A Beginner’s Guide To Grilling

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Summer’s almost over which isn’t a big deal here in L.A.–it’s almost always grilling weather here–but for the rest of you, I bet you’re split into two groups: those who are grilling up a storm and those who, like me, don’t have the courage to play with fire. Well, that was me until 24 hours ago when, inspired by you and all of your comments (thanks!) I finally tackled that final hurdle of my culinary education: the grill.

On Friday, after confessing that I was scared of grilling and promising to grill if you encouraged me in the comments, I started to worry that I wouldn’t follow through on my promise. It was less fear and more laziness. Did I really have to go out and buy a chimney? And stuff to grill?

On Saturday, though, my laziness was trumped by the kindness of friends: Craig’s old college pals Todd and Jessica came over for a bit and brought gifts. What did they bring? They brought a bag of tomatoes that they grew themselves, they brought chocolate chip cookies and, more importantly, they brought a chimney starter and a long lighter. Here I am being gifted:

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Now I really had no excuse. Not only did I have our neighbor’s grill outside, this new chimney and lighter, but also? I had a bag of coal that I bought last year. The only thing missing was stuff to grill.

So on Sunday, I hit up the Atwater Village Farmer’s Market with Craig and bought more tomatoes and also basil, peaches, and pork chops. On the walk back, I popped into The Village Bakery and bought a loaf of sourdough bread. We got home around 2.

Then I started reading everything I could possibly read about grilling. I took down Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby’s Let The Flames Begin; I studied Adam Perry Lang’s Charred & Scruffed. I watched videos on YouTube of Steve Raichlen grilling corn, of men in parking lots lighting chimneys with newspaper and long matches. Then, on Hulu, I watched a few Bobby Flay videos. By the time 5 o’clock rolled around, I felt charged up, like Rocky does when he runs up those stairs.

My first step: get things prepped!

Because the pork chops that I bought were relatively thin (a no-no according to everything I read after I bought them; you want thicker pork chops on the grill), I decided to brine them using this formula from Serious Eats. (That’s 8 cups cold water, 1/3 cup kosher salt, and 1/4 cup sugar whisked together. Pretty easy.)

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I left that in there for an hour at room temperature, while I got busy with the tomatoes. The large ones I cubed, the small ones I sliced in half, and then I tossed them all together with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and basil.

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What was this for? You’ll see in a bit.

Then I made a quick peach condiment based on something I saw Bobby Flay make. Basically, I cubed up peaches and tossed them with red onion, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and more basil. Voila.

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That’s it on the lower left. As you can see I put everything on a tray–along with some of that bread thickly sliced–which I brought outside. It was finally time to grill.

Here’s the cute little Weber grill our neighbor was nice enough to let us use:

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First things first, I had to clean out the ash that was leftover from the last time she grilled. I dumped it into a garbage bag.

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(Was that necessary? I’m not sure.)

I put the grill grate back on the bottom and readied myself to light the chimney. Here’s how it works: you stuff two sheets of newspaper in the bottom and fill the top with coal. Not all the way to the top, but almost all the way to the top. Here’s the newspaper on the bottom, sorry New York Times:

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And here it is with the coal in it:

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I was using a fancy hardwood coal that I bought at Lindy & Grundy last year. It gave off the most wonderful campfire smell.

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Lighting the coal is as simple as lighting the newspaper on fire. I lit it in a few places using the holes at the bottom. Pretty quickly I heard that crinkly sound you hear when something’s on fire:

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What I didn’t know is that it takes a while for the coal to really heat up. What you want is for the coal to light its way upward so that, when it’s ready, the coal at the very top is glowing red. That takes about 15 minutes. Here’s Craig waiting patiently:

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And here’s the moment we were waiting for:

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Then all I had to do was pour that hot coal into the grill and put a grate on top. Somehow this terrified me in my head before I did it, but when I actually did it there was absolutely nothing to it. It’s way scarier to fry pita chips in my kitchen than it is to do this. Within 14 seconds, the grill was ready to go.

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Note: I put the coals mostly on one side so I’d have a hot section and a cool section to move things around later. (That’s a tip I learned from you nice commenters.)

As the coal turned whiter, the heat grew hotter. A good thing to start with to gage the heat of your grill is bread. I took that sourdough that I’d sliced earlier and threw it on to the grate:

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I was also remembering Mario Batali talking about how grilled bread is one of the best things you can eat. After a minute or two, I checked some of the pieces–ones near the whitest coals were toasty on the bottom, ones that weren’t needed to be moved to a hotter section.

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A few minutes later, the bread was toasty all over.

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I took it off the grill, drizzled it with olive oil and piled on those tomatoes.

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Oh man, that was without question one of the best things I’ve had all summer. The bread doesn’t just become toast, it becomes something better than toast. It’s flame-licked bread, if that’s not too pretentious a thing to say. Also: you get the real flavor of that charcoal. It’s pretty amazing.

Ok, bread eaten, now it was time for the meat. I took it out of the brine, patted it very dry and sprinkled it with salt and pepper:

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I also carried out a tray of corn, butter, the peach condiment, salt and pepper and silverware.

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Then it was simple as throwing the pork and the corn on the grill.

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Now here’s where I wish I knew more about grilling. Was my coal at its peak? Was it starting to cool down? Should I have used more coal to make it even hotter?

All the sources I read said if you have thin pork chops, you want to cook them fast. So a hot hot grill would’ve been ideal here; as it was, I did pretty well. The key was to leave the pork alone for a bit so it could develop color. Here’s what it looked like when I finally flipped it over:

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Nice, right?

Then I did something stupid. I covered the grill without opening the vents, so I cut off oxygen to the coals. I thought I was creating an oven for the pork to come up in internal temperature. That would’ve worked if I’d kept the vents open. But I quickly realized my mistake and removed the lid.

The smartest thing I did the whole day was bring out a thermometer. I took the pork’s temperature and it was right where it needed to be: 135.

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Before I took it off the grill, I decided to render some of the fat on the pork sides by lining them up like this:

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Here then is my finished pork:

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The corn was more problematic. I kept waiting for it to turn absolutely golden all over. That never happened and the pork was getting cold (after resting for 10 minutes). I think it’s because the heat was dying down, maybe because I put the lid on? But here’s my finished plate with buttered corn (that’s a little caramelized), the pork and the peach condiment.

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You guys, this was really really good. The pork? Was perfect. Maybe it was because I brined it, maybe it was because I took it off at the perfect temperature, but it was totally moist and–like the bread–beautifully flame-licked. And the corn, despite not getting the ideal color, was warm and juicy and wonderful to eat.

So look at me, everyone, I grilled! Thanks for all of your encouragement and thanks to Todd and Jessica for the final shove by way of truly generous gifts.

A few final thoughts:

Grilling is best done in an environment that you love. So: by a pool, by a cliff, by a blue lagoon with Brooke Shields. Our backyard is fine, but it’s a shared space and it’s hard for me to imagine hosting dinner parties out there. That changes the game because then you wind up alone in the backyard manning a grill while your guests are inside. Still, on weeknights I can imagine myself grilling something simple for me and Craig and bringing it inside.

The main takeaway is how easy this was. I built it up so much in my head, and really it was nothing. Light some coals via chimney, dump them in a grill, put stuff on top and eat it. That’s grilling.

But there’s a real art to it. That Adam Perry Lang book feels like a religious treatise the way he talks about the many ways you can build flavor on the grill. There’s much to learn, much to discover. I’d say, thanks to you all, I’m off to a great start.

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