There may not be any such thing as the perfect backyard BBQ. Not any more. In the old days, you called your friends and family, asked them to come and they showed up, cooler in hand, to eat on paper plates, with plastic utensils. Now the invitations, electronic or paper, have to be meticulously planned. Some sort of sangria must be made that matches the theme and the tables need to be decorated with some DIY knick knack that just went viral on Pinterest.
I’m not here to discuss all that frivolity. I’m here to help you make sure the food is the star of the BBQ and not the knick knacks. That the focal point will be right where it needs to be, on the grill. Where men, and women, have been congregating to talk politics, sports and the opposite sex since we crawled out of the primordial goo, walked somewhat upright and realized meat, when cooked over fire, is manna from heaven.
Brine, Baby Brine
The best bet against dry and bland is to brine. To brine something is to soak it in a salt water solution. The simple science is that the salt pushes liquid from the brine solution into the meat which makes it juicier. The salt also begins to breaks down connective tissues which makes the meat more tender. That takes care of the dry portion but what about taste. The salt that also passes into the meat will make it taste better, but if that solution had flavor as well instead of simple salt water, then it will add a ton of taste. Consider brining in beer, coffee, wine, root beer, apple juice, pomegranate juice, or my favorite, apple cider. In the simplest terms, brining will tenderize, moisturize and flavorize the meat. A brine is almost essential to the perfect BBQ.
Reason for the Season(ing)
Next up, seasoning the meat or otherwise. In my house, I couldn’t tell you where the salt shaker is. I think we have one, but I have no idea where it is. Seasoning properly before the meat or veggies are cooked means not having to season after and seasoning after really doesn’t meld all the flavors together:
If chicken or ribs (or whatever other meat you have brined) just came out of a salt water solution, no more salt is needed. But if steaks or burgers are on the menu, season them before going on the grill and season them well. Underseasoning is probably the most common mistake made in cooking in general and grilling specifically. Coat the outside of that steak well with salt, black pepper and maybe a favorite BBQ rub before slapping that hunk of beef onto those cast iron grates, reveling in the sizzle and the smell of the seasoning and the meat. Don’t go with premade boring burgers. Buy ground hamburger meat and mix in some ground pork for great texture and flavor. Then grate some asiago, dice up onion, mince up garlic, and mix all that together with a liberal dose of salt and fresh cracked pepper. For brats, don’t trust that there will be any beer flavor simply because it says it on the package unless you’ve sampled them before. Soak them in your favorite craft beer overnight to kick them into flavor overdrive.
And finally onto the grilling. Here are some simple tips for a variety of meats:
Burgers: When sliding the spatula under one, if there is any resistance from the meat as it is latched onto the hot grill grate, stop right there. Leave it alone. When the burgers have those beautiful grill marks, they will let go of the grill grate, releasing from the metal and flip easily. Forcing the flip early will only mangle the patties.
Brats: Never poke holes in them for any reason. Never boil them before or after grilling them for any reason. Never grill them on high heat for any reason. Grill them low and slow so the cases stay intact and don’t rupture, spilling all that glorious and tasty fat all over the grill:
Chicken: Use the two zone or indirect grilling method with coals or a lit burner on one side and no heat on the other. If you put the breasts on first or at the same time as everything else, despite their size, they will dry out before the rest of the chicken is ready. Instead, place the chicken on the grill in this order so everything cooks evenly: thighs closest to the heat and close the lid for a few minutes. Then throw on the legs behind the thighs and close the lid for a few minutes. After that, put on the breasts, pointy end away from the heat and the wings at the same time. Now close the lid until everything reaches an internal temperature of 165.
Steaks: Again use two zone grilling, but start off over the hot side. Place the steak on the grill and peek every 60 seconds or so at the under side of the steak until good grill marks appear and note how long it took for them to form on the meat. Rotate (not flip) the steak 45 degrees and let it sear for the same amount of time until perfect cross hatch grill marks have formed. Flip the steaks over and repeat on the other side:
Once the steak is properly seared on both sides, it’s between rare and medium rare:
How do I know? Not because I sliced into them. Because I pushed on the steak with my tongs and judged the sponginess. A good rule of thumb for telling when steaks are done is the actual rule of thumb or thumb test. Make the OK sign with one hand by touching the tip of the thumb to the tip of the forefinger and then squeeze the fat part of the thumb on that hand. The sponginess of that part of your hand is the equivalent to the sponginess of a medium rare steak. Next touch the tip of the thumb to the tip of the middle finger and squeeze again. That’s medium. Next do the ring finger. That’s medium well. Next the pinky. That’s way overdone. Start over. Just kidding my well-done-liking friends!
Ribs: Skin the membrane off the back, soak in a brine (yes, brine your ribs), and then season with your favorite rub the next day:
Set up the grill for two zone grilling and target 300 degrees as an internal temperature. Place the ribs on the side with no heat and a chunk of smoke wood on the coals or a foil ball of wood chips on the gas burner. For baby backs, close the lid for right about two hours. They should almost be perfect at the 120 minute mark. Spares generally take about 30 minutes longer. But don’t rely strictly on a clock to tell when ribs are done. Let the meat tell you. How? Easy. When the meat has pulled back from the bones about ¼ to 1/3 of an inch, the ribs are done:
Lettuce: Yes you can grill lettuce. Take hearts of romaine, slice lengthwise and drizzle with olive oil before dusting with salt, pepper and granulated garlic. Place flat side down over a raging hot fire until a nice char has formed. Flip over and char on the other side and serve with a sprinkling of asiago cheese:
Corn: If you can grill lettuce, you can obviously grill corn. Shuck the corn and place over a hot fire, brushing with melted butter and rotating frequently until many of the kernels have browned. Then slather with sour cream, your favorite BBQ rub and coat with grated queso cheese:
One more thing, get some sort of probe thermometer. The last thing you want is to have to throw undercooked meat back onto the grill or even worse leave the meat on too long and have guests reaching for the BBQ or steak sauce to make that hockey puck you just served taste better. The peace of mind is worth every nickel:
And my final note is this – rest, rest, rest. No, I don’t mean take a nap. I mean allow the meat to rest. When any meat comes off a hot grill, the juices inside are in an excited state, moving a million miles an hour, but they are contained in the meat. If you slice right away, the juices have an exit and they will take it, running all over the plate. Letting the meat rest for a few minutes will allow the juices to calm down and redistribute ensuring that ever bite is juicy. How long to rest? A 16 ounce steak should rest 3-4 minutes. A four pound prime rib roast should rest for 15-20 minutes.
I lied. This is my final bit of advice has nothing to do with grilling. It has to do with being humble. You need not boast about your grilling prowess. The food does that for you. But you need to be humble. Because when you put all this together into the perfect BBQ, the accolades are going to fly. People will be singing your praises, bards will write songs of your mastery, poets will ode your skill, and writers will set down your feats in the annals of literature to be seen for centuries. And for that, we must be humble.