How to Sharpen Your Grilling Skills This Summer

Master the art of open-flame cooking during this stay-at-home summer.

For me, meals grilled outdoors taste like summer, conjuring up late sunsets and lazy weekends. And the juicy, succulent food always tastes better than if it had been cooked on a stove. As a kid, my folks used a simple kettle-shaped charcoal model to make the tastiest burgers.

I can still recall the deliciousness today.

Whether you prefer the classic charcoal or the convenience of gas, step up your game with these tips from two local grill masters. Prepare for a summer of succulent foods made right in your own backyard and filled with flavor your tastebuds will look back on longingly for years to come. 

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Photo by Aliza Baran

Grilling With Gas

THERE ISN’T A TIME OF YEAR WHEN when Ben Minkin, co-owner of the kitchen supply store Fein Brothers, isn’t grilling. In the cold-weather months, when many have called it quits for the season and returned to their kitchens, Minkin is outside grilling burgers, chicken thighs, pork tenderloin and even bacon on his gas grill. “I’m out there two to three times a week, year-round,” he says. “I love it.”

Before You Buy

Consider the size. Minkin uses a model with four burners and a large surface area so he can spread out and cook more than just that night’s dinner. “We love leftovers. Before running to work, I can grab a burger from the fridge and a bun and there’s lunch,” says Minkin.

Think beyond the main dish. Side burners allow you to cook extras such as sauces (barbecue for your chicken), pan-fried onions or mushrooms to go along with a steak, or even scramble eggs in a skillet to go with grilled bacon. Some gas grills even have lights and built-in meat thermometers.

Pro Tips

Get comfortable with indirect heat. This allows you to cook low and slow, which is great for chicken, meatballs (“perfectly tender on the inside, crusty on the outside”) and bacon-wrapped, cheese-filled jalapeno peppers. For a cookout with chicken thighs, burgers and brats, he turns the two middle burners off and the two outer ones on. Placing the thighs in the middle over that indirect heat, he will cook them to 90% done, and then adds the burgers and brats to the outer sides of the grate cooking them on high. This way, everything is ready at the same time.

Photo by Aliza Baran

How do you know when it’s done?

Minkin relies on sight and feel to gauge doneness. “You want to gently press on the meat with the tongs and see what kind of resistance it gives back,” he says. The more often you grill meat, the better you will get at doing this – the more you will know how firm the meat should feel. For instance, he has turned pork chop grilling into a science – cook on direct heat for 8 to 10 minutes on each side. While the chops are cooking, “watch the clock and have a beer,” he says. Until you gain Minkin’s level of experience and confidence, you might want to try a meat thermometer.

Be organized and focused. Get your temperature where you want it to be, place the meat exactly where you want it to cook based on indirect or direct heat, then close the lid and let it cook. “If you’re constantly opening and closing the lid, you’re losing heat,” and the food is not going to cook evenly, Minkin says. And with pork and red meat, take the meat off the grill a little early because it will continue to cook after it’s been pulled off the grate. So if you want a beef filet cooked to medium, pull it when it’s medium-rare, cover it and let it sit for several minutes.

Upkeep

When he’s finished cooking, Minkin lets his grill cool down, covers it and puts it away. (He stores his grill in the garage.) “Next time I turn it on, I let the top grates get super-hot and scrape them off,” he says. He gives the grill a deep-clean – taking it apart and cleaning everything – once every 90 days. He keeps a couple of scrapers and a brush just for this purpose. “There’s so much that can drip down and cause a [fire] flare-up,” he says. Minkin performs these steps religiously. “If you take care of [your grill] and keep it clean, it will perform better,” he says.

Ben uses:

Weber Genesis II, Special Edition (model unavailable; the similar Genesis II E-410 retails for $1,000 at Wauwatosa Ace Hardware, 1525 N. 68th St.)

 

Why gas?

Convenience. You don’t need to spend an hour waiting for coals to get hot. Today’s gas grills heat up so fast, you can start cooking within minutes.

Photo by Aliza Baran

The Right Tools

Whichever grill type you choose, gear up with these essentials. 

A couple pairs of sturdy cooking tongs That’s all Paul Zerkel uses on his charcoal grill. You might use one pair specifically for building your fire; the other to handle food.  

A grilling turner or durable stainless steel spatula for flipping burgers.

A pair of tongs can work too, but you don’t want to puncture the meat. If you’re using it primarily for burgers, get a spatula with a wider shape and slight edge. Longer spatulas are ideal for fish.   

Perforated pan to cook veggies on.

On a gas grill, this makes it easy to cook your sides without overcooking them or risking them getting stuck to the grate. But with a charcoal grill, you may want that charring contact with the grate and direct heat from the coals. Just make sure that part of the grate is oiled.


Photo by Aliza Baran

Grilling With Charcoal

PAUL ZERKEL SAYS HE DIDN’T KNOW MUCH about grilling until opening Bay View’s Goodkind in 2014. At that point, he bought a rotisserie (the restaurant is known for spit-roasted meat) and was sussing out cookbooks. All he found were grilling books. But that turned him on to the work of New York chef Adam Perry Lang, whose grilling book Charred & Scruffed pushed Zerkel to experiment with outdoor flames more at home. And for a couple of months this past spring, Zerkel and his wife/fellow chef Lisa Kirkpatrick were cooking at home more than ever.  

Before You Buy 

Know what you’re looking for. Even heat distribution is key, and it’s achieved by adjusting the vents to let oxygen in and out and stacking the coals to create indirect and direct cooking zones. You also want a blazing-hot fire. Charcoal doesn’t contain water, allowing it to reach those white-coal temperatures that create the perfect sear on a steak or char on a cob of corn.     

Kettles are king – for a reason. Sure, there are numerous types of charcoal grills, from barrel shaped to flat-tops. The biggest advantage of these two is their surface size. If you entertain frequently or need to cook a lot of food at one time, they both offer a lot of grate space. But even a basic Weber Original Kettle grill (top-rated in Consumer Reports’ “Best Charcoal Grills of 2020”) can outperform the others simply based on its classic shape, which is optimal for heat circulation. Building two-zone cooking – separate hot and “cold” areas – is a breeze. If you want the highest-performing, most heat-efficient charcoal-burning grill on the market and cost isn’t a deterrent, consider a Kamado, whose models include The Big Green Egg (see opposite page). 

You’ll Also Need… 

Fuel. Choose lump charcoal over briquettes. Lump burns hotter. Zerkel also likes to add smoking (seasoned wood) chips, which give a more intense, smoky flavor. 

A fire starter.  Forget the lighter fluid. Buy a chimney. This hollow metal cylinder with a bottom grate holds the charcoal. You use newspaper and matches or an air-driven lighter to help the charcoal catch fire and never have food that tastes like lighter fluid. 

Photo by Aliza Baran

Pro Tips 

Tighten up your poultry game. There’s no need to fear dryness. One failsafe tactic is to opt for thigh meat, which has more fat and therefore greater juiciness and flavor. Don’t like dark meat? Buy bone-in, skin-on breasts and cook them carefully over indirect heat. Zerkel also recommends marinating the breast ahead of time and butterflying it – slicing open the breast to make two cutlets. You can also ask a butcher to butterfly the breasts for you. The way you cook this lean white meat makes a difference, too. To keep it from losing its precious juices, “I would sear it and move it to the cold side of the grill” to cook slowly, he says. He also buys whole chickens, cuts them up and has parts he can cook differently – grilled thighs, poached (in liquid on the stove) breasts for ramen. 

Grill a rib eye with a perfectly seared crust. First, season your meat with salt and let it come to room temperature. (You can even season it up to eight hours before cooking and let it sit in the fridge.) Position the steak on the hottest part of the grate and sear it for two to three minutes on each side. That “quick sear will give it a nice char,” says Zerkel. Then move the meat to the cooler part of the grill to finish it off to whatever temperature you like.  

Fall in love with vegetables. A favorite on the Zerkel grill is cabbage. “I’ll put a half-cabbage on the ‘cold’ side of the grill, get a good char on it, and it softens and becomes something else” – something wonderful, he says. To get that char – and avoid flare-ups on the grill – he oils the cabbage ahead of time (but only minimally) to prevent it from sticking to the grate. He then places it cut side down and leaves it alone. “The crust it forms will also help it separate” from the grate without falling apart, he says.  

Upkeep 

For cleaning, opt for a wire brush. Before using it each time, Zerkel scrapes the grate and wipes it down with oil. He usually buys a new cooking grate (they run around $30) at the beginning of the season.

Paul uses:

Weber Original Kettle 26,” $329 at Village Ace Hardware (2170 N. Prospect Ave.)

 

Why charcoal?

Proponents claim the big advantage is the flavor it imparts to food – that tantalizing smoky taste. But Zerkel, a professional chef who’s accustomed to using a stove’s knobs and temperature controls with precision, loves this method of cooking for its unpredictability. “The potential for disaster is higher,” but therein lies the reward, he says.

Photo by Aliza Baran

All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

The Big Green Egg can bake, slow-smoke, sauté and sear. If price is no object, this grill just might be for you. 
Photo courtesy of Didriks

You may have heard of this contraption – a green, egg-shaped ceramic grill that can cook a pizza at 700 degrees in minutes and smoke a beef brisket at 220 degrees for 14 hours. It also comes with a hefty price tag – from $400 for a mini to $4,000 for a massive, tricked-out model. The Big Green Egg is a grilling investment that may make sense if you plan to use it a lot. Todd Minkin does. The Fein Brothers co-owner keeps his Egg in regular rotation in summer. What does he like about it? “Because of the thickness of the ceramic, it holds its temperature well. It heats up really fast,” says Minkin, who uses his Egg to cook fish and smoke brisket, among many other things. It also requires “virtually zero upkeep,” he says. “It’s emptying out the ashes.” The Egg doesn’t require much charcoal, and for those who loathe cleaning grills, this one is low-maintenance. That’s another reason Minkin loves his Egg: He only needs to clean it once a season. To buy: acehardware.com/big-green-egg


Raw Materials

Local Sources for Meat and Fish 

Bunzel’s 

Particularly great for steaks, ground meat and pork – ribs, bone-in roasts, chops. (9015 W. Burleigh St., 414-873-7960) 

Kettle Range Meat Co. 

Known for grass-fed, dry-aged beef, including hand-cut steaks. They also carry pork from heritage bread hogs, make their own sausage and carry pasture-raised lamb.  Free delivery is offered, too. (5501 W. State St., 414-882-7000) 

Bavette la Boucherie 

Grass-fed beef and hand-made sausage are among the specialties available in the butcher case. (330 E. Menomonee St., 414-273-3375) 

Empire Fish Co. 

Fresh finds from tuna to mahi mahi, halibut to sea bass. Also carries Wisconsin pork, Strauss lamb and homemade sausage. (11200 W. Watertown Plank Rd., Wauwatosa, 414-259-1330) 

St. Paul Fish Co. 

Extensive selection of what’s fresh and often seasonal, including scallops, walleye and fresh oysters (just place them on the grill and wait for them to pop). (Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St., 414-220-8383; 6200 W. Mequon Rd., Mequon, 262-200-9909)


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June/July issue

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.