Grill Nation: Our Ultimate Guide to Grilling
Ensure this is the best grilling season yet with the expert tips in this grill guide.
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When warm weather comes around, it’s time to start grilling! Whether you’re a grill master or just purchased your first one, there’s something so satisfying about firing up the grill and enjoying a char-kissed meal.
To make this the most successful grilling season yet, we rounded up all of our need-to-know grilling information—from grill types and cleaning to irresistible recipes—in one convenient grilling guide. Keep reading to get grilling tips and tricks from our Test Kitchen experts.
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Types of Grills
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From basic charcoal to an automated wood pellet grill, there’s a whole range of grills you can purchase, with enthusiasts in each camp. When choosing between the types of grills, find one that matches your cooking style. Consider aspects like price, fuel type, the space you have available and the flavor each can impart.
When you think of an old-school grill, you’re probably picturing a charcoal grill. They tend to be durable, round or rectangular grills that burn different types of charcoal which then heat the grill. Since the fuel needs to be burned down before food is added, using a charcoal grill will add to your total cooking time. On the plus side, the charcoal gives food a wonderful smoky flavor that just can’t be beat. These grills are usually on the smaller side, so they’re great for grilling wings, hot dogs and sausages, veggies and smaller cuts of meat. Here’s a full guide on how to use a charcoal grill.
These large grills are fueled by a separate tank of propane or line of natural gas. Because of this, gas grills are incredibly easy to use. Simply open the gas line, ignite, let the grates heat up for about 15 minutes and you’re ready to start cooking. Although they don’t impart as much smoky flavor to foods, gas grills are still a great option for everyday cooking. If you’re on the fence, we’ve broken down the differences between charcoal vs. gas grills.
If you’re a home grilling pro, a smoker is the perfect way to take your grilling to the next level. These grills cook food at a low temperature over a long period of time to create a rich, smoky flavor that varies depending on the type of wood used. Smokers are a favorite of professional grill masters and barbecue restaurants, and can be more pricey.
Wood Pellet Grills
For those who love the flavor of a smoker but don’t want to watch their grill for hours on end, a wood pellet grill is an excellent compromise. It’s an electric grill that is programmed to release wood pellets (a byproduct of wood manufacturing) into a firepot, which creates smoke. This grill is almost completely hands-free and is a good choice for novice grillers. Since they’re a newer type of grill, wood pellet grills and wood pellets can be a bit more expensive or harder to find.
There are two main types of electric grills: outdoor and indoor. Aside from wood pellet grills, outdoor electric grills are slightly smaller versions of gas grills that plug into an outdoor outlet. These grills work well for those with balconies or small backyards.
Indoor electric grills are small, countertop appliances that either fold to cook food from both sides or are flat and have a lid. Because of their small size, they’re best for cooking one to four portions at a time.
While electric grills are easy to use and clean, they aren’t the best for cooking large cuts of meat, like brisket or pork shoulder. If you’re deciding whether this grill is right for you, check out our comparison guide to indoor vs. outdoor grills.
If you’re big on cooking while camping, tailgating or hanging out at the beach, a portable grill is for you. Most are powered by a small propane tank, but there are some that use charcoal. These small grills tend to be the most inexpensive and are usually under $80.
Want to make the most of the great outdoors? Our friends at Family Handyman have brought together a complete guide to camping with tips for everything from backyard glamping to restoring a vintage 1972 Avion Camper.
Types of Grill Grates
In addition to the range of grills, there are also several different kinds of grill grates. These are the most popular:
- Stainless Steel: These shiny silver grates are usually the type of grate that comes with a grill. They’re relatively durable, inexpensive and are incredibly easy to clean.
- Cast Iron: Just like your cast-iron skillet, these grill grates are slow to heat but retain that heat very well. Because they get so hot, cast-iron grill grates are awesome at achieving grill marks on just about anything and easy release foods when properly seasoned.
- Porcelain-Coated: The grates are typically steel, cast-iron or wire grates that are coated in a layer of porcelain. This layer makes the grates nonstick and very easy to cook with. The only downside is that porcelain can be a little delicate and tricky to clean, so you should always refer to the instruction manual for best practices.
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Believe us when we say that almost anything can be grilled. While you may find grilled chicken, steak, pork or burgers at your average cookout, grills can do so much more. Some of our favorite unexpected grilling recipes include fresh fruits, french toast and cobbler. If you can cook it, you can grill it!
Grilled main dishes are a go-to when it comes to summer. Beyond fall-off-the-bone grilled ribs and creative kabob recipes, use the warm summer months to grill up pizza, whole chickens and tender seafood.
Test Kitchen tip: If your meats aren’t lifting easily from the grill grate, let them be! Once a nice sear (and grill mark) has formed, your food will lift like a breeze.
Make sure you save room on your grill for some grilled side dishes, too. Use aluminum foil to help keep smaller foods, like asparagus, chopped onions or mushrooms, from falling through the grates. And if you’re ending up with scorched or raw veggies, read up on our tips for grilling vegetables.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for dinner to turn your grill on. Grilled appetizers are some of the best ways to start a meal. From grilled romaine for a smoky salad to grilled avocado guacamole, the smoky flavor a sizzlin’ hot grill imparts can really upgrade your apps.
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Not to mention, grilled desserts are worth experimenting with, too. Stone fruit like peaches and plums hold up well to a grill’s heat and caramelize beautifully. Or try grilling bananas with this recipe for grilled banana brownie sundaes.
Test Kitchen tip: Take your smoothie to the next level by grilling your fruit. Just toss some fruit on the grill after you’re done cooking your meal, pop it in the fridge and then add it into your blender. You can also use grilled fruit in this grilled peach and pineapple sangria. Yum!
Want even more grilling ideas? Check out our top 100 grilling recipes.
Grilling Tips & Techniques
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Before you throw dinner on the grill, read up on these tips so it goes off without a hitch. And whatever you do, don’t make these grilling safety mistakes!
- When setting up your grill for the first time, check that it’s level. This way, your brats and hot dogs won’t roll around.
- As tempting as it can be to use lighter fluid to speed up charcoal grilling, don’t! Chemicals from the lighter fluid can change the flavor of your food and make it taste off. Invest in a chimney starter to get cooking more quickly. Learn how to start a charcoal grill the right way with our expert guide.
Control the Heat
- Our number-one grilling tip is to lower the heat! While it’s tempting to add food straight to the fire, using too high of heat can dry out your food. If you can’t hold your hand over the grill for at least four Mississippis, step away from the grill and let it cool down a bit.
- Learn the difference between cooking with direct and indirect heat. In most cases, you’ll want to cook foods with indirect heat, where the food placed adjacent to the flame, then finished off over direct heat to get a sear. With this method, your food will have time to cook through without burning. One exception is grilling smaller foods, like fruit and veggies, which cook quickly enough to handle direct heat.
Master New Skills
- Marinades are key to tender, flavorful grilled meats. If you’re using one, be sure to stick to the time that the recipe suggests to marinade food for. When meats are marinated for too long it can overwhelm the tasty flavors from the grill.
- Believe it or not, you don’t have to buy a separate smoker to enjoy smokey authentic barbecue. You can turn your grill into a smoker with just a few steps.
- Want deep, wood-smoked flavor? Try plank grilling. This method works by placing food on a wooden board that has been set over indirect heat on a grill. While the most common use for cedar planks is to cook salmon, you can use them to cook almost any meat. Their flavor pairs well with beef, chicken and fruits.
Don’t miss even more grilling tips for every type of food.
Grill Cleaning, Care & Storage
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Ensure your grill lasts for years by taking proper care of it. That means keeping it clean, using the proper tools and keeping it covered when not in use. For step-by-step cleaning instructions, take a look at our grill cleaning guide.
- While there are plenty of fun grilling gadgets and toolsets, the best instrument for cleaning a grill is a basic wire brush. They’re strong enough for scrubbing, can get into tight corners and are inexpensive. However, flimsy bristles have a small chance of ending up in your food. Eek! Wire brush alternatives include aluminum foil or tools like this affordable pumice-like grill stone.
- You should clean the grill grates each time you grill. Stuck-on bits will continue to burn and cause your food to stick, too. And, don’t forget to scrub the other side of the grill grate.
- If you grill a lot of foods that are high in fat, like sausages and burgers, you might experience grease buildup on the walls of your grill. Clean off the grease frequently to keep it from igniting.
- Whenever your grill is not in use, it should be covered. Grill covers last about four years and can prevent moisture from sitting on the grill. No moisture means no rust—the most common killer of grills.
- Before putting your grill away for the winter, give it a top-to-bottom cleaning. Not only will this help prevent rusting and staining, but it will increase the grill’s longevity and make opening it up in spring painless. Here’s more on preparing a grill for storage.