How to Grill like a pro at home

This summer, take your barbecue to a hot new level with sizzling skills straight from the pros. From how to cook chicken breasts to succulent perfection, to keeping meat moist and juicy while grilling, we’ve got top tips from award-winning pitmasters Mathieu Drouin, Rob Reinhardt and Kris Valckx.

Getting to Know Your Grill

1Gather your tools (and stock up on fuel!)

Gather Your Tools

Similarly to the all-important mise en place step used to prep and set out ingredients before making a meal, make sure all the BBQ equipment and accessories you’ll need are within reach before firing up the grill.

This includes the following must-haves:

And, of course, a few nice-to-haves:

Pro Tip: Certified BBQ judge Mathieu Drouin protects his most valuable barbecuing tool—his hands—by layering a pair of powder-free nitrile gloves over regular winter gloves. That way, you can season your BBQ without worrying about burns (or contamination!).

Try: Classic Pork BBQ Back Ribs

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2Start with a clean grill.

Start with a clean grill.

Whether you’re using a gas, charcoal, electric or wood pellet grill, the first orders of business are safety and hygiene. Reduce the risk of grease fires by first firing up the grill, then scraping down the grates using a putty knife, wood scraper, or even a balled-up sheet of heavy-duty foil. And don’t forget to wear your mitts!

Then, simply season your grill with a modest amount of canola oil on an old towel and your grill is prepped, primed and ready to go.

Pro Tip: Barbecue champion and founder of Canada’s BBQ School Rob Reinhardt doesn’t often get around to cleaning the grill after he’s finished cooking. “My personal preference,” he admits, “is to take the food inside and eat it.” But even that doesn’t stop him from taking this important step at each BBQ grilling round. “Before I cook again, I’ll get that grill nice and hot, and make sure the burnt crud left from the last cook is scraped away.”

Try: BBQ Salmon with Tomato Bruschetta

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3Preheat your grill before cooking.

3. Preheat your grill before cooking.

A common mistake that a lot of cooks make, says Drouin, is slapping cold food onto the grill (or worse, throwing it into the oven before preheating). Unbeknownst to many of us, the energy our appliances use to reach the desired temperature is instead absorbed by the cold food itself, making it harder for our grill to heat up.

Pro Tip: “I would even recommend preheating hotter than intended because you’ll lose 25 degrees when you open the lid,” advises Drouin. “If you want to cook something at 350°F, try preheating to 375°F, throw in your food, and it’ll cook at the temperature you wanted in the first place.”

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Quick Tip
Want to gauge the temperature of your grill? Try preheating to medium first, then laying down enough slices of bread or biscuit rounds to cover the entire surface. Allow the bread pieces to brown for a couple of minutes, then turn the heat to high and flip over the grilled slices. It’s a quick and easy way to get to know how your grill operates at different temperatures—and where all the hot spots are!

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Cooking on Your Grill

4Season with (good quality) salt.

Season with (good quality) salt.

All three pitmasters agree on the holy quaternity of barbecue seasonings: salt, pepper, garlic and smoke. And when it comes to salt, in particular, your typical iodized table variety simply won’t cut it.“

I prefer using kosher salt because the bitterness and density of table salt can leave behind a chemically taste,” says competitive grillmaster Kris Valckx.

Pink Himalayan salt and sea salt are equally good alternatives that can be used liberally for more ample cuts of meat like brisket, pork belly and ribs. Dry brining (also known as salting) these cuts in a generous coating of kosher salt—or an abundant blend of salt, herbs, spices and sugar—for six to twelve hours prior to cooking low and slow will yield savoury, melt-in-your-mouth barbecue that showcases your meat’s natural flavour.

Short on time? Don’t skip the good stuff: Even thicker cuts of steak will benefit from a mere  15 minutes encased in a tenderizing salt rub before they hit the grill.

Pro Tip: “It’s going to look like you’re caking it with salt, but those larger cuts of meat can take that amount,” explains Valckx. “You aren’t oversalting, even if you think you might be.”

Try: BBQ Pork Chops

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5Handle your meats with care.

Handle your meats with care.

Want to know the best way to enhance the natural flavour of your meats and proteins? Not sure which foods are ideal for infusing wood or smoke flavour? Trying to guess at what temperature to cook your meat or fish—and when to remove it from the heat? We’ve all been there. That’s why one of the most important grilling tips is to invest in a good meat thermometer. Otherwise, here are some guidelines:

  • Burgers: Kosher salt alone is really all you need, but if you want your patty to pack some extra punch, this Classic Burger is seasoned with sweet paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, mustard powder and thyme. Cook to an internal temperature of 160°F.
  • Steak: Maintaining the integrity of your meats is of utmost importance when it comes to tender steak cuts. Filet mignon, porterhouse and prime rib need only kosher salt and coarse ground pepper. As a general rule, the tougher the cut, the more heavy-handed you can be with your seasonings. You can even whisk together a marinade, like the one used on these sticky-sweet Korean BBQ Short Ribs. For medium-rare steak, cook to an internal temperature of 145°F.
  • Chicken: Although incredibly versatile in terms of desired flavour profile, chicken breasts are all too easy to overcook. If an overnight brine isn’t an option, 15 minutes in heavily salted water is all it takes to keep those juices intact, even in Lemon-Herb Grilled Chicken. As for chicken thighs, Valckx suggests cooking with indirect heat to break down the fat and crisp up the skin. Cook to an internal temperature of 165°F.
  • Fish and seafood: While delicate proteins like salmon, shrimp and scallops tend to fare better with lighter flavour profiles—think lemon and dill—don’t be afraid to experiment! This Thai Fusion Shrimp and Cedar Plank Maple Ginger Salmon impart just the right combination of sweet, sour and woody flavours. Cook fish to an internal temperature of 158°F, and shellfish to 165°

Pro Tip: Want to infuse that coveted wood smoke flavour into your gas-grilled tenderloin? Wrap a generous handful of flavoured wood chips in a sheet of heavy-duty foil. Poke holes in the pouch, place over the flame, and allow the wood to smolder and release a kiss of smoke into the air. Flavours can range from applewood to cherrywood, mesquite to hickory, and more!

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6Use indirect heat.

Use indirect heat.

While today’s barbecue grills can reach temperatures of up to 900°F, Drouin says that 600°F (or 500°F for cast-iron surfaces) is more than enough to achieve a competition-worthy sear on a cut of red meat. Any hotter, Drouin warns, and you risk overcooking your food.

That’s because the direct heat of a gas grill—especially at a high temperature—drives the juices upward and away from your heat source, causing the moisture to evaporate from the top of your potato, for example (and leaving you with with that burnt layer of skin baked onto the foil!).

As for steaks and other meats, the fat drippings from high temperatures will pool on top of your food, then escape through the grates every time your meat is flipped (causing the not-so-welcome BBQ flare-up).

Pro Tip: So, how do you prevent your steak from going rubbery, and your potato from drying out? If you’re cooking on a gas grill, use indirect heat by turning off the burners that are placed directly under your food, then close the hood to create a convection environment. The shift in airflow will instead chase the moisture into the centre of your steak—which you can sear afterward to lock in those precious juices—and disperse the moisture throughout your potato, resulting in a doubly tender spud.

Try: Herb & Garlic Grilled Steak or Foil-Wrapped Mini Potatoes

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7Think outside the butcher’s box.

Think outside the butcher’s box.

Despite their popularity, don’t limit your barbecue repertoire to mere burgers, hot dogs, steaks and ribs.

Try sizzling summer salads like this Grilled Watermelon Caprese, or canapé-style foods and desserts.

Or try wrapping foods in bacon. Think bacon-wrapped poppers stuffed with cream cheese, bacon-wrapped jalapeños stuffed with apple pie filling, and Drouin’s personal favourite: the Oh Henry! bar wrapped in candied maple bacon.

Pro Tip: Reinhardt encourages home cooks to elevate their salsas using grilled tomatoes, onions and jalapeños, or add an extra zing to their lemonade by grilling the lemons prior to extracting the juice.

Try: Grilled Romaine Caesar or Grilled Peaches and Goat Cheese

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Cleaning Up and Storing Your Grill

8Foil is your friend.

Foil is your friend.

While it’s common to scrub the grime off your grill with a barbecue brush, its finicky metal bristles are known to come loose and stick to the grates, posing a serious health hazard if ingested.

While Health Canada has outlined a number of ways to minimize this risk, why not eliminate it altogether using another simple, yet not-so-known tool: Aluminum foil.

Pro Tip: According to Drouin, the most versatile barbecue accessory is heavy-duty aluminum foil. Not only can you use it to cook and store food, you can wad it up into a ball and wipe down your grates (risk-free!) and use it to rest your meat, line your trash can, and even snuff out any rogue embers, collect grease or fat buildup, protect your deflector plates, and maintain the quality of your appliance overall.

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9Always cover your grill when not in use.

Always cover your grill when not in use.

Even as the temperatures begin to dip, make sure to always cover your grill when not in use, to keep it protected from both water damage and sun damage.

And remember to check under the cover at least once a month, so that a buildup of excess moisture doesn’t cause water damage either. (While you’re at it, you might also want to make sure that no critters have made a home out of your appliance, too!)

Try: Grilled Fall Vegetables with Creamy Balsamic Dressing.

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10Leave space around your grill.

Leave space around your grill.

While it might feel natural to back your smoker up against a fence or railing, doing so can cause the affected surfaces to melt or discolour. In fact, the Government of Canada advises placing your grill on a flat, level surface at least three metres away from your house and other structures, including trees and overhangs.

And although it goes without saying, it’s worth noting the importance of having a fire extinguisher on hand.  And don’t feel too bad, once you’ve smothered  out the flames. Remember this unofficial pitmaster mantra: “Without failure, there is no success.”

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