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More than with virtually any other type of cooking, time management is key to successful barbecuing and grilling. This is especially true when working with charcoal: You need to budget time to light the coals and let them burn down to the proper temperature before you start cooking. That doesn't include the time you need for rubbing and marinating, smoking or letting the meat rest before carving or pulling. And because you're cooking, and often serving, outdoors, allow extra time for setting up your cooking and dining area. Here's a basic timetable that will help you get your grill lit, your food rubbed, marinated, and cooked, and your guests served -- without having a nervous breakdown.
The day before your barbecue: Rub or marinate large cuts of meat, such as briskets and pork shoulders. Marinate them overnight in a non-reactive (glass or stainless steel) pan or bowl or even in a clean garbage bag in the refrigerator. Turn the meat several times to ensure even marinating. If using a gas grill, fill the propane tank and one or two backup tanks. If using a charcoal grill, buy a few extra bags of charcoal. Prepare side dishes that aren't time-sensitive, such as baked beans or coleslaw.
The morning before your barbecue: Rub or marinate medium-size cuts of meat, such as chickens or whole fish. Make your sauces. If you're smoking large cuts of meat, you may need as many as six to eight hours for smoking. Soak the wood chips an hour before you plan to start, and light your grill or smoker accordingly.
The afternoon before your barbecue: Indoors, rub or marinate small cuts of meat, such as steaks or chicken breasts. Skewer kebab ingredients; slather the garlic butter on corn and bread; prep vegetables and side dishes. Prepare the salad (have your dressing ready, but don't toss it in the salad). Set up your bar or prepare drinks but don't add ice until the last minute. Ice down the beer or soft drinks. Outdoors, set up tables and get out your plates, glasses, and cutlery. Clean and ready your grill. Lay out your grilling utensils.
One hour before you plan to start grilling: Soak wood chips or chunks in cold water to cover. If you are using a charcoal grill, set up your chimney starter. Light it 20 to 40 minutes before you actually plan to start grilling. One chimney starter's worth of coals (40 to 50 briquettes) is enough to fuel a 22 1/2-inch kettle grill for 1 hour. When working on a large grill, such as a table grill, you may need two or three chimney starters in order to light enough charcoals at one time. When the coals blaze orange, dump them out of the chimney starter and rake them over the bottom of the grill. Place the grate on the grill over the fire. Let the coals burn until lightly ashed over, 5 to 10 minutes.
If you are using a gas grill, preheat it 15 to 20 minutes before grilling. If you're smoking, start the grill on high and add wood chips to the smoker box or put on a smoker pouch and preheat until you see smoke. Then reduce the heat to the desired temperature.
Just before putting the food on the grill: Clean the hot grill grate with a wire brush and oil the grate. Add the wood chips, if called for and if you are using a charcoal grill. You'll need two handfuls of chips (about 1 cup) for each hour of grilling. Put the food on the grill. If what you're cooking will take more than 1 hour, have backup charcoal in a chimney starter ready to light 15 minutes before you need it.
While you grill: First, grill items that can be prepared ahead, that can be served at room temperature or that hold well. This includes vegetables, pulled pork, brisket and ribs. Grill smaller items that must be served hot off the grill -- steaks, hamburgers, chicken breasts -- when people are ready to eat them. Don't forget to let meats stand for a few minutes before carving and serving them. This allows them to regain their juiciness.
Right after grilling: Run the grill on high to burn off any bits of food. Brush the grate with a wire brush to remove what debris is left.
Four to six hours after the barbecue or the next day: Drain or discard the fat in the catch or drip pan. If you used a charcoal grill, scoop or empty the ashes and burnt wood chips into the trash, using a garden trowel or small shovel. Make sure the ashes are stone cold before discarding them. In fact, to play it safe, put them in a small metal trash can first.