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You want a simple answer to the question: When should you use the lid on your grill? But it’s not an open-and-shut case. When cooking on an outdoor grill, the decision to keep the lid open or to close it depends on:

  • what you’re grilling
  • how you’re cooking it
  • what kind of grill you use

Whether you’ve got a gas or charcoal grill, with the grill uncovered, you can get a crustier char on the exterior of meat without overcooking the center. A closed grill will cook meat all the way through to the center for a more uniform doneness. “Cooking with the lid down captures the heat and lets it do its magic on the food,” says Elizabeth Karmel of girlsatthegrill.com (and author of “Steak and Cake.”) “The food will benefit from the rotating hot air (convection) and it won’t take as long to cook.”

But sometimes you want a combination approach: You sear the outside of the meat directly over the flame or heat source with the lid open, and then you move the meat away from the flames (and high heat) and close the lid to cook the inside of the meat without burning the outside too much. It’s similar to searing your meat in a sauté pan on the stovetop (like keeping an open lid on the grill) and then roasting it in the oven (like cooking with a closed lid on the grill).

If you’re grilling quick-cooking foods such as burgers, thin steaks, chops, fish, shrimp, or sliced vegetables directly over the flames, you can leave the grill open. For red meat, that means you won’t lose that pink, juicy center so many of us love. But when you grill thicker steaks, bone-in chicken, or whole roasts you’ll want the lid down, especially when you’re cooking with indirect heat.

Learn more about creating zones for direct vs indirect grilling too:

If you’re tossing in soaked wood chips for smoke flavor, you need the lid down to contain the smoke. Peeking on your food while cooking with a closed grill can affect the food in opposite ways, depending on whether you’re using gas or charcoal as a fuel source. With gas grills, opening the lid can lower the heat. With charcoal, the rush of oxygen can burn the food. You’ll close the lid for things like BBQ chicken, steak, and ribs, and should try not to open it until it’s time to flip or remove the food (though you may need to move it more if you have hot spots).

To get started, experiment with these grilling goodies:

1. Basic Grilled Steak

With a thick New York strip or beefy rib-eye steak, you’ll want to close the grill to ensure it cooks all the way through, or at least as thoroughly as you want it, depending on your preference for rare, medium rare, or medium meat. This recipe includes some basic tips on making the most of your grilled meat experience. Try this Basic Grilled Steak recipe.

2. St. Louis Pork Ribs with Mango Jalapeño BBQ Sauce

You’ll cover the grill when making ribs too; in this case, it traps the smoky haze from apple and hickory wood chips. Get the Mango Jalapeño BBQ St. Louis Pork Ribs recipe.

3. Pineapple Glazed Shrimp Skewers

Leave the grill lid open for these sweet and savory shrimp kebabs with a tropical twist. They’ll cook quickly and get a nice char while the pineapple caramelizes. Get the Pineapple Glazed Shrimp Skewers recipe.

4. Grilled Fish Tacos

Since fish cooks so quickly, you’ll leave the lid off for it too; this Grilled Fish Taco recipe can be adapted to any firm white fish like tilapia, cod, snapper, or mahi mahi.

5. Grilled Corn with Cayenne, Lime, and Cotija

Unlike some vegetables, you’ll cover the grill when you cook this corn. Wrapped in husks, they’re essentially being steamed, and somewhat smoked while they cook for about 35 minutes—a relatively long time in the grilled vegetable world. Sample the Grilled Corn with Cayenne, Lime, and Cotija recipe.