Grills are one ofthe most essential tools for al fresco cooking, but sometimes cooking over an open flame can seem intimidating. Don’t let that stop you!
With just a few simple tips and recipes from top chefs and barbecue experts, learn how to choose the perfect cut of steak, beef or chicken for the grill, master grilling fish without it getting stuck, and become a pro at salads, slaws and sides with perfectly grilled vegetables. This easy-to-navigate guide has everything you need to know, from safely lighting and cooking on a charcoal grill to the best way to clean your grill afterwards.
‘Tis the season for barbecue! So, who’s ready to brush up on their grilling skills? Click on the topics below to find out how to cook anything on a grill.
Charcoal | Fish | Vegetables and fruit | Chicken | Baby back ribs | Pork chops | Hot dogs and sausages | Burgers | Steak | Corn on the cob | Shellfish
How to cook on a charcoal grill
- Use a charcoal chimney to start the grill — not lighter fluid. To do this, open the vents, stuff newspaper loosely in the bottom of the chimney and fill it with charcoal. Remove the top grate of the grill, place the charcoal chimney inside of it and light the newspaper.
- Let the coals burn until they’re covered with white-gray ash (about 5 to 10 minutes for high heat and 25 to 30 minutes for medium heat).
- Wearing protective gloves, hold the chimney by the handles and pour all the hot charcoals into the grill.
- Grill foods like steaks, burgers and dense vegetables, like corn on the cob, on high heat but create a two-fire zone so you can finish cooking them on lower heat so the meat doesn’t get too tough.
Proteins that need to be thoroughly cooked through like pork chops, chicken, fish, uncooked hot dogs and sausages, along with denser fruits and vegetables, like pineapple and eggplant, should be cooked on medium-heat.
- Denser proteins like pork chops and fattier fishes can be cooked on charcoal grills at low heat after they get a nice sear on the higher setting first.
- Make sure to clean the grill after each use while it’s still hot using a stiff-wire grill brush or with our expert’s personal favorite tip, a peeled onion half!
Read more about how to cook safely on a charcoal grill.
Eva Kolenko / The Honeysuckle Cookbook
- Fattier, thicker fishes like salmon, grouper and halibut are best cooked directly on the grill. Flakier fishes work better in foil packets.
- A well-oiled grill (and fish) is the best way to ensure those fillets don’t stick.
- Skip the soak and season liberally instead. A fish out of water is just going to get soggy and fall apart if put into a wet marinade.
- Preheat the grill on medium-high heat, reduce it to medium and grill the fish with the lid closed until it reaches an internal temperature of 125 to 145 F.
- Use the right cooking utensils to ensure the fish doesn’t break. A slotted fish turner works best.
- If trying a cedar plank for that naturally smoky flavor, makes sure it is soaked thoroughly through for at least 3 hours in water. Always watch the fish on the plank, about 20 minutes, depending on the size.
Read more about how to cook salmon, halibut and other fish perfectly on the grill.
Vegetables and fruit
Nathan Congleton / TODAY
- Thick-cut vegetables like asparagus and cauliflower planks work best on the grill, but grilling leafy vegetables, cabbage and avocados add drama to slaws, salads and guacamole.
- Marinate vegetables at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes before putting on the grill.
- Get the grill hot: Medium to medium-high heat is about 500 to 700 F.
- Lay the vegetables down flat across the grill grates. Don’t disturb them until sear marks form on the bottom, then rotate 45 to 90 degrees for a cross-hatch effect. Flip and repeat on the other side. Remove from the grill and get ready to serve.
- Dress veggies in your favorite vinaigrette after grilling to make them really come alive.
Read more about how to grill cauliflower, avocados, squash and more veggies and fruits.
Nathan Congleton / TODAY
- Mix up a marinade, dry rub or brine to add flavor and tenderize the meat.
- Make sure the grill is cleaned properly, oiled well and preheated fully so the meat doesn’t stick.
- Know when to open and close the grill: Closing it turns it into an oven, which heats everything more evenly all around. This is good for large, un-pounded breasts and bone-in chicken. Leaving the lid open concentrates the heat only at the bottom, which is best for thinner breasts so that the bottom of the piece gets that nice char without overcooking the top.
- Pound, butterfly or slit chicken breasts to get evenly cooked, tender results.
- Grill chicken thighs and wings at two temperatures (first on the hottest center part of the lower rack and finish on the top rack or cooler area of the grill). Bone-in chicken always takes longer than boneless.
- You can also grill a whole bird, but we recommend butterflying it first.
Read more about how to grill chicken perfectly on the grill every time.
Baby back ribs
Nathan Congleton / TODAY
- Remove the shiny membrane on the bone side of the ribs.
- Make or buy a dry rub and apply it all over the ribs (including the backside) at least an hour before cooking them. It can even be rubbed in overnight.
- Prepare a great barbecue sauce (ribs aren’t the same without one!).
- Ribs should be placed on the grill meat-side up. You can tell they’re done when the meat has shrunk back from the ends of the bone to expose it and the meat’s internal temperature reaches 190 F on a digital thermometer.
- Smoking ribs on a gas grill takes about three hours and 30 minutes; smoking ribs in a smoker takes about 5 hours; cooking ribs on a charcoal grill takes about three hours.
Read more about how to barbecue ribs like a pro.
Whether you prefer boneless or bone-in chops, always try to go for the center cut to get the juiciest results.
- Make sure your grill is good and hot at medium-high to high heat.
- Similarly to steaks, remove pork from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking to allow the internal temperature to rise so the chops cook evenly.
- Let the pork chops rest for five minutes before cutting or serving them.
- Put glazes on your meat during the last few minutes of cooking. The sauce (especially sweet ones) will burn if applied too early.
Read more about how to grill beautiful pork chops.
Hot dogs and sausages
- When picking out your hot dogs or sausages at the store, read the labels. All beef, versus a mixture of pork and beef, have a higher fat content and are better to grill. Also watch out for unwanted fillers mixed in with the meat.
- Make sure the dogs are fully thawed, not frozen, before putting them on the grill.
- Give your dogs a short bath: Boiling them in a hoppy beer for a few minutes before grill time will make the flavor really shine.
- Unless you’re really, really concerned with getting lots of char marks on your dog, it’s best never to split it all the way down the middle.
- Grill hot dogs on medium (or just under) at about 400 to 425 F.
Unlike a lot of other proteins that you only flip once, move the dogs around evenly and often while they grill.
- Treat the buns (aka butter and warm them) and don’t skimp out on the toppings. Relishes, pickled onions, condiments and chili will all take it to the next level.
Read more about how to grill hot dogs and prepare them with tasty toppings.
- Choose ground beef with an 80/20 ratio of lean to fat. This cut has a higher fat content and results in juicy and moist burgers.
- Thoroughly season the meat, gently form then into balls and flatten them (lightly, without squeezing).
- Place them on a well-oiled hot grill over direct heat for about three minutes. Turn them and continue to cook over direct heat for about three more minutes. Move the patties to indirect heat and cook for an additional two minutes on each side. This will get them to medium-rare.
- Like hot dogs, a well-treated, toasted bun and delicious toppings are key to a great burger.
Read more about how to grill juicy burgers.
Alanna Hale / At Home with Natalie: Simple Recipes for Healthy Living from My Family’s Kitchen to Yours
- Steaks that are over one-inch thick are best for the grill (think strip, rib-eye, porterhouse, tenderloin filets and flank — though skirt is a great option, too).
- Heat the grill as hot as you can. If using charcoal, aim for 600 to 700 F. If using gas, aim for 500 F.
- Season both sides of your steaks with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper.
- Next, put your steak on the hottest section of the grill. Cook for two minutes. Rotate steaks 45 degrees and cook for another two minutes. (This technique will give you those beloved hatch marks.)
- Flip your steaks and let cook for another two minutes. Then, rotate 45 degrees and cook for another two minutes. Remove steak from the grill and place it onto a racked plate to catch any juices that drip. These hot juices can continue to cook the steak and lead to overcooking. Wait five minutes and then put the steaks back on the grill for 30 seconds on each side.
- Remove and place directly on serving plates.
Read more about how to prepare steak on the grill, in the oven and beyond.
Corn on the cob
Nathan Congleton / TODAY
- When buying fresh corn, makes sure it feels firm with a tight, green husk (not dried-out or browning). The tassels sticking out of the husk should look light brown or gold and feel a little sticky.
- Preheat the grill on medium-high heat.
- Grill corn without the husks by placing the cobs directly on the grates for 10 minutes, rotating every 3 to 4 minutes.
- If you cook it in foil, it won’t have that nice char but you can infuse it with flavor by adding butter and aromatics. Wrap each cob in foil and grill for 15 minutes, rotating every 3 to 4 minutes.
- You can also grill them right inside the husk for a nice char plus a natural smoky flavor. Remove any dry outer leaves and place on the grill, silks and all, for 15 minutes, rotating every 3 to 4 minutes.
Read more about how to season and grill corn on the cob.
Leon’s Oyster Shop
Oysters: Look for heartier, cold water varieties. Grill directly on medium-high heat until the shells open, about 5 minutes. Remove and run a clam or pairing knife through the center. Add a spoonful of your favorite sauce on top of the meat and cook again, about 2 minutes, until the sauce bubbles.
Mussels: Steam mussels first in broth, water, wine or beer so their brittle shells do not break on the grill. When cool enough to touch, remove mussel meat, discard one half-shell and return meat to other half-shell with compound butter or sauce. Grill on medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes until sauce bubbles.
Littleneck clams: Grill directly on medium-high heat until the shells open, about 5 minutes. Remove and run a clam or pairing knife through the center of the shell, underneath the meat. Discard one half of the shell and keep the meat in the other. Add butters with bright, citrusy notes, diced shallot or herbs like thyme, and return to grill until the buttery sauce melts and bubbles.
Lobster: Purchase live lobsters and prepare them in the sink while grill preheats to medium-high heat. Pierce top of head with chef’s knife and run it down the center of the body so the whole lobster is cut in half, entrails removed. Baste with butter and grill, shell-side down, until the meat is no longer translucent and the shell is bright red with grill marks.
Shrimp: Buy larger shrimp (frozen in the bag is totally fine), shells-on, heads-off. Marinate ahead of time in something acidic like garlic and vinegar or spiced yogurt. Grill on medium-high heat directly on grates or on skewers, until the meat is opaque and shells have a nice char.
Scallops: Buy sea, diver or day boat scallops (bay scallops are too small) that are not packaged in a solution or brine. Massage with a little olive oil to prevent from burning and press down gently on one side. Grill on medium-high heat, about 4 minutes. Flip and kiss with heat about 2 minutes more.
Read more about how to shop for, prepare and grill shellfish.