Grilling food has probably been with us for a few hundred thousand years; ever since one of our ancestors called Steve (not his real name) accidentally dropped some meat into a fire pit and discovered a delicious new way of enjoying food. Steve started jumping with joy, singing an Akon song, and was made tribal chief for his discovery. And thanks to him, we continue to enjoy a wonderful way of cooking food.
Grilling is essentially a method of cooking over a form of intense dry heat, often in the form of heated charcoal or wood. The grilling surface is at a distance of a few inches above the heat source, so the heat transferred is through thermal radiation, not direct conduction. The intense heat causes browning of the food surface (technically called the ‘‘Maillard Reaction”) and creates lots of tasty flavour compounds. Of late, with rising middle-class income, people have rediscovered grilling. Home grills are now readily available and don’t necessarily cost a lot.
Merely owning a grill doesn’t make one an expert. iStockphoto
Merely owning a grill doesn’t make one an expert, of course. But hey, when you can read Indulge every month, you don’t need to be one. Let me take you through the grilling minefield, and teach you how to make awesome grilled food.
Setting up your grill: So you have a nice fancy grill from a famous company. It probably looks like a big deep bowl with a metal grate on top, with space to dump charcoal. The first thing you need to make life easier is to go to a kitchen supply store and get a ‘‘chimney starter” (do a Google image search). This allows you to dump charcoal into it, set it on top of a gas burner and get the charcoal nice and glowing. You can then empty this charcoal into your grill and be ready to go. Without the chimney, you have to use lighter fluid on your coal blocks, set it on fire, and wait till it’s covered in ash.
Now you need to set up ‘‘hot” and ‘‘medium hot” zones in your grill. Some foods take longer to cook than others, and the radiated temperature of a grill can be well over 200-250 degrees Celsius, so fatty or thick foods that need longer to cook will be burnt on the outside by the time the inside is done. For such things (examples later), searing food on the hot zone, and moving it to the medium zone is the best way. Making these zones is simple: instead of evenly spreading out the charcoal, move about 30% of it from one half to the other. To find out if both sides are hot enough, try the highly scientific test of holding your palm 12 inches above the grill. ‘‘Hot” is when you can’t hold it for more than 3 seconds; medium is about 6-7 seconds.
Lastly, clean the metal grate well with hot water and make sure nothing is left over from previous grilling sessions. Lay it on top of your grill and oil it by dipping a cloth or a kitchen towel in oil with a pair of grilling tongs and rubbing it liberally over the grate. Your grill is now ready to go, so let’s talk about what kind of food works for grilling and how to handle it.
Making marinades: A marinade is a flavourful mix of seasonings, herbs, spices, oils, alcohol and an acidic medium whose purpose is to make the food tender and flavourful. The acid, usually in the form of citrus juices like lime or vinegar (both plain and flavoured) works on the protein structure of the meat surface, making it tender. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t penetrate beyond the meat surface, so if you want more tenderness all around, you’ll have to cut the meat into smaller pieces. But don’t soak it for more than a few hours because it will eventually make meats mushy. (In other words, those 24-48-hour marinades are not a good idea.)
Each culture has its own type of flavour mixes, from Indian Chicken Tikka to Jamaican Jerk Chicken, and I can’t cover it in detail in this piece. A good starting point is The Barbecue Bible by Steven Raichlen, which has a large selection of recipes from around the world. Just don’t put anything with a lot of sugar into your marinade because excess sugar will caramelize and then burn on the exterior, blackening the food and leaving an unpleasant taste.
Keep a small amount of the marinade aside in a separate bowl. This will be used on the food a minute before it comes off the grill. One problem with high-heat grilling is that it will burn off much of the surface flavour, and using a basting brush to restore some of the flavour is a good idea, so your first bite doesn’t taste too burnt.
Grilling meat and poultry: Meat and grilling go together like Salman Khan and shirtless movie scenes. Grilling meat is easy. Use long, flat cuts not more than three-fourth-inch thick that will expose the most surface area to the grill. Do not use very fatty cuts or cuts that need a long cooking time (see my previous column on cooking meat). Grilling is a quick, high-heat cooking method. Remember that bone and fat both slow down heat transfer, so boneless meat is awesome. Bring the meat to room temperature before grilling. Shake off excess marinade so it doesn’t drip on to the charcoal. Once you put it on the grill, resist the urge to move the meat around every 10 seconds or you’ll have a sticky mess. If a nice brown sear with grill marks is important to you, flip the meat only once halfway through the cooking time. If you want the meat moister and more tender, flip once every minute. This gives you more even heat distribution but, of course, is more of a pain to manage.
What if you absolutely must make those pork chops or chicken legs and are now disappointed by my advice? There are workarounds. While chicken breasts are the easiest to grill and take only 5 minutes, chicken legs can be grilled by first searing on the hot zone for a minute and then finishing the cooking on the medium zone. Legs will take longer—about 20-30 minutes or so. Tenderloin steaks too are delicious grilled this way, with the rich smoky flavour from the charcoal. Fatty pork chops can be conquered by either flattening the meat with a mallet or pre-cooking them partially at very low heat (about 120 degrees Celsius) in a regular oven for about 30 minutes before tossing them on the grill. Cook them on the medium zone, not the hot zone.
Grilling vegetables: Grilled vegetables are, in my opinion, the best way to enjoy vegetables with lots of flavour. Most large firm vegetables lend themselves to grilling—peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, corn, squashes like pumpkin, eggplant, potatoes, onions, and even non-vegetables like firm tofu and paneer. As a bonus, they cook fast, usually done in a matter of minutes. Just like meat, cut them as long and flat as possible. Keep them about 0.5- to 0.75-inch thick. Too thin and you won’t have enough juicy insides. Too thick and you’ll burn the outsides by the time the insides are done.
Tossing the vegetables in some oil before grilling makes them cook even faster and improves their flavour. The oil prevents the heat from evaporating the water from the vegetable surface and locks it inside. So make sure your marinade has a wee bit of oil in it. Apart from that, you can use the same range of seasonings and flavour mixes as with meat. Just don’t marinate it for too long, especially if your marinade has salt, or you’ll end up with leaking vegetables in a pool of water. Spiced potato wedges with paprika and thyme, olive oil and garlic rubbed eggplant, corn with rosemary butter and chilli, pumpkin in red curry and coconut milk, onions with Indonesian sweet soy sauce, tofu with a spicy Sichuan paste, paneer tikka, grilled peppers with salsa picante, mushrooms with peanut sauce...there are so many possibilities across so many cuisines. Even fruits like pineapple, firm mangoes, apples, peaches and pears can be grilled and enjoyed. The sugars in them caramelize and concentrate their flavour. Try it!
I hope this column has opened your eyes to the glorious foods that can be made with a grill. Summer is upon us, and what better time to have a grill party at home and call friends over. Now that you know what to do, you can be a grill master and, above all, have fun doing it.
Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer.
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