A wise man once proclaimed that you should do unto others as you’d have them do unto your steak. He may have lifted that golden rule from a different wise man, but it’s best not to sweat the details, especially when you’ll soon be spending so much time outside sweating over expertly lit charcoal.
Bottom line is, there are certain rules you should follow if you want to improve your grilling. To learn them, we asked some of the best pitmasters and chefs in the country to share the maxims that have guided their own journey through the valley of deep darkness into a blissful mountaintop of medium rare meats.
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Fear neither salt nor fat
"Several days prior to grilling any beef, I'll salt it and put it on a drying rack in the fridge for at least 24 hours. This draws the moisture out and really aids in creating a great crust. Then I'll brush the meat with melted tallow. Using rendered beef fat in place of butter makes a ton of sense, and it's cheap and easy to get from any butcher or grocer." -- Trey Bell, LaRue Elm, (Greensboro, North Carolina)
Tread lightly with sauce
"Save the sauce! Barbecue sauce is best served on the side as a condiment. If you put it on the meat over a hot fire it'll burn easily, and nobody likes that." -- Ray Lampe, aka Dr. BBQ (Saint Petersburg, Florida)
Don’t char or burn your glaze
“A common mistake is to put your sauce or glaze on your meat too early in the process; but make yourself wait! Saucing too early can lead to the sugar cooking too fast, which burns or chars the sauce on your chicken, wings, or steak. It results in an overcooked outside, but an undercooked inside." -- Leonard Botello IV, pitmaster and owner of Truth BBQ (Brenham and Houston, Texas)
Think beyond the grate
“Grill vegetables like corn, tomatoes, onions, bell peppxers, jalapeno peppers, or sweet potatoes directly on your coals. Choose firm red-white coals for best results.” -- Adrian Davila, Davila’s BBQ (Seguin, Texas)
"Of all the methods of cooking, grilling is easily the one with the most back-seat drivers. Just like too many cooks in the kitchen, too many bros around a fire can be the undoing of your ember-kissed edibles. Not much is worse than trying to get in the zone, only to have Biff from accounting instruct you on the proper methods of burger-flipping. My line is this: 'I'll handle this. That way it's only my fault if it sucks.' You have to take control! Get a wing-person to distract gawkers and back-seat grillers away from your food foundry. Have the wing-person deliver the toasty treats to a place away from the grill. I'm not saying you have to be antisocial. Once the cooking is done, bask in the praises of those you have fed." -- Justin Warner, author of The Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them, host ofChef Shock (Brooklyn, New York)
Stay away from lighter fluid, unless you like the taste
"Chimney starters are always preferred over lighter fluid -- they make for a cleaner cook." -- Takuya "Tako" Matsumoto, Kemuri Tatsu-ya, (Austin, Texas)
Indirect heat is thy friend
"I like to put all the coals on one side of the grill. Skin-on chicken thighs are my favorite, and I like to roast them on the complete opposite side of the grill where there's no flame. The indirect heat slow roasts them and makes the skin really crispy." -- Chris Shepherd, chef/owner of Underbelly, One Fifth, Hay Merchant (Houston, Texas)
Don't leave meat in the cold
"Always take your protein out of the refrigerator a couple hours before grilling to allow it to come to room temperature. A room-temperature piece of meat cooks a lot more evenly than something right out of the refrigerator." -- Mark Dommen, One Market Restaurant (San Francisco, California)
Do not gamble with germs
"Wrap your platter with plastic wrap before taking raw meat out to the grill. After the meat is on the grill, you can remove and discard the plastic wrap. That way, you can use the same platter for serving the cooked meat. And you don't need to wash your tongs: If they touch the raw burger, it's OK -- the heat of the burger sterilizes the tongs." -- Steven Raichlen, author and TV host ofProject Smoke (Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts)
Rotate your meat to make a feast for the mouth and the eyes
"To achieve perfect grill marks, do a quarter turn on your patty at the two-minute mark, flip it over after four minutes, then at the six-minute mark do another quarter turn and add any topping such as cheese or caramelized onions. Finally at eight minutes, remove from the grill and enjoy." -- Steven Banbury, HopDoddy Burger Bar (Austin, Texas)
Don't block the spatchcock
"At Flip Bird, the golden rule is to first spatchcock the bird. By removing the backbone, butterflying, and flattening the chicken, the meat will cook faster and both the breast and the leg finish at the same time while remaining moist and flavorful." -- John Stage, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and Flip Bird (multiple locations throughout New York)
Have patience with coals
"Make sure the coals are cooked down to the white ash, otherwise the charcoal flavor is too pronounced. I like when it's still very hot, but has a beautiful amber glow with white ash. The perfect temperature." -- David Myers, Gypsy Chef at Salt Water Kitchen, Adrift, and more (Los Angeles, California)
Fear not other cultures
"A few of my favorite ingredients to grill with are lemongrass and fish sauce. Lemongrass is a beautiful aromatic to add brightness to a dish without the introduction of acid. When acid is present, it usually turns bitter when exposed to an open flame. Lemongrass doesn’t do that, instead it becomes brighter as the flavor is extracted over heat. Fish sauce is used as a complex salt and seasoning in Southeast Asia. It's better than salt because when you use fish sauce you're not just adding sodium, but also giving the dish more umami." -- Tu David Phu, chef behind An: Vietnamese Dining Experience (San Francisco, California)
Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone
“Switch up the cuts of meats you would typically cook. You'll be surprised what you might really like! Don't have the time to sit around a fire cooking brisket for 12-16 hours? Opt for beef checks instead. They'll cook much quicker and be very savory. Have fun with it and throw a beef tongue on the pit every once in awhile. It'll be the talk of the party if you can execute it correctly!” -- Mike Black, Terry Black’s Barbecue (Austin, Texas)
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Dan Gentile is a former staff writer and founding editor of Thrillist Austin. He’s guilty of violating the golden rule of coveting his neighbor’s smoker. Read more of his writing at dangentile.net and follow him at @Dannosphere for reverse-seared tweets.@Dannosphere.