8 New Grilling Techniques You Need to Know

I suppose all cooking has been an evolution for me, but since I began grilling, just about 40 years ago, I’ve been taking notes. I started with standard fare, of course — hot dogs, hamburgers, lamb burgers with smoked cheese inside (courtesy of my friend Semeon, who invented them) — and eventually there were adventures with corn (in or out of the husk? Soaked?); seafood (how the hell do you stop it from sticking?); and pizza (before at-home pizza ovens were even a thing, I thought you had to be crazy not to grill pizza).

There is nothing wrong with keeping things simple, of course, and if you want to make that the entirety of your grilling repertoire, you’ll still be happy as hell. But my job is to take notes and to grow and to produce recipes and stories — I’ve been doing that as long as I’ve been grilling — so I ended up experimenting a boatload, which became doubly true when I decided to write How to Grill Everything, a book that I suppose was inevitable. Over the last four years (and possibly 40), I’ve surprised myself with what can work on the grill (pretty much everything), and how little thought and effort you have to put in to get wonderful results out.

Before we get to recipes, I have to say something that a third of you are not going to like: I love gas grills. Yes, there is nothing like taking an hour or so to build a huge wood fire and let it burn down to a gorgeous bed of coals before you get to cooking, but the convenience of turning a dial and beginning to grill 10 or 15 minutes later cannot be beat. (And, in case you haven’t figured this out already, if you throw a few sticks or wood chips on your gas grill, the food will taste like you cooked it with wood — which you have, sort of. Almost no one is going to build a wood fire every time they grill, and everything else is a compromise; that is to say, gas, handled right, does a fine job. I have a pretty standard Broil King grill out here, and it gets upwards of 800 degrees, which is hot enough for anything.

Anyway, here are some of my biggest takeaways (and recipes) from all of these years of experimenting and the more recent few years putting together the book.

1. Ponzu might be the world’s most versatile “barbecue sauce.”
In case you don’t know ponzu, it’s kind of an all-purpose sauce from Japan that plays a role not unlike vinaigrette. So buying bottled ponzu — well, that’s like buying Wish-Bone; it’s not illegal, but maybe it should be, and in any case, I don’t recommend it. Ponzu (again like vinaigrette) is easy to make, and a real workhorse: Use it as a dipping sauce for almost anything, or as a marinade for poultry, beef, or lamb. Here, I subbed it in for barbecue sauce — a great success. (And remember: As with so many things, you can go nuts making ponzu, and I agree that it’s better after it sits for a bit, but … it’s awesome right after it’s made, too.)

Ponzu Sauce

Makes: 1 ½ cups
Time: Overnight, completely unattended

½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup fresh lime juice
¼ dried bonito flakes, or one 4-inch piece kombu
2 tablespoons mirin (or 1 tablespoon each honey and water mixed together)
2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1. Whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2. Strain into an airtight container and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it, for up to several days.

2. Cabbage is a truly undersung star ingredient for the grill.
Stay with me here. Many people groan when they get a giant head of cabbage from the CSA (and then another the following week), not necessarily because they don’t like it, but because there doesn’t seem to be that much to do with it. But cabbage, as it turns out, is phenomenal when grilled (bonus: no shredding). Cut into wedges and seared directly over the fire, it develops fantastic flavor and texture. Top it with a warm vinaigrette spiked with crisp bits of pancetta and everyone is happy (except the vegetarians, but I’ve got a variation for you).

Cabbage Wedges With Warm Pancetta Vinaigrette

Makes: 8 servings
Time: 30 to 35 minutes

1 small head red or green cabbage (2 pounds or less)
5 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
¼ pound thickly sliced pancetta, chopped
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper

1. Start the coals or heat a gas grill for medium direct cooking. Make sure the grates are clean.

2. Discard any discolored outer leaves from the cabbage, cut it into 8 wedges, then trim the stem a bit but leave enough on to keep the wedges together. Brush the cabbage on all sides with 2 tablespoons of the oil.

3. Put the cabbage one cut side down on the grill directly over the fire. Close the lid and cook until the bottom browns, about 5 minutes; turn and cook the other side. Transfer to a platter.

4. While the cabbage is grilling, put the pancetta in a small skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it renders its fat and the meat crisps, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the vinegar and remaining 3 tablespoons of oil, and whisk to combine; taste and add some salt and pepper. (You can make the vinaigrette up to a day ahead; refrigerate and gently reheat it before using.) Pour the hot dressing over the cabbage wedges and serve.

3. You should pickle veggies after you grill them.
Pickling can be as easy as you want it to be. (In the summer, I like to peel and cut cucumbers and stick them in a colander with a handful of salt. Give it a little time and you have pickles.) That said, I’m finicky about my pickles, and this technique — in which you grill vegetables and then soak them in brine — is nothing short of amazing. Broccoli and cauliflower are especially great after you cut them into florets. Firm vegetables — fennel, kohlrabi, daikon, onion, jícama — should be grilled in ½-inch-thick slices, then cut into sticks. Whole green beans, okra, and radishes (whole or half, depending on their size) are all treats. Cucumbers hold up surprisingly well on the grill; cut them into spears. Carrots should be left whole, halved, or quartered so the pieces are no thicker than your pinky.

Quick-Pickled Charred Vegetables With Chile, Lime, and Star Anise

Makes: 8 or more servings
Time: 40 to 50 minutes, plus several hours pickling time

1 ½ cups rice vinegar
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 pods star anise
1 sliced jalapeño or Thai bird chile
1 lime
2 pounds vegetables of your choice

1. Make the brine: Put the vinegar, sugar, salt, and star anise in a small saucepan over medium heat. After the liquid simmers, add the grated zest of 1 lime and 1 sliced jalapeño or Thai bird chile (remove the seeds for less heat).

2. Start the coals or heat a gas grill for medium-high direct cooking. Make sure the grates are clean.

3. Put the vegetables on the grill directly over the fire. (For smaller pieces, use a perforated grill pan, or skewer to make them easier to handle.) Close the lid and cook the vegetables, turning them as necessary, until they brown deeply on all sides without softening; how long this takes will depend on the vegetable and how hot the fire is, but figure between 5 and 15 minutes total for most vegetables. Stay close to the grill, check them early and often, and move them to cooler parts of the grill to control the coloring.

4. As they finish, transfer them to the bowl with the brine. When all are done, toss the vegetables with the brine to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate, tossing the vegetables every 30 minutes or so, until the flavor and texture fully develops, at least 3 hours. Serve right away, or keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

4. Smoked nuts are the perfect snack — and it’s so easy to make them yourself.
If no one has turned you on to homemade roasted nuts — so easy, so good — then it’s time. And smoking them is even better (How to Grill Everything also offers loads of different options for seasonings). My favorite nuts for smoking are walnuts, almonds, and pecans, but pine nuts, peanuts, macadamias, cashews, and blanched hazelnuts are all fab. To me, 30 minutes smoke time is ideal for most nuts, but start tasting before that to find what’s right for you.

Smoked Nuts

Makes: 2 cups
Time: 45 minutes, or longer to taste

2 cups shelled unsalted raw nuts
2 tablespoons good-quality vegetable oil
2 teaspoons salt

1. Start the coals or heat a gas grill for medium indirect cooking. Position the coals so that the smoke will be pulled over the food and out the top vent.

2. Put the nuts, oil, and salt in a disposable foil pan large enough to hold the nuts in a single layer. Toss to coat.

3. When the grill is ready, put a generous handful of wood chips in the grill and close the lid. As soon as the grill fills with smoke, put the pan of nuts on the indirect side of the grill and close the lid again.

4. Smoke the nuts, shaking the pan every 10 minutes or so, until they’re as smoky and crisp as you like, at least 20 minutes. Replenish the wood as needed to keep the grill filled with smoke. Remove the nuts from the grill and serve when they’re cool enough to handle. Or cool completely, transfer to an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to a few weeks or freeze for several months; bring to room temperature before serving.

5. My favorite new way to cook whole fish is in the fire.
I’m serious. You’re going to put your fish directly on the coals (this is one instance where gas grill won’t cut it). No, the fish won’t burn. Instead you’ll end up with a charred crust and a tender inside with an incredible smoky flavor, like cooking on a campfire. This is a solid technique for a good steak, too.

Into-the-Fire Fish

Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 25 to 35 minutes

1 small fish per person (¾ to 1 pound each)
Salt and pepper

1. Prepare a hot direct fire using untreated hardwood charcoal; make sure to use enough so you can spread the coals out thickly and still lay the fish directly and fully on top.

2. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides.

3. When the coals are blazing hot, spread them onto an even bed. Put the fish directly on the coals so they’re not touching each other. Cook until 5 to 10 degrees shy of the desired doneness, turning once, until you can push a skewer or a thin knife through the thickest point of the flesh with no resistance, 3 to 10 minutes per side; start checking after 5 minutes.

4. Pull or shake any embers off the fish above the fire and transfer to a platter and serve whole, or cut and lift the fillets from the flames and plate without the bones.

6. Bologna is better when it’s smoked.
When my older daughter was in school, she had a friend who took bologna and ketchup sandwiches to school for lunch, and my daughter begged me to let her have the same; me being me, I stuck with her “healthy” lunches. Maybe I should have reconsidered because a grilled-bologna sandwich is basically a hot-dog sandwich. What’s the big deal? You definitely don’t want to eat this regularly, but it tastes awesome. In places like Nashville, this is a common sight: A chub of bologna scored in a crosshatch pattern, hit with a powerful seasoning, and smoked with hickory or oak until the color of black coffee. Since the bologna is already cooked, the idea is to just heat it through and infuse it with smoke. And there’s no need to invest in an entire stick of bologna if you don’t want to; you can have the counter person at the deli cut a big chunk.

Smoked Bologna

Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 1 to 1 ½ hours, largely unattended

1 ½–pound chunk beef bologna
2 tablespoons golden mustard
1 tablespoon honey

1. Start the coals or heat a gas grill for medium-low indirect cooking. If using a charcoal grill, position the coals so the smoke will be pulled over the bologna and out the top vent. Make sure the grates are clean. When the grill temperature is at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, add wood to the fire.

2. While the grill comes to temperature, peel off the outer protective skin of the bologna (if it has one; not all do). With a sharp knife, score that bologna on all sides about ½ to 1 inch deep in a crosshatch pattern. (This will increase the surface area exposed to the mustard glaze and the smoke.) Combine the mustard and honey in a small bowl and stir until smooth, then spread all over the bologna, being sure to work it down into all the cuts.

3. When the grill fills with smoke, put the bologna on the indirect side of the grill. Close the lid and cook until the bologna darkens considerably from the smoke and it has the strength of smoke flavor you want, rotating it after 30 minutes to cook evenly. Once it’s been on the grill 30 minutes, brush it with the glaze again, then every 15 minutes or so. An hour of smoke is usually sufficient; cut a piece off to test it. To get the glaze crusty, you can move the bologna directly over the fire before taking it off the grill, turning it every 1 to 2 minutes as needed. Transfer to a cutting board and enjoy hot, warm, or at room temperature; cut into pieces or slices. Or let cool entirely, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for up to 5 days.

7. You will become a fan of grilled cakes.
Baking over a live fire is just incredible. Nothing can compare to the crisp crust and char on bread or pizza just off the grill, and since corn bread and biscuits are natural partners for barbecue, it makes sense to bake them outside. But cake? Sure, it’s a little out of the ordinary, but trust me: It works. One of my favorite desserts in How to Grill Everything is this Double Orange Olive Oil Cake. Eat with vanilla ice cream for a kind of smoked-Creamsicle effect.

Double Orange Olive Oil Cake

Makes: 8 to 12 servings
Time: 40 to 60 minutes

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon good-quality olive oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
¼ cup fresh orange juice
½ cup milk

1. If using a gas grill, heat it for medium-high direct cooking. The grill temperature should be about 500 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit; it could mean all the burners are on medium or medium-low, depending on your grill. If using a charcoal grill, after taking dinner off, add more coals if necessary and close the lid until you’re ready to bake. Generously coat the inside of a 9- or 10-inch cast-iron skillet with 1 tablespoon of the oil.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt together in a bowl. Whisk the remaining 1 cup oil, the sugar, eggs, milk, and orange zest and juice together in a large bowl until well combined, with no large lumps of flour. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

3. Put the skillet on the grill directly over the fire. Close the lid and start checking after 15 minutes. If the cake seems to be browning too fast, turn the heat off under the pan and turn it up on the other burners for a gas grill, or move the pan to a cooler part of the charcoal grill. Bake, checking every 5 minutes or so, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 5 to 15 minutes more.

4. Carefully transfer the cake to a rack and let cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving from the pan. This will keep at room temperature, out of the pan and covered with plastic wrap, for up to 4 days.

8. Classics can be revisited — on the grill.
The internet is full of “revisited” classics at this point: béchamel made with olive oil, cauliflower crust pizza, grilled cheese with tons of additions (berries? Come on!). Some of these things work, some are moronic, some are trendy because they’re moronic, but putting a classic on the grill is a no-brainer. Case in point: chicken cutlets. We all love them on a fat roll with cheese and red sauce, but if you try them on the grill, you probably won’t fry them again. Plus, there are a ton of different options for sauces and ways to season your bread crumbs.

Crunchy Coconut Chicken Cutlets

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 30 to 40 minutes

Good-quality vegetable oil for the grates.
1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Salt and pepper
½ cup dry bread crumbs or panko
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
¼ cup minced fresh mint
½ cup coconut milk
Lime wedges for serving

1. Start the coals or heat a gas grill for medium direct cooking. Make sure the grates are clean, then rub them with vegetable oil–soaked paper towels held with long tongs.

2. Pound the chicken breasts to an even thickness if necessary and sprinkle lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Combine the bread crumbs, coconut, and mint in a large, shallow bowl, and season with salt and pepper. Put the coconut milk in another large, shallow bowl. Dip each breast in the coconut milk, letting excess drip off, then dredge in the bread crumb and coconut mixture until completely covered. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet; don’t let the coated breasts touch one another or the coating may come off.

3. Put the chicken on the grill directly over the fire. Close the lid and cook, carefully turning once until the breasts are no longer pink in the center, 3 to 8 minutes per side depending on their size. (Nick with a small knife and peek inside.) If the coating seems to be browning too quickly, turn the heat down to medium-low or move the cutlets to a cooler part of the grill. Transfer to a platter, let rest 5 minutes, slice if you like, and serve with lime wedges.

The New Grilling Techniques You Need to Know