Kathy Maister's Start Cooking

A Beginner’s Guide to the Barbecue

posted in Main Dishes by Emily Chapelle

Now that it’s officially summer, it’s time to get outside and grill.

What’s that?

You’re new to grilling?

You’re afraid to light a barbecue?

Well, have no fear. It’s not as complicated as it looks. If you’re thinking about buying a barbecue, we’ll break down the pros and cons of charcoal and gas grills. For those just finding their way around a grill, we’ll follow up with some of the first steps to throwing some food on the barbie. And for those who are already all fired up, we’ve got some recipes ready to go, as well as a slew of barbecue tips and tricks. And even if you’re a city slicker like Kathy, and outdoor grilling isn’t an option, try indoor grilling!

Which Barbeque to Use? Charcoal or Gas?

Despite what some fervent grillers say, one isn’t necessarily superior to the other. There are pros and cons to both grilling methods, so it’s really your call! Here’s a rundown of some of the pros and cons:

Charcoal Barbeque

  • There’s a full range of prices: inexpensive grills are easy to find, and upscale models are available too (+)
  • Gets very hot (+-)
  • Needs to be manually lit and preheated for a minimum of 20 minutes (usually much longer) (-)
  • Cleaning is more complicated due to ashes (-)
  • Smoky flavor every time you grill (+-)
  • Tough to keep a constant temperature (-)
  • You get to play with real fire (+)

Gas Barbeque

  • Typically pricier than charcoal, though inexpensive models are available (+-)
  • A more complicated grill means more parts that can break (-)
  • Easy to clean (+)
  • Has the option of smoky flavor or not, with use of wood chips in a smoker box (+)
  • Convenient (+)

For more details about the differences between gas and charcoal grills, check out chow.com’s objective and clear breakdown.

Get Your Grill On! (How to Use your Barbecue)

  • If you’re using a charcoal grill, empty the ashes from your last grilling session.
  • Both types of grills need to be pre-heated before you start cooking. Gas grills turn on easily (make sure the lid is open while you’re lighting the grill!), but if you’re new to lighting one, here’s a video demonstration. To light your charcoal grill, you’ll need a chimney starter. Please don’t light your charcoal with lighter fluid! It seems like a quick fix, but it can make your food taste “chemical.” Let the gas grill heat up for at least 10 minutes, and your charcoal grill for at least 20.
  • After your grill is preheated, use a brass-wire brush to scrape the charred goo and gunk off of the grate. You’ll need to give it a good scrape at the beginning of grilling season. Then, during grilling season, a quick brush before and after grilling should do. After you grill your last meal for the summer or fall, leave the grease on the grate to prevent rusting over the winter. (If you don’t have one of those brushes, you can use some aluminum foil to do the trick!)
  • Once your grill is clean, oil the grate by grabbing an oiled paper towel with some long tongs, and wiping it over the bars. You’ll need to use an oil with a high smoking temperature, like canola oil.
  • Now that your grill is hot and the grate is clean, your food won’t stick to it as much, and you’re likely to get those classic grill lines!

What to grill

Sure, everyone knows steaks and burgers can go on the grill, but did you know that it’s also great for sandwiches and pizza? Here’s a list of recipe ideas to get you started.

Barbecue Tips and Tricks

  • To avoid losing juices during turning, always flip your meat or vegetables using tongs or a spatula, rather than a fork.
  • Try to limit the flips. Ideally, you should flip each item once during the grilling process.
  • Whatever you do, don’t press down on burgers or chicken (or anything) with a spatula while they’re grilling! This squeezes out the juices and once they’re gone … they’re gone! If you’re bored and need something to do with your hands, learn to juggle (but not too close to the grill, please!).
  • For great smoky flavor, soak some wood chips (hickory, oak, or other hardwoods but not treated lumber!) in water for a while, then throw them onto your charcoal and cover the grill, or if you’re using gas, put them into your smoker box following the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • To infuse grilled foods with herb essence, toss herbs directly onto the charcoal while you’re grilling. Or, if you’re using a gas grill, soak the herbs in water, and place them on the grate before putting your food on top of them.
  • If you want to baste your meat or vegetables, save this step for last. That way the sugars in ,your marinade or sauce won’t have time to caramelize or burn.
  • If this all sounds too complicated, or if it’s raining or cold outdoors, you can grill indoors with a contact grill or use a grill pan.

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20 Comments

Greg said:

Yum. Thanks for some nice tips, especially on cleaning the grills.

Free BBQ Recipes said:

I my opinion charcoal barbecue grills take more like 45 minutes before it’s ready to cook on otherwise you’ll be troubled with flare ups and get cremated food that’s still raw in the middle.

Another tip when using soaked barbecue wood chips is to wrap then in foil and perforate the foil with a knife before throwing the package on the barbecue charcoal. This way you get a controlled burn of the bbq wood chips.

Kathy Maister said:

As many of you know, I’m not a big fan of outdoors. All of my cooking experience is indoors! What I’m always amazed at is that every time I’m invited to a barbeque, the “man of the house” seems to be in charge of the barbeque! What’s that all about?

Barbecue Guy said:

Some really good tips here, and ideas that I am going to have to try.

@Kathy: As a man who always handles the barbecue myself, I think it genetic. That is to say, I feel a primordial need to be the one cooking the meat, and my wife never shows any interest at all. I can not think of any household I know of where the women is in charge of the barbecue.

Kathy Maister said:

I LOVE you chef’s hat! (Is that really you?)

FJK said:

Impressive overview of the topic.

Thanks for linking to me.

Kathy Maister said:

Thank you FJK! Your miso marinade sounds wonderful!

Barbecue Guy said:

Ha ha, no that is not actually me in the chefs hat. I’ve taken a few pictures of my barbecue, but I have it setup against the garage wall which is painted dark brown so it doesn’t look anywhere as good as that photo with the flowers and grass in the background.

Kathy Maister said:

Photographing food, or “men in chef’s hats barbecuing” are not as easy to take as everyone might imagine. When I photograph my photo-tutorial blog posts, I take about 200 photos of which about 10 get used!

Jennifer said:

Thanks for this AMAZING breakdown for grilling! I especially like the tips on how to grill veggies – summer is a great time to pack more fresh produce into your diet and you can keep grilled veggies on hand to make so many dishes after the weekend party crowd has left.

Sherri E. said:

I just discovered your blog today and like it very much. I’ve already subscribed!

So I hate for my first comment to be pedantic, but I have to point out that grilling and barbecue are two VERY different cooking methods. Grilling, which you have described so nicely above, involves relatively rapid cooking over direct heat. Barbecue involves cooking meat at a low temperature over indirect heat for a long period of time– usually hours.

Many people use the terms interchangeably, but nevertheless, there is a big difference. :)

Emily Chapelle said:

Sherri, I wrote this post and I agree with you! I think it may also be a regional thing… I ALWAYS use the term “grilling” when talking about this stuff here… and to me, barbecue is actually a southern pulled-pork dish, which like you said is cooked for a long period at a low temperature (in a “barbecue pit”).

Thanks for subscribing, by the way! I am glad you’re enjoying the blog.

Mike said:

Emily,

I always called it grilling because I basically cooked everything hot and fast. Since moving down south and starting a grill review site I’ve learned that it’s pretty safe to refer to grilling has hot and fast and barbecue (BBQ) as low and slow.

I came from Ohio, and always thought if you put BBQ Sauce on it, it was BBQ. I’ve learned a lot since then. In fact, I switched to charcoal only cooking recently. It’s worth the extra time, although I stick to the ceramic style cookers now so I can do fast or slow cooking (or smoking) – and I can reuse my fuel.

Happy to share my experiences if your readers would benefit from it.

Ed said:

I especially like the tips on how to grill veggies – summer is a great time to pack more fresh produce into your diet and you can keep grilled veggies on hand to make so many dishes after the weekend party crowd has left.

Dave the BBQ and Grill guy said:

I appreciate the pros and cons for gas and charcoal grills.

I actually use both Charcoal and gas grills – depending on what I want to cook.

I find that a gas grill is much easier for those things that don’t take much time, i.e. cooking up a steak or grilling chicken for dinner.

However, If I want to cook a Boston Butt or Baby Back ribs and want to use indirect heat and cook for many hours, a Charcoal grill is easier for me to manage the indirect heat.

Richard said:

I am a die hard charcoal barbecue grill guy! I had a gas grill for a while, for convenience, but decided that charcoal is the only way for me!!!

I am from South Africa and we grill all the time – real meat eaters.

Thanks,
Richard.

Charles said:

Being from the south, I have to say I must go with charcoal instead of gas. There is just that sweet aroma that comes from a good slab of meat grilling over a hot bed of charcoal. I know you can cook well with gas, but I’m just a charcoal guy.

Paul said:

Just picking up on some of the points raised. In the UK BBQ = Grilling, long and slow over indirect heat simply doesn’t exist in the mainstream. I guess that we’ve still got a lot to learn over this side of the pond.

Lavern said:

Our favorite way to light a charcoal grill or smoker is with a propane weed burner torch. It’s very fast and easy and you don’t get any lighter fluid residue in your smoker.

Bill Anderson said:

Hello:

I’d like to chime in on charcoal vs gas. I find that when I use a charcoal chimney lit by newspaper, that it lights in about 15-20 minutes. Do not use lighter fluid as it imparts a foul taste to your meats. The little bit of extra time it takes to use charcoal is well worth the extra flavor vs gas. I do BBQ competitions too and gas is not even allowed.

Bill