No one starts out a BBQ master. If you’re new to grilling, this guide will help you grill like a pro the first time you fire up the coals (or crank up the propane).
Before I proceed, I want to provide a bit of a disclaimer. Grilling, like all cooking, can be dangerous if you’re not comfortable with what you’re doing. When in doubt, consult your grill’s manual and always heed any safety warnings. While I can provide general advice based on my own grilling experience, I cannot speak to your particular equipment. Please be careful, and exercise caution when using a grill.
Hopefully I didn’t scare you off! I just want to make sure everyone is safe. If you’re still with me, the first thing to figure out is what type of grill you have access to. Typically, you’re dealing with gas, propane, electric, or charcoal. Curious about which one you have? The simplest one to identify is the electric grill. Why? Because they have cords that need to be plugged into outlets. If you have a grill that has a cord, you have an electric grill. Confident you don’t have an electric grill? Try looking beneath your grilling unit. If you see a tank, you likely have a propane grill. Don’t see a cord or a tank? Check the grill face. Do you see knobs and buttons? Then you probably have a gas grill. Different from the propane grill, these tap into your house’s natural gas supply, so you don’t have to worry about running out of cooking fuel like you do with propane. Lastly, if your grill is super basic—no knobs, no buttons—and looks like a hollowed-out drum, you likely have a charcoal grill.
Once you figure out what kind of grill you have, you can start to prep it. The first step to any great grilling experience is to ensure your grill is clean. For steel or cast iron (non-coated) grates, use a stiff bristled steel brush to get any gunk, grime, or rust off. For porcelain-coated (or other non-stick coated) cast iron, use a nylon bristled brush to avoid scratching. Your grill may actually have a special tool that fits the contours of the grates. If it does, use that. Next, make sure the bottom of the grill is clear of any debris. Sometimes, things can get stuck and block the heat source. This is particularly common with charcoal grills as ash and coals from the last grill session could be left inside.
Next, it’s time to season your grill grates (Note: Pre-seasoned, or porcelain/coated grates don’t need seasoning). This step helps create a non-stick cooking surface. Apply a thin, even layer of canola oil to the grates before turning on the heat. In my experience, the best way is to use something like Pam and spray it on, then wipe away any excess with a paper towel. Remember: A thin, even layer is what you’re going for. Too much oil will burn and create a buildup you don’t want!
Now that your grill is clean and seasoned, you’ll have to ensure the fuel source is good to go. For gas grills, you need to make sure the valve on your gas line that allows gas to flow to your grill is open. Similarly, for propane grills, the top of the propane tank (underneath the grill) has a valve that needs to be opened (turned counterclockwise) to allow the propane to flow to the grill. For electric grills, just find an outlet, and plug it in. Finally, for charcoal grills, you need to add charcoal to the bottom of the grill (under the grate).
At this point, it’s time to preheat the grill. Just think about it like preheating an oven. Now, there are a lot of different grills out there, so your best bet is to find your grill’s manual and follow the instructions for starting it. A lot of manuals can even be found online nowadays. That being said, here are the basics.
How to Start an Electric Grill
Electric grills will typically have a knob to turn the grill on, and adjust the heat setting. If you have an electric grill, turn that knob to high, close the lid, and wait for your grill to reach your preferred cooking temperature. Unfortunately, it could take a while. Just be patient.
How to Start a Propane or Gas Grill
Propane and gas grills are similar, but a little more tricky. They have knobs too, but they also have ignitor buttons. The knobs let gas flow freely from the tank to the burners, and the ignitor button creates a spark that lights the flame you’ll use to cook with. For propane and gas grills, you’ll likely need to turn at least one of the knobs (each knob corresponds to a burner) to high. Once on high, you’ll press and hold the ignitor button. You should hear a clicking followed by a whoosh (the gas igniting). Once you hear that whoosh, or see a flame, you can release the ignitor button. Keep the temperature on high, and fire up any other burners you plan to use. Additionally, close the lid and leave the grill for 10-15 minutes, or until your desired temperature is achieved.
How to Start a Charcoal Grill
Charcoal is going to be the most different. If you’re using coals deemed “match light” (check the bag), you should be able to simply light them with a match. Otherwise, you’ll need to add some lighter fluid to your coals before you introduce a flame. It’s important to heed any warnings on the charcoal and the lighter fluid when lighting your charcoal grill. Don’t use too much lighter fluid, and light your coals immediately after applying the fluid to them. Once the coals have a light gray ash to them, they’re ready to be spread around, and you’re ready to cook.
Electric, propane, and gas grills are a bit simpler to cook with because you can more easily adjust temperature by the turn of a knob. Need more heat? Adjust up. Need less heat, adjust down. Simple.
To adjust temperature with charcoal, you’re going to be doing a lot more work with oxygen flow, direct vs. indirect heat, and coal volume. For lower cooking temperatures, you can do one of three things: 1) Use the vents on top and below the grill to limit the oxygen going in (more oxygen equals higher heat); 2) Move the coals to one side and cook on the other (direct heat equals higher cooking temperature); and 3) Use less coal (more coal equals higher cooking temperature).
Once you’re done with your meal, you’re going to want to return the grill in the condition that you found it (or better). To do that, you’re going to first burn off any cooked-on food or sauce. To do this, turn the heat up, and let it “cook,” with the lid down, for about 15 minutes. Once those 15 minutes have passed, turn off the grill. If working with electric, unplug it. If working with propane or gas, close the appropriate valves to ensure gas stops flowing to the unit. Next, let the grill cool down. Once the grill is cool, you’re going to repeat your cleaning and seasoning steps (remember: seasoning on porcelain/coated grates is not necessary). This will help reduce rust, and ensure the grill’s longevity. Finally, if you have a grill cover, put it on. This protects the grill from the elements—especially water!
Now that you know your way around a grill, here’s a handy cheat sheet for how to BBQ almost everything. And here are some more of my own favorite grilling tips and recipes:
- When cooking steaks, I prefer to use high, direct heat. This means cook times between 9 and 12 minutes (depending on thickness) for a medium steak. See a guide to 10 common steak cuts, and more on grilling meat.
- For burgers, I use medium-to-high, direct heat. This means 8 to 10 minutes (depending on thickness) for a medium burger. Also, add the cheese in the last minute of cook time. Try this Cowboy Burger recipe, and see tips for juicy burgers.
- For pork, I like medium, direct heat. This means a thick-cut pork chop will be done in about 12 minutes. See how to marinate grilled pork, and more on grilling meat.
- For chicken, I like medium, indirect heat. Sure, it’s a longer cook time, but it ensures the chicken is cooked through, and keeps it from drying out. This means chicken breasts will be done in about 20-25 minutes (depending on size). Check out some chicken marinade recipes, and the best grilled chicken thigh recipes too.
- If applying sauce, use medium heat and wait until the last 5 minutes of cooking. Sauce can have a lot of sugar, and sugar burns. See a guide to regional BBQ sauce styles for some inspiration.
- For sausage, I like medium, indirect heat. Because sausage has a higher fat content, this is important to ensure it does not burn/char while it cooks completely. This means sausage will be done in about 25 minutes. See a guide to the best way to grill sausage for more tips.
- For fish, I like using high, direct heat. This means a fillet of salmon will be done in about 10 minutes. To make sure there’s not falling apart, wrap fish in foil. Try this Grilled Salmon recipe, and see a chef’s picks for the best fish to grill, plus more tips for grilling fish and seafood (and grilling lobster, shrimp, crab, and shellfish too).
- Spatulas and tongs: Use a spatula for fish and burgers. Use tongs for everything else. Check out more of the best BBQ and grilling tools, and some grilling tools under $25.
- When in doubt as to whether it’s done, consult the FDA for food safety guidelines, particularly around internal temperatures.
- Don’t puncture your meat. Trust the temperature and cooking times. If you need to know if something is done, use a meat thermometer and heed the FDA guidelines above.
- Don’t push your meat down against the grates. This promotes flare-ups. Flare-ups are dangerous. They also lead to burning your food. Be safe, and cook un-burnt food!
- For veggies, coat in oil, turn frequently, and avoid too much charring (unless people love that). Try this Grilled Parmesan Asparagus recipe, and see more about grilling veggies, plus vegan chefs’ tips for the best veggie BBQ.
Hopefully, you now have enough information to take on the grilling responsibilities this summer. You’ll pick up some great flavors and preparations. Plus, it’ll let you enjoy the great weather while you cook!