Beginner’s Guide to Grilling

Grilling is a great way to relax and bond with your friends and family. It’s especially fun to do because you not only get to cook and eat delicious food but also are able to enjoy it with people you care about.

In this article, we go through all the things you need to know to start grilling in your backyard. We explain the different types of grilling methods as well as the equipment you’ll need and how to use them to get perfect results every time.

So, let’s get to it!

Grilling: The Different Ways to Grill

Often, when people talk about grilling, they lump everything together. But, the reality is, grilling, just like the term barbecue, means different things depending on who you talk to and where you are.

For many people, grilling or barbecuing is simply lighting up a few lumps of charcoal and cooking some steaks or sausages over it. But, in certain parts of the country, it means totally different things.

This is especially true in the Midwest where thy take their BBQ very seriously. Memphis, Kansas City and the Carolinas all have their own kind of BBQ that’s vastly different from one another. The same is true for Texas, where BBQ is big business. More importantly, it specifically means beef brisket that’s smoked over a long period of time until tender.

So, we’ll try to clarify a few terms before going deeper into the matter.

Grilling

In general, grilling refers to cooking food, any type of food, directly over a fire. Traditionally, the fire was created using coals or wood. But today, you’ll see grills use burners as well.

In any case, the important point of grilling is that the food sits over a direct fire.

Another characteristic of grilling is its high temperature. Often, you’ll be cooking with temperatures between 450 to 650 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on which phase you’re in. Searing and getting grill marks will call for the higher end of the range, while the lower temps are better suited to getting the inside moist and tender.

Because of the high temperature created by the flames, the food cooks quickly. And, if you leave it there for long, it can burn or make the food tough. This is why grilling often involves thinner cuts of meats, including hamburgers, steaks, chicken and fish fillets.

All said, there are different ways to grill. Here are some of the most common grilling methods.

Grilling with Direct Heat

This is the method we discussed above. You essentially have the food directly above the fire or flames. This is by far the most popular way of grilling. And, people like it because it produces the caramelization or browning of the meats. This lets you seal in the juices. And, it is also what lets you produce grill marks.

Direct heat grilling is often fast, and it requires you to preheat your grill. This allows the food to instantly sizzle when they touch the grates. It also speeds up cooking allowing you to spend less than 20 minutes to finish preparing your meal.

In general, direct grilling works great for foods like:

  • Thin, tender cuts of meats. These include steaks, chicken and fish.
  • Hotdogs and sausages
  • Kebabs
  • Vegetables
  • Some fruits

Grilling with Indirect Heat

As you get better at direct heat grilling, you’ll probably find yourself trying your hand at indirect grilling. This method is a bit trickier because it veers away from our common understanding of cooking, where you put food right above the flame like you would on your stovetop.

With indirect heat, you don’t put food directly over the heat source. Instead, you let the heat around it cook the food. As such, you’ll need to cover the grill in order to keep the heat trapped inside it.

Because the heat indirectly cooks the food, it’s harder to tell when it’s done. In addition, the covered process also prevents you from seeing its how far into cooking you’ve gotten.

While opening the lid every so often will let you do this, it also releases the heat that’s trapped in the grill. As such interfering with the cooking process.

While more difficult to learn and perfect, indirect grilling allows food to develop more flavors. The longer cooking durations also helps tenderize it.

It is for this reason that indirect grilling is popular for thicker or tougher cults of meat, including:

  • Prime rib
  • Leg of lamb
  • Short rib
  • Pork roast
  • Whole chicken or turkey
  • Whole fish

Barbecuing

Barbecuing is low and slow cooking. That is, you cook with low heat over a long period of time. Typically, this requires hours as the temperature often runs between 225 to 300 degrees. Depending on how tender you want the meat to be, how big it is and how much flavors you want to develop, barbecuing can run anywhere from 3 to 18 hours.

The result is an intense smoky flavor that’s imparted by the wood smoke which you’ve used as your fuel source.

Smoking

Smoking is derived from barbecuing. In most cases, you’ll need a smoker instead of a grill. These devices work differently because the position of their firebox is located away from the grates where you place your food.

As such, it’s another form of indirect heat cooking.

Just as importantly, you can do hot or cold smoking.

  • Hot smoking is just like barbecuing. Here, you use temperatures of around 225 to 250 degrees to slowly cook the food.
  • Cold smoking on the other hand doesn’t necessarily cook the food. Instead, it imparts the smoky flavor to enhance its taste. This is what’s done for beef jerky as well as smoked salmon.

For the most part, smoking and BBQ are used interchangeably. And, because of its ability to infuse flavor and tenderize food, the best cuts of meat for smoking are those that are tough or lack flavor. These include:

  • Beef brisket
  • Pork shoulder
  • Whole pigs

Rotisserie / Spit Roasting

Finally, there’s rotisserie grilling. You’re probably familiar with this because it’s popular in many different cultures.

Some restaurants even have rows of meats or chicken turning in a rotating spit cooking in front of you. Whether it’s poultry, whole hogs, pork, lamb or chunks of beef, rotisserie grilling allows every part of the food to get a taste of the flame.

It’s rotating nature also lets you baste the meat regularly to add flavor and help keep it moist.

How to Buy a Grill Buying Guide

Now that you know the different types of grilling, it’s time to figure out what kind of grill you should get for what you plan of doing.

In this section, we explain all the different types of grills you’ll encounter in the store. More importantly, be able to decide which one suits your needs.

Types Of Grills

Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills are your traditional style grills. They use charcoal as their fuel source. And, in doing so, produce a lot of flavor and smokiness. As such, it provides you with the most authentic grilling experience.

The downside to charcoal grills is that they require a lot of learning, are harder to use, need more maintenance and cleaning because of all the ashes.

Gas Grills

Gas grills are very popular because they make backyard BBQs easy. They’re less messy. And, much easier to clean. Additionally, it’s easier to control the heat because you’re able to immediate turn the burners up or down as needed.

  • Propane Grills. These are the most common type of gas grills. They use a propane tank as their fuel source.
  • Natural Gas Grills. NG grills also use gas. But, they use natural gas. As such, they tap into your home’s natural gas line for their fuel.

Electric Grills

Electric grills use electricity. They’re by far the easiest to use and quickest to clean. Plus, they don’t produce a lot of smoke. As such, you can cook with them indoors or outdoors.

The downside to them is that the lack of smoke means less flavor. They also produce lower heat which doesn’t make them ideal if you want to sear your meats.

How Much Should You Pay for a Grill?

As with any big purchase, cost can be an issue. Ideally, you want to find a balance between the features and grilling ability of a product with its price tag. This gives you a sweet spot where you don’t overspend but still get what you want.

Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills are much cheaper than gas grills. Typically they cost under $100. But, higher quality ones and those with extra features are what you’ll find in the best charcoal grills under $200.

Here, the decision ultimately comes down to the size of the grill, what extra features you want and the brand of the grill. Higher quality brand names like Weber will typically have more expensive products. That’s because they use high-grade materials which not only make your grill cook better, but also last longer.

Gas Grills

When it comes to gas options, most people buy propane grills. That’s because they’re more convenient to use. Additionally, natural gas grills are more expensive, typically starting at around $600 and going up over $1000. Plus, you’ll need to have a professional install it.

So, here are the differences when it comes to gas grill prices.

  • Gas Grills under $200. These are the cheapest grills around. They’re ideal if you’re on a budget. Or, if you’re looking for a small grill.
  • Gas Grills under $300. These are a step up above the previous price range. They offer more cooking space and, in some cases, an additional burner. Extra burners not only let you cook more food, they let you cook faster and set different temperature zones on your grill.
  • Gas Grills under $500. This is the sweet spot if you want a balance between cooking ability, features and cost. Many products in this price range come with side burners so you can cook all your food using the grill. They also offer higher BTUs so you get more heat from your burners.
  • Gas Grills under $1000. If you’re willing to make the investment, these are the way to go. In this price range, you’ll be able to enjoy the top end brands like Weber. Grills in this price range offer more space, higher quality components which result in better cooking performance. They’re also designed to be more durable and last longer.

Other Specialized Kinds of Grills

  • Grill Smoker Combo. If you like to grill and smoke but don’t like having to buy two separate equipment, this is a good option.
  • Indoor Grills. Indoor grills are different from outdoor grills in that they’re designed to reduce the amount of smoke they produce. They’re often electric which makes it easier to cook and clean as well.
  • Infrared Grills. These use special infrared technology that’s designed to produce higher temperatures. As such, they allow you to get a better sear on meats and cook faster as well.
  • Kamado Grills (Ceramic Grills). Kamados are egg-shaped multi-purpose cookers. They’re very heavy and expensive. But, they also give you the ability to grill, smoker, bake and use many other cooking techniques.
  • Portable Grills. These are ideal if you want something compact and easy to transport. They’re great for camping because of their size and light weight. They can likewise be used for tailgating because they easily fit into your car or SUV.
  • Small Grills. Small grills are similar to portable grills. But, not all small grills are portable. Some are standalone. By that, they come your tradition cabinet or stand top grill, but only more compact. This makes them easier to move at home. And, they’re ideal for smaller families.

Smokers

As mentioned above, smokers are different from grills. That’s because the way they cook your food is different. Instead of using direct heat, they rely on indirect heat.

As such, the fire or flame is positioned away from the grates. In doing so, they allow the heat to cook your food instead of the fire, which is the case for grilling.

Types of Smokers

If you ask any BBQ pit master, they’ll all give you their version of the best smoker. That’s because each of them cooks differently. As a result, the type of smoker they prefer is something that suits they’re style of cooking.

In this section, we look at the different types of smokers available in stores.

  • Offset Smokers. These are the most popular kinds you’ll find experienced pit masters use. They come with a long horizontal cooking chamber and a firebox that’s offset to the side. As such, they’re called offset smokers. While these are the coolest looking ones you’ll find, they’re also among the hardest to learn to master.
  • Electric Smoker. In contrast, electric smokers are the easiest to use. They don’t use charcoal or wood. Instead, you plug them in and use electric power. This lets you easily control and adjust the heat of the burner. And, you get immediate effects. That’s not something you can do with charcoal or wood.
  • Propane Smoker. Propane smokers use gas instead of electricity to power the heat element. This allows you to add more smoky flavor to the food without having to deal with the hassle of dealing with charcoal or wood.
  • Pellet Smoker. Pellet smokers are also known as pellet grills. They’re a hybrid between your typical charcoal smoker and electric smoker. This gives you the best of both worlds. With pellet grills, you can set the temperature via its digital console. And, the device will automatically release wood pellets to increase or decrease the heat and smoke as needed. As such, you get the flavor of wood with the convenience of an electric smoker.

Heat Control

When it comes to grilling, the hardest part to learn is heat control. This is especially true if you’re cooking with charcoal or wood. Gas grills makes it easier to turn the temperature up or down. But, ultimately, it’s still up to you do know how high or low to set it to.

To help you understand what different temperatures and heat readings mean, we’ve come up with a chart.

Heat Reading Temperature When to Use it
High 450° to 650°F Direct heat grilling. Ideal for think cuts of meat, vegetables, and seafood. You can also use it to sear larger cuts of meat. Great for making grill marks.
Medium to High 400°F Also used for direct grilling. But, provides more gentle searing and less aggressive cooking.
Medium 325° to 350°F Works well for thicker cuts of meat. Can likewise be used for indirect heat grilling.
Low to Medium 300°F Ideal for warming foods or finishing them during direct heat grilling. This temperature is also on the higher end for indirect grilling and smoking.
Low 225° to 250°F Ideal for smoking and indirect heat grilling. Works best for larger, tougher cuts of meat or more delicate foods. You can likewise use it to warm foods that are already cooked.

How to Control Heat on a Charcoal Grill

  • Duration of time between igniting the charcoal and putting the food on the grates. The coals are hottest when they ash over. This is about 20 to 30 minutes after they’ve been ignited. After that, the temperature starts to cool gradually.
  • Raking the coals. Laying the coals over one another increases the temperature in that area of your grill. This lets you increase the heat in that zone. In contrast, spreading them into a thin layer, lets that section of your grill stay cooler. This lets you zone your grill so you can sear in one area and slowly cook in another.
  • Adjusting the vents. Charcoal grills come with at least one vent. Often, you’ll have two or more of them. These vents allow you to open or close them during cooking. In doing so, you allow more or less oxygen into the grill. Because oxygen makes fire burn hotter, you’ll be able to adjust your grills internal temperature by adjusting the vents.
  • Moving the grates up and down. In some grills, you’ll have the luxury of adjusting the height of the grates. This allows you to increase or decrease the distance between the charcoal and your food. The closer the food is to the fire, the more heat it experiences. The farther away it is, the lower the heat you’ll be cooking with.

How to Control Heat on a Gas Grill

In contrast to charcoal grills, using a gas grill is much simpler. This is especially true when it comes to heat control.

That’s because your gas grill will be set up much like the stovetop in your kitchen. It is equipped with burners whose heat production you can control simply by turning the knobs on the console of your grill.

Depending on the type of grill you have, you may be able to use different heat zones as well. If you have a 2 or 3 burner gas grill, you can set one burner to high and use it to sear your meats. Then, use a lower temperature on the other to cook the inside. Doing so lets you sear them on the outside. Yet, keep the meat moist and tender internally.

In addition, gas grills often come with built-in thermometers. This will let you know the internal temperature of the chamber. This is useful when preheating the grill as well as when cooking food.

As a final guideline, keeping the lid closed on any grill increases the heat that’s cooking your food. In contrast, leaving the lid open, reduces the heat.

Grilling Safety

Because you’re dealing with fire, it’s very important to practice proper safety. This ensures that you, your family and friends can enjoy your backyard BBQ.

  • Always keep an eye on a grill that’s lit.
  • Have a fire extinguisher on hand just in case. For ground fires, you can use a bucket of sand, while coarse salt works well for grease fires on your grill.
  • If you’re using propane, always shut off both the burner and the gas when you’re done.
  • Never let kids, pets, long hair, long pieces of fabric or clothing get near the grill or anything flammable.
  • Make sure to wear closed shoes. It will keep your feet and toes from getting burned by drippings or grease.
  • Use an apron. Your shirt will thank you for doing so.

In addition to staying safe near the grill, do follow a few food safety tips so nobody ends up experiencing stomach or foodborne illness.

  • Always separate cooked food from uncooked ones, especially meats and poultry. Raw food can contain bacteria that can contaminate cooked food.
  • Make sure to cook food to the proper internal temperatures. While you may like some foods rare, it’s a good idea to follow the U.S. FDA’s recommendations to avoid food poisoning later on.
  • If you leave meats out in the open, make sure to cook them within 2 hours.