One of the things that people who suffer long winters – Midwesterners in particular – love about summer is having a cook-out, barbecue, block party, tailgate party, or any other excuse to cook food outdoors through the majesty of fire. Unfortunately most people have not the slightest goddamn idea how to do so and end up imitating the loosely-recollected actions of their Uncle Larry at long-ago Labor Day gatherings. This is especially problematic because grilling is a "male" thing and men are far too pig-headed to A) ask for instructions or B) admit that they need to do A.
As poor grilling deeply offends me, this is a substantive primer of the basic concepts of grilling. Think of it like a Bobby Flay book, only much shorter, with more dick jokes, and sans man-boobs. You swear you don't need it, but you secetly know you do. In this first installment I am going to talk about the basics – our goal, our cooking vessel, and our heat source. If you botch this, no amount of cooking skill can save you after the fact. Being a poor cook means your guests eat overdone food, but not choosing the right tools means they will eat something that tastes like regular unleaded and gives them cancer.
Far too often, men demand (or are expected to take) dominion over the grill. Bullshit. Ladies, it is time to emasculate the irritating "grill masters" who believe that having a dong makes them an outdoor Escoffier. Tell them to find a lawn chair and chug Milwaukee's Best while you make some good food for a change. And guys, if you're that guy, it's time to stop. Mastering outdoor cookery is rewarding. You will make people happy. And cooking for friends and family is about making people happy.
First, "grilling" and "barbecuing" are two vastly different things. Grilling involves placing food directly over very high heat for a short period of time. Barbecuing involves long, low, and indirect heat. They are polar opposites. Not understanding the difference, most people grill foods that ought by right to be barbecued. This inevitably results in a charred exterior with a raw interior – and a chef who can't figure out how to cook food through without burning the shit out of it.
Foods with high surface-to-mass ratios (most grilling meats, for example) like grilling. High-volume foods (whole birds, hams, roasts, etc) need to cook for a long time at a low heat which will not burn or char the exterior. When you reach a zen-like stage of mastery in this art, you will practice ideal "grilling" that combines the two: high, direct heat to sear the exterior followed by low, indirect heat to cook the food through. But let's not leap ahead to actual cooking. Let's start with the absolute basics. What do you need? You need a grill and a source of heat.
Grills: Gas grills are for pussies and dilettantes. They kill flavor. Grilled/BBQed food tastes of its heat source. Do you ever hear anyone wistfully pine for "that great propane taste?" Keep that in mind. If you're enamored with the flavor of gas grilling, why not just cook your food indoors, crack open a disposable lighter, and rub the food with butane? Because these grills are extremely convenient (and look swanky) I realize that many of you own one. So be it.
The choice of grills is really not a choice: the charcoal-burning Weber (kettle-style) grill is all you need. I'm not a brand whore; Weber's product simply has yet to be improved upon. Easy to clean, holds heat like a motherfucker, and with more user-friendly features than all other grills combined. You don't need anything fancier or cheaper. Avoid square, flat charcoal grills (ones that look like suitcases).
Heat: You have no options here with gas grills, but that is OK since you are a dilettante. In charcoal grilling, Americans have the regrettable tendency to gravitate toward briquettes. Briquettes are made of coal dust, wax, chemical stabilizers, and ground-up bits of old furniture. People compound this toxic mess by dousing it with lighter fluid. If you MUST cook this way, it is absolutely imperative that you allow your briquettes to burn completely (more on this later) before cooking. With "match light" briquettes, intended to make grilling accessible to people who apparently can't light regular charcoal, there is no amount of burn-off that will keep their chemical taste off your food. Avoid them. You might as well cook over a burning tire.
In an ideal world, you are using natural hardwood charcoal (aka Lump charcoal). Hardwood charcoal is made of wood. Whole pieces of real wood, nothing else. It is more expensive, but it lights very easily, heats quickly, lasts a long time, and gives food the (actually pleasant) taste of hardwood smoke rather than industrial solvent. I can tell you how to make your own (which is admittedly a little extreme) but I'll assume that simply buying it is good enough for you. There are dozens of brands, the availability of which are dictated by region.
Tools: You don't need to go overboard with fancy-pants tool kits, but there are a few basic things you'll need. Tongs. Spatula. These should be steel. I'm not trying to be a dick, but I've seriously seen people use plastic. Really. A heat-resistant silicon glove might not hurt. I find them far superior to cloth mitts.
You should also invest in a chimney starter…and never need lighter fluid again. It also has the advantage of allowing you to heat more coals while your food is still cooking (especially with the aid of a hinged grate). Ginandtacos tip: don't light the chimney with a bunch of wadded newspaper. Take a small square of paper towel, dip it in cheap cooking oil, and light it. That'll burn for 5 minutes. Also? Don't light a chimney on stone. The heat will radiate downward and potentially crack your porch/sidewalk/etc.
Look at that! You're halfway to being awesome. You never again have to squirt lighter fluid into a $14.99 square grill made of old soup cans. The groundwork is laid. Believe it or not, without having done a lick of cooking you are well on your way to success. Conversely, my condescending snark aside, not having these tools won't kill you. You can still make good food on a square grill. Or a gas grill.