Your Go-To Guide to Grilling the Right Way

Here's everything you need to tame the flames of charcoal and gas grilling and master this cornerstone of casual outdoor dining and summer entertaining.

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Photo: Armando Rafael

Grilling is far more than just a cooking method, it's a state of mind. It stands for outdoor living, relaxed meals that prize flavor over formality, and it's practically synonymous with summer entertaining.

Consider this your go-to guide to using your BBQ the right way. We've got all the information you need for a successful cookout, from turning on the fire and regulating the temperature to choosing the best cooking technique for every food—plus, plenty of expert tips and tricks.

It All Starts With Fire

The flames are what add the flavor (and the fun!) to grilling. Cooking over fire is less precise and more primal than our standard daily meal prep routines that center around the stovetop and the oven. The type of fuel your grill uses and the kind of food you're cooking should determine the way you start the fire.

Charcoal or Gas?

It's the rare example of an enjoyable debate that doesn't have any wrong answers. Your choice only depends on your preferences, like how often you grill, what kind of foods you like to grill, how much space you have, and how much patience you have for tending and maintaining the fire.

Charcoal grills are generally less expensive and are available in smaller sizes than gas grills—perfect if you have limited space or aren't ready to commit to frequent grilling. Most people agree that grilling over charcoal is also downright tastier, with more of that irresistible smoky, charred flavor than you can get with a gas grill. The downsides to charcoal are that it takes more time and work to create and maintain consistent temperatures, and the cleanup is messier since you have to dispose of ashes once the fire is out.

Starting a Charcoal Grill

By far the best way to start a charcoal grill is using a chimney starter, a ventilated metal cylinder that holds charcoal in the optimum position to catch fire and maintain heat until the coals are ready for cooking. The old-school alternative to a chimney starter is lighter fluid, used to douse the coals and give the fire a boost so a single lighter flame can ignite a pile of charcoal.

We prefer the chimney method for the sake of both flavor and safety. Lighter fluid fumes can affect the flavor of the food, which nobody enjoys. Not only that, but we've all been at a cookout where at least one pyromaniac just can't resist playing with the lighter fluid, squirting it on already-hot coals to watch the flames leap. This can be extremely dangerous, for everyone in the vicinity, so it's easier to skip the safety lecture and just remove the temptation altogether by investing in a chimney starter!

Starting a Gas Grill

Gas grills are easier when it comes to starting the fire and maintaining consistent heat for longer periods of time, not to mention cleanup. Apart from flavor, the other considerations when choosing a gas grill are price, space, and fuel supply. Gas grills tend to be larger and more expensive than charcoal grills. If you grill frequently for groups larger than just a few people, gas grills are by far the more convenient option. Most gas grills are fueled by 20-pound metal propane tanks that can be exchanged and refilled at hardware stores and supermarkets. (Hint: Before getting your food ready, follow the cardinal rule of gas grilling and make sure you have enough fuel to get the job done!)

To start heating the grill, you should always follow the specific instructions that came with your grill, but most are simply a matter of turning on the gas, pressing the "ignite" button and then adjusting the burner dials to your desired temperature.

Other Types of Grills

In addition to the longstanding stalwarts of grilling, charcoal and gas, two other kinds of grill have been gaining popularity in recent years.

Electric Grills

Electric grills are often touted as the eco-friendly option. They are as easy to heat and clean as any other electric appliance, and can actually be used indoors unlike other kinds of grills. However, their outdoor use is limited by the availability of electrical outlets, and because there are no flames, your food won't have that signature grilled flavor.

Wood Pellet Grills

Wood pellet grills have been winning over backyard cooks thanks to their clean-burning fuel that provides more steady and consistent heat than their charcoal counterparts. Pellet grills are more expensive than the average charcoal or gas grill but may be worth the investment for a grilling aficionado.

The Right Tools for the Job

The number of accessories and gadgets you need for grilling is blessedly minimal. A heatproof spatula and a set of tongs with extra-long handles is all you need for most occasions. You can expand your grilling toolbox with a meat thermometer, basting brush, cleaning brush, flame-proof oven mitts, and separate sheet pans for toting raw and cooked foods between the kitchen, the grill, and the table. Add a grilling basket, a pizza stone, or a cast iron skillet when you're ready to broaden your grilling horizons beyond the standard burgers, sausages, steaks, and skewers. Learn more in our Guide to Grilling Tools.

Taming the Temperature

Ways of cooking food on the grill can be separated into two basic categories: direct heat and indirect heat. Every grilling recipe should specify which of these two approaches you should use when you prepare the grill. Direct heat means that the food is directly over the heat source, cooking it hotter and faster—perfect for smaller or thinner items like burgers, sausages, vegetables, and thinner cuts of meat where you want those perfect grill marks. Indirect heat means that the heat source is off to the side of the food, providing lower heat and a slower cooking time. This approach allows larger items like thick steaks, whole chickens, and roasts to cook thoroughly without burning. If cooking with indirect heat on a charcoal grill, you may need to feed the fire more than once. You can get a second batch of hot coals ready in the chimney starter once you spread the first batch onto the grill. Keep it on a flame-proof surface out of reach of children and pets and tip the fresh batch of coals into the grill when the first batch starts dying out.

When it comes to grilling, it's not as simple as setting the dial to 350 degrees and waiting for the beep. If you like to collect gadgets, you can use a laser thermometer to measure the surface temperature of your grill, or you can use the trusty, primitive shortcut of gauging the temperature with your hand.

Before food ever touches the grill, the grates should be clean and hot. Preheat the grill then hold the palm of your hand 3 inches above the grates. If you can keep your hand there for 4 to 5 seconds, the grill is at medium heat. If you can't hold your hand near the grates for more than 3 seconds, consider it high heat.

What to Grill

After you've covered the basics of what kind of grill you want, the tools you need, and the how-tos of starting the fire and heating the grill, you're ready to start sizzling up anything and everything that strikes your fancy. Are you in the mood for a burger or a steak? What about grilling vegetables? Chicken is a grilling staple but don't forget about grilling fish filets, steaks or whole fish. Feel like grilling something a little different? We've got a collection of recipes for things you probably didn't know you could grill but you should!

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