Nothing says summer quite like the open flames, charcoal, and smoke of a good grill.
All the tried-and-true grilling food staples are in full rotation, from the mouthwatering meats to the crisp veggies. But maybe you’re a pitmaster who’s been so bitten by the creative grilling bug that you want to venture into new territory.
On the other hand, if you’re more of an indoor cook, grilling can seem like a recipe for disaster, with a high chance of hauling that dusty fire extinguisher out from under the kitchen sink. For newbie grillers, knowing exactly what you can and can’t cook on this fiery beast (and how to do it) can be tricky.
Regardless of your grilling prowess, you may be wondering about the rules of this type of cooking. Can anything be grilled? And are there certain things you should never, ever slap on the grates?
We got the lowdown from grilling experts on which foods will grant you amazing results and which will melt into an unsalvageable mess.
There aren’t as many do’s and don’ts of grilling as you might expect.
“What many people don’t realize is that a grill is actually an oven,” says Peter Smith, a chef with the meal planning biz ChefGood. “So basically anything that you would put in the oven can be cooked in the BBQ with the lid down. The time will usually reduce, as the temperature is higher in the BBQ than in an oven.”
This means plenty of foods you’d normally bake or roast are fair game, as long as you can tweak your timing so as not to burn them.
If you’re going from oven cooking to grilling, it’s also crucial to prevent sticking, since you’ll likely be placing food directly on heated grates. When in doubt, grease well!
“The best results will always be achieved by spraying foods that would usually stick to the grill with some olive or coconut oil,” says Smith.
He adds that using the right heat-resistant container for foods that can’t sit directly over a fire can be your saving grace.
“Using the correct vessel is the key to having success. For example, if grilling a wheel of cheese, use a foil tray; if grilling baked beans, use a cast-iron pot.”
Meat is the ultimate grilling no-brainer — but for the best results, it’s smart to keep fat content in mind.
“Stay away from fatty meats because that will cause a fire or over-char your protein,” says chef Max Hardy of Detroit Caribbean fusion restaurant Coop. “Meats like pork belly, skin-on chicken thighs, beef with high fat content, Kobe Beef, or skirt steak can sometimes start to char too much.”
Hardy also doesn’t advise grilling extremely low fat proteins, like white fish. “There’s just not enough fat content to stop the fish from sticking to the grill.”
If you’re loving any of the plant-based meat alternatives, you may have doubts about their grillability. Well, we have good news!
“Faux meats perform really well on the grill,” says Kevin Kolman, head grillmaster for Weber sauces and seasonings. “Faux burgers are very easy to grill and should be treated just like a regular burger.”
Sure, you’ve had grilled zucchini, but have you tried grilled jicama? Why not?
Nailing grilled veggies mainly comes down to their size and shape.
“You want to be strategic in how you cut vegetables for grilling,” says Morgan Bolling, deputy food editor at Cook’s Country. “It’s all about maximizing their surface area to increase browning, while cutting shapes that discourage them from falling apart or slipping through the grill grates.”
And don’t forget the fat!
“You should use a good amount of oil or other fat to help make sure the vegetables get good char,” Bolling adds.
Melt-in-your-mouth grilled peaches got you asking how many more of nature’s candies can get fired up? A word of advice: Think sugar content.
“With grilled fruit, ideally you want a fruit with a high sugar content that will hold its shape on the grill. This will help you get some char before the fruit softens too much,” says Bolling. “Peaches, pineapples, nectarines, plums, and pears are good options.”
In your quest to grill the perfect fruit, be sure to check for firmness too. Look for fruits that are ripe but not soft. You don’t want grilled mush. (At least I wouldn’t.)
Grilled cheese is a favorite sandwich of many kids — and plenty of adults — for a reason. (When is melty, gooey cheese on buttery, golden bread ever not freakin’ amazing?)
Maximize the deliciousness by grilling it up right.
“Cheeses that have high melting points (aka melt at higher temperatures) are best for grilling,” says Bolling. “The go-to grilling cheese, in my opinion, is halloumi, which is a firm, brined Greek cheese. It has a very strong protein network, which means that when it’s heated, it softens but doesn’t melt.”
Other firm and semi-firm cheeses, like aged provolone or paneer, can also stand up to grilling’s high temps.
Bolling points out a few cheeses that will melt on the grill before having a chance to melt in your mouth.
“You want to avoid anything that is thought to be a good melting cheese, like American cheese or Monterey Jack. They will melt in between the grill grates before getting much color and leave your grill a cheesy mess.”
No matter how badly we want it to be true, grilling isn’t a total free-for-all. (Spoiler: Soup is a bad idea.)
For one thing, size matters. Any foods with itty-bitty pieces, like baby carrots, finely diced veggies, or grains of rice, will fall through the grates and be lost in the flames. Steer clear of grilling anything smaller than, say, your little finger, unless you’re using skewers.
Then there’s the question of marinade ingredients, which are notorious for tripping up grilling success.
“Often, you want to avoid ingredients with lots of sugar, which can burn on the grill,” says Bolling. “Marinades with a lot of brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, honey, maple syrup, agave, etc., often cause the food to burn before it cooks through.”
If you’ve decided to up your game by trying unorthodox foods on the grill, here are some surprisingly grillable options:
Herbs: Add pizzazz to cocktails or main dishes by grilling sturdier large-leaf herbs like sage or mint (on skewers).
Pie: A handy foil pan is all the equipment you need to cook pie on the grill. Watch for a golden-brown crust to tell you when it’s done.
Leftovers: Forget the microwave. “Anything that can be reheated in your oven can be done on a grill,” says Kolman. “And more often than not, you’ll end up with enhanced flavors thanks to the grill.”
Pizza: Elevate your pizza night by making your own pizza over an open flame (yep, even the frozen kind). Use a baking stone for the best results.
Salad: Try the restaurant trend at home by slicing a head of lettuce vertically and then grilling it on oiled grates over medium-high heat.
Salsa: Skewer up some tomatoes and peppers and let them blacken to smoky sweetness before turning them into homemade salsa.
While size, shape, and thickness of foods do matter for suitability of grilling, there aren’t that many parameters around what you can and can’t toss on the grates (yay!).
Don’t be afraid to experiment! As you try new things, you’ll get to know how your grill behaves, which will help you make better grilling choices as you go. Heck, knowing what we know now, we’re looking at just about everything and thinking, “Imma grill that.”
Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.