I started out, many years ago, grilling with a good old fashioned Weber Kettle, the most popular charcoal grill in American since, well...ever. 😉
Sadly, these marvels of simplicity rarely get used to their full potential. Sure, you can grill up endless burgers, dogs, and brats…and they’ll be awesome, but let’s look at some advanced (dare I say Home Chef?) techniques to take this old classic to the next level!
I have used the Weber to make everything from jerky, to smoked salmon, to traditional Southern Pulled Pork, to authentic Texas-Style Briskets and Pork Bellies, and I’m going to show you how to, as well.
Direct vs. Indirect
There are two basic styles of grilling, direct & indirect.
Direct grilling cooks your food “directly” above the hot coals. Best for searing and charring foods that you want to grill quickly.
Of course, with this higher heat, you have to be more watchful to ensure that foods, especially those with sugary marinades or glazes, don’t burn before they’re cooked through. A double layer, direct fire on a standard kettle-style BBQ can get as high as 500F.
Rule of thumb: Thin foods, with low sugar and water content, and that cook quickly, cook best over direct heat:
- Fruits & Veggies
- Chicken breasts
- Fish fillets & shellfish
- Pork tenderloin
Indirect grilling uses an area of the grill that doesn’t have coals directly beneath it. By placing your food over this “cool” zone, and covering it with the lid, your kettle becomes an oven, allowing you to bake, roast, or BBQ, foods that take longer to finish, without burning the exterior. Temperatures typically run in the 225f-250F range, making this method ideal for BBQ and smoking.
Rule of thumb: Thicker and sugary foods, and tougher cuts (especially of beef) that requires longer cook times at lower temperatures:
- Whole chickens
- Large whole fish
- Pork shoulders, and loins
Single Zone Grilling
Single Zone grilling is your basic, direct heat method. Coals are layered evenly across the coal grate, the number of layers depending on the amount of heat you need.
2 Zone Grilling
As we saw above, 2 Zone grilling is best for “low & slow” techniques.
Prepared coals are spread over one side of the coal grate, while the opposite half (or more) is left clear. This let’s you “roast” thick cuts of meat with burning, though you’ll typically need to rotate large cuts at some point, so they cook evenly on both sides.
Another common technique for 2 Zone Grilling is to caramelize (char) the exterior of the meat over direct heat (all sides), then move it to the indirect area to complete cooking.
Tri-tip roasts, steaks thicker than 2″, and bone-in chicken peices grill best by this method. Caramelization (the technical term is the “Maillard reaction*” adds tons of flavors to foods, and some believe that it can help deal in the juices of meats, to help prevent any unnecessary moisture loss. It’s a fantastic method for roasting whole (brined) chickens, as well.
You can even serve grilled “baked” potatoes that will drive your guests crazy!
*Maillard Reaction: A chemical reaction between the amino acids and the reducing sugars that gives browned and grilled food its distinctive flavor.
This is the method I use most often, as it finds it provides the most consistent results (and is most forgiving of my ADHD forgetfulness!) 😉
Prepared coals are split evenly along the opposite sides of the coal grate, leaving a place (cool zone) between, large enough to move the meat to once the outsides are browned. This allows medium to thick cuts to finish cooking, while providing even heat from both sides, and save you the trouble of having to rotate the meat, halfway through cooking.
There are also times when you might prefer a three-zone “split” fire, where the coals are separated into two equal piles on opposite sides of the charcoal grate.
This gives you two zones for direct heat (high, medium, or low) and one zone between them for indirect heat. This also works nicely for cooking a roast over indirect heat, such as pork loin or beef tenderloin, because you have the same level of heat on either side of the roast.
You can also use this method to create “High, Medium, and Low” zones in your kettle. By stacking two (or more) levels layers of coals on one side (high), and single layer on the opposite side (medium), the middle section, with or without a water pan*, becomes the “Low” zone.
Ring o’ Fire (low & slow/smoking)
Setting up for slow smoking
The ring of fire is…awesome! By layering your coals in a semi-circle around the outside of the coal-grate, and then lighting one end of the “ring”, you create a domino effect, as each coal lights the next, working it’s way around the ring for hours, and provided low, even heat.
To turn your Weber Kettle into the perfect smoker, just pre-soak a few chunks of your favorite hardwood, and space them evenly atop the first half to three-quarters of the ring.
Meat will only accept smoke for the first three hours or so, so there’s no point in wasting the extra wood.
Plus, over smoking can leave meat with a bitter, acrid flavor, and a nasty tar-like coating.
While there are innumerable tips and tricks that you can (and likely will) learn as you spend more time at the grill, let’s look at a few very simple, yet foundational principles that can take your grill-skill from tragic to magic, quickly…and without cost.
Just a side note – none of these tips are about the price of the meat. Grilling and, to a greater extent, barbeque, is all about taking the cheap (and sometimes throw-away) cuts, and making them not just edible, but incredible. You don’t need to serve $30-a-steak rib-eyes, or fresh Maine lobster-tails, to make a great meal on the grill…watch and see.
In cooking, brining is a process similar to marinating, in which meat is soaked in brine before cooking. Brining makes cooked meat moister by hydrating the cells of its muscle tissue before cooking, via the process of osmosis, and by allowing the cells to hold on to the water while they are cooked, via the process of denaturation. (Thank you, Wikipedia!)
How long to brine depends on the size and type of meat you’ve got. Larger meats like a whole turkey need more time for the brine to do its magic. Small pieces of seafood like shrimp shouldn’t sit in a brine for more than half an hour, or so.
Be sure not to brine meats that have already been brined before you buy them, such as “extra-tender” pork, which has been treated with sodium phosphate and water to make it juicier.
Meats that improve on the grill with a good brine:
- Chicken & turkey (whole or cut)
- Rabbit (or any non-red game meat)
- Pork (especially boneless picnic ribs)
Fatty meats like beef and lamb are generally not improved by brining.
My basic brine = 1 cup coarse Kosher or sea salt + 1 cup sugar (white or brown) + 1 gallon purified water.
Bring water to a high simmer, add salt and sugar to dissolve, and allow to cool to room temp before adding the meat. You can increase or decrease the amount of brine, as long as you have enough to completely submerse the meat, by modifying the brine ingredients in these proportions.
How much brine do you need?
Here’s a tip: put your meat in the container you’re going to soak it in, and fill it with purified water until completely covered. Remove the meat, and use this water to make your brine. Clever, huh?
After brining, always rinse your meat and dry it well before cooking. Otherwise, your dinner is going to be super salty, likewise, don’t salt the meat before, during, or after cooking, nor any sauces or gravies you make with the residual broth (which, btw, is freakin’ awesome.)
Lastly, make sure to keep a close eye when grilling meats that have been brined. Brining adds sugar to the meat and can cause it to burn faster, another reason to use a 2-step grilling method.
One caveat with brining is that whatever you put the meat in, it needs to fit in your refrigerator or cooler. Both the meat and brine need to stay below 40F at all times. This isn’t a big deal with a couple of pork chops but can present some logistical headaches when you’re roasting half-a-dozen turkeys, as I did last Thanksgiving.
In this case, you’re best bet is to sterilize a cooler that’s big enough to fit the meat, brine and a couple of bags of ice.
General Brining Times
- Whole Chicken, Salmon fillet 4 to 12 hours
- Chicken Pieces, Pork Chops 1 to 1 1/2 hours
- Whole Turkey or Pork Shoulder 24 hours
- Turkey Breast, Rabbit 5 to 8 hours
- Cornish Game Hens 1 to 2 hours
The beauty of a good brine is you can add whatever you want to it! I often add quartered lemons and chopped garlic to my whole chicken brine and Chinese 5 Spice to my pork brine.
The best flavored brines are often the simplest…citrus juice and dried mint will add a nice Mediterranean flavor to chicken, while cracked black pepper and red wine vinegar provide a rich French flair.