain that temperature sweet spot while generating steady smoke. Paralyzed by indecision? You can get a taste of what it’s like to own a smoker by converting your charcoal grill into a smoker-like contraption. Simply remove the cooking grate and stick an aluminum drip pan full of apple juice, beer, wine, or any number smoker-friendly liquids on the grill plate. Then, pile up your coals on the other side, and once they get going, add wood chips to the liquid. Make sure to position your meat right above the chips so they absorb as much smoke as possible.
In French culinary school they teach you about the “five mother sauces.” Here in America we have our BBQ equivalents — South Carolina, Memphis, Texas, and Kansas City — and regional pitmasters will fight to the death defending them.
- First, thanks to early German immigrants, you have South Carolina-Style mustard sauce. Thinned with vinegar and chock-full of tangy spices, it’s famous on pulled pork.
- Then you have the Kansas City-Style tomato-based sauce, which is thick and sweet thanks to ketchup and molasses (and chili powder for heat).
- Memphis-Style can be “dry” (using a rub of spices like paprika, garlic powder, salt and coriander) or “wet” (with a brown sugar-based glaze).
- Finally, there’s Texas-Style basting sauce with beef stock, Worcestershire, salt, pepper, and garlic.
A final note about sauces: Sometimes the best sauce is no sauce at all. Some of the most renowned chefs in the world (and millions of old-school dads all over the country) recommend nothing but salt and pepper on their steaks.
Three Rules for the Right Cut of Meat
Good cookouts start with good meat. Here’s how to choose it.
#1. Know your cuts
If it’s tenderness you seek, choose a cut from low-activity muscles like the loin (tenderloin, sirloin, T-bone), ribs (ribeye, traditional ribs) or abdominal area (flank steak). For slow cooking and braising, look for tough, heavily exercised regions (shoulder, leg, and rump) or places where there is a lot of connective tissue (shank, chuck, and oxtail).
#2. Marbling matters
Marbling is just a fancy term for visible fat. As it oozes into the meat, fat adds rich juiciness — but it juices up the price tag as well (mostly because it costs more to plump up the cow). Mind you, not just any fat will do — look for white, hard, evenly distributed flecks throughout. Lastly, keep in mind marbling isn’t a magic bullet — overcooking will turn any steak into leather.
#3. Use your senses
Is the meat firm? Cold? Odorless? Moist but free of excess liquid? You’re off to a good start. Pork should be pinkish-red with no dark spots. Beef should be cherry-red (darker if packaged) with even marbling throughout. Lamb should be brownish-pink with creamy fat. Chicken should be a fleshy-pinkish color, and the surface should spring back when you press down. With any meat or poultry purchase, avoid anything that’s grey, soggy, warm, or otherwise questionable.
Treager's wood-pellet grills function as both traditional grills and smokers, giving you the freedom to grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise, and BBQ. This Wifi enabled model allows you to change the temperature, set timers, and choose custom grill cycles via your phone. The spacious interior includes a three-tiered cooking surface, so you can cook a whole meal at once.
Weber knows great grills, and this stainless steel variety is built to last, 10-year warranty included. It's 646 square inches of grills space are supplemented by 200 square inches of side burners and searing stations, and the grill connects to the iGrill 3 app-connected thermometer, which allows you to monitor it from your phone.
This classic grill has become synonymous with backyard cookouts, and for good reason. Despite its compact size, this grill can hold up to 13 burgers at a time, and it's built-in thermometer and dampers allow users to control the temperature without lifting the lid. The porcelain exterior can withstand the elements without rusting or peeling. For a no-frills charcoal grill, you can't beat this model.
This combo pack feature's Salt Lick BBQ's original bar-b-que sauce, spicy bar-b-que sauce, and original dry rub.
Dave’s are the baddest buns in the game. These organic burger buns from Dave’s Killer Bread are a step above the rest, boasting killer nutrition, whole grains and flavor that make any burger better.
Crowd Cow, a mail-order meat service sources all of its meat, poultry, and seafood from more than 100 small, independent farms, ranches, and fisheries. Their New York Strip is tender, marbled, easy to cook, and, happily, delivered to your door.
Wickles, an artisanal pickler out of Dadeville, Alabama, does pickles right. This dill variety is equal parts garlicky, sweet and spicy.
These sturdy stainless steel tongs feature a scalloped edge, which grips meat without breaking it. Their extra-long length keeps the heat at bay, and they won't rust if you forget them outside.
These heatproof and fire-resistant gloves allow you to handle the heat without injury. No gloves are completely fireproof, of course, but these will let you adjust a hot charcoal without feeling the burn.
This wireless meat thermometer allows you to stick your meat and walk away, monitoring the temperature from afar with the handheld digital reader. It comes preset with USA recommended minimum temperatures for nine types of meat, so you can rest assured you won't be giving your family a side of salmonella with their meat.
The Case for Grilling Pizza
Why blast your oven and broil your kitchen during the dog days of summer when you can grill pizza outdoors? It’s an approachable mission, but you’ll need to follow some simple guidelines to avoid making a mess and disappointing your family.
First and foremost, the grill surface should be clean (since you’ll be adding sticky dough) and HOT as hell. Scrape off the remnants of last week’s BBQ and be patient as that thing works its way up to 400-500 degrees.
At this point, rather than toss on a fully-prepared pie, many chefs recommend flash-frying the dough one side at a time, flipping after about 2 minutes. This gives it just enough shape to make it a worthy vehicle for all the toppings you’re going to add mid-process. It helps to have everything on hand, ready to go, so you can quickly sprinkle it on top.
Another way in? Throw on a pizza stone. This, honestly, makes everything a whole helluva lot simpler — while still getting that smokey grilled pizza taste that’s like no other.