Grilling Techniques

The word barbecue means different things to different people, depending on where you live. On the East and West coasts of the United States and in the frost belt and Canada, it describes any sort of live-fire cooking outdoors. In Texas, the South and parts of the Midwest, it refers to a specific kind of meat that's slow-cooked and heavily smoked, usually by the indirect method. Thus, to a North Carolinian, barbecue means pulled pork; to a Texan, beef brisket. Elsewhere, barbecue may refer to a piece of cooking equipment (the barbecue grill), a social gathering (for example, a church barbecue) or simply a meal outdoors.

Being an ecumenical sort of guy, I use the word in all these senses in my books. But here are the precise technical terms for the various types of live-fire cooking.

Grilling: Cooking food directly over glowing coals or a fire. In general, grilling involves small or thin pieces of meat (such as steaks, chicken breasts, and fish fillets) cooked quickly and directly over a hot fire. When I say hot, I mean it: Most grilling is done at 450 to 650 degrees F.

Direct grilling: Another name for the process just described.

Modified direct grilling: A variation of direct grilling done on a grill with a very deep firebox so that the grate rests relatively high above the coals. This enables you to grill large cuts of meat, such as pork shoulders and even whole pigs, without burning them.

Indirect grilling: A hybrid process that bridges the techniques of grilling and barbecuing. In indirect grilling, the grill is set up in such a way that the fire is on one side or opposite sides of the grill and the food is cooked away from it, over the unlit portion. The virtue of this method is that it turns your grill into a sort of outdoor oven. Indirect grilling enables you to cook through a large piece of meat, such as a whole chicken or pork shoulder, without burning the exterior. It also allows you to smoke the food by adding wood chips or chunks to the fire. With indirect grilling, you don't need to turn the food. Indirect grilling is generally done at a medium temperature, 325 to 350 degrees F. It's always done with the grill covered.

Barbecuing: True barbecue (as practiced in Texas and the American South) is a low-heat, indirect method that uses lots of wood smoke to cook and flavor the food. The traditional cooker is a horizontal barrel smoker, or pit, which has a firebox at one end and a cooking or smoking chamber at the other. The food cooks at a low (225 to 250 degrees F) to medium-low (300 F) temperature and slowly (as long as 18 hours for a brisket), with a generous amount of wood smoke, usually oak or hickory. The resulting food has an intense smoky flavor and is generally tender enough to pull apart with your fingers. A growing number of cooks have recreational-size pits at home, but in my book, I show you how to barbecue on a gas or charcoal grill.

Smoking: A variation on true barbecue. Smoking can be done in a horizontal barrel smoker or in a vertical water smoker. There are two types of smoking: hot smoking and cold smoking. Hot smoking, really another name for barbecuing, is generally done at 225 to 250 degrees F, and I have included techniques for it in my book. In cold smoking, the food is located so far away from the fire that it smokes without cooking. It is used to make Scottish- or Norwegian-style salmon and sometimes beef jerky. It's beyond the scope of my book.

Rotisserie grilling (spit roasting): Cooking meats on a slowly rotating spit. When cooking larger pieces of meat (a whole lamb, for example), the fire may be under the food. More often, it's next to the food, as you'd find on your average backyard grill with a rotisserie. The slow turning bastes the meat internally and externally, making rotisserie grilling ideal for roasts and chickens.

Roasting in the embers: This is, perhaps, the oldest method of grilling. The food (often a tuber, like a yam or potato) is cooked right in the coals. You scrape off the burnt exterior to reveal the soft, smoky flesh inside.

Grilling in leaves: Another ancient method of grilling. Pieces of fish, chicken or pork -- or even whole quail -- are wrapped in leaves and cooked on the grill or in the embers. The New England clambake, with its seaweed-lined fire pit, combines the techniques of grilling in leaves and roasting in embers.

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