Cooks breathe a collective sigh of relief at the height of summer. All the luscious fruits and vegetables we’ve been craving for months are at their peak, and nobody wants or expects you to spend all day in the kitchen wrestling with them.
Nor do summer ingredients need it. This time of year, the best cooking is all about ease and simplicity, leaving you more time to enjoy the results of your (minimal) labor – preferably outside in the shade, sipping a cool drink.
To help you do just that, here is a guide to the techniques and ingredients you can turn to all summer long. Think of it as your tool kit. It will teach you how to grill pretty much everything.
Just bear in mind that when it comes to summer cooking, less is more.
First, the fundamentals, which you may know but which bear repeating: Learn to set up the grill in two ways, for cooking over direct heat and indirect heat, and you’ll have greater control over your food.
• Direct heat is for cooking ingredients quickly right over the searing coals or gas burner. Use this method for small things that will cook through before they burn. Indirect heat is for ingredients that need slower cooking; build the fire under only half the grill (or turn on only half the burners) and cook over the empty side.
If your grill has an upper rack, you can heat up the whole grill and place the meat on the upper rack (it’s far enough to count as indirect heat). For longer-cooking items, add more charcoal to the fire as it burns down. Do so with caution.
Whether you’re using direct or indirect heat, keep your eyes on the grill, moving things around as needed to speed up or slow down cooking. The edges of the grill are usually cooler than the center, so even if you’re using direct heat, you can push your burgers and such to the side if they start to burn.
• Marinate meat (except for burgers and sausages) at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours ahead. Make sure the marinade has a little oil in it, and at least ½ teaspoon to 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt per pound of meat (use a bit more for bone-in meat and a bit less for boneless meat). Everything else is up to you: garlic, herbs, spice rubs, aromatics, citrus juices – you get the idea.
• Bring big, bone-in hunks that need long cooking (ribs, bone-in pork chops, whole chicken or bone-in parts, leg of lamb, rack of lamb, beef brisket, pork loin or butt) to room temperature before lighting the grill. This could take several hours for very large pieces. Prepare the grill for indirect heat, then cook over the empty side of the grill, covered, until done. Turn the meat several times and move it around the grill as needed. Big chunks of meat can take 2 to 7 hours, while smaller pieces (chicken parts) will be done in 30 to 45 minutes.
• For boneless pieces (chicken cutlets and boneless thighs, steaks, skinny tenderloins, lamb chops, burgers and sausages), grill directly over the heat until charred on both sides. You can cover the grill to slow down the fire, or leave it uncovered to encourage the fire. If the exterior of your meat starts to burn before the center cooks through, move the meat to the side of the grill.
• Skewers make it easier to turn smaller pieces. Soak wooden or bamboo skewers for 30 minutes, or use metal skewers. Thread on the meat; leave plenty of space in between pieces for more char, or squish them together for less char.
• To cook high-water-content vegetables (zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, peppers, onions), slice them ½-inch thick and lay them on the grill over direct heat in one layer (no need to oil or season them yet). Turn as they char and move them around the grill so they cook evenly. As they finish, transfer to a bowl and coat with dressing or olive oil and salt while they are still hot. Top with fresh herbs and gently toss before serving.
• There are two ways to approach corn. For more of a char, strip the husk and silk, oil the ears and grill over direct heat until well charred; it won’t take more than a few minutes. For something more delicate, remove the silk but leave the husks attached at the bottom, then wrap the corn back up in the husks. Grill over direct heat for 2 to 4 minutes, until the kernels are tender.
• Small, quick-cooking vegetables that may fall through the grate (asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, scallions, broccoli) can be laid out in a grill basket. Or thread them onto skewers. Or lay them perpendicular to the grate and hope they don’t roll into the fire. Oil these vegetables for flavor if you like, but you don’t have to.
• To cook whole fish, a fish basket is handy but not necessary. Rub the fish all over with oil and salt it inside the cavity and out. Stuff the cavity with herbs and sliced lemon if you like. Grill over direct heat until the skin is crisp on both sides and the flesh is just opaque. If you’re not using a basket, use two spatulas to turn the fish. If your fish is very large, you might need to move it to the side of the grill if the outside starts to burn before it’s cooked through.
• For fish fillets and steaks, oil and season the fish to taste, then grill over direct heat until grill marks appear on one side before flipping. Do not turn the fish before it easily releases from the grill, otherwise you risk mangling the flesh.
Pat this on meat, chicken or fish at least 15 minutes or up to one day before grilling. In a jar, shake together:
¼ cup coarse kosher salt ¼ cup light brown sugar, coconut sugar or maple sugar 2 tablespoons paprika or curry powder 1 tablespoon spicy powder of choice (chili powder, piment d’Espelette, hot smoked paprika or a combination of garlic and onion powder).