Since all meats (and vegetables) are not created equal, here are basic instructions for cooking all the classics to perfection.
Direct vs. Indirect Heat
Direct cooking is similar to broiling and employs high heat over a short period, while indirect is similar to roasting slowly with moderate heat.
Direct-heat cooking is perfect for small or thin pieces of food such as vegetables, kebabs, fish, burgers, steaks, and sausages. The lid may be left open or closed -- it won't affect the result. For charcoal: Spread hot, ashy coals evenly across the lower grill grate. For gas: Preheat the grill by setting the burners on high for 15 minutes. Then reduce heat to medium for cooking.
Indirect heat is ideal for larger cuts or portions of meat, such as roasts or whole chickens or turkeys. Keep the grill lid closed except when you're basting or taking the food's temperature. For charcoal: Arrange coals around a drip pan. Center food over pan. Open vents. Replenish coals every hour. For gas: With a three- or four-burner grill, light only the outside burners and cook food in the center.
Grill seasoned ribs, bone-side down, over indirect heat using a drip-pan filled halfway with water. Top coals with 1 cup soaked and drained wood chips; cover grill to maintain a temperature of 275 to 325 degrees. Cook until meat is tender, basting ribs with sauce 15 minutes before removing from grill. Let stand 10 minutes before carving.
First sear over direct medium-high heat and then grill over indirect medium heat. To keep meat moist, leave the skin on or, before cooking, brine skinless chicken for 4 to 8 hours in the refrigerator in a mixture of 1/2 cup coarse salt, 8 cups water, and the herbs of your choice. Pat dry before grilling. Cooking times: Split breasts require 30 to 35 minutes total, legs 18 to 22, thighs 15 to 20, and wings 11 to 13.
Bring the meat to room temperature, season well with salt and pepper, and then grill. Let meat sit for about 10 minutes before slicing, to redistribute the juices.
Roast whole peppers on direct high heat, turning them as sides blacken. Peel off charred skin, slice into strips, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Cut zucchini into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill on direct medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Asparagus can be prepped in the same manner, but cook for 5 minutes total.
To cook a whole fish on a grill, stuff with herbs and lemon slices and place in a fish basket or on a wood plank (if you don't have either, lightly oil fish so it won't stick). Grill over direct medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes per side, turning once. More cooking times per side: Tuna steaks take 3 to 4 minutes, swordfish steaks 6 to 7, and salmon steaks 7 to 8.
Use sirloin or chuck -- both have a high fat content, which gives a burger its succulence. Season with salt and pepper. Then grill over direct medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare.
You can't mess these up: Grill on direct medium heat for 6 to 7 minutes, turning occasionally.
1. Preheat the grill for at least 15 minutes, so you don't end with gray food because there's not enough heat to char it.
2. Arrange food neatly on the grill to ease monitoring.
3. Don't overcrowd the grill; leave part of the grate open so that you can move food in the event of flare-ups.
4. Check for doneness early and often to prevent overcooking.
5. Add barbecue sauce 4 to 5 minutes before food is done so that the sugar doesn't burn.
Routine Grill Care
1. Oil the cooking grate before every use of the grill to prevent food from sticking. Brush it lightly with cooking oil that can withstand high temperatures, such as grapeseed or safflower oil.
2. After grilling, remove cooked food and close the lid (if using gas, turn the heat to high); after 15 to 20 minutes, shut off the gas or extinguish flames. Rub the heated grate with balled foil, or brush the grates with a tight-bristled brass or stainless-steel grill brush (wear long-cuffed gloves to protect hands and forearms if cleaning a charcoal grill). To loosen burned-on food from a grate, sandwich it between wet newspapers, cover it with plastic, and leave it outdoors overnight, then scrub.
1. Wash the exterior of the grill with mild dishwashing liquid and water. Rinse thoroughly; burning detergent residue gives off an unappetizing odor and can affect the taste of your food.
2. When burner holes are blocked with food debris, cooking temperatures may become uneven. Go over the burners with a grill brush, and clear clogged holes with a pipe cleaner or a sewing needle.
3. If lava rocks, ceramic blocks, or metal heat diffusers are dirty, heat will be uneven. Clean by turning them over and running the burners on high for at least thirty minutes.
4. Once a year, spray the cooking grate with a grease-cutting solution of one part distilled white vinegar to one part water. Close the lid, and let the solution work for at least an hour. Scrape the grill gently with a putty knife.
1. To detect a leak on a gas-hose connection, brush soapy water over hoses and hose connections. If bubbles emerge, shut off the gas valve, and disconnect the tank from the grill and contact the manufacturer for information.
2. Always open the lid well before lighting any cooking fire, to avoid a concentration of gas or fumes, which may explode when lit. Lowering the lid may not extinguish flames, since vents may still admit air.
3. Shut off the gas valve before starting any maintenance procedure.
4. Disconnect gas tanks in off-seasons, and never store tanks in the house, garage, basement, or any other enclosed space.
1. Over time, high temperatures can stress the bottom of the charcoal grill, but a 1/2-inch layer of sand in the grill bed will absorb the heat of falling embers and prolong the life of the kettle. The ash pan under the kettle will catch any sand that falls through the bottom vent.
2. To clean the kettle, first gently loosen grease and carbon with a putty knife. Scrub lightly with mild dishwashing liquid and hot water, using abrasive nylon or steel-wool pads. Cut stubborn grease with one part distilled white vinegar mixed with water.
1. Dousing a flaring grill with water tends to spread cooking-grease fires. Extinguish a flare-up instead by spraying it with a class-ABC fire extinguisher, or smother the fire with dry sand (keep a potful of sand nearby).
2. To dispose of ashes, wait at least 24 hours after cooking to be sure the ash has cooled. Even tiny embers can spark a fire if swept into a trash receptacle while they are hot.