Here are the truths I know about grilling. There is more than one way to do it. There are as many choices in equipment as there are in execution. First, you must choose your tool. You can cook with electricity, propane, charcoal or over the burning remains of a fire pit.
A grilling friend of mine questions whether using a propane grill is really grilling at all. But just like the answer to, “What is life?” we have the freedom to choose the answers to these salient questions for ourselves.
My sister swears by a portable electric grill. While she renovates her house, she uses her electric grill to cook her meals. Its rewards are immediate. She turns it on, she applies searing heat to a variety of foodstuffs selected from her fridge. She sips an icy drink and considers whether her work is done for the day, or if she should, in fact, patch another section of drywall. Let the haters hate. You chose what works for you.
Grilling is best done outdoors. Yes, technically you can use your broiler to grill things, but this should be reserved for times that weather or self-quarantining drive us indoors. Grilling is a vacation from our normal cooking lives. For some, this means calling in a ringer, a friend or spouse whose only cooking role is the grill. But grilling can also be a vacation because we have given ourselves permission to cook in a completely new landscape, with a breeze in our face and our backs to the disaster we have left behind indoors. Being outside is good for your soul. If you have children, they may follow you outside. You may notice they are less annoying outside. If social distancing has forced us to move outside to eat, we might as well cook out there too.
Grilling is all about space and distance. During this time of COVID-19, we have come to understand that space can help us. Space on the grill is important too. When meat is overcrowded on the grill, it steams not sears. The real success of grilling hinges on your ability to properly distance food from the flame. It is the difference between food that is cooked and food that is burned. Your hand can tell you a lot about the heat, hold it near the grate: how many seconds can you bear?
Grilling is better with an icy cold drink. Before you grill, you should prepare yourself. You are about to tend to a fire and stepping away from that fire is a good way to burn your food beyond recognition. Some people grill with a wingman, or more often a wingwoman, calling to them at intervals for things like marinades and platters. But, in general, this is a bad technique and prone to break-down.
Bring your own platter. Imagine your needs as best you can, prepare and improvise from there. There is no going back. The inside doesn’t exist anymore. By and far, the most important of these preparations is the icy drink. There are various strategies that include coolers (and alcohol), but the only requirements are that it is tall and cold, and that there is a ledge within reach on which to set it.
Grilling requires patience. We are bad at waiting, and we are getting worse at it. Consider our earliest grilling experiences: s’mores. Children love to stick their marshmallow directly into the flame. Although they claim they do this because they like the outside charred and the inside raw, they actually do this because they cannot wait. Wait until the fire dies down to coals. Wait the proper time, at the proper distance away from the heat. Most of us never outgrow the instinct to thrust our marshmallow directly into the fire, like a moth to a flame. It is okay to sacrifice a bag of Jet Puff, but less okay with a filet. With grilling, there is no way around it. You must wait for the fire to develop, sometimes this means rising and falling. You must wait while it cooks, and after that, you’d be wise to give your meat a good rest.
Grilling is sometimes uncomfortable. During grilling, things can sometimes feel out of your control. Your fire may go out or flare up dramatically. When things feel out of your control, it can feel stressful, even when this may be the state of your life more than not. Grilling can teach you that. It is a combination of inaction and all of our attention. It is the opposite of set it and forget it, but it is this engagement that makes grilling so invigorating.
Grilling is also sometimes uncomfortably hot. We like to grill in the summertime when it is already hot. Then we light a live fire and stand exceptionally close to it, depending on the length of your tongs. (This is a good time to recommend a longer pair of tongs than you already own.)
I once decided to cook burgers for 75 people over an open-pit fire. I thought it was perfect. We would eat the burgers and then stoke up the fire afterwards for a singalong. I ended up literally cooking in the fire. I had a bucket of ice water that I used to soak my handkerchief that hung around my nose and mouth like a COVID-19 fireman/cowboy. The soles of my shoes were formed anew by the heat, and so was my opinion about whether I could have conceived of a more evil plan to produce a picnic. But all that being said, it was exhilarating. I was simultaneously cooking and thrill seeking. Grilling is direct engagement with the elements. It is possible to feel more alive when we grill, than by any other method of cooking.
Grilling is almost always worth it. It is the oldest form of cooking and in some ways the easiest. Make fire. Cook over the fire. Everything else is just experience. Some of those experiences will be painful, others will be delicious. You have what you need to know to grill inside of you, let the radiant heat warm you as you look across the yard to your hungry friends just out of reach.