You've been to that family picnic: the one where Uncle Hank mans the grill and cremates innocent frankfurters. You know the kind: blistered, third-degree burns on the outside, and still-frozen on the inside? Stop the zombie meatsicles!
This week marks the official start of a regular feature on grilling and smoking called Grill Marks and we show you the crucial skill of managing the fire in a “hard-to-control” charcoal grill. The ideal meats to demonstrate with? Hot dogs and burgers.
Today's take-away: set up different heat zones on your grill.
This post will talk about charcoal grills, but the principle applies to gas grills too. Once you learn how to set up a high heat zone and moderate heat zones, you can master any grill you come across: the one at the public park, your friends' grills in their backyards, wherever.
We'll grill on a Weber kettle, which doesn't have a height adjustment to raise or lower the cooking grate. Heat control on a Weber charcoal grill happens through the amount of burning fuel, plus use of its domed lid to control airflow to the fire. Restricted airflow = reduced heat. Simple, right? However, we're not going to use the lid in the way we did in last week's smoked turkey leg lesson. Why? Because burgers and dogs cook quickly and we want to keep an eye on them the whole time. But keep the lid nearby: closing the lid will suppress grease fire flare-ups.
Fill your chimney starter half-full of charcoal plus one fist-sized chunk of hardwood like apple, pecan or hickory. It's better to start with a fire that's too small and add fuel as needed, rather than start off with an blazing inferno that takes forever to die down to the ideal temperature.
Set most of your coals off to one side, the high-heat zone. Line up a few of them with your charcoal tongs onto the other side, your moderate-heat zone.
How hot is hot? Hold your bare hand five inches above the cooking grate. If you pull it away before you can count to five alligator, then your fire is way too hot. Give the coals a chance to settle down by covering the grill and cutting down the oxygen to the fire. If you can hold your hand there for five to eight seconds, that's your sweet spot for a high-heat zone. If you can hold your hand there for eight to ten seconds comfortably, that's a moderate heat zone. Any longer than that and your fire's cooled off–add five briquettes to your fire.
Now that your heat zones are set up: hot dogs go over the moderate heat zone. They cook best over a gentler heat that warms them and plumps them up gradually. Lay them on the grate so you can roll them easily with tongs every minute or two until they're done to your liking. Plan on about 10 minutes total cook time, during which they'll pick up wood smoke flavor.
Cook burgers on the high heat zone. They're thin and tender, and cook best over high, direct heat. Some cooks will argue that a burger should always be cooked on a flat-top griddle, and there's valid reasons for that position. However, a charred, crisp crust and wood-smoke flavor are the counter-arguments for cooking over live charcoal.
Lay the patty down, and leave it alone while it cooks. No patty-slapping, squeezing, or screwing with it. You want all the juices to stay in your burger. Squeezing the grease out only causes grease-fire flareups and their off-flavors.
If you're working with a fairly standard thickness of patty, they'll take 2-3 minutes per side over high heat.
What if you do get flare-ups? One way to approach it is simply to move the patty over to a different place on the grill when you flip it, and just allow that grease flare to burn off. Some cooks keep a spray bottle of water to extinguish the flames. That's fine, except that can cause ash to kick up onto your food. A third way is to cover the grill. Within 10 seconds or so, the flames will die down.
If you're cooking a long time for a crowd of people, check your heat zones frequently with the bare-hand test. You'll have to add a few pieces of charcoal every 20 minutes or so to keep your high heat zone sufficiently hot. This type of open-pit grilling burns through charcoal much faster than if you're cooking with the lid covered. With no lid, you can't regulate the airflow, so your burn rate is much higher.
With Memorial Day cookouts only a few weeks away, this weekend's a perfect time to work on your charcoal fire-control skills. You know Uncle Hank's going to be at the family reunion, and there's no better way to take back your own hot dog destiny than to man the grill yourself.
The author is an award-winning BBQ pitmaster who teaches Smoking 101 classes. Details on professorsalt.com.