If you've followed the first two installments (here and here) you're all but ready to cook. Like the average M. Night Shamylan film, I have a feeling that this final act is going to be a letdown for some of you.
At this point you are expecting me to tell you some mystical zen secret which will make your mind and spirit one with the grilling meat. This will allow you to sense precisely when food has reached optimum doneness and then remove it from the grill using only your mind. In reality, cooking to perfection on a grill requires three things: a watch, a meat thermometer, and a book to read, which will prevent you from fucking with the food while it is cooking.
I feel like I just told you that there is no Santa Claus.
It's true. Think of how many variables are in play when you are grilling. Do you know the precise thickness and density of the food? Do you know the temperature of the coals and the exact distance between the heat and the cooking grate? Do you know the windspeed and ambient humidity of the area around the grill? All of these things affect how long it will take your food to get where it needs to be. It would be nice if I could tell you some neat tricks for eyeballing various foods to perfect doneness or some hoary old pieces of folk wisdom ("Press your thumb down on the steak…if it springs back, it's medium-rare!") Unfortunately all of that is shit. So if you want the secret to good grilling, it is to use a thermometer. It's unaffected by the variables and it won't lie to you.
That said, I am not devoid of advice. Several things I would like to stress:
1. Red meat continues cooking well after it is removed from the heat. If you leave your steak on the grill until it is medium, it's going to be well done after it sits for a few minutes. Always "undercook" red meat, remove it from the heat, cover it with foil, and wait approximately five minutes. Wait. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAIT. Don't fuck with it. If you tear into your food the second you remove it from the grill, all of the flavor and juices are going to pour out and end up in a puddle on your plate. Resting your meat (giggle) allows it to finish cooking, stabilize its internal temperature, and even out its distribution of delicious flavor.
2. You know that thing people always do on TV (and your dad probably did it too) where one takes a metal spatula and smashes the burgers while they're cooking? Don't fuckin' do that. Ever. I have no idea where this started or who thought this was a good idea. It guarantees dry, tasteless, overcooked food. It's theatrical, slightly satisfying, and makes a neat "sizzle" sound, but come on. Don't do that.
3. Control the temperature of a covered grill with the bottom air vent. This is less useful on an open grill, but believe it or not, moving the bottom vent by half an inch can take your grill from Hot to Nuclear.
4. Remember your grilling zones? Part Two has the details. This is essential for cooking thick foods properly. Take, for example, those monster two-inch pork chops one occasionally sees. You'd start by searing them, one minute per side, directly over extremely high heat on an open grill. Then you'd slide them off of the heat and cover the grill. Wait approximately 15-18 minutes, turning once. When you are cooking with indirect heat, cover the grill and leave it alone. Set a timer and walk away. Every time you lift the lid to peek at your food the cooking process stops. Patience and faith are both helpful; have faith that your food is cooking even if you're not looking at it.
5. Flip food once and only once. Turning the food constantly is another thing people do because they see it on TV and they lack patience. Moving the food around makes it feel like you're doing something, right? Well, it's not good. Patience and knowing when to leave the food alone are the keys.
Without getting into specific foods, this is all the general advice I can give you. Preparation is 75% of cooking. Knowing when to do nothing – to stand aside and let the laws of chemistry take over – is most of the remaining quarter. Above all, remember how much trial and error is involved in mastering anything. I know a good deal about grilling and I still botch things. You will too. Having the information is only part of the equation. What I hope this has done is arm your Bullshit Radar. Whether you're grilling alone or skeptically eyeballing the "Grill Master" at your 4th of July party, now you know. And knowing is half the battle.