We chatted with our friend/grill-whisperer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, author of the James Beard Award-winning book The Food Lab and Chief Culinary Advisor for Serious Eats, to get his grilling tips for burgers, steaks and chicken, and here’s what he said.
How to Grill the Best Burgers
1. Start with Freshly Ground Meat.
Ask your local butcher for ground chuck or a combo of sirloin and short-rib. Or if you really want some street cred, grind your own meat! Buy the meat the day you’re going to grill so it’s super fresh.
2. Perfectly Formed (and Seasoned) Patties.
Pack just enough meat so the burgers hold together. Once the patties are formed, season liberally with salt and pepper. It’s important you only salt the exterior of the patties—don’t mix the salt into the ground meat—otherwise the burgers will turn all sausage-like and springy.
3. Use a Thermometer.
Sure, you can be all macho and try to gauge a burger’s doneness by poking it with your finger, or you can buy yourself a good thermometer. I aim for a medium-rare 130°F. With larger burgers (8 ounces or more), I usually pull them off a few degrees before optimum temperature since they’ll keep cooking while resting.
How to Grill the Best Steaks
1. Sear-ious Steak.
For a perfect sear, let your salted raw steak rest on an elevated rack (uncovered) overnight in the fridge. What you’re doing is drying out the exterior so the steak browns more efficiently.
2. Tongs Are Your Friends.
For even cooking, flip your steak frequently. The whole thing about only flipping once is utter nonsense. These tongs are my go-to.
3. Use a Thermometer
There’s only one 100% reliable way to know your meat is perfectly cooked, and that’s by using a thermometer. A rare steak is ready at 120 degrees; a medium steak is at 140 degrees; and a well-done steak at 160 degrees.
How to Grill the Best Chicken
1. Flat Breasts.
Nobody wants dry, chewy, cardboardy chicken, right? To prevent this, gently pound your boneless, skinless chicken breast so you end up with an even thickness. I like to put my raw chicken in a plastic bag and use the bottom of a heavy skillet to pound it.
2. Brine or Dry-Brine.
Salt the chicken heavily and let it rest for a few hours in the fridge to help retain moisture.
3. Use a Thermometer.
Sensing a theme here? I’m a big fan of the meat thermometer. Insert it in the middle of the chicken breast—you know it’s done when it hits 160°F (or at least that’s what the FDA says). Personally I like to pull my chicken off the grill even sooner, at 150°F, so it’s even juicier. I can happily say I haven’t experienced any ill effects from this yet, and overall I’ve been a much happier chicken eater.
Once you’ve mastered the basics of grilling burgers, steaks and chicken, try one of these barbecue upgrades for your next cook out.