You’re all fired up to master the grill, truly amaze tons of people with the food you create, and pull tips and tricks from the archive in your head to execute every grill master duty imaginable.
Welcome to the ultimate grill guide—a one-stop resource for everything you need to know about grills, from their history, right on down to the way we use them in modern times, and all the necessary little tidbits of information that will turn you into a pro.
“Grilling Isn’t Hard!”
I mean this in the most positive and endearing of ways: grilling isn’t hard.
Not when you learn the science behind it first and get some basic building block fundamentals in place.
It is truly a science, after all, much like standard cooking and baking.
Let’s break it all down, starting from the beginning.
- 1 Brief Overview of Grilling Food Across Time
- 2 Different Grill Types
- 3 What You Should Keep an Eye Out for While Grilling
- 4 How to Maintain the Perfect Temperature
- 5 How do You Prepare Your Grill?
- 6 How Long Should You Grill For?
- 7 It’s Time to Get Cookin’
Brief Overview of Grilling Food Across Time
If you want to get technical, grilling originated in about 980 B.C., when the Chinese developed Kamado grills (which since transitioned to being a sign of Japanese culture more than Chinese culture).
These 3,000-year-old Kamados have been uncovered, but with no documented use, so it’s not really fair to say that normalcy of grilling began until much, much later.
A lot of conventional grilling methods derive from France and Spain, and there are reasons for that, which we’ll get into in a minute.
This is where grilling becomes popularized and even practiced in numerous countries across the world.
People saw France and Spain, two of the biggest world leaders at the time (the 1700s) and said, “Hey, why not?”
But digging back a bit further than that, we can find that barbecue was originally called barbacoa.
The method was essentially the same, but it originally derived from South America, where Arawak tribes (who also settled the Caribbean Islands) would make a fire pit with sticks as a grate, and just cook meats on it.
Do you know how I mentioned Spain was one of the two major members that brought grilling to popularity?
It’s not for a good reason.
People saw France and Spain, two of the biggest world leaders at the time (the 1700s) and said, “Hey, why not?”
Spanish conquerors came to South America, noticed this method of cooking, and spread tales about it.
Flash forward to the 1800s, and you see a surge in grilling across America.
It was gaining popularity, and people would use different wood types to create different smoked flavors. It was all pretty exciting.
Then grilling got a big advancement just before the turn of the century when the first patent for charcoal briquettes was invented in 1897.
Kingsford wasn’t the original inventory of the briquette, but the basically swept through and used the patent, popularizing it for grilling use.
(Fun fact: Henry Ford, who made the Kingsford brand, used wood from his automobile manufacturing facilities to make charcoal.)
Different Grill Types
No two grills are built the same.
Over time, since all that history we just talked about, there have been advancements in grilling.
Some of the differences are subtle, but they’re still there. You will find and build preferences around some forms of grilling, and disdain for others.
Gas grills use heat from the basin at the bottom to cook food.
Utilizing a gas line and propane, an ignition switch is flipped to create a spark.
That spark turns into a flame on multiple burner points in the basin of the grill’s cook chamber.
The gas line continuously feeds propane to the flame, keeping it lit until the supply line is either cut off (stopped via a valve), or the propane completely runs out.
The only other way to stop this is to extinguish it with water, or an actual fire extinguisher.
Gas grills remain one of America’s favorite grilling methods.
While charcoal became less relevant and electric grills rose in popularity, gas grills tend to remain perfectly in place.
Gas grills are beloved because they light up, and that’s that—they get hot very quickly, so you can start grilling without a ton of early prep time.
No building a charcoal fire, no feeding pellets into a hopper.
Gas grills pose the biggest hazard in terms of spatial safety, and much like other grilling types, they will accelerate the production of carcinogens (PAHs and HCAs) from fat dripping through red meat.
Gas grills sometimes pose the highest refueling cost, unless you have multiple empty tanks and use a refueling station.
Electric grills have risen in popularity in recent years, but they’re very different from your usual grills.
Electric grills utilize either a burner system or an S-shaped coil system beneath a hot plate, or griddle plate.
These coils/burners heat up to subsequently heat up the plate, which results in an evenly heated cooktop surface.
Plenty of people like to compare these to countertop griddles, but there’s a very distinct difference between an electric grill and a griddle—temperature.
An electric grill can climb to 450° F, while a griddle might be able to hit the low 300° F range.
Electric grills are excellent if you live in a place with strict HOA policies, or you’re in an apartment building and want to be able to grill without violating the terms of your lease.
Electric grills are considered safer than charcoal, gas or pellets because they produce fewer carcinogens than any other grill type.
They are still known to cause 17 types of HCAs, which are considerably lower than other grill types, but not without fault.
You can use an electric grill in most public parks and spaces without needing a permit.
Electric grills tend to have non-stick heating plates that can be removed for easy cleaning.
It’s rare to find straight cast iron or porcelain-enameled grates for electric grills.
Much like a griddle, they do feature grease drip trays, since there is no ash bin or hopper and the grease still needs to go somewhere.
In case you haven’t guessed, charcoal grills utilize charcoal to heat up whatever food you want to cook on them.
Charcoal grills tend to be ridiculously inexpensive because technically, there are no working parts outside of some slat vents.
You can find a charcoal grill, and a decent one at that, for 15% of the total cost of a medium-quality gas grill.
Refueling using charcoal can be expensive over time, but either way, you’re paying for a fuel source whether it’s gas, pellets, or electricity.
Charcoal grills can take a while to heat up.
Generally, most people use accelerants to get the fire started as quickly as possible.
Charcoal grills are the biggest culprit when it comes to carcinogens in food.
A good charcoal grill will have an easy-to-clean ash dispensary or basin, and a lid to help maintain heat during cooking.
While it’s not guaranteed with every model, some will have built-in thermometer gauges in the lids.
This helps you out while trying to monitor the grill temp when it comes to searing and leaving intentional grill marks on your food.
Ceramic Grills (Kamados)
Kamado grills are used to get a real authentic flavor, and they operate in a fairly simple way.
These stone or iron basins are coated with a layer of ceramic or porcelain, which is what makes it easy to clean and heat-resistant (not prone to cracking or breaking from the intense heat).
They are the oldest form of grilling (we believe) and made their way over to America a few decades ago.
They’re popular because of their shape, and how heavy they are—you don’t just easily move a Kamado, because they can exceed 200 lbs on average—and how durable they are.
Chances are if you buy a Kamado now, it will outlive you. That’s a hardcore investment.
Kamados use grates, much like charcoal or gas grills, to host the food.
These grates usually cling to the sides of the porcelain-enameled interior; they don’t always have cut-in designs for the grates to hold onto them.
They’re easy to clean, but that’s if you can take the lid/top half off without dropping it.
It’s heavy business.
The porcelain makes it easy to wipe away soot from your wood or charcoal fuel source, and the bottom has a ventilation system, so you can allow oxygen to enter and add some more life back to the fire.
Kamados are used as smokers and extreme heat chambers to rapidly cook grilled foods.
You’ll find that many modern grills come with a rotisserie option as an add-on, but if you love rotisserie foods, then you might consider investing in a solid rotisserie unit that isn’t part of another grill.
Rotisseries include a main heat source in the center, such as a fire pit or basin where wood and charcoal can be used, and two rods that jut up on either side.
These are able to host additional rods, or skewers, which are driven through the middle of a large piece of meat.
This can be a whole pig, chicken, turkey, or other forms of meat if you wish.
The skewer is then spat roasting the meat in the middle.
It spins slowly on an automated system, or you will turn it manually (though this isn’t the best course of action anymore).
These can hold high heats of over 475° F, but still technically slow cook whatever you skewer them with.
Personally, getting an entire rotisserie grill isn’t on my to-do list when it comes to grilling.
There are plenty of Weber grills that come with rotisserie attachments, and they do the job just fine.
It isn’t like we’re hunting for survival and cooking game birds immediately like we were hundreds of years ago.
These are finicky, and it’s why there’s a whole art to smoking meats.
You don’t really smoke anything else (as it doesn’t add a lot of flavor to veggies or fruits).
Smokers utilize a chamber that burns either wood or charcoal, though usually, it’s just wood because of the low-temperature range that we’re about to talk about.
The reason that the fuel is kept in a separate chamber is that you actually want to mitigate the total heat, otherwise you might end up with charred or burnt food, which is not the goal.
The food rests on a rack in the cooking chamber, which is the larger of the two chambers in any modern smoker.
Burning your fuel source means that there will be smoke.
Oxygen may be fed into the combustion/fuel chamber to keep the fire alive, but it should only be done so to maintain the temperature range.
You want 225° F at all times, which allows enough smoke to remain in the chamber, but still allows enough heat to cook the food.
It takes at least 160° to fully cook meat past any rare stages, and with smoking, that’s generally what happens after prolonged exposure.
Think back to that little history section we had earlier.
This is basically what the Arawak tribes did to initially make grilling convenient and easy (given the time they lived in).
You have a grate that rests over two sides of a pit, which is dug into the ground.
You might have a friend who built a fire pit out of cinder blocks or stones in their backyard.
That’s essentially an open-pit grill, just without the grate.
These would be used to cook wild game and fish, but in modern times, they’re just a cheap way for you to make a grill at home.
It’s not that difficult to find cinder blocks on local recycling groups for absolutely no cost to you, other than the gas you spend driving to pick them up.
Even if you have to buy a shovel and a grate, that’s not really a lot of money, either.
Dig a hole, fill it with dry tinder, maybe a handful of charcoals, and put the grate over it.
You have a grill.
These are unpredictable, as a fair warning.
You can have a roaring fire one second, then embers the next, or it can go completely haywire and 100% engulf your food in flames.
Given the fact that it’s a hole in the ground, you can’t really do much to put the fire out, short of pouring water over the flame and ruining your grilled food in the process.
It’s a good alternative if you don’t want to spend money on a standalone grill right now, it’s just as sustainable over a long period of time.
Last but not least, we have a recent phenomenon—pellet grills.
These are made up of a few different working parts, which burn wood and use electricity.
Let me explain.
A pellet grill works similarly to a smoker (and in most cases, you can use your pellet grill as a smoker with the right settings).
Through a hopper box on the left of your unit, you feed in one to twenty pounds of wood pellets at a time.
This hopper slowly feeds them into a steel tube, which is powered by an auger and an auger motor.
The auger slowly pushes pellets through the steel tube, with the help of a combustion fan, to an igniter or heat chamber.
Here, the electric ignition sets the wood chips ablaze, and the continuous feed keeps it burning.
You have a fan, auger motor, and the initial ignition switch that are all run off of electricity.
Pellet grills are best for grillers who want to have a slow-cooked flavor and let briskets, roasts, and even whole chickens roast for six or more hours at a time.
You want to achieve a slow-roasted flavor, which is why you get a pellet grill in the first place.
That, and it can be pretty cheap to keep pellets for fuel.
Direct vs. Indirect Grilling Methods
Here’s where a big disparity comes into play—direct heat versus indirect heat.
They’re both different grilling methods, and they both have their merits.
Direct heat grilling is when it’s just your food, on a grate, above burning charcoal or wood.
There’s nothing stopping the flames from touching the food; it’s in the middle of the heat, barely above the source.
Indirect heat would be described as heat transmission, and you can see it in electric grills.
When you turn an electric grill on, the flat cooktop isn’t running electricity through it.
You would shock yourself and electrocute your food.
Instead, it heats coils or burners that make contact with the cooktop and heat it.
You have a hot cooktop, but your food isn’t in direct contact with the source of heat.
So what’s the difference here?
For one, direct grilling means soot can rise from charcoal and wood, and attach to your food.
Even small particles that are naked to the human eye; they can all stick right here.
With indirect grilling methods, you’re still creating carcinogens through the fat cooking on high heat, but you’re removing soot and most PAHs from the equation.
It’s better for your health, but it’s not going to have that flame-broiled flavor that’s synonymous with direct heat methods.
It’s not going to caramelize the skin on chicken breast or apply a golden crust to the edge of your steak the same way.
What You Should Keep an Eye Out for While Grilling
Keep your eyes peeled.
You’re in charge of staying up-to-date on the temperature gauge, the pellet hopper or charcoal bin, not to mention how long ago certain foods when on certain racks.
There’s a lot to do, but to ensure your grill like a pro, keep these in mind next time it’s time to don the Kiss The Cook apron.
You’ve got a thermometer built into your lid; it’s time to use it effectively.
Monitor the temperature range in your grill at all times so you know what to expect.
If the temperature is too low, you can open up the vents to let some oxygen near the basin (works for charcoal and gas grills).
Learning how to control the temp is basically your first step to becoming a grill master.
Without this know-how, you’re going to end up with a lot of charred food, or a ton of undercooked food.
These aren’t fires; your grill didn’t catch fire, there’s just a temporary surge of fire that won’t be able to sustain that size or height for long.
Flare-ups occur when you have piping hot coals (usually towards the beginning or middle of a batch of charcoal burning) that get covered in fat from the food you’re cooking.
Fat will drip throughout using the grill, so there are remnants of fat in different areas at the bottom of the grill.
A flare-up is when dripping fat burns really hot, and then ignites the fat on the edges of the grill basin.
It turns out, and you’re good to go. Just move your food to a different spot on the grates in the meantime, and you’ll be good to go.
Your ash bin is going to fill up, and when there’s a ton of ash from charcoal or fire, it’s going to get in the way of the remaining good lumber/charcoal burning properly.
It’s like pouring sand on fire; it’s going to dampen it, at the very least.
Keep an eye on your ash bin, and be sure to empty it out thoroughly before you put new coals in.
Use a designated grill brush and push it into a barrel.
It’s very easy to not check your gas canisters and just forget about them entirely.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read about someone running out of gas in the middle of cooking for a bunch of people, only to go get a refill at a propane station, and stand in line with twenty other guys who did the same thing.
Get gas gauge additions for your gas lines, or use the same settings/output every time, and mark the time you started and stopped using it on the tank with a magic marker.
Just find a way to keep tabs on it, and be sure to have spares handy.
This is something you only need to worry about with gas and charcoal grills.
Everything else is going to be fine, since pellets are mostly closed, and electric grills aren’t using live fire.
The wind can either put your flames out or make it a hazard by blowing them towards you (depending on how you’ve angled your grill).
Consider getting a small weathervane and affixing it to the top of your grill lid, and being careful when wearing puffy winter clothing, as many down and foam jackets are highly flammable.
How to Maintain the Perfect Temperature
Okay, so now it comes down to actually keeping the temperature in a good range so you can grill like a champ.
Assuming that you already have fuel for your grill type and the fire is lit, this is how you reach and maintain the perfect temperature.
Ideally, the perfect temperature will be 350° F.
This allows you to grill vegetables without charring them, and it’s good to keep chicken moist.
Steaks and pork chops might just take a little bit longer here, but they’re still going to come out excellent.
- Close your lid. Let the temperature climb and monitor the built-in thermometer gauge. If your lid doesn’t have a built-in thermometer gauge, you can open it periodically and use a food thermometer to test the edge of the grate.
- If the heat is too much, use vents located on the lid, or open the grill for a short amount of time. Keep in mind that for charcoal and wood-burning grills (excluding pellet grills), this will actually make the fire climb higher due to the oxygen rush hitting the flames. That’s okay because the internal air temperature of your grill immediately drops when exposed to the outside air.
- If your temperature is too low, check your gas to make sure it’s coming out at the right level. Make sure no pellets are stuck in the auger. For charcoal (which we have a whole mini guide for), there are a few different things you can do, from folding the coals to creating heat zones.
It’s a constant push and pulls, but that’s what you signed up for.
Keep the fire lit, and control the vents to add oxygen or remove heat as you see fit.
How do You Prepare Your Grill?
You always want to start with a sparkling clean grill.
Depending on what type of grill you have, empty out the ash bins, remove old pellets, whatever it is that you have to do.
Make sure you have clean grates, and soot has been wiped from the lid or edges.
Using olive oil or vegetable oil, you want to oil up those grates so food doesn’t immediately stick to them.
Get a few paper towels and bunch them up, then dip them in a shallow bowl of oil, and just start painting those grates.
Get your fuel source ready.
For charcoal and pellet users, you’re going to have to start the party a little early.
Gas and electric grill owners, just start whenever you actually want to begin cooking. Close the lid.
You don’t want to put your food on cold grates.
Leave the lid shut until the internal temperature reaches about 350° F before you start actually putting anything on the grates.
If the temperature climbs too high, use the smokestack at the top of your lid (which should have an operable lever cover) and reduce the heat.
If your charcoal or wood-burning grill isn’t heating up enough, open the oxygen vents near the basin to fan the flames.
It’s clean, it’s oiled, and it’s pre-heated—you’re ready to rock and roll.
How Long Should You Grill For?
It depends on which cut of meat you have, and of course, which type of meat you’re using.
This is a hard and fast breakdown, but keep in mind that the thickness of your cuts and the overall size of them will play an important role.
Beef – Strip steaks take around 8 minutes for medium-rare, while tenderloins can take about 10-12 minutes for medium-rare. You want these on a temperature range of 375° F to 400° F.
Pork – Pork needs to be thoroughly cooked. 5-8 minutes for chops, and up to 27 minutes for tenderloins, always cooking on a 350° F to 400° F range.
Lamb – Lamb is tricky. It only takes about 5-7 minutes for a medium set of sirloins, but upwards of 45-52 minutes for butterflied legs. The temperature range here should be a consistent 400° F to 425° F at all times.
Chicken – Boneless skinless breasts average about 7-9 minutes to avoid being dried out, while legs, drumsticks, wings, and thighs can average about 11-16 minutes. These take a while to rest after they’ve been cooked, and should always be at 350° F, but no higher than 375° F so you can avoid drying your chicken out.
Vegetables – It’s very easy to burn vegetables. We want a 350° F range for every type of veggie, from peppers to corn. Most vegetables need up to 5 minutes, and no more. Specialty vegetables like cauliflower and squash (fibrous or thick vegetables) may require up to 8 minutes.
It’s Time to Get Cookin’
If you aren’t hyped up to get grilling right now, then I don’t know what to tell you.
Now you know the history, the differences between different grill types, preparations, what to look for while grilling, tips, tricks, and preparation instructions.
You’re a made man, now it’s just a matter of getting in the backyard, firing up the grill, and putting it all to good use.
You might still be on the fence about a certain grill type or model.
That’s cool; allow us to make the process a little easier, though.
Check out our buying guides on pellet grills, Kamados, electric grills, and all the little fixings you need to become grandmaster of the grates.