Tips for Quick-Grilling Ten Great Foods

Tips for Quick-Grilling Ten Great Foods

The Griller's Skills by Chef Rick Bayless:

Rick Bayless is one of America's most celebrated chefs and a self-professed "grill geek." He cooks on a Kalamazoo Hybrid Fire Grill at home and on his PBS show, Mexico—One Plate at a Time.

Rick has been selected as Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chef of the Year and has won the James Beard and IACP awards for Chef of the Year. We thoroughly enjoyed cheering him on to his big win on the first season of Bravo's Top Chef Masters, and we are delighted to share Rick's Tips for Quick-Grilling Ten Great Foods.

Adapted for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet from Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless with Deann Groen Bayless


1. Skirt or Flank Steak

These are two deliciously beefy-tasting cuts, flank being the leanest (and driest if cooked past medium). Outside skirt is smaller, thicker and more tender than inside skirt. Inner skirt is often butterflied by Mexican butchers for grilling or griddling to well done and chopping into little bits for street-stall–style soft tacos. Outer skirt is more worthy of the name “steak.”

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Direct grilling over a gas fire—All main burners on medium-high for grilling at 500 to 600 degrees.

Direct grilling over a charcoal or wood fire—Start a medium amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over all main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started turn all main burners to low or off for grilling at 500 to 600 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
For skirt steak, Yucatecan Garlic-Spice Marinade with Guacamole; for flank steak, Adobo Marinade with Toasty Guajillo Chile Salsa.

GRILLING SKILLS:
Both of these very beefy-tasting cuts like to be cooked quickly over direct heat to a medium doneness—too rare, and they will be chewy; too well done, and they can be tough and dry (especially flank steak). Letting the flank steak rest for several minutes after grilling promotes juiciness. Both must be sliced across the grain, or they will be stringy. For skirt steak, that means cutting the meat into 3- or 5-inch sections, then cutting each section across the grain into strips. For flank, working across its width, slice the meat into long thin strips; angling your cut (what chefs call a “bias cut”) will give you the widest, nicest-looking strips. If you've seen street vendors cook skirt steak well-done in Mexico, you may have noticed also that they chop it into small pieces before making it into tacos (this mitigates the resulting toughness).


2. Rib-eye, New York Strip or Chuck Steak

Rib-eye is my favorite steak: beefy-tasting and juicy. New York strip is leaner and a touch lighter in flavor. Chuck steak has wonderful flavor and is the least expensive by far, but it can be a little chewy. I didn't list sirloin because I'm not a fan—too fine-grained for me, too lean (meaning it can go dry with a moment's overcooking), too light in beef flavor.

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Direct grilling over a gas fire—All main burners on medium-high for grilling at 500 to 600 degrees.

Direct grilling over a charcoal or wood fire—Start a medium amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over all main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started turn all main burners to low or off for grilling at 500 to 600 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
Ancho Rub or Chipotle Rub with smoky Chipotle Salsa.

GRILLING SKILLS:
These cuts cook well directly over the heat unless they are very thick or you're angling toward well-done—then you'll want to brown it (“mark it,” as chefs say) over direct heat, then move it away from the fire,or the exterior will burn before the meat is as done as you like. Like skirt and flank, chuck steak is most tender and tasty cooked to medium. All steaks benefit greatly from a 5-minute rest in a low oven before being served.


3. Pork Loin, Tenderloin or Chops

Pork has been bred leaner and leaner in the United States, translating into a healthier meat, no doubt, but one with little character. When you add to that the worry about the safety of anything but ultra-well-done pork, there's no wonder pork holds little interest for the majority of us. However, . . . if you taste naturally raised pork from a heritage breed, slow-cooked to just the right doneness, you'll be smitten. Pork might just become your favorite meat in the world.

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Direct and indirect with a gas fire—Half the main burners on medium for grilling at about 400 degrees.

Direct grilling over a charcoal or wood fire—Start a medium amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over half the main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started, turn all main burners off. Let temperature subside to 450 to 500 degrees before direct grilling. Temperature can continue to drop during indirect grilling, but add wood as needed or use the burners to keep the temperature above 350 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
Adobo Marinade with Toasty Guajillo Chile Salsa, made with orange juice rather than water.

GRILLING SKILLS:
It's all about “mark and move”: Sear the pork directly over the fire to brown it (“mark it,” as chefs say), then move it away from the fire to coast slowly to about 150 degrees (check it with an instant-read thermometer). For the juiciest pork, let it rest in a low oven for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.


4. Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts

I know that these are the favorites of the “I want to eat healthy” clan, but they can be so boring—unless you give them a wonderful marinade and grill them with a sure hand.

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Direct and indirect grilling with a gas fire—Half the main burners on high for grilling at about 500 degrees.

Direct and indirect grilling with a charcoal or wood fire—Start a medium amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over half the main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started turn all main burners to low or off for grilling at 500 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
Yucatecan Garlic-Spice Marinade with Roasted Fresh Chile Salsa and simple Guacamole.

GRILLING SKILLS:
Though you can grill chicken breasts to doneness directly over the heat, I think they come out a little juicier when seared hot and finished slow. Sear the chicken breasts over medium-high heat until tantalizingly browned (I like the flavor dark grill marks add), then turn them and brown the other side. Move the grill-seared breasts away from the fire and let them cook slowly until they are as firm as the muscle under your thumb when you clench your fist somewhat tightly.


5. Chicken, Whole or Cut-Up

Chicken cooked with the skin and bone is the juiciest and most flavorful, especially if it's allowed to cook slowly.

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Indirect grilling with a gas fire—Half the main burners on medium to cook at 325 to 400 degrees.

Indirect grilling with a charcoal or wood fire—Start a small amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over half the main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started turn all main burners to low for cooking at 325 to 400 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
Chipotle Rub with Roasted Tomatillo Salsa.

GRILLING SKILLS:
Whole or cut-up chicken wants longer, slower cooking than boneless, skinless breasts. Lay the chicken on the cooler part of the grill, skin side up, and let it cook. That's it: no moving, no fuss. I check doneness by pressing firmly on a thigh to ensure that the meat is done enough to come easily free of the bone (you can also cut into the thigh to make certain that the juices run clear).


6. Lamb Chops or Racks

This tender, full-flavored cut is a favorite among those who, like me, love searching out new dimensions of taste. It's rich and satisfying, only hinting at the fullness of wild game if cooked well-done.

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Direct and indirect grilling with a gas fire—Half the main burners on high for grilling at 500 to 600 degrees.

Direct and indirect grilling with a charcoal or wood fire—Start a medium amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over half the main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started, turn all main burners to low or off for grilling at 500 to 600 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
For chops, Yucatecan Garlic-Spice Marinade with Fresh Tomatillo Salsa or Roasted Fresh Chile Salsa. For racks, Adobo Marinade with smoky Chipotle Salsa.

GRILLING SKILLS:
As with beef steaks, lamb chops have the best texture and liveliest flavor, in my opinion, when cooked directly (and briefly) over rather high heat until they're no more than medium. Treat lamb racks as you would thick pork chops: “Mark and move,” meaning that you sear them directly over the heat until richly browned on both sides, then move them to a cooler spot to slowly come to a juicy doneness.


7. Boneless, Skinless Duck Breasts

Think of duck breasts as the lamb of the poultry world, though less rich and finer-grained. Their full flavor is most attractive, I feel, when the meat is between medium and medium-rare. If you cook it more, slightly gamey flavors emerge, overwhelming the natural sweetness. If you cook it less, the meat is tough. If your duck breast still has its thick skin intact, simply pull it off as you would chicken breast skin, using a paring knife to help free it where two breast halves are joined (or occasionally at the edges).

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Direct and indirect grilling with a gas fire—Half the main burners on medium for grilling at about 400 degrees.

Direct and indirect grilling with a charcoal or wood fire—Start a medium amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over half the main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started, turn all main burners off. Let temperature subside to 450 to 500 degrees before direct grilling. Temperature can continue to drop during indirect grilling, but add wood as needed or use the burners to keep the temperature above 350 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
Adobo Marinade and smoky Chipotle Salsa sweetened with a little honey.

GRILLING SKILLS:
Grill duck breasts as you would chicken breasts, searing both sides over the hottest part of the grill, then moving them to a cooler spot to coast gently toward your perfect juicy doneness.


8. Salmon, Halibut, Striped Bass or Catfish

While there are many other great large-flake fish to grill (snapper, mahimahi, cobia, grouper, cod), wild-caught salmon, halibut and striped bass are the most well-managed fisheries, ecologically speaking; and most of the catfish in our markets is farm-raised using sustainable practices.

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Direct and indirect grilling with a gas fire—Half the main burners on medium for grilling at about 500 degrees.

Direct and indirect grilling with a charcoal or wood fire—Start a medium amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over half the main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started, turn all main burners to low or off for grilling at about 500 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
Garlic-Lime Marinade with Fresh or Roasted Tomatillo Salsa.

GRILLING SKILLS:
Though fish can be grilled entirely over direct heat, it's delicate and can overcook quickly. I suggest that you lay the fish over direct heat and leave it until the grill marks are a rich brown and the fish is well over half-cooked—that's when it will have released from the grill grates and be easiest to turn. Flip it over onto the cooler side of the grill and let it coast slowly to perfect doneness. For these fish, that'll be when the fish flakes under firm pressure—if it flakes easily under gentle pressure, the fish is well-done; if only the outer layer flakes under firm pressure, the fish is medium-rare to rare inside, which many of us like, especially with salmon.


9. Tuna and Swordfish Steaks

I grill tuna and swordfish steaks a little less done than other fish; because of their leanness (especially tuna's), fully cooked tuna and swordfish can taste dry. Just as important as the cooking technique should be your source: North Atlantic and Pacific swordfish are considered the least overfished populations, as are big-eye and albacore tuna (especially those caught by hand lines and trolling in Hawaiian waters); these offer not only the best-tasting delicacies, but also the ecologically healthiest.

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Direct grilling over a gas fire—All main burners on medium-high for grilling at 500 to 600 degrees.

Direct grilling over a charcoal or wood fire—Start a medium amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over all main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started turn all main burners to low or off for grilling at 500 to 600 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
Adobo Marinade with smoky Chipotle Salsa, with a generous addition of chopped cilantro.

GRILLING SKILLS:
Because these fish are firmer than those listed above and are typically enjoyed less well done, I cook them start-to-finish over direct heat. Under firm pressure, only the outer layer should flake. If you're worried about a cool center, let the fish warm to room temperature before grilling.


10. Shrimp

With good reason, shrimp are among the world's favorite foods. There are wild and farm-raised varieties, the former typically having the best taste and texture (especially if you're eating them fresh from the water). I'm wild about shrimp, but I'm aware of how questionable they can be from an ecological perspective: shrimping can be destructive to natural habitats; shrimp farms have caused destruction of some coastal environments. So I eat shrimp in moderation and keep abreast of new shrimping and shrimp farming techniques.

SETUP FOR YOUR KALAMAZOO:
Direct grilling over a gas fire—All main burners on medium for grilling at 400 to 500 degrees.

Direct grilling over a charcoal or wood fire—Start a medium amount of wood chunks or lump charcoal over all main burners on high. Once wood or charcoal has started turn all main burners to off for grilling at 400 to 500 degrees.

GREAT FLAVOR COMBOS:
Garlic-Lime Marinade with Chunky Fresh Tomato Salsa. Feel free to sear the salsa in a hot pan just before serving for another delicious approach.

GRILLING SKILLS:
Grilling shrimp is a snap . . . except that there are lots of pieces, which can get caught (or fall through) the grill grates. Solve the problem by skewering 6 to 8 together or cooking them on a perforated grill pan. If you devein the shrimp (cut a 1/4-inch-deep incision down the back and pull out the, usually dark, intestinal tract), you'll also be able to see when the shrimp is cooked to juicy deliciousness—at the deepest part of the incision, the meat will just be turning from translucent to milky white.


Judging Temperature, Judging Doneness

Without a doubt, the most difficult aspects of cooking to translate into words are the temperatures of a burner or grill (oven temperatures can be quite accurately set) and the doneness of meat, poultry and fish. All cookbook authors struggle to devise ways for describing just the right way to get their readers to the very best dish. Yet even those striving for the greatest precision can't really achieve it: the editors at the ultra-exact Cook's Illustrated magazine tell us that a medium-hot charcoal fire is one that you can hold your hand 5 inches above for only 3 to 4 seconds before you need to withdraw it, which never works for me—my hands (or my pain threshold) seem to be quite different from theirs.

So rather than pretend that you can get Rembrandt results following my paint-by-number directions, I'll just admit that there is a lot of craft to cooking, craft that can only be honed through repeated practice. Which isn't to say that I'm leaving you to fend for yourself by telling you to cook whatever's on the heat until it's done as you like. No, I'm offering a host of clues that I think will get you to a great result: cooking temperatures, appearances, approximate times and internal temperatures for thick cuts. But I'm offering those clues with the understanding that you'll put them to the test, experimenting to find out if your understanding of medium-high heat is the same as mine, if you like skirt steak done to medium (and how long that typically takes on your grill), or just what richly browned onions look like and whether or not you like that flavor. As I tell novice cooks in my restaurant: it's not until you've felt a hundred charcoal fires and seen how the chicken breast or pork loin responds to each of them—and, more important, how you like the results—that you'll have developed the craftsman-cook's understanding of how to adjust time to temperature to create the perfect result you're striving for.

There is one more thing I can offer: a few words to describe what a steak or a chicken breast or a fish fillet feels like when done to different stages. To tell the truth, professional chefs rely on touch more than time and temperature to judge the doneness of most foods. Do this exercise: With your hand relaxed, open and facing you, press gently on the fleshy muscle that extends from the base of your thumb toward your wrist. That's what rare meat feels like. Now make a clenched fist, squeezing as hard as you can. Press on the muscle again: that's what well-done meat feels like. As you unclench your fist, you'll feel that muscle move from the feel of well-done to medium-well to medium to medium-rare.

Of course, that muscle is only going to give a general approximation of degrees-of-doneness, especially since everyone's hand, like each cut of meat, is going to be slightly different. A rich rib-eye will feel softer at medium-rare. than a lean chicken or duck breast. And the feel of cooking fish is a different matter altogether. But at least this exercise can start you down the road to feeling your way to doneness.

For many of us, it's mastering this craft of cooking that is exhilarating—occasionally challenging, hopefully never discouraging. It's certainly what keeps me eager to approach the stove after so many years of professional dedication.

 


A Sticky Subject

Marinated or not, everything I grill gets a spray (or light brushing) of oil before it's laid on the grill. And with the exception of whole chicken, everything first goes over the hottest spot on the grill and is left, undisturbed, until the grill grates have seared in their browned goodness—and, if all is going right, released the food from their grasp. Though grill-sticking can sometimes be caused by marinades, the usual culprit is grill grates that are not hot enough. Always work with a fire that's at least medium-hot and with preheated grill grates, and don't try to move the food until the grill marks are a rich brown. The heavier the grill grates, the better—well-seasoned cast iron is my favorite.