July is here, and it’s officially grilling season. If you’ve ever envied friends with “a natural talent for grilling,” you may be surprised how easy it can be to turn out mouth-watering food. However, if you think that success is as simple as lighting up your grill, you’ll probably be disappointed.
Like learning to sail, the “secret” to successful grilling is all in the three “P’s”: Preparation, Practice and Patience. Here’s a 13-step guide to grilling nirvana.
1. Start with a fully functioning grill. A cruiser friend once lamented that anything he grilled turned out charred and overdone. A quick look at his gas grill revealed that the burner tubes were rusted out. Make sure your grill is in good condition and has all of its parts—especially if it’s been laying in the bottom of the lazarette for months or even years. It’s amazing how quickly a grill burner will rust in a salty ocean environment. Consider carrying a spare burner and ignitor, and definitely, carry extra fuel—charcoal or camping propane canisters if you choose not to connect to your boat’s propane.
2. Safety: Never forget that grilling aboard a boat is different from grilling in a backyard. The boat is moving—you never know when a rogue wake will rock the boat, even in the most placid anchorage. Never grill underway, do not leave a lit grill unattended in the cockpit, and make sure the grill is secure so that both crew and boat are safe from heat and flames. Pay special attention to your canvas biminis and cockpit enclosures!
3. Like a Boy Scout: Be Prepared! Prepare the meal(s) ahead of time. If you’re using spices or a rub, be sure to put it on at least an hour before grilling to allow time for the flavor to sink in. Have everything ready so you’re not running below or fumbling around when you should be turning the meat. At the least, this includes tongs, a grill mitt (or potholders), a meat thermometer, a clean plate and any additional sauces or seasonings you may prefer. Using a spray bottle to tame rogue flames is not recommended. Flame-ups happen when excess fat drips into the flame. Trimming excess fat ahead of time will limit flare-ups and also be healthier. Another way to control them is to simply reduce the flow of oxygen by closing the grill lid.
Always use tongs or a spatula to move meats, avoiding another big grilling taboo, the dreaded fork. Poking holes in your meat allows all those delicious juices inside to run into your fire, leaving the meat dry.
4. Bring all ingredients to room temperature. Room temperature meat and veggies cook more evenly and in less time.
5. Heat the grill—a charcoal grill must be heated until the charcoal has a sheen of ash (10-20 minutes or longer depending on your charcoal type). A propane grill should be heated until the grills are hot enough to sear the meat when you put it on. It doesn’t take long, and each grill is different—you’ll get a feel for it.
With experience, you can determine the temperature without a grill thermometer. Use the “hand over the grill test.” Holding your hand about five inches over the grill for two seconds equals a high temperature. Medium is about three to four seconds. Low is six to 10.
In general, for meats like steaks, burgers and brats, use direct heat (i.e. meat directly over the heat source)—watch and flip to make sure they don’t burn. For roasts, loins, salmon or veggies, indirect heat is best. Place the meat away from the hottest part of the grill, making sure it isn’t directly over the flame—closer to the edge for instance. If using charcoal, a ring around the outer edge allows you to place the roast in the middle. Again, watch and move according to the recipe instructions to make sure the meat doesn’t burn.
6. To keep food from sticking, do not oil the grates. Heat burns away the oil quickly, rendering your good intentions worthless. Instead, oil the food, unless it’s something like salmon, in which case the skin contains enough oil that you don’t need to add any more. Be sure to also run your spatula under the food after a couple of minutes to make sure it isn’t sticking.
7. After placing the food on the grill, close the lid! The lid is what keeps heat circulating inside the grill, helping to distribute it evenly.
8. The most common mistake made when grilling is getting distracted: for example, walking away for a chat or attending to something else while the meal is on the grill. Wearing a watch with a beeping timer works well as a reminder if you do happen to get distracted. Be sure to set it for less time than you think.
9. If you’re using a marinade, be sure to marinade the meat for the required time—generally this isn’t done overnight as ingredients in the marinade can actually make the meat tough. Never brush on any type of sugar-based sauce to begin the grilling process. Sugar burns fast, and you’ll end up with a charred exterior and raw interior. Instead, grill the meat and add the sauce in the final minutes.
10. Common grilling advice says not to flip or move your meat or veggies. Whoever is writing that stuff obviously has never grilled! If you don’t move or turn your food, it won’t cook evenly. Direct heat requires flipping, while indirect heat requires moving around to another part of the grill.
11. To avoid bacteria, always use a clean plate to let the meat rest after grilling.
12. Give it a rest! By letting meat sit for five minutes or so after removing it from the grill, you allow the moisture to redistribute throughout. Roasts and larger cuts of meat require more time to rest, maybe as much as 20 minutes or more. Smaller cuts, such as a thin-cut chicken breast, may get cold, even in as little as five minutes, so cover with a lid or aluminum foil.
13. Remember the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?” Great advice for learning to grill. Explore!
Grilling can be so much fun. We appreciate eating healthier meals and, even better, the lack of clean up necessary after grilling. You can grill almost anything, so once you’ve mastered the basics, explore and adapt your favorite recipes for the grill.
Jan Irons and her husband, David, spent 15 years cruising the NW & SW Caribbean, the Exumas and most recently Cuba aboard their 1985 Passport 37, Winterlude. Jan writes commutercruiser.com, practical tips and information for part-time cruisers.She and Carolyn Shearlock are co-authors of The Boat Galley Cookbook, published by International Marine and available on Amazon.