Here's How to Get Picture-Perfect Grill Marks on Your Grilled Meat or Fish
There's something supremely satisfying about getting those grill marks on meat or fish, and if you're looking for advice on how to achieve that perfect crosshatch design, then you've come to the right place. But first, are grill marks even necessary? Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe, pitmaster at Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg, Florida, doesn't think so. "Grill marks have a great look and that's why they are often preferred, but there's a school of thought that says they leave much of the surface unbrowned and less flavorful." When Lampe sees a piece of meat with dark grill marks, he views the unbrowned spaces in between as a missed opportunity for flavor. Christopher Arturo, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, has a slightly different take. "Grill marks are mostly just for aesthetics, but if you achieve the marks (or quadrillage in French) correctly, it likely means you cooked the meat well," he said. Arturo explained that searing protein on a hot grill grate (or the heat and fire from a grill), cooks the outside while also locking in flavor and moisture.
There are a couple of tools that are helpful to have on hand to achieve perfect grill marks: a cast iron grate (if your grill doesn't already have one) and an instant-read thermometer. "Cast iron holds a lot of heat and is generally a thicker grate," Lampe said. If you're a big fan of grill marks, he notes that you can buy a grill topper (from $46.49, grillgrate.com) that makes it basically foolproof. A thermometer helps to ensure your food not only looks good, but is cooked well. By checking the temperature of your food, you can know when to take it off the grill when cooking the second side. "I like an instant-read thermometer that you can keep in your pocket, and then use to check as needed," Lampe said. "You have the ability to check the food in multiple places very quickly and that helps if something is bigger on one end." His go-to is the Thermapen Mk4 ($69, thermapen.com).
Have you decided that grill marks are for you? Then follow our simple guide for achieving them every single time.
Preheat, Clean, and Lightly Oil the Grill
Lampe recommends using medium-high heat and a cast-iron grate if you have one on hand. Arturo reiterates the importance of scraping the grill with a wire brush to clean it, then brushing the grate with a very lightly oiled towel; this will help to keep whatever protein you're cooking from sticking.
Oil the Food
If you're not using a marinade, lightly oil the fish or meat it to further keep it from sticking to the grill. If you've marinated your protein, Arturo recommends gently wiping off any excess liquid before placing it on the grill. "Too much marinade will cause flare-ups, leading to a fire hazard and your meat tasting like propane," he said.
Locate a hot spot on the grill, then lay your food on the grill at a 45-degree angle to the grill grates. "Lightly press the food to make sure you have good contact with the grate," Lampe said. If you're cooking fish, Arturo recommends starting with the skin side down, grilling only the skin side and finishing it in the oven. "The flesh of a fish can be easily torn when you're flipping, so I'd recommend grilling the skin side only," he said.
After a few minutes, use a grilling spatula to lift the edge of the food to see if you have browned grill marks, taking care to not move or fully lift it. Arturo notes that when the sides look like they are starting to release from the grill grates, it's a good time to take a quick peek. "Once you've placed the item onto the grill, resist the urge to constantly check and adjust the meat," he said. "If you're moving the meat around frequently you might mess up the grill marks."
Once you have visible grill marks, rotate your fish or meat 90 degrees and place it on a new hot spot on the grill. Lampe explained that the original place on the grill where you started cooking will be slightly cooled by the food. Cook until the grill marks have the same color.
Flip and Repeat
Flip your food, placing it on a new hot spot on the grill, then repeat the process. "The second side isn't as important and you may have to sacrifice the grill marks on that side for the perfect doneness," Lampe says. "Cook until you've reached your preferred level of doneness (using the thermometer if needed), and serve with the side with the best-looking grill marks facing up.