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Return of the Grill Meister


Friends invited my husband and I over for dinner recently, and changed our minds about grilling. They were serving simple steaks. The husband was manning the grill, using the real charcoal grill. My husband loves good steak, and we have it frequently, but we always use the gas grill. When we tasted the steaks from the charcoal grill, we were instant converts. We set out to find out all the secrets of real old-fashioned grilling.

Season a New Grill

A new grill needs to be seasoned before you cook on it. Like other kitchen equipment, grills will contain some impurities from the manufacturing process. You need to season the grill to remove the impurities or residue before you use it to cook. Build a charcoal fire in the grill and allow it to burn for several hours. The day or weekend before you plan to use it is a great time to do this. It will give you practice lighting and watching the fire too. When the fire has died down and the grill has cooled, just put a little cooking oil on a cloth or paper towel, and rub down the cooking grids and the inside of the lid. Remove the ashes after each fire for charcoal grills, making sure the ashes are completely cooled first.  You are just about ready for your first cookout.

Starting the Fire

Begin by using good quality charcoal. Make sure it has been stored in a dry place, since moist briquettes will not light properly. You can start your fire by using lighter fluid to get the coals burning. Lay the charcoal out flat, and coat them with lighter fluid, so all the charcoal is coated. Then stack the charcoal into a pyramid and spray over it once or twice more. Wait a minute or two. Then light the bottom of the stack and watch it take off. Allow about 30 to 45 minutes for the petroleum vapors from the fluid to burn off. By then the charcoal should have a light coating of gray ash on it.

Using a charcoal chimney will initially start the fire slower, but you don't have to wait for the fluid to burn off. Place paper in the bottom of the chimney and fill it with charcoal. After lighting the paper, the fire should get well started in about 15 to 20 minutes. Pour the hot glowing charcoal into the grill body and get ready to start cooking.

Season the meat

Everyone has heard someone say "If I told you what was in this seasoning, I'd have to kill you!" The truth is that most seasonings and marinades contain common ingredients you probably have in your spice rack and refrigerator. If you are just starting out, try buying a premixed rub or marinade. Later you can experiment and try making your own. For our first grilled steaks we decided to add some hickory chips to the charcoal, and not to season the meat any other way.

Everyone hates dried out meat and wants to avoid it at all cost. The most common mistake people make is spreading barbecue sauce on meat while it is cooking. This causes a lot of problems. Most commercial barbecue sauce is based on sugar and tomatoes. Both of these foods burn easily at very low temperatures. Use them only when the fire is almost out. Allow the temperature to drop significantly before adding barbecue sauce to the meat. The temperature should be warm enough to dry the liquid out of the sauce, but not cook or burn it.

So what should you use to keep the meat from drying out? You can try a barbecue sauce that does not contain sugars or tomatoes. Many salad dressings or oil based recipes make excellent marinades. Recipe books have lots of great recipes to try.

Cooking Temperature

There are a few ways to adjust your grill for the proper amount of heat. It is always possible to add additional charcoal if the fire is not hot enough. On most charcoal grills, there is also an adjustable cooking grid that can be lowered to put the meat closer to the heat. Be sure to allow at least 25-45 minutes for the fire to start properly before beginning to cook. Allow the charcoal briquettes to burn down to a white-colored ash before starting to cook. If the temperature is too hot, close the air intake holes and slow down the fire. Do not close the ones on top unless you are ready to kill the fire. Additional charcoal briquettes may need to be added to cook foods over a long time. Do not touch the foods with the briquettes.

To determine the approximate temperature of a grill, put your hand close to the cooking surface. If you can hold your hand about where the meat will be, you can use the following guidelines.

One Second (or less) - Very Hot Fire, about 600 degrees (or higher)

Two Seconds - Hot Fire, about 500 to 650 degrees

Three Seconds - Medium Hot Fire, about 450 to 550 degrees

Four Seconds - Medium Fire, about 400 to 500 degrees

Five Seconds - Low Medium Fire, about 300 to 400 degrees

Six Seconds (or more) - Very Low Fire, about 300 degrees (or less)

These are rough estimates and can vary depending upon where your hand is placed. For example, there may be more heat in one location than another.

Pay very careful attention to the meat while you are grilling. Grilling requires a high cooking temperature, so it cooks the meat quickly, and prevents it from drying out. When grilling, the meat is located directly over the heat source, so it gets a lot of dry, hot heat. Always remember to use tongs to avoid piercing the meat and losing the natural juices.

Open or Closed Lid

Cook with the grill lid propped open or off. If you cook with the grill lid down, you might smother the fire, and create soot. This might cause the meat to get disflavored. The lid is useful for putting out the fire if flame-ups occur.

How Long Should You Cook Things?

This is a difficult question to answer. There are many variables that can affect the cooking time.

How hot is the fire?

How far is the meat from the heat?

How thick is the meat?

Is the lid on while cooking?

What is the outdoor temperature?

Is it windy?

How often is the meat basted?

How often and for how long is the lid opened to look?

How do you want the meat done?

Some of these variables will change each time you cook. Each one of them has an effect on the length of time it will take for the meat to cook.  The time it takes to cook the food one day may not be right the next day. This is the real secret to great grilling.

How often you should to turn the meat varies, depending upon what is being cooked, and how hot the fire is. You should turn the meat when you think that one side is turning color, or looking cooked. Turning frequently does not hurt the flavor or harm the meat, however, try to let it cook several minutes on each side before turning it over.

The secret to great outdoor cooking is to cook the food the same way every time. If you are having trouble with this, you might want to invest in an instant read thermometer. These thermometers can quickly determine the meat's internal temperature. Then you will really know if the meat is cooked to the desired doneness. They cost about $10 to $12 and are available in most places that sell grills and grill accessories.

If you donít have a thermometer, try pushing against the meat with a fork or spatula and check it's elasticity. If it is very elastic and soft, the meat is probably between raw and rare. If the meat is somewhat firm but still has a spring to it, it is probably done medium. If the meat is very firm it is medium-well to well done. It is important to take the meat off the heat just before it reaches the desired done-ness, because it will continue to cook for several minutes after being removed from the grill.

Foods are cooked in one of two basic ways on the charcoal grill. Either by the direct heat method, or the indirect heat method. The direct heat cooking method is achieved by using enough charcoal briquettes to completely cover the bottom of the grill. Stack them together and light them. When the coals are white, spread them evenlyover the bottom of the grill. Place the cooking grill or grate on top, and start cooking. Foods such as thin steaks, hamburgers, baked potatoes, or sweet corn, can be cooked at a hotter temperature and are done quicker by using this method.

The indirect cooking method involves placing equal amounts of charcoal briquettes on every side of the grill bottom, but not in the middle. The briquettes are then lit and allowed to burn down to a whitish color. The cooking grill is then placed on top, to begin cooking. The food, such as thicker steaks, spare ribs, chicken, or fish, is placed on the cooking surface of the grill. The grill cover is then placed on top of the grill in order to hold the heat inside.

The approximate cooking times of some favorite grilled foods are:

  • Thin steaks or hamburgers - About three minutes on each side for rare, four minutes on each side for medium, and five minutes on each side for well-done.

  • Baked potatoes - About an hour, depending on the size; fork should be easily inserted in each potato when done.

  • Sweet corn - About thirty minutes, depending on size; corn should be tender, but not burnt

  • Chicken (pieces) - About an hour and a half, depending on the amount and thickness of the pieces, and whether or not they have bones.

  • Lobster tail - About twenty-five minutes; shell should have turned a bright red color.

  • Thick steaks - About seven minutes on each side for very rare, eight or nine minutes on each side for medium, and ten or twelve minutes on each side for well-done.

  • Spare ribs - About an hour.



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