Photographer: John Carey/Photolibrary RM/Getty Images

Thirteen Ways to Instantly Become Better at Grilling

From smoking fish in a flower pot to using fat trimmings in startling ways, top chefs have great tips for improving your grill game this summer.

A few weeks ago, we attempted to spoil summer with a list of foods that do not benefit from grilling, according to top chefs. On their hit list: Pizza. Salmon. Even burgers.

But really, if you’re looking to show off on a sweet summer afternoon, one sure way is to try to be creative at the grill. Use your mad skills to impress everyone at the barbecue.

To help you, we spoke to live fire cooking experts and got them to provide their best, fastest tips. Want the secret weapon for getting the best smoky flavor on your steak or pork chop or the best char on your chicken? They advise you to have some mayonnaise on hand, as well as a clean terra cotta flower pot. Confused? Read on.


Break Out the Mayo

Photographer: Brenda Spaude/StockFood/Getty Images

Who Says: Bruce Kalman, Union and Knead & Co. Pasta Bar + Market, Los Angeles

Why: “To make chicken skin especially crisp and the meat juicy, rub a little bit—not a lot—of mayonnaise under the skin before throwing it on the grill. You can also add a mix of softened butter, garlic, and herbs.”


Spray Flavor on ... the Coals

Who Says: Tim Love, Lonesome Dove, Dallas

Why: “To amplify that great, smoky flavor on meats that only take a short time to cook, use a fine spray bottle filled with peanut oil and spray your coals with it right after you place the meat on the grill. It gives it much bigger flavor.”


Extra Onions Always

A grilled onion is a secret weapon grill cleaner.
Photographer: vikif/iStockphoto

Who Says: Gavin Kaysen, Spoon & Stable, Minneapolis

Why: “To season my grill after I’ve cooked on it, I stick a fork in half a red or white onion and then rub down the grill with it. The onion helps clean any little bits off the grill that the brush may have missed and adds a little caramelized onion flavor. Just don’t grill desserts afterward.”

Who Else Says: Dan Kluger, Loring Place, New York

Why: “It’s always worth grilling extra onions. You can chop them up and add them to mayo to put on a burger or refrigerate them and reheat to serve on a night you haven’t fired up your grill. It will make the dish that much better.”


Protect Your Bones

Who Says: Josh Capon, Bowery Meat Company, New York

Why: "When you burn the bones on your steak, it’s amateur hour. They can turn black and get brittle, especially lamb chops. They will then break when you pick them up, which takes away the lollipop factor. That's what makes them easy to hold and enjoy at a BBQ on a summers day. So wrap those bones in foil, even for something major like a Tomahawk Chop. Just remove the foil toward the end of the cooking to give them a little color.”


Use a Flower Pot 

A flower pot can double as a smoker.
Photographer: Bernard Van Berg / EyeEm/EyeEm

Who Says: Terrence Gallivan, The Pass & Provisions, Houston

Why: “Turn a cheap, clean, hardware-store terra-cotta planter with drain holes into a smoker. Build a hot fire on one side of the grill. Put whatever food you want to smoke—chicken, pork, your leaner meats, fish—on the other side of the grill. Cover with the upside-down planter and let the food smoke over that indirect heat. If you want a specific smoky flavor, you can add chips, like cherry wood, but you don’t have to.  As a bonus, you can use the hot side of the grill for searing meat directly over high heat.”


Add Smokiness With a Dry Rub

Who Says: Hugh Mangum, Mighty Quinn's Barbeque, New York 

Why: “An awesome way to add smoky flavor in the shortest period of time is to use seasonings like smoked paprika and smoked salt before grilling. I use them at home, especially on things I don’t usually cook at work, like seafood and vegetables. As a general rule for rubs, seafood should be seasoned right before cooking or the rub will dry out the fish. For red meat, poultry, and pork, add the seasoning about a half hour before cooking. And if you like big bold flavors, let it sit for a few hours. Large cuts of meat can be spice rubbed and refrigerated overnight. For a quick smoky spice rub, mix two parts smoked paprika with one part smoked salt. When you think there’s enough rub on your meats, season, season, and season some more.


Don’t Touch That Burger

The perfect grilled burger.
Photographer: Galdones Photography

Who Says: Matt Jennings, Townsman, Boston

Why: “To make the perfect grilled burger, don't handle the meat too much when shaping the patties—the natural heat from your hands will melt the burger fat. Once the burger is on the grill, don't poke or prod it too frequently.”

Also:  “The second most important step in making a perfect cheeseburger is getting the cheese to melt perfectly. I allow about 90 seconds and cover the burgers to let the cheese melt on top. [If you have a cheese that does not come in a perfect slice,] grate the cheese and shape it into a ball, then press down to make it a thin disk that will melt evenly over the burger.”


Throw Flavorings On the Grill

Who Says: Scott Conant, Fusco, New York

Why: "I'll brush cloves of garlic and bunches of rosemary with olive oil, and set them on the grill away from the heat —you don't want them to catch on fire. Cover the grill, and they'll give the meat incredible, fragrant flavor. It's so easy and also looks gorgeous; it’s a great shot for Instagram."


Save the Scraps

Who Else Says: Chris Cosentino Acacia House in Napa Valley, California

Why: “You can throw vegetable scraps like corn husks, corn cobs, onion and garlic skins, etc. into the flames of an open-fire grill to add another layer of smoke flavor to whatever it is that you’re grilling.”


Grill Right on the Coals, Dirty Style

Who Says: Chris Cosentino, Acacia House, Napa Vallley

Why: “I will cooks steaks right on the coals using a shallow grill basket: I call them 'Dirty Steaks.' The ash from the coals imparts tons of flavor. Use a thick cut of steak, with nice marbling, and let it come to room temperature first. You can also rub it with a good rub to pump up that 'dirty flavor.'"


Don't Oil the Grate

Besides barbecue sauce, brush your ribs—not the grate—with oil.
Photographer: John Carey/Photolibrary RM

Who Says: Isaac Toups, Toups Meatery, New Orleans

Why: “Before grilling ribs, brush a little vegetable oil on the ribs—not the grate—to prevent sticking. The oil burns off the hot grill and can leave a bitter taste. When the oil chars on the meat, it creates a nice sear; it won't burn too much because the meat has moisture acting as a barrier. The brushing oil is a great place to add flavorings, like black pepper, chili flakes, smoked paprika, or other dry seasonings. Or rub them on the meat before the oil. Do not add organic compounds such as garlic or onion to the meat, because they will burn too quickly.”


Don't Ruin Your Meat Going for Perfect Grill Marks

Perfect diamond grill marks are not necessary.
Source: Sauce Communications

Who Says: Vitaly Paley, Imperial, Portland, Ore.

Why:  “When you’re grilling a thick steak or a large chunk of meat, don’t chase the perfect diamond grill marks; the meat will invariably overcook. Instead, turn the meat often, which ensures even cooking—it’s an old wives tale not to turn your meat frequently. You can leave it on a little longer at the end, if you want a good char.”


Trimmed Fat Is Not Trash

Who Says: Mike Randolph, Publico, St. Louis (where everything is cooked over a flame)

Why: “After you trim the fat off your steaks, render it in a cast-iron skillet with garlic and thyme over low heat. Strain and let it cool a bit and then pour over the trimmed meat in a ziplock bag. The flavored fat infuses thyme flavor into the meat in a way that doesn’t happen if you just add fresh herbs. Avoid flare-ups by wiping any excess fat off the steak with a paper towel before you grill it.”


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