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updated 5/14/2008 2:10:15 PM ET 2008-05-14T18:10:15

It's grilling season, and in your mind's eye, you can picture yourself standing confidently over a hot fire, tongs in hand. But in reality you have no idea how to get to that point. What kind of grill should you buy? How do you build the fire? What about fancy add-ons like wood chips and chimney starters? It's enough to make you either retreat to the safety of indoor cooking or just buy a bag of Kingsford Match Light and call it a day.

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But that would be a shame, because good grilling is nowhere near as complicated as it might seem. We called on Steven Raichlen, whose numerous books on the subject (including the 2004 James Beard Award winner "BBQ USA") and PBS television show "Barbecue University" have introduced millions to the joys of outdoor cooking. Raichlen gave us the lowdown on what to buy, how to use it, and where to go from there. Read on, and you'll soon be grilling like a pro.

Buying a grill
The first question when buying a grill is: gas or charcoal? "This depends on whether you're a 'journey' or a 'destination' person," says grilling guru Steven Raichlen. "Charcoal burns hotter and makes it easier to tackle more advanced techniques like smoking. It's perfect for aspiring grill masters who want the pure pleasure of playing with fire.

"Gas offers push-button convenience and consistent, steady heat. So if you're just looking for an efficient tool for backyard cookouts, this is your best bet."

Raichlen himself owns several of each. "I use them for different purposes," he says. Here's Steve's advice on what to look for in each category.

Gas
When looking for a gas grill, make sure to take note of the following:

  • Look for a grill with at least two burners. According to Steve, "more than that is even better."

  • A gas gauge and thermometer are essential. "It's amazing how many grills don't have these standard elements."

  • You can't grill without high heat: "I love the Fiesta Optima, which is inexpensive and sears amazingly well."

  • A separate smoker box, "for using wood chips to add flavor."

  • A separate rotisserie is a nice addition. "Nothing beats the juiciness of food cooked on a rotisserie."

  • If you're looking for something extra, look no further than side burners. "Side burners for heating sauces and keeping food warm are a plus."

Charcoal
Charcoal grills, like their gas counterparts, have a set of essential characteristics no griller should overlook:

  • Look for adjustable vents in the bottom and lid. "These are essential for controlling the heat when the lid is closed."

  • Hinged grill grates allow you to "add more fuel while food is cooking."

  • Raichlen's all-around favorite: "With a 22 1/2-inch Weber kettle grill, you can do anything. The round shape reflects the heat, and it's perfect for smoking."

  • If you're looking for something extra, "the CB940 from Charbroil has a box shape with a roomy grilling surface. Plus it's front-loading, making it easy to add charcoal or even whole logs."

All grills
No matter the style, any grill you buy should have a few features:

  • A sturdy steel frame.

  • As many side tables as possible.

  • A cast-iron or steel grate with at least 1/4-inch-thick rods. "I don't like porcelainized enamel. The food sticks, and it doesn't produce good grill marks."

Grilling basics
Congratulations, you've purchased a shiny new grill. But where do you go from there? "The backyard barbecue is one of America's most popular pastimes," says expert Steven Raichlen, "but a lot of people are confused about the specifics." Raichlen offers a step-by-step, no-nonsense guide to grilling techniques and equipment.

Fuel
Charcoal briquettes, which are made by compressing wood dust and petroleum binders, can produce acrid smoke. Two alternatives are:

  • Recognizable by its rough, irregular edges, natural lump charcoal is wood that has been partially burned and broken into pieces. Because natural lump charcoal provides only 30 to 40 minutes of heat before more needs to be added (as opposed to 40 to 60 minutes for charcoal briquettes), it's helpful to have a hinged grill grate so you can lift one side to dump in more coals while food is cooking on the other side.

  • Hardwood chunks are unburnt pieces of wood, which Raichlen calls the "best-kept secret of barbecue." They produce the campfire flavor of Tuscan and Argentine-style cooking. Hardwood chunks provide only 20 to 30 minutes of cooking time before they need to be replenished.

What about wood chips?
Not to be confused with wood chunks, these are smaller pieces that are used in addition to the chosen fuel to produce flavorful smoke. They should be presoaked in water so they will smolder slowly rather than igniting. Wood chips are traditionally used to slowly smoke meats in a covered grill over low heat, but they can also be tossed onto the coals (or, for gas grills, added to the smoker box) when doing quick, high-heat grilling.

Other kinds of wood
You may have heard about mesquite and other kinds of wood. Do they really make grilling better? The answer is yes. Whether you use chips or chunks, you can match the wood's "flavor" to the food being cooked. "I tell people to think of the smoke as a 'spice' that will complement the dish," says Raichlen. His recommended pairings:

  • Lighter woods are perfect with seafood. When cooking salmon, try using alder chunks instead of charcoal, or adding alder chips.

  • Try grilling whole fish over oak chunks or adding oak chips.

  • Steaks grilled over mesquite chunks instead of charcoal will have a wonderfully rich, smoky flavor. (Mesquite can be used only as chunks — if chips are tossed over the coals, they will burn too quickly.)

  • Pair cherry or apple chips with pork or chicken.

  • When cooking pork with strongly flavored rubs or mop sauces, add chips of a heavier wood such as hickory.

How to build the fire
The easiest way to light any fuel is to use a chimney starter (a metal cylinder with a wire partition in the center). Even if you're using charcoal briquettes, give this method a try. It eliminates the need for lighter fluid and ignites the briquettes more evenly, avoiding unburnt pieces in the center of the pile. "Look for the biggest chimney starter you can find," says Raichlen. "A large one will light enough fuel for a 22 1/2-inch kettle grill." To use a chimney starter:

  • Put your fuel of choice in the top of the starter and two sheets of newspaper or a paraffin cube in the bottom. (Look for paraffin cubes, which resemble white ice cubes, in hardware stores.) Set the chimney on the bottom grate of the grill, tip it to one side, and light the newspaper or paraffin.

  • It may take a few minutes for the fuel to catch fire. If you've used newspaper, check for heat after five minutes and, if you feel none, light another sheet. Using a paraffin starter should guarantee that the fuel will light on the first try.

  • Smoke will billow out of the chimney. Wait approximately 20 minutes until all the coals are glowing red, then dump them onto the bottom of the grill, rake them into position (see below), and replace the top grill grate. If you're searing foods like burgers or steak over high heat, the coals are ready as soon as they start to ash over. If your recipe calls for medium heat, wait a bit longer, until you can hold your hand three inches above the grate for four seconds.

How to arrange the coals
For classic direct grilling, you can simply spread them out evenly. Raichlen likes to leave a section free of coals as a cool "safety zone," where he can move food if it starts to burn.

If you're cooking large or tough cuts of meat like spareribs or brisket, use the indirect grilling method: Rake the coals into two piles on opposite sides of the grill and cook the food in the middle over a foil drip pan. This can also be done on a gas grill by only lighting the outside burners.

What about the grill vents and the hood?
For direct grilling, leave all the grill vents open. For thin pieces of food like chicken cutlets, leave the hood open as well. For thicker pieces like steaks, closing the hood will capture more smoke flavor and decrease the cooking time.

For indirect grilling, the hood should be closed. On a charcoal grill, control the heat using the vents: Partially closing them will deprive the fire of oxygen and lower the heat; completely closing them will put the fire out. Use an oven thermometer inserted into one of the vents to check the temperature. For a gas grill, control the heat by turning the burners up or down.

How do I know when my food is done?
Raichlen favors the "poke test."

  • Squishy food is still raw in the center.

  • Soft and yielding food is rare.

  • Gently yielding food is medium-rare.

  • Firmly yielding has been cooked to medium.

  • Firm food is well done.

  • If fish breaks into clean flakes when gently pressed, it's done.

Other things to bear in mind
Food will continue to cook after it's removed from the grill, so take things off when they are slightly rarer than you want them to be.

Be sure to let meat rest for a few minutes after cooking so the juices can redistribute themselves.

Says Raichlen, "Keep it clean and keep it lubricated!" Brush your grate with a stiff wire brush after preheating (the heat will help remove residue). Then rub it with a paper towel dipped in oil before placing the food on it. When you're done, brush the grate again.

Learn more about grilling on Raichlen's Web site, www.barbecuebible.com.

The equipment mentioned in this article is available at many hardware stores and online at www.weber.com.

© 2012 Epicurious. All rights reserved.

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