Grilling Tips for Every BBQ Skill Set

No matter how meister-ful you consider your grill skill, there's always more to learn. That’s why we teamed up with McCormick Grill Mates seasonings to indoctrinate you into the smoky, spicy world of grilling, even if you use a black belt in BBQ to tie your apron tight. Below are the tips for every level of grilling knowledge.

Hungry for knowledge? Or just for dinner? Either way, here are some basics you can start doing right now to look like you know how to make supper.

Rub steaks with a smashed clove of garlic
Fact: garlic is delicious. But only if you do it right. For the perfect bit of extra flavor, smash a garlic clove to release that good enzyme alliinase. Now rub it all over the steak to spread the garlic’s natural oils and juices for the beef to absorb. Alliinase will kickstart its buddy allicin (an organosulfur compound) into breaking down into the garlicky flavor you love. By the time you cook it, that steak will be an allicin wonderland.

Salt whole muscle a while beforehand…
Salt draws moisture out of meat, but then draws the salted water back in as the solution achieves equilibrium. It also tenderizes the meat, but the real gain here is helping dinner hang onto more moisture when it comes off the grill.

Eyeball it: sprinkle salt loosely over each side of the meat, then do it again. Do this at least 40 minutes ahead of cooking, but for thick steaks overnight is even better, especially if you put it on a rack to let air circulate. Don’t worry about the steak drying out. You want a dry surface, and there will be plenty of moisture left inside.

This is also a good time to season the meat, as the salt will pull the flavors inside with it. If using a McCormick Grill Mates seasoning, adjust for its salt. Pair your seasoning with your protein: Montreal Steak and Montreal Chicken are obvious, but did you know turkey favors Smokehouse Maple? If you’re not sure which to pick, don’t worry; every meat goes with Roasted Garlic and Herb.

…but don’t salt a burger until the moment you cook
Grinding meat decimates the muscle fibers, so salting in advance will tenderize too much and give the patty an unpleasant springiness instead of the loose chew of a great burger. Feel free to mix herbs and non-salty spices throughout the meat before you make patties, though.

Take it easy on the burgers
For the same reason, if you’re forming your own patties, don’t pack ’em too tightly. If you compress ground meat, you’re going to get a paste rather than that soft, coral-like bite your butcher worked so hard to grind.

Skip the lighter fluid
A chimney starter can be had for $10-$20 and saves the time and tinder of trying to ignite those coals. Bonus: no lighter fluid throwing off the flavor of the food.

Pat meat dry before grilling…
Food scientist J. Kenji López-Alt demonstrated why a watched pot never boils in his comprehensive clarification on steak. Moisture takes a lot of energy converting to steam. Thus, your meat takes longer to develop that crisp Maillard Reaction – the complex combination of sugar and protein breakdowns.

Sear meat at the end of the cook
An initial sear won’t lock in the moisture, but it might overcook the outside before the inside is done. Reverse-sear instead: cook meat evenly on moderate heat, then sear on high at the end when the exterior is dry so you still get the Maillard reaction’s countless complex forms of flavor.

Keep turning the meat
You’ve been told to leave the meat alone -- and that’s kinda true for burgers, kebabs, and fish – all of which can fall apart if flipped too soon, too late, or too slowly. But for whole muscle cuts like filets, chops, and anything bone-in, keep it moving. The food is a much lower temperature than the grill grate, so move it around the grill as it draws conductive heat from each spot, and you’ll get a more even cook. Use tongs or a spatula to avoid poking too many holes in the meat. 

Use a dang thermometer
That trick about meat doneness matching your open/closed fist between the thumb and forefinger is just that: a rule of thumb. Plug a decent meat thermometer into your entrée. The world-famous chefs all say it’s essential, and those folks do this for a living. If they can’t eyeball the moment it’s perfect, neither can you.

Why you SHOULDN’T rest meat...
It’s true that resting the meat will allow it to retain moisture when you cut into it, but that percentage is a negligible amount, and you can mop it right back up from your plate. Most entrees are best served sizzling -- especially that steak.

…but also why you definitely SHOULD rest meat
Even though resting retains moisture the real reason to do it is for temperature. Meat will continue to cook after you pull it off the grill, so it’s okay to yoink just before it reaches the desired inner temperature. Heat will travel from the outside to the inside as it rests, so stop applying heat to the exterior.

Not yet a grillmeister, no longer a grilnovize, you’re great on the grate but only now realize how much you don’t know. Time to get granular in your technical knowledge -- specifically salt grains.

Learn the difference between brine, marinade, rub, cure

A dry or wet brine helps dry cuts maintain juiciness and also tenderizes by softening proteins. Use a brine on larger cuts like pork shoulder or whole birds. Dry cuts like chicken breast benefit from brine, too.

A marinade confers herb and spice flavors in a liquid medium. Marinades don’t penetrate as deeply, so use them on thinner cuts like pork chops or steak and pull them out before that meat gets mushy. If you’re using Grill Mates marinade, get creative and swap out the recommended diluted vinegar for fluid at a similar pH. (Orange juice, where you at? McCormick Grill Mates Chipotle Pepper marinade is calling your name.) Or perhaps beer? Yeah, beer!

A dry rub is for flavor; it only seasons the surface, so it has a bolder flavor. Use it after a brine on thick and big cuts, or without a brine on medium to thin ones. Be careful it doesn’t oversalt the meat if you combine. Steak, ribs, and drumsticks are among many excellent rub candidates.

A cure is a brine’s big brother, intended to preserve the meat – usually by using more salt (2%-4% by weight compared to brine’s up to 2%). Not all cured meats get cooked, but if you want a bite of heaven, cure your own ham, bacon, or corned beef.

Recap: brine for juiciness and tenderness, marinade for flavor and tenderness, rub for flavor, cure for preservation. 

Dry brine the meat by weight
You're a salt wizard now, so shoot for 2 to 3 grams of salt per pound of edible meat, and remember that bone weighs 160% of muscle. Dial it down for leaner cuts, and use less salt amounting to 0.75% of the meat’s weight. For fattier cuts, more salt is better, 1% by weight.

Rub poultry where it counts
What has two wings and delicious skin? All poultry on the planet. Put that skin to good use and stuff the rub under the skin so flavor can’t escape! As the fat melts, it will carry your spices throughout your avian entrée for amazing flavor.

Tip: roll pats of chilled butter in Grill Mates Montreal Chicken seasoning. You’ll be able to work the flavor deeper along the bird by massaging them farther than your fingers can reach under the skin. Plus: y’know, butter.   

Master the coals
Learn to make an effective coal pile in the absence of a chimney starter: a loosely stacked pyramid atop kindling with room for air flow. You want the heat to draw air up through the base of the coals. For tinder, twist a few pages of newspaper into cords (again, for air flow) and build your pyramid atop them.

Consider the sous vide
Cooking for a crowd? A sous vide circulator preps a large batch of meat so you can quickly grill it for an external sear that doesn’t sacrifice any smoke. Vacuum-seal your cuts with seasonings (McCormick Grill Mates Roasted Garlic & Herb is ideal here, since it’s inadvisable to use fresh cloves in sous vide), cook them in a water bath with the precision temperature circulator, and then rapidly chill them in an ice bath to deter any bacterial activity. Now refrigerate until day of cookout for a quick and easy sear on the grill. Masterful.

Note that for larger cuts (brisket, pork shoulder, etc. ) you will probably want to keep them in the bag so you can reheat to temperature in the sous vide before grilling. Nobody likes a chilly middle. And for all sous vide cooking you want to follow the immersion circulator manufacturer's instructions. You're working at lower temperatures some bacteria love, so stick to the book. Be a Goose, not a Maverick. 

Don’t soak the smoke
You don’t have to use charcoal to get a smoky flavor. Toss woodchips in a smoker box, set it in the grill, and add the meat once you see grey plumes start to emerge. Just remember, despite what you may have heard, soaking chips won’t add to the smoke. Water boils at 212ºF and doesn’t even penetrate the wood that much, so all you’re doing is cheating yourself out of some smoke until the moisture steams off. There’s a reason pros who smoke with logs cure their hardwood months in advance.

Don’t press burgers down on the grill…
We get it, you love the snap and sizzle of the juice hitting the coals, and you think the licks of flame and smoky plumes that result are flavoring the burger. But it’s a mistake you’ll only make once. Pressing down squeezes fat and moisture out of the patty. Additionally, you’re wrapping that soft meat around the grill grate, making it much more difficult to lift the finished product in one piece. Shape them the way they should look before you grill.

Warm your plates
Plates heat up fast in the oven so keep the temperature low -- say, 200 degrees F, then put them in around the same time you take the meat off the grill to rest. When they’re a little too warm to touch, pull them out and plate the meal. Don’t put them on a cold surface, though; they might crack!

Toast those buns
A toasted bun absorbs burger juice instead of letting it quite literally slip through guests’ fingers. Slather buns with butter or mayo before grilling for faster, even toasting. Use indirect heat and don’t get distracted; bread burns almost as fast as it toasts, so time this one right. Do this seconds before dinner is served.

Finish with a flourish
An acidic spritz brings out flavor just like salt does, and often benefits the taste most when administered at the end. Look at you, all fancy.

You’ve mastered the fundamentals of temperature, salt, sear, and smoke. Now it’s time to combine them into complex dishes crackling with flavor. Welcome to BBQ country.

Wet brine the meat by weight
To develop your skills at salting by weight, a solution’s the solution. Water will move salt through meat faster and more evenly than a dry brine. ChefSteps recommends measuring water equal to 50% of your meat by weight (again, bones don’t count). Then salt by percentage of the total weight (water plus meat) up to 2% or less, depending on the animal.

Tip: Save the time and energy of heating water just to cool it down anyway.  Dissolve your brine spices quickly in a small amount of boiling water, then add the remaining measurement as cold water to rapidly cool it and brine the meat immediately.

Grind your own burger
Chill your meat grinder parts in the freezer, next to a metal mixing bowl of cubed beef. When the meat is ALMOST frozen, assemble the grinder, and swiftly chop that beef.

Making your own patty ensures your burger comes from a single piece of meat, let’s you use higher quality cuts, and helps you control the fat-to-meat ratio. One additional advantage is right before grinding, you can toss those cubes in McCormick Grill Mates seasoning, then cook the hamburgers immediately, before the salt has a chance to denature the proteins.

Make your own brats
Now that you’ve mastered the meat grinder as well as the relationship between salt and protein, combine them. Soak your salted casings in very warm water for a couple hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Change the water a couple of times. Grind the meat, chilling it again as you go, then grind again in a finer cut. Toss with seasonings of your choice and then stuff into the casings. (You do own a sausage stuffer by now, right?) You’ll want to do this a day or two in advance so the salt unravels the meat’s proteins and meshes them. Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but homemade beer brats? You’ll be the hero of the cookout.

L'aissez les bontemps roulade
Turducken might be the hedonist’s thanksgiving meal of choice, but ballotines (deboned meat stuffed with other deboned meat) are a lot of work! Grilling is supposed to be fun, so skip the rôti sans pareil -- 17 birds stuffed inside each other -- and do the easier roulade -- meat rolled around delicious stuffing. Slice a chicken breast in half, roll it up around ham and cheese, and pin in place with a toothpick. Voila: chicken cordon bleu.

Even advanced projects can be fun, fast, and easy: butterfly a boneless roast -- say pork butt or loin -- then tie it up with butcher's twine around fun fillings like bacon, terrine, or deboned chicken thigh. Ramp up the flavor by using fattier cuts inside, which will permeate their host. Dang, friend, you just made a meat cocktail that uses actual rooster, if not its actual tail. 

Cook with logs…
Logs make for some notoriously difficult temperature control – they’re better than carting a bag of briquettes out to the camp site, but at home, they’re most valuable to you for their smoke. Use briquettes or propane to maintain a safe temperature while a separate smoking chamber feeds the hardwood smoke into the cooking area. And one day when you’re feeling really experienced, you can cook over them directly.

Branch out your type of smoke
Woodchips too basic for you? Make more complex smoke by combining twigs and leaves from nut and fruit trees: maple, apple, and cherry are easiest to find. Avoid oily woods or nuts, and be sure the material is dry, as green wood may take too long for your purposes or throw off too much smoke. Just remember some woods are more pungent than others and need to be combined, like mesquite or walnut.

Wrap & hold tough cuts
This is easy to do, but difficult to assess. If you need to slow the meat’s cook time down and/or trap it in its own moisture to soften it and keep it juicy, you’ll want to wrap it in aluminum foil. Ribs and pork shoulder love this treatment, while brisket receives it so often it’s called the “Texas crutch.” Just don’t do it for so long the meat falls apart!

Or try this pan-acea
For multiple pieces of meat, skip the wrap and make the grill itself humid. Put a metal pan of cold water over direct heat, close the lid, and make a steamy, smoky sauna.

Work through “the stall”
This one’s for you barbecue types doing long cooks: there’s going to be a period in which you panic because for some reason the meat is dropping in temperature after sitting over hot coals. This is an effect of evaporation and will result in a more delicious exterior, so stay calm and smoke on until evaporation ceases and the internal temp starts to rise again.  In fact, you can put it to work for you if you’re looking for a thicker bark.

Give that bark some bite
Evaporation causes cooling. It also toughens the surface of the meat. Therefore it behooves you to moisten the exterior with a thin layer of moisture for rapid evaporation. Combine that with the Maillard reaction, and you’ve got a chewy outer layer that gives the tender innard some great texture to cling to, like a meat sandwich on crispy meat bread. Spray the meat periodically to make a thicker bark. Get yourself a bottle spritzer for a buck at your local small department store, and begin concocting flavored mists that will lend subtle tinges to your recipe. Something acidic is good, given the small doses here.

Cite your sauces at the end
Whether you brush, baste, or mop in a longer cook, the ensuing glaze adds yet another layer of spices, sugars, and oils on the surface of the meat for a delicious initial bite. At least two of those have a propensity to superheat the protein, so be sure you only apply them as the meat itself cooks thoroughly – though a thin coating of oil by itself at the start can crisp the meat just enough while trapping moisture underneath.

Good news! You’ve learned all the tricks anybody needs to have a good time at a cookout. Because once you’ve got good taste and pretty presentation, the only thing anyone needs is someone great to enjoy it with. Sit down with your loved ones and dig in. You’ve earned it.

Brendan McGinley wrote a book on BBQ and is occasionally funny on Twitter @brendanmcginley.