Few things in life are as satisfying as cooking outdoors over a live fire. And though many people view the “cookout” as some arcane, strictly middle-class American tradition, grilling is really a centuries-old cooking technique that can be traced to cultures all over the world. The appeal of cooking over an open fire is primordial: It’s what our hairy ancestors did. It’s what our grandfathers did. It’s what you ought to be doing right now (trust me on this).
But let’s get a few things straight: First, there’s a crucial difference between barbecuing and grilling. Grilling is what most people mean when they invite you to a “barbecue.” “Throwing a couple of steaks on the barbie” is grilling — high-heat cooking done quickly over an open flame.
Just about anything can be grilled — from bratwurst to bananas — and it’s an exciting, tasty way to enjoy food, for meat eaters and vegetarians alike. When it comes to grilling meat, though, the thicker the cut, the longer it takes to cook. So a good rule of thumb is to avoid cuts thicker than two inches — any thicker and the inside takes too long to cook, while the outside gets charred. Beef is an exception, but only if you like your steak very, very rare.
Which brings us to barbecuing. True barbecuing is the opposite of grilling: It requires low, indirect heat — and anywhere from several hours to several days of cooking time. Some traditionalists insist that barbecuing must be done in a pit — or not at all (others, mind you, think differently). The fact is that, if you use indirect heat and longer cooking times, you can barbecue on that gas grill that’s languishing in your backyard. Simply light one side and slap the meat on the other, shut the lid, and stare lovingly at your compost pile, for the next several hours.
Now, as to the great charcoal-vs.-gas debate. Sure, charcoal grilling is fun — if you enjoy (1) not being able to get the damned stuff lit; (2) then, when you finally get it lit, having to wait 20 minutes before you can cook; (3) screaming at your kids in frustration; (4) getting nasty dashes of smoke in your eyes; and (5) accumulating a huge pile of ashes that you’ll have to deal with later.
A gas grill, on the other hand, is a complete joy to use and consistently produces perfectly cooked food, if the cook pays just a little attention. Those who claim that gas grilling isn’t live-fire cooking are wrong: You can see the live flames, damn it! Simply put, gas grilling is simple, efficient, clean and thoroughly satisfying. No fuss, no muss. So forget the macho “fire-starter” crap, and get down to what really matters: the food!
Gas grills provide even heat for a longer period, using less fuel. A standard propane tank will provide up to 18 hours of continuous grilling. Most gas grills feature two or three separate heating zones (a great feature for grilling vegetables and meats together), adjustable heat controls, built-in thermometers, warming racks, side tables and side burners for accompanying dishes and rotisserie fittings. These features make for a nearly unlimited grilling palette, putting a world of tasty food at your fingertips.
Ready to grill? Spark the electronic igniter or light the grill with a kitchen match and let it preheat — covered and on “high” — for about 15 minutes. For beef, pork, venison and lamb, grill the first side on “high” for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cut. Whether the meat is rare, medium or well-done is determined after you turn it. After turning the cuts, reduce the heat to “medium” and cook for 10-15 minutes, depending on the desired state of the finished product. Take extra care to ensure that pork is thoroughly cooked. It’s hearty — it can handle a few extra minutes on the grill, to guard against salmonella and trichinosis.
Chicken and fish are best cooked at slightly lower temperatures, using the “eyeball” method. Chicken should be cooked until the flesh is solid white and a bit rubbery to the touch. You should see clear juices running freely over the meat. Fish will lighten in color as it’s grilled and should be slightly flaky when done. Deep, black grill marks are also a good divining rod for determining relative “doneness.” Because fish and chicken are cooked at lower temperatures, they take longer to cook than meats, but it all depends on the weight and thickness of the portions.
Raw vegetables cook well in aluminum-foil pouches, which seal in moisture and “steam” the veggies inside. But vegetables can also be cooked over the open flames, either on skewers or simply spread around the grate. Unhusked corn should be boiled for a few minutes and then placed directly over the flames. This will prevent the husks from catching fire. In general, veggies will be more flavorful if cooked over a lower heat. Use a different heating zone, or place vegetables on the warming rack above the grate and cook with the lid closed. As you gain experience, try grilling fresh fruit (like banana, apple and pear slices, or pineapple and mango chunks), to give your cookout an exotic twist.
Admittedly, gas grilling does have its drawbacks: Gas doesn’t burn as hot as charcoal and has no subtle flavor to impart to the food. But with a good marinade or sauce, you won’t notice the difference. And you’ll get to taste the food a whole lot sooner than you would cooking on a charcoal grill. (I can’t help remembering what my grandmother said years ago, about microwave ovens. She said she’d never own one: Now, she wouldn’t think of not owning one.)