Start a fire, feed it, let it burn down until the cinders are smoldering and hot. Place a metal grid, or spit, or grill at some distance above the smoldering cinders, and put food on the grill. The food will cook. Congratulations, you are grilling, and you have joined in a cooking method that hasnít gone out of style for perhaps as long as we have records of humans walking the earth.
Really, grilling doesn’t have to be much more complicated than this, but this is where things begin to grow much more complicated, and quickly, where grilling theologies are born, splinter, reform, multiply. Grilling mavens, fame and fortune are made and broken over issues of fuel for the fire, the nature of the grill, the proximity of the flame, the oils, spices, rubs, marinades, stuffings, and bastings used before, during, and after the grilling of the food.
Get caught up in it if you like. Just know you don’t have to. Grilling is like gardening. You don’t have to know anything at all when you start, except how to be respectful of fire. You will learn by doing. Through trial and error you will discover what you like and what you don’t, whether you prefer charcoal or gas, apple wood or mesquite, outdoors or in, or electric, Teflon-coated, plug-and-play. The food is done when it’s done. Put it closer to heat to make it cook faster, pull it farther away to make it cook more slowly.
Besides the novelty of cooking outdoors, the point of grilling for most people tends to be the flavor brought on by smoke. By holding your food up over the source of heat, fat or moisture from the food drips down onto the heat source, creating steam and smoke that rise up to engulf and flavor the food. Grilling meats is a good way to melt saturated fats right out of the food and into the fire, lightening your meal. (A caution, though. Nutrition researchers recommend that we take care when grilling meats. The compounds in burnt fat and meats may raise our cancer risk. Learn more about that from the American Institute for Cancer Research at aicr.org.)
I like grilling mainly because it’s fast. I like the flavor. And I like the versatility. I will grill almost anything that’s edible: Fruit, veggies, grain puddings like polenta, bread, sandwiches, and of course fish, fowl, beast.
I am learning to grill through experiment. I take whatever food is at hand and toss it in olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe some garlic, and throw it on a hot grill to see what happens. If it looks as if it will fall apart while cooking or fall through the cracks(tomatoes, delicate fish), I’ll put it on foil or a grill pan that will contain its parts. If it looks as if it will cook too fast on the outside, I move it to a cooler part of the grill and cover the grill to contain a more moderate, even heat for a while. This works especially well for potatoes, whole onions, whole birds. If it looks dry, I baste with more olive oil. If I’m in the mood for spices, I add spices.
What works well grilled this way? Summer and winter squashes, onions, broccoli spears, green beans, whole tomatoes, sliced and halved fennel and eggplant, asparagus, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, mangoes, oranges, apples, bananas, pears, and pineapple.
And of course, there’s always shelfish, chicken, fish, pork, beef.
Got the basics down? Then add flourishes if you like. Marinate your veggies and meats in citrus juices or tomato juice or vinegar or soy sauce blended with oil and herbs and spices for a few hours or a day before you grill. Or baste what you’re grilling with a little honey, tomato sauce, soy sauce, maple syrup. Or rub what you grill with chili powder, cumin, 5-spice powder, rosemary, thyme, savory, curries, nut butters.
When you’ve managed all of this, found your favorite combos, go ahead, if it interests you, and play with your heat source, play with your fuels to add various flavors to your smoke.
By the time you’ve formed an opinion about the right blend of apple and mesquite chips, you will fully understand why grilling is addictive: It’s a socially acceptable way to play with your food and play with fire. What could be more fun?