Barbecue Basics

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Learn how to use a regular outdoor grill to get barbecue's signature smoky flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Pop quiz: You're having a cookout for your friends and family. What are you cooking? If it's hamburgers, hot dogs and veggie kebabs, that's actually officially called grilling.

Grilling is cooking over direct heat, perfect for quick-cooking foods like hamburgers, hot dogs, fish and veggies. But if you tried to grill a large piece of meat like a pork shoulder, the outside would burn before the inside was done, and it'd end up tough and chewy. That's where barbecuing comes in.

When we say barbecue, we mean cooking large cuts like ribs, brisket, pork butt (which is actually the shoulder) or even whole pigs over low heat for a long time (also known as low and slow). Barbecue's signature smoky flavor and fall-apart, melt-in-your-mouth texture traditionally come from hours in an outdoor smoker. You'll see those at barbecue restaurants and competitions; they're usually huge and built with a separate chamber for smoky fuel, perfect for slow-cooking a large amount of meat. But if you don't have a smoker, you can still get great barbecue flavor from your grill: Here's how to turn a regular outdoor grill into a barbecue machine!

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Setting Up the Grill

First, set up your grill for indirect heat, which is the key to keeping the heat low enough to slow-cook your meat. You want the indirect heat to hold steady at 200 to 300 degrees F –– it's low to give tough cuts of meat a chance to get tender on the inside before the outside cooks too much.

  • If using a propane grill, adjust your burners so one side is on and the other is off (or, if you have three burners, leave the center off and turn the sides on). Put your food on the cooler side of the grill.
  • If using a charcoal grill, place coals, wood or briquettes either on both sides of the grill or all on one side. Food goes on the cool part.
  • Add an aluminum pan of liquid (water, beer, wine or juice) under the cool part of your grill grate before cooking to help keep moisture in your meat and regulate the grill's temperature.
  • Keep the lid down to trap the heat like an oven –– it'll stay low, slow and consistent.

Good Fuel for Barbecue

If you have a gas grill you're using propane, which has great temperature control and is easy to light and manage. But you won't get a ton of smoky flavor. Just preheat for 30 minutes with the lid closed and you're good to go.

With a charcoal grill, you have a couple of options. Charcoal briquettes burn slowly and evenly, giving off moderate heat but not a ton of flavor. Lump hardwood charcoal burns hot and fast but adds great smoky flavor. Which is better? Both! Mix briquettes with lump charcoal for even burning with good flavor.

Adding wood (whether chips, chunks or pellets) ups the smoke level: Gas-grilled food benefits the most, but a little assistance in the smoke department never hurt charcoal either.

Wood Basics

Use hardwoods like hickory, oak, mesquite, applewood, alder and cherry. Softwoods like pine give off a lot of smoke and an acrid flavor.

Wood flavor pairing suggestions:

  • Seafood: alder, cedar
  • Chicken and Pork: applewood
  • Beef, Pork and Lamb: mesquite, hickory, cherry
  • Experiment with woody herbs like rosemary, lavender and thyme

Wood Pellets (wrap in a foil packet and poke holes in it; replace after each hour):

  • Can be used with a charcoal or gas grill
  • Flavor not as pronounced as chips or chunks

Wood Chips (soak in water for 30 minutes, then wrap in a foil packet and poke holes in it):

  • Can be used with a charcoal or gas grill
  • Great flavor; comes in a variety of types

Wood Chunks (soak in water for 1 hour, then lay directly on charcoal):

  • Can only be used with a charcoal grill
  • Great flavor; comes in a variety of types
cooking pieces of chicken on barbecue grill

Get Cooking

Once you have your grill set up and your wood ready to go, it's time to get cooking. Quick tips for success:

  • Bring meat to room temperature before cooking to make sure it cooks evenly. Cooking cold meat straight out of the fridge can cause the outside to be overdone while the inside is still cooking through.
  • Use a meat thermometer to check temperatures. Cook meat until just below the desired final temperature; it'll keep cooking while it rests. And do rest your meat! Let it sit for 10 to 30 minutes (depending on its size) after cooking so it stays juicy when you cut it.
  • Oil your grill before every use for easy release and cleanup.
  • Marinades can do double duty; boil them down after the meat is removed for a handy sauce.
  • Make spice rubs in big batches so you always have some on hand. Stir a bit into any barbecue sauce to kick up the flavor.
 
Now that you’re ready to go, take your pick from dozens of Food Network’s best barbecue recipes