I became the family grill master because my husband was happy to leave me to the cooking, even when it involved live flames. I never grilled a steak or burger until the summer we bought a one-quarter share of a locally raised beef steer. When I cooked in restaurants, meats and the grill were strictly men’s domain. The same holds true on back decks across America: Men rule the barbecue.
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Here’s the big secret I want to share with any of my non-grilling sisters: After 12 years of all-season grilling using all manner of grills, I am here to report to that anyone can “man” the grill.
The job comes with loads of perks, like being outdoors while enjoying a refreshing beverage and little kitchen cleanup. Many women I know already do most of the meal preparation before the guy in their lives fires up the grill. Then he gets all the credit for the succulent meal. Sound familiar?
This Fourth of July is the time to own your grill. Or, at least to make friends with it. Start grilling now and you will set yourself up for a summer of cooking fun and ease. Oh, and you will learn a thing or two, like how you already possess most of the skills you need to excel at outdoor cooking.
I once taught a private cooking class to a group of six professional women. All of them entertained regularly and were confident in the kitchen. But, when it came time to grill the lamb chops on my Weber, not one of them was game.
I was shocked, but I also understood. I remembered how inhibited I felt about the whole thing. The process of lighting any type of grill, gas or charcoal, is daunting. Then, there’s the uncertainty of managing those unpredictable flames and knowing when everything — be it pork chop, chicken breast or vegetable kebab — is done.
Five fast steps to grilling success
Even if you didn’t grow up roasting hot dogs over campfires at sleep-away camp, it’s never too late to learn to grill. Backyard barbecuing is not a competitive sport, but a cooking technique like any other.
There is no perfect grill; whatever grill you already own is the best one to use now.
Grilling does not necessarily mean cooking a big piece of meat, but truthfully even that is not hard.
Shooting flames are for show-offs who don’t know how to grill.
So, take a deep breath and leave the high-testosterone grillers to their gigantic tools and their top-secret rubs. It’s time to put on your big girl pants and follow these five steps to get grilling:
1. Learn to light your grill: Igniting the grill is likely the biggest hurdle to girl grilling, so here’s how to take the pressure off. Don’t wait until dinnertime or when your guests are on the deck to light it. Instead, practice. You can ask a supportive spouse or friend for a hands-on tutorial or watch a video. No harm done in burning a little gas or charcoal. Once it’s lit, cover the grill and keep track of how long it takes to heat up. When you hold your hand over the grate and count to less than 5 Mississippi before you have to move it away, it’s hot. If you have a gas grill with a temperature gauge, you’ll wait until it reaches 500 F or higher.
2. Know your tools: Unlike your kitchen full of pots, pans and appliances, the grill brings everything back to basics. All you need to grill is a clean grate, a grill brush for scraping it clean and a pair of sturdy tongs or a spatula. Of these, the grate is the most important. After you’ve lit and preheated your grill, open the lid and scrape that grill hard until every bit of char is gone. You can oil the grate or the food you’ll be grilling to prevent sticking.
3. Start slow and easy: Plan for success by starting your grilling career with simple fare. Hot dogs and sausages cook quickly, and you don’t have to guess when they’re done as you do with a steak. Kebabs are also good beginner fare. Try grilling whole rounds of pita bread and slices of eggplant or portobello mushrooms brushed with olive oil. Be fearless and stay attentive as the foods cook, noting the timing for each. There is no shame in taking a hamburger off the grill, cutting it open to check its doneness and returning it to the grill if it needs more cooking. This is the power of learning.
4. Practice and advance: Once you’re comfortable with lighting, preheating and basic grilling, move up to steaks, salmon and chicken (the most challenging). A good thermometer like the Thermapen will take away all the guesswork. When you get a flare up (flames shooting up through the grate), just grasp the food with your tongs, slide it on the grate away from the flame and close the cover. Flames only scorch food and do not make it taste good.
5. Get adventuresome: Starting out, olive oil and salt and pepper are all the grilling seasonings you need. The magic of grilling is cooking foods to the right doneness, not secret sauces. Still, playing with marinades, rubs, herb sauces and salsas is part of the pleasure. “Weber’s Way to Grill” is one of my favorite books because it covers grilling basics (with photos) plus oodles of seasoning ideas. Another advanced step is to grill an entire meal. The trick is use the grill to its maximum efficiency and to keep yourself completely out of the kitchen.
Once it’s time to plan your first grilling party, get ready to enjoy all the freedom of outdoor cookery and to bask in the glory of it all.
Top photo: Use the whole grill to make a meal: corn, salmon, lemons, polenta and peppers. Credit: Lynne Curry