Become a Better Cook: How to Set Up a Grill and Cook a Steak

by Ian Knauer 

grilled-steaks_484.jpg Triple-Pepper T-Bone Steaks with Grilled Smashed Potatoes. Photo by Tom Schierlitz.
We have been using the power of fire to cook food for a long, long time. Why? Because it works, that’s why. But there are some simple ideas and techniques that will elevate your skills above our Cro-Magnon ancestors, at least culinarily. And since it’s the perfect time of year to cook outside, let’s cover the best ways to grill.

The Fuel (Gas vs. Charcoal):

The two most common types of grilling fuels are gas and charcoal and they each have their advantages. (Wood is another fuel, of course, but let’s stick with the basics today.)
gas-grill-weber.jpg1. Gas grills are used by nearly 70 percent of American families, most likely for one reason: convenience. They heat up with the push of a button or the twist of a knob and turn off just as easily. But most–except high-end gas grills–tend to burn a little cooler and wetter than charcoal so they don’t sear and brown meat as well–plus they won’t give your food as much flavor. Watch a video on how to light a gas grill.
charcoal-grill-weber.jpg2. Charcoal, on the other hand, takes some planning, but has advantages for flavor. It needs time to heat up, but it produces a more nuanced flame, more concentrated heat and more smoke, and that smoke adds a ton of flavor to whatever you’re cooking. Watch a video on how to light a charcoal grill.

hardwood-charcoal-and-charcoal-briquettes.jpgHardwood charcoal at left; briquettes right. Photo by Chris Hall.
2.5. We can break the charcoal family down even further. To start a charcoal grill you can use the ubiquitous briquettes or you can use hardwood charcoal, also called natural lump charcoal. All charcoal is wood that has been burned slowly with little oxygen, leaving behind a charred, carbon-rich fuel that burns efficiently. Charcoal briquettes are scrap wood and petroleum binders (invented by Henry Ford as a way to use up wood from his auto plants). They burn very evenly–designed to maintain a temperature of 600 degrees F for about an hour–but they are often packed with not-so-tasty chemicals. Hardwood charcoal has none of these binders, so it burns faster and a little unevenly–hotter at the beginning, cooler at the end–and you’ll have to refuel after 30 to 40 minutes. But its high heat is valuable and it burns cleaner than briquettes, adding a rich, smoky flavor to food. (If you watched the video I linked to above, you’ll notice that grilling guru Elizabeth Karmel prefers the consistency of briquettes. I prefer the flavor imparted by hardwood charcoal.)

To choose between gas vs. charcoal and briquettes vs. hardwood charcoal, you need to think about why you’re grilling. If it’s to get dinner on the table while standing outside and enjoying a beverage, then use gas. But if it’s to become a better cook (and if you’re reading this, I guess we both know the answer to that one) then use charcoal … hardwood charcoal. It’s available at both Wal-Mart and Lowe’s and if you live in this hemisphere, you’re close to one or both of those stores.
The Right Tools for the Job:
Now that we’ve got the fuel covered, let’s go over some basic equipment needs.
The grill. As I said, I prefer a charcoal grill–but it is not necessary to spend a lot of money on one. Buy one with a cover and the largest cooking surface you can afford. On the other hand, if you go for gas, buy the most powerful grill you can afford so you can get good heat.
chimneystarter.jpgFor a charcoal grill you’ll also need a chimney starter (pictured right)–they’re the best tool for igniting charcoal quickly and evenly. Chimney starters are sheet metal cylinders that look like giant tin beer steins. Put one on the bottom grate of your grill, fill the top about 3/4 full with charcoal and the bottom with crumpled newspaper or a parrafin starter, then light ‘er up from the bottom end. If you’re using hardwood charcoal, let it heat up until the top pieces are about 1/2 to 3/4 glowing red. Watch a video on how to light a grill with a chimney starter.
Keep oven mits on hand for arranging the coals and have a pair of long-handled tongs, a metal spatula, and a meat fork at the ready. These instruments are very helpful for moving food around the grill rack, and moving food around the grill is an important step in proper grilling.  Another helpful tool is an instant-read thermometer, which takes the guess work out of telling when things are cooked. Use a wire-metal brush to clean the grill grid as soon as possible after you’ve finished using it. Make sure there will be a light source if you plan to cook at night. Finally, you’ll need beer. Or at least I do.
(On that note, here are some grilling safety tips and a video about grilling safety.) 
Temperature Control (Setting Up the Grill):
The true advantage of grilling over other cooking methods comes from harnessing the awesome amount of heat produced. High temperatures from 600 to 800 degrees F or hotter make it possible to thoroughly and quickly brown the surfaces of the food, creating intense, desirable flavors. The problem most people face in grilling is that the inside of the food can’t keep pace with the exterior. In this case, the food becomes charred on the outside while it is still raw on the inside.
Photo by Chris Hall.
How to solve this problem? On a gas grill you would simply lower or turn off the flame that is closest to the food. On a charcoal grill you need to plan ahead and set up "grilling zones" of varying heat. This is done simply enough. Just bank the coals up one side of the grill so they slope downward toward the center. This will give you one zone of the grill that is very hot (for "direct heat" cooking) and the other zone can be used for slower cooking (or "indirect heat" cooking). If the outside of the food looks just right and the inside is not yet done, move the food farther away from the banked coals.
You can also adjust the airflow to control temperature. Make sure your vents are fully open and cleared of ash when you light your charcoal and pour it onto the grate. Open vents mean more oxygen and a hotter fire. Partially closing them will cool the fire. 
Remember, becoming a better cook means understanding the mediums used to make great food, why they work, and how to use them to the best advantage. So use hardwood charcoal (for flavor), light it with a chimney starter (for efficiency), bank those coals (for more control) and pay attention. Here’s a recipe to practice with:
Photo by Chris Hall.
Serves 4 to 6
This recipe uses both the hot side of the grill (to sear the steak) and the cooler side (to cook the asparagus). Once you achieve the right color from the sear (and some good-looking grill marks) move the steak away from the banked coals to finish cooking.
Vegetable oil (for oiling grill rack)
1/4 cup Hoisin or BBQ sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon grainy mustard
1/2 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes
1 lb medium asparagus, trimmed
1 1/2 lb flank steak
Salt and pepper
Equipment Note: You will need 4 (10-inch) metal or wooden skewers for the asparagus so it doesn’t slip through the holes in the grill rack.
Soak the wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes.
Prepare a charcoal grill by banking the coals on one side of the grill so they slope down toward the center of the grill. Lightly oil the grill rack with vegetable oil.
Stir together the Hoisin sauce, vinegar, mustard, and red-pepper flakes in a large bowl.
Thread about half of the asparagus crosswise onto 2 parallel skewers, leaving space between. Repeat with the remaining asparagus and skewers. Brush the asparagus with some of glaze, then brush the steak all over with remaining glaze and sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
Grill the steak over the banked coals and the asparagus over the empty side of the grill, turning steak once and asparagus occasionally, until the asparagus is tender and well browned in spots, 6 to 8 minutes, and the steak is medium-rare (135°F on that instant-read thermometer), about 10 minutes. If the steak begins to appear too browned move it to the cooler side of the grill.
Let steak stand on a cutting board 15 minutes (resting meat is important and we’ll get into why at some point down the road); put asparagus on a platter and cover. Thinly slice steak across the grain.

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