Undercooking as well as overcooking are the dual demons of backyard grilling. Overly hot coals can produce charred outsides with raw middles, while a too-low fire can dry out food before it’s cooked.
Here are some tips on how to grill like a pro:
Choose foods that do well on the grill: Chicken, beef and lamb are the easiest. Fish is trickier, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it. The biggest problem is that it sticks to the grill. Choose a kind that’s firm and higher in oil (salmon, swordfish, tuna), or try shrimp or scallops.
Avoid delicate fish, such as sole. With firm fillets, such as catfish and scrod, use a special metal fish basket to hold the fish over the flames. Avoid chemical starters or coals that have been soaked in flammable substances. They’re unhealthy and make food taste bitter. It’s easier to take some paper and a few coals and light them, and then keep adding charcoal. Once all the charcoal has been added in a pile, let the coals burn for 15 minutes, then spread them out and let them burn another five minutes.
The fire is ready when there is a low flame and the coals glow. Test the heat. It should be warm enough to hold your hand comfortably about six inches above the heat for three to four seconds. If you can’t, it’s too hot. If you can hold it there longer, the fire is too low and you need to add charcoal. The one time you want a hot fire is for fish. The hotter the grill, the less likely the fish will stick.
Fish needs to grill quickly – no more than 10 minutes per inch of thickness. For chicken or meat, ideally you should try for two levels of heat: a very hot area to sear the outside and seal in juices, and an area of lower heat to finish the cooking. An easy way to tell if the food is cooking too fast is to cook it for one minute, then lift up the food with a spatula. If there are black grill marks, the fire is too hot. Move the meat to the cooler side of the grill, or take off the grill and let the coals subside.
The grill marks should be dark brown, not black, or the food will taste bitter. Keep checking the food to prevent it from drying out. Poultry, red meat and fish are done when they feel firm yet slightly springy to the touch. If they feel hard, they’re overcooked. If they’re too soft and spongy, they’re undercooked. If you’re unsure, cut open the food at the thickest part and check for any signs of rawness. Total cooking time depends on the temperature of the coals.
If you want to learn how to grill like a pro, you must teach yourself by doing. Take the plunge and take some risk. The more you do it, the easier it will become.