THE GIRL'S GUIDE TO HEALTHY GRILLING

Put on your mitts, grab your braai tongs, and head for the backyard. Grilling is no longer the sole domain of the men in your house. 

In the summer in the backyard, it is men wearing the oven mitts.  Barbecue (“braai”) is as masculine as the man cave, even among men who don’t know the difference between a sauce and a sauté pan. Guy grillers tend to be devoted to their craft, spending hours debating the taste nuances of the dry rub versus the marinade and whether alder or cedar planks are best for cooking salmon on the grill.   

What’s the appeal? Maybe it’s the danger - fire! Or the sharp implements, or, increasingly, the high-tech grilling gadgets, but many backyard patios seem to be posted “No Girls Allowed.”  

Or could the allure be something men have been keeping a secret for years? What aren’t they telling us?  

“Grilling is fun, and it creates a lot fewer dishes than cooking inside,” says Robyn Lindars of Miami, who competes annually with her dad on a barbecue team at the World Championship BBQ Competition in Memphis, runs women’s grilling clinics, and blogs about grilling on grillgrrrl.com

Fun and minimal clean-up? Maybe it’s time to put a little feminine spin on dude food.  For the best advice to get you grilling, we went to Lindars, who is a trained Florida Barbecue Association judge, and the woman known as the Queen Mother of Que: Carolyn Wells of Kansas City, Kansas, a town synonymous with barbecue, where she founded the Kansas City Barbeque Society a couple of decades ago. Wells is now the executive director of the organization, the largest group of barbecue enthusiasts in the world, and has won more than 150 awards in barbecue cooking contests, which she refers to as a testosterone-laden sport. Here’s what they think you need to know.

 

Grilling isn’t always barbecuing

Though most of us use the words interchangeably, they mean different things to the pros. “Barbecue is low and slow, and grilling is hot and fast,” explains Wells. A tough cut of meat, like a brisket, ribs, or a skirt steak, needs to be cooked “low and slow” to break down its fibrous connective tissue; otherwise, the meat will be tough and chewy with a crust like a charcoal briquette. You need a long-burning fuel like charcoal or wood (or a combo) to barbecue meats. Grilling is for the usual outdoor-meal suspects like steak, burgers, hot dogs, sausage, and chicken, though there’s a secret to grilling chicken so it’s not burned on the outside and raw on the inside. 

Gas and charcoal: it’s all good

Both fuel sources have their advantages. If time is your nemesis, you’re probably better off with a gas grill, say both our experts. “If you’re a weeknight griller, you may not have an extra 20 minutes to get the coals going and still be able to eat in the daylight,” says Lindars.  Plus, a gas grill is a good entrée for the novice griller, especially one with arsonphobia--fear of fire. “Gas is very easy to control,” says Wells. It’s just like having a gas stove on your back patio, complete with starter, instant flame, and adjustment knobs. 

If time is less of an issue and you prefer the unique taste of charcoal, the right tools will get your charcoal fire up and running quicker. You still have to wait about 20 minutes for the coals to get to that ashy grey “now we’re hot enough” state before you can start cooking, but it does cut out sometime, plus it eliminates the unpleasant lighter fluid “marinade” that can ruin a good burger. Charcoal adds great flavour to meat and is so popular that there are charcoal seasonings on the market that promise “off-the-grill flavour” without firing up the grill. “But gas is an odourless, colourless, and tasteless fuel source,” says Wells. “If you want flavour, you can enhance it with wood chips soaked in water and wrapped in aluminium foil to get them smouldering and imparting their flavour.” 

Charcoal flavour can also be enhanced by adding wood chips, chunks, or sticks made of mesquite, hickory, pecan, maple, alder, and sweet-tasting fruitwoods like cherry, peach, and apple. “For chicken, the grapevine is incredible, very light and complementary,” says Wells. “They’re available commercially, but some vineyards will give you vines when they thin their plants.” Soak them in water first so they smoke rather than flame.

Meat isn’t the only food you can grill

Lindars not only makes veggies and dessert, she even grills drinks--well, the fruit that goes in them. “You use fewer dishes if you just throw your veggies on the grill at the same time that you’re cooking your meat,” she points out. “When I’m making a steak, I put mushrooms, garlic, and some red wine or kale with garlic and red wine vinegar into an aluminium foil packet and let them steam.” Wells likes to put seasonal veggies in a grill basket with a little olive oil and squeeze of lemon and cook until they’re tender-crisp. “My favourite dessert is slices of pineapple sprinkled with brown sugar and dark Rum,” she says. “The alcohol dissipates, leaving spiced rum on the top.”

And of course, there are S’mores, that old campfire treat: a chocolate bar and grilled marshmallow sandwiched between two Marie Biscuits. “S’mores are more popular than they’ve ever been - what’s old is new again,” says Wells, laughing.

Experiment with seasonings and sauces. 

Start with something simple - salt, pepper, and olive oil - and build from there. These go-to seasonings are no longer as basic as you might think. Salt and pepper both come in many flavours. “You can experiment with different varieties of peppercorns, like tellicherry [black] or some of the green, pink, or white ones,” suggests Wells. Their flavours vary - for example, white peppercorns tend to be hotter, while pink ones (which aren’t actually peppercorns) are sweeter. 

Both Wells and Lindars prefer sea salt. “It’s not as bitter as table salt,” says Wells. Like peppercorns, it comes in an array of flavours and colours. Lindars makes her own finishing salts for use after cooking, for example, she might add citrus rinds to sea salt for a refreshing finish to fish or chicken. She’s also a fan of smoked paprika. The only rule of flavouring is this: Anything with tomatoes and sugar--the main ingredients of barbecue sauces--shouldn’t go on until the last 15 minutes of cooking. “Otherwise it’s going to be a black, sticky mess,” warns Wells.

Once you get comfortable and a little more savvy about grilling and barbecue, you may want to start experimenting with “flavour profiles” - layers of flavour that reflect a more sophisticated palate. “You might start with a brine, which adds moisture,” says Wells. This is a basic salt-and-water mixture (about 1 cup of salt per 3.5 litres of water), plus sugar and a mixture of herbs and spices, into which your meat is submerged anywhere from 30 minutes to 12 hours. Then you add your dry rubs: mixtures of salt and pepper and other seasonings that are rubbed onto the meat. You can also use a marinade made of your choice of seasonings mixed with oil and/or vinegar. You can even whip up your favourite salad dressing--or just use bottled dressing. “Cinnamon, coffee, and even cola make very good marinades, particularly on beef,” says Wells. “The idea is not to mask the flavour of the meat but to enhance it.” 

The one piece of equipment you need besides your grill is…

A meat thermometer, says Lindars. It can mean the difference between a delicious meal and something only the dog will eat. “It totally eliminates rubber chicken syndrome,” she jokes. Using a meat thermometer also allows you to cook your husband’s steak rare and your mom’s well-done at the same time. “For rare, pull the steak off the grill when the internal temperature reaches 57°C; for well done, 72°C,” says Lindars. “That way everyone’s happy.” 

Another item that comes in handy (besides tongs, forks, and a spatula) is a wood plank for fish. “It adds a ton of flavour,” says Lindars, “and it’s a cool presentation because you can serve the fish right on it.” Planks, available in most kitchen departments, are usually made of cedar or alder. 

Don’t fear fish

Even if you don’t have a plank, you can cook fish on a grill without demolishing it. You can place thicker, steak-like fish such as salmon or swordfish directly on the grill as long as you spray the grate with oil first. “You’ll get those nice char marks,” says Lindars. “And foil can be your best friend for thin pieces of fish like flounder. While you’re grilling the fish, cut a lemon in half, grill it, and serve it with the fish.” 

Just enjoy it

“Cooking outdoors is all about food, family, friends, and fun,” says Wells. “It’s a direct backlash against the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Barbecue is the ultimate comfort food. It’s right up there with baseball, mom, and apple pie. And you get to eat it with your hands.”

 

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