When the urge for fire-cooked food calls, sometimes, you have no choice but to answer it. And sometimes, the only thing you have to use is a tiny portable grill that you found in your garage. But that’s okay. “You could even make the crappiest grill pretty great with minimal investment,” says Adam Perry Lang, restaurateur and grill man extraordinaire. “Most of the things that make a grill great are dictated by the user.” We recruited Mr. Perry Lang to tell us how to dust off dad’s old tailgating grill and make the best damn steak (or burgers or grilled chicken) possible.
1. From Bad to Grate
“Two of the most important things on a grill are the grill grate and the airflow dampers,” says Perry Lang. If your grill grate is overly rusted or broken, you have to be careful—that metal can end up in your food. “It’s probably one of the least expensive things on a grill, so I encourage people to change their grill grates.” As for the dampers—the little holes you can open and close on the lid and the bottom of your grill—they control your heat and airflow. So you really want to make sure those things are operational.
2. Look Under the Lid
Something terrible could be lurking underneath your grill’s lid, says Perry Lang. “Often times, people don’t clean the inside of their grill’s lid, and it becomes really scaly shale-y. It’s a combination of rust, smoke build-up, and other crud. And all that can drop into your food.” This can happen by pure gravity or agitation, or when you adjust your damper (see the above tip). But how do you clean it off? “Try to knock off as much as it can when it’s dry—water can make it thick and stick onto your grill—then put your shoulder into it and scrub with a steel brush and soapy water.” Perry Lang says not to worry too much about the body of your grill—just knock out the old dried bits and you should be fine.
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3. So Fresh and So Clean
Before you throw on your meat or veggies, make sure to get every little bit of residue off those grill grates. ”Those little charred bits and pieces will rob your food of that transferred energy because the heat will get absorbed into those particles. The cleaner your grill, the better the contact surface area.” But if you’re in a pinch, you don’t need a grill brush to clean if you don’t have a grill brush. “Just crumple up a foot-and-a-half piece of heavy-duty tin foil, hold it with your tongs, and scrub it up and down the grill rods. Shift the ball around in the tongs—it’s those crinkles that create the friction, and they’ll flatten out as you use it.”
4. Don’t Pan the Pan
You only need a couple tools while cooking on any grill, says Perry Lang. “A great set of tongs and ideally a spatula are the two important tools for grilling.” With those two things, flipping and moving the meat to your cutting board are a breeze. But he likes to use another kitchen item while manning the fire. “I like to have a cast-iron pan off to the side on the grill just in case [the grill] flares up too much, or to use if I want to increase the surface-area browning. I’ll just put the meat in there while the grill calms down, but it’ll still continue browning.”
5. Go All Natural
Perry Lang prefers natural lump charcoal, but condones the use of natural briquettes, too. “Kingsford makes some good ones. Just try to stay away from the instant light stuff, the stuff that’s impregnated with chemicals, which will impart a bad taste to your food.” And while he is pretty against using lighter fluid or other artificial starters, he implores those who need to use them to take the grate off first. “All those oils and distillates that are burning off will lay down on the grate, and that’s what will give the food the bad taste.”
6. Light ‘er Up!
“The best way to light is with a chimney starter,” says Perry Lang. But if you don’t have one, fear not! It’s not impossible to get your charcoal going without one. “Crumple up some newspaper and stack the charcoal on top of the newspaper. The key is to open up the bottom dampers. It’ll take longer than if you’d used a chimney, but the key is to have airflow underneath the coals. Otherwise, the fire will suffocate.
7. Use the Right Kind of Meat
Just kidding. Perry Lang laughed when we asked him this question. “The best kind of meat is anything. It’s a grill! Why not?”