After surveying our Total Home Supply staff, asking what aspect of grilling they most often run into trouble with, we found the answers to be fairly similar across the board. Therefore, this week’s topic is aimed at helping both our readers and our own staff get past those pesky culinary roadblocks (the solutions are much easier than you think!). Here are the four most common grilling difficulties as identified by our staff, and what to do about each one.
1. Controlling Flames and Flare-Ups
Flare-ups can easily make or break your grilling experience. On the one hand, tall and powerful flames can give some foods (especially steaks) a great charred exterior that is full of flavor. On the other hand, uncontrolled flare-ups can cause your food to burn beyond recognition. Flare-ups are extremely common, especially when grilling foods with high fat contents (ribs and ribeye steaks are among the top offenders). Flare-ups happen when drops of fat and grease fall from the food and into the flames, essentially causing a grease fire. Flare-ups can happen on any grill, but are more common on charcoal grills, which are already difficult to use. Here are some grilling tips to help you salvage your dinner in case of a flare-up:
- Do NOT spray the fire with water. Safety first. Like we said, flare-ups are essentially grease fires. Spraying a grease fire with water is a very bad idea and can make the situation even more dangerous.
- Move the food to another section of the grill. This should be your first response, and done immediately in the event of a flare-up to both save the food and prevent the flames from getting even higher. The higher the heat, the more fat will drip from the food, and this will only continue to fuel the flames until your only option is to grab the fire extinguisher. This is why, especially when cooking food with higher fat content, you should always two-zone your grill, so that there is always space to move the food over to lower heat.
- Close the top of the grill to smother the fire. It’s basic knowledge that fire needs oxygen to breathe, just like we do. If you have a flare-up that is just too high to go out on its own, simply (but carefully!) close the lid of the grill. Keep an eye on the flames through the air vents of the grill and carefully open the lid when you see the flames have been reduced to a safe size. Ideally, you should move the food items off the flare-up and to the other side of the grill before you close the lid, but sometimes flare-ups gain momentum too quickly for that to be a safe option.
Fish is a much more delicate protein than beef or chicken, and has a tendency to fall apart, burn, or dry out very quickly. Of course, different types of fish have different textures, consistencies, and oil contents and thus cook differently on the grill, but that serving up a grilled filet or fish steak is a difficult feat is a shared quality across the board. Here are some tips to prevent your next attempt at grilling fish from completely floundering (get it?!):
- Make sure the cut of the fish is even all the way through. If you are planning on grilling fish, your best bet is to opt for fish steaks as opposed to filets, as filets are more delicate and tend to be slightly more uneven in the cut. Like we said, fish is already a difficult item to cook, so why make it even harder on yourself? Choosing an evenly cut steak will just make the entire process much easier.
- Apply a generous amount of oil to both the fish and the grill. This is so important. To prevent sticking while simultaneously gearing your fish up to acquire a nice flaky exterior, apply plenty of oil to both the fish steak and to the grill. Use a brush to lightly coat the fish steak with canola oil (also adding some salt and pepper, to taste). When it comes to the grill, however, you’re going to want to douse a paper towel in oil and apply it thoroughly to each grate, making sure to cover the entire surface.
- Know how and when to flip. Raw fish has a shiny, translucent look to it, and so when you notice the bottom of the fish is beginning to take on an opaque tone, that’s when it’s time to flip. Since fish can easily fall apart if not handled properly, you’re going to want to make sure your spatula is wide enough to be able to support the entire steak or filet. Also, make sure not to force the fish off the grate if you feel it sticking too much. Fish will develop a flaky coating when it cooks, and so when it is ready to be flipped it should slide off the grill and onto the spatula easily. If you feel it sticking too much, wait another minute or two and try again.
- Remove fish from the heat just before it finishes cooking. Because there is a very fine line between “done” fish and “overcooked” fish, it’s best to remove your steak or filet from the grill just before it is cooked all the way through. If you are testing a fish’s doneness with a grilling thermometer, remove from the grill when the thermometer reads 130-135 degrees, F. If testing doneness by sight, use a fork to peel back a section of the flaky coating and survey the color – you’re going to want to pull the fish from the heat when you notice a mostly opaque inside, with a slight translucent center. The reason for doing this is because as long as the fish is hot it will continue to cook, so if you leave your steak or filet on the grill for too long it will begin to grow dry before you have the chance to enjoy it.
3. Working with Wooden Skewers
Kabobs are a great way to cook and serve a wide variety of food items at a time, allowing you to mix and match meats and vegetables for a tasty platter that is sure to please everyone. Plus, kabobs are really fun to eat. While you can cook kabobs using metal skewers, bamboo skewers are a popular choice for their sheer convenience and low cost. Wooden skewers can also be re-used if they aren’t too charred but here’s the thing – bamboo skewers can get charred very, very easily (they are made of wood, after all). Luckily, there are a few tricks to grilling with wooden skewers that can make the process and the outcome much better:
- Always soak your skewers before grilling. While it can be debated whether or not soaking wooden skewers is necessary, we wholly encourage you to do so. Soaking not only prevents the possibility of your skewers catching on fire, it also prevents the skewer from splintering (nothing like a painful splinter in your tongue to spoil your dinner).
- Soak for at least 30 minutes to an hour. Fill a pan with water and make sure all of your skewers are completely submerged. After about half an hour, remove skewers and place on a thin layer of paper towel. There is no need to pat the skewers dry, and you may actually remove too much moisture if you do.
- Use tin foil on the grill to prevent charring. It is almost inevitable that your wooden skewers will char slightly on the grill, but this is fine and actually adds a certain kind of aesthetic to the plate. If you want to be able to re-use your skewers, however, you’re going to need to keep the charring to a minimum. An easy trick is to place thick strips of tin foil on the grill, directly under where the tips of the skewers are going to be.
4. Non-Meat Items
Not everyone is a carnivore. Whether you’re a devout vegetarian or an omnivore simply looking for a healthy, lower-calorie option, many people enjoy grilled eggplant, veggie burgers, or tofu in place of beef/turkey burgers, chicken, and steak. Non-meat options can be tricky to grill, however, as they require very different grilling techniques from their fleshy counterparts. Tofu and veggie burgers have a tendency to fall apart or stick to the grill due to a lack of fat, so there are a few things you need to know before you attempt these foods on the grill:
- Make sure your food items are actually meant for the grill. A lot of pre-packaged veggie burgers and veggie dogs are not meant to be grilled, but baked in the oven instead. If you try to grill one of these items on the grill when it’s not meant to be, you’re going to find yourself with a veggie crumble that is going to fall right through the cooking grates before you even have a chance to take it off. The same thing goes for tofu – anything other than extra-firm tofu is going to fall apart. Always check packages to make sure your food can actually has a chance against a live flame.
- Always brush food items and the grill with oil to prevent sticking. Just as with fish, tofu and veggie burgers will stick to the grill if you do not use oil. Brush veggie burgers, veggie dogs, and tofu lightly with a coat of canola oil, while using a well-doused paper towel to oil the grates. The oil will create a flaky crust when cooking so, again, like the fish, too much resistance when trying to flip indicates you need to wait another minute.
- Season well. Too much fat may not be good for you, but man is it tasty! Like we said, veggie or tofu items do not have the fat content that meat does, which means it’s up to you to make the food taste good. Pre-packaged veggie burgers and dogs are already seasoned, but sprinkling them with a little salt and pepper never hurts. As for tofu, there is a lot of room to get creative. Marinate your tofu in anything from barbeque sauce, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, or salad dressing, maybe throw in a few red pepper flakes for a kick, and keep in a zip lock bag in the refrigerator over night. Whatever marinade you choose, make sure the sauce contains some amount of sugar, as the sugar is what will let the tofu caramelize as it cooks.
Have any other advice you would add to these lists? Let us know in the comments section!