Golden Rules for Old School Grilling and How Not to Fear the Flames

The BBQ occupies a unique place in the human experience. Everywhere that flames, embers and smoke perfume the air, everywhere an intoxicating, meaty haze is punctuated only by the unmistakable sizzle of the grill, people are brought together, gathering around the warmth.

I learned the ways of the grill in my childhood from my grandfather — a member of the old school, no nonsense, nothing but cured oak and a little salt rub method of BBQ. He showed me how to properly light the fire without the aid of lighter fluid, how to regulate the temperature by adjusting the vents and height of the grill and most importantly, how to be patient enough to let the heat and smoke work their magic on the humble sausages and pieces of chicken and beef.

In an era when more people are opting for gas grills, I fear that the true art of BBQ may someday slip away, mastery of hot embers and smoke traded in, hung up for the convenience of an adjustable flame. I intend to keep this tradition, passed to me by my grandfather, alive among my family and friends for as long as I can.

If you’ve always wondered how to grill the old fashioned way, but never had the chance, here are some tips that will send you well on your way to becoming a competent pitmaster. The rules are few and simple.

Trust the embers:
Open flames are an unreliable — and frankly unsafe — cooking medium. The embers left over provide a much more even, consistent and controllable heat source. You can bend them to your will far easier than flames. A good starting point is to use natural lump charcoal. It burns hotter than the ubiquitous briquette and you won’t have to worry about any chemical additives leaching into your meal. Lump charcoal is simply carbonized lumps of wood, often mesquite. It’s simple to light, especially with a piece of newspaper and a charcoal chimney. Once the flames die down, spread the glowing embers evenly underneath the grill. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can convert even the most humble kettle grill into a capable smoker by gathering the embers to one side, adding some big chunks of cured hardwood and placing your preferred food on the opposite side of the grill, away from the direct heat of the embers. Cover the grill and close the vents about half way to keep the heat low and slow.

Know your ingredients:

Every ingredient is special, requiring differing levels of heat, grilling techniques and cooking times; for example, low and slow, like 18 hours or more for a big brisket versus mere minutes on high heat for a thin cut flap steak. There are an abundance of resources online where you can learn about how to properly grill a variety of foods, from salmon to sweetbreads, from venison to vegetables. If you are learning the art of grilling on your own, start off with simple ingredients. Flap steaks cook quickly, are packed with flavor and most importantly are often available cheap. Summer squashes are also easy to grill and are perfect prepared simply. Just slice them lengthwise, brush with olive oil and throw on the grill until they are slightly soft.

Keep an eye on the time:

The passage of time is the pitmaster’s best friend. It lets the heat and smoke envelop the food, penetrating it, caramelizing it, transforming the humblest ingredients into juicy, flavorful morsels; however, the right balance between vigilance and carelessness must be maintained. Neglect the grill and the coals could go out, or your food could end up burnt. Hovering over, constantly fiddling with the vents and the lid is just as detrimental, preventing the smoke and heat from doing their work. Unfortunately, a good sense of time is only developed through trial and error, ideally under the supervision of an experienced pitmaster.

The golden rule:

Turn the food once. The most frequent fatal mistake I see made on the grill is fussing over the food, turning whatever is being cooked every few minutes until all the juices have drained away and all that’s left is an unappetizing, dry, charred mess.

Take advantage of Orange County’s wonderful weather this winter. Fire up the grill, relax with friends and be thankful we don’t have to deal with freezing wind, ice, sleet or snow.