On my street there is no mistaking the smoky, savory notes carried on the breeze when a neighbor fires up a grill full of meat. Cooking raw meat over a live fire is quintessential grilling and truly a method as old as time.
Grilling meat to a safe and delicious temperature for consumption is a seemingly straightforward process, but to achieve backyard grillmaster status, it’s important to understand the types of heat and the degrees of temperature needed for each cut.
As I said above, meat should be cooked to a safe and delicious temperature. A bone-in ribeye steak is safe to eat with an internal temperature of 180º F, but unless you are looking for a doorstop, you will not want to eat it.
Conversely, the BBQ mainstay, pork butt, is safe to eat at 145º F, but if you were planning on succulent pulled pork, you are 50 plus degrees short.
Knowing different types of meat have different heat needs, let’s look at the grill and how we can prepare for whatever the butcher throws at us.
Preheat the grill.
Always pre-heat your grill at a high temperature for approximately 15 minutes before cooking. This is especially true on a gas grill, which needs time for the burners to heat the grill grates.
When meat is placed on hot grates, the Maillard reaction (which is the chemical process for the browning of meat) occurs. Those areas of browned meat are the grill marks and the grill marks hold the flavor. If the grill is not given time to come to temperature, it will still cook that steak, but it will not be your best.
Clean the grates.
Last night’s grilled dinner might have been out of this world, but we do not want to taste it again tonight.
Once the grill is heated, brush the grates clean with a sturdy grill brush. It’s a good idea to not only brush the grates clean before but also after you’ve finished grilling. A clean grill is a happy grill and grates free of debris and burnt food pave the way for delicious grill marks – and remember, grill marks are flavor!
For gas grill users: do NOT get into the habit of “burning off” dinner by letting the grill run on high while you eat. This extra heat will speed up the erosion of the grates, and I’m willing to bet that one night, perhaps after a few libations, you forget to turn it off. There is nothing worse than preparing to grill dinner only to find the propane tank empty. (This may have happened to me on more than one occasion in my early days, just sayin’.)
Set up a two-zone heat fire.
No matter if using a gas grill or charcoal grill, it’s important to always prepare a two-zone fire. On a gas grill, this means leaving a burner, or burners, turned off and on a charcoal grill, an area on the fuel grate without any coals.
While some recipes require only indirect cooking, direct recipes still benefit from an indirect area in case a steak or chop is cooking too fast and needs a safe place to land.
Use proper grilling tools.
While there are a bevy of grill-related tools lining your favorite big box store, we only require a few for beef: heavy-duty grill tongs, heat-resistant gloves, a timer, and an instant-read thermometer.
Tongs are used to move the food. Gloves are to keep you out of the urgent care. The timer keeps you on track and the thermometer is to ensure a properly cooked piece of meat.
As an added thought, I use small sheet pans to take food in and out of the house, being careful to wash between uses to avoid contamination between uncooked and cooked meat.
Keep the grill lid closed.
Whether it is a short or long cook, remember to keep the grill lid down. Repeatedly opening the lid releases the grill’s hot air, and hot air is just important as important for grilling as hot grates and full heat source. As the old saying goes, “looking ain’t cooking.” Your timer will not let you down.
How to Prep Your Meat
Before beef hits the hot grates, two things need to happen. The beef needs to be oiled and it needs to be seasoned, especially with kosher salt. Lightly brushing the meat with olive oil helps prevent the meat from sticking to the grill and keeps the seasoning on the meat.
Speaking of seasoning, be generous! The crust and those grill marks hold flavor and we want the seasoning to come through.
Some recipes call for a marinade, which add a lot of flavor to each bite. However, if the marinade is composed of sugar, be vigilant by the grill as the sugar will burn. Marinated foods are why a two-zone fire is essential; once the meat starts to brown over direct heat, it needs to be moved to indirect to safely finish cooking.
Temperature Ranges for Grilled Meat
Different types of meat cook in different temperature ranges, so a recipe might call for low heat (250º to 350º F), medium heat (350º to 450º F), or high heat (450º to 550º F). A hamburger needs a high heat for a fast cook whereas a large rib roast can be cooked at a low temperature to promote even cooking.
On a gas grill, these temperature ranges are achieved by controlling the burners. Sometimes, for very low heat, this might even involve turning a burner off.
On a charcoal grill, temperature is dictated by the amount of lit briquettes coupled with the flow of oxygen. Operating the vents on the top and bottom of the grill aids in raising or lowering the temperature. A charcoal grill might seem daunting to work, but with time, is in my opinion just as easy its gas counterpart.
With these basic grilling principles down, let’s look at some specific types of meat:
How to Grill Pork Chops
If there is one food I never order out and only grill at home, it’s the pork chop.
Unlike the varying degrees of beef doneness, a pork chop is either cooked correctly or it’s not. Historically, the fear of trichinosis through the consumption of undercooked pork required very high and, frankly, an unsatisfying final cooked temperature. With modern pork processing, this risk has virtually been eliminated allowing pork to be deliciously and safely cooked to 145ºF.
For great grilled pork chops, do the following:
- Select pork chops 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Lightly brush the chops with olive oil and season with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
- Grill the pork chops over direct medium heat (350º to 450º F) for 8 to 10 minutes. Flip once. Cook until the internal temperature of the chop reads 145º F with an instant read-thermometer.
While it's always a good idea to setup a two-zone fire, pork chops are lean and have little fat to create flareups. Just be sure to remove from the grill when they hit temperature. Anything higher and they start to dry out.
How to Grill Steak
To me, there is nothing more satisfying than a grilled bone-in ribeye. However, there is a lot to consider when pursuing the lofty goal of a perfectly cooked steak: the cut, thickness, and general size all play into the type and amount of heat needed on the grill.
A 1 1/2 inch ribeye can achieve a “wall-to-wall” medium rare of 135º F internal with only eight total minutes on the grill over direct high heat. However, to achieve the same results with a 2 1/2 inch tenderloin filet, I use a combination of indirect low and direct high heat, also known as the reverse sear, to evenly cook the inside before searing the outside.
Do not just gravitate to the old steak standbys, though. While I love to grill ribeyes and porterhouses, less frequented cuts such as flank and skirt pack in a lot of meaty flavor.
How to Grill a Rack of Lamb
Lamb is best when cooked medium-rare, which one reason to go with the entire rack. Another reason is that with small chops, all the flipping can make it easy to go a little long with the cook and overshoot the final cook temperature. Here’s what to do:
- Prepare a two-zone fire for both direct and indirect heat. You’ll want a two-zone fire if you’re going to be grilling a whole rack of lamb. Brush the grates clean.
- Lightly brush the lamb with olive oil and season. At the minimum season with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper. For additional flavor, consider fresh herbs like thyme or rosemary.
- Cover bones with aluminum foil. Since the bones of a frenched rack of lamb are visible, use aluminum foil to wrap and protect them from burning,
- Grill the rack of lamb over direct heat (350º to 450º F) for 4 to 5 minutes, flipping once. Move to indirect heat and continue cooking until the internal temperature reads 135º F, 10 to 15 minutes more.
- Remove from the grill and remove the foil from the ribs. Loosely tent the rack of lamb with foil and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
How to Grill Hamburgers
Growing up, I watched my Dad grill burgers that swelled up like meatballs on the grate. Under heat, hamburger patties shrink and swell up in the middle. Years later, I learned to prevent this by using my thumb to place a dimple in the bottom of the patty. This allows the burger to expand, but not swell up. Goodbye, Dad burgers!
When flipping burgers, or any beef on the grill, be sure to place the burger down in a different spot from where you lifted it. The grill grate does not have time to reclaim heat in the few seconds it takes to flip a burger. Find a new hot spot to generate a new sear and continue the cook.
How to BBQ on the Grill
These tougher pieces of meat transform into succulent shreds of meat when cooked over very low indirect heat for hours at a time. BBQ takes time and patience but is more than worth it.
While important to all beef, there is one step past cooking especially important to BBQ: the resting time. After the meat is done cooking, it is crucial to give it time to sit before carving, slicing, or pulling.
This downtime, in the case of brisket or pulled pork, can be hours. But during this time, it allows for the rendered fat to redistribute itself, making for an exceptionally tender first bite when done.