The ZENB Guide to Grilling Like a Champ

A group of friends enjoying a Summer BBQ

We throw the 🔥 emoji around a lot, but cooking on the grill ⁠— whether it’s gas or charcoal ⁠— is literally lit (sorry, had to). There’s no summertime vibe quite like hanging out on your patio with tendrils of smoke wafting from the grill, a frosty beverage in hand, and your friends chatting in the background.

Learning to grill is such a rad way to up your kitchen game, but it does require honing a new set of cooking skills. But learning is part of the fun!

Ready for a summer of grillin’ and chillin’? Here’s how to make the most of your new BBQ:

Gas vs. Charcoal

Let’s start with the basics. There are two kinds of grills: gas and charcoal. It’s sort of a Superman vs. Batman situation, where each has its strengths and weaknesses, and which one you choose is just a matter of preference.

Gas is super-convenient; if you’re in the mood to grill, just light it up and go. Though you do need to keep enough propane on hand (which can be purchased at most hardware stores), you never have to worry about running out of charcoal. The controls work like a gas-powered stove, and managing the heat is as easy as turning a knob.

On the other hand, many people enjoy the challenges of cooking with charcoal, and of course, the distinctly smoky flavor it creates. The briquets are affordable, but the bags are bulky and need to be stored properly; it also takes between 15-40 minutes to get the charcoal hot enough for cooking (more on that in a sec). Bonus: Charcoal grills are also often much less expensive than gas ones.

Starting a Charcoal Grill

The best way to start a charcoal grill is with a chimney: a steel cylinder with a handle on the outside, a grate inside, and large holes punched in its surface. It’s easy to use, gets grills smokin’ hot in a flash, and eliminates the need for lighter fluid.

To use a chimney starter, first set it inside the grill (after you’ve read the directions, of course!). Remove the little grate from the bottom of the chimney, put in a crumpled piece of newspaper, then put the grate back. Fill the chimney with charcoal, then light the paper. Let it burn and smolder for about 15 minutes, until there’s white ash around the edges of the briquets. Then, carefully dump the coals into the grill, place the grill grate on top, and you’re all set!

Grill Accessories and Maintenance

A grill is a badass appliance, and you want to take care of it, right? To do so, you’ll need a few tools:

A meat thermometer, a set of long tongs, and a long-handled spatula are crucial. Also helpful are a barbecue lighter, safety gloves, a brush for marinades, and a basket to grill smaller vegetables.

A grill brush, for cleaning the grates of the grill, is also non-negotiable. You should clean the grates every time before you grill. To do this, light a fire or add your hot coals, wait a few minutes for the grate to heat up (this will help loosen up stuck-on food) and then scrape it down with your grill brush. Once it’s clean, carefully oil the grates with a paper towel and a bit of vegetable oil. When you’re done grilling, let the coals cool completely — and this can take awhile — before disposing them.

Investing in a cover for your grill is also a good call. This will protect it from the elements and prevent rusting.

Cooking on the Grill

There is no limit to what you can cook on the grill. Classics, including proteins, like chicken, burgers, ribs, and sausages; vegetables, plant-based proteins, and seafood are also delicious when kissed with smoke.

When it comes to vegetables, smaller items, like asparagus, sliced zucchini, and mushrooms, tend to fall through the grill grate. To prevent losing your precious farmers market veggies, you can put down a piece of aluminum foil on the grill, use a grill basket, or thread the veggies on skewers  — just be sure to soak wooden skewers in water for a few minutes first! Another technique is to make foil or parchment paper packets of vegetables to grill/steam the vegetables (in French, this is known as en papillote).

Before grilling vegetables, brush or coat them with oil and season them aggressively. Because sauces will burn off if cooked over too high heat, try grilling the veggies first and then toss them with pesto, sauces, or dressings once they’re done cooking. Avoid flipping food excessively on the grill, but move things around a bit to ensure even cooking.

Smaller cuts of meat (like steaks) are generally cooked over higher heat, and produce and fish over lower temperatures. You can accomplish this by building smaller or bigger fires, or creating “zones” on the grill with different amounts of charcoal. Bigger proteins, like whole chickens, are best grilled on indirect heat AKA next to the fire, not right on top of it.

For more cooking tips and inspo, check out the ZENB blog and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. Our recipe collection also features over 150 plant-fueled dishes for everything from quick breakfasts to special-occasion dinners. Good luck on all of your grilling adventures this summer! 

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