Of course, when you are smoke-roasting or otherwise cooking by indirect heat on your grill, covering is no problem—just remember to leave that cover off when you’re doing direct-heat grilling.
Although this principle has nothing to do with the fire itself, it has a lot to do with how your food will taste when it comes off the fire. To begin with, please forget that old rule that you shouldn’t salt food prior to cooking because it draws out moisture. The small amount of fluid drawn to the surface by salt is more than compensated for by the fact that the salt has a chance to interact with the food to amplify its flavors. And because the moisture drawn to the surface contains proteins, early salting also intensifies the browning process, which is a good thing for flavor.
Secondly, consider using a bit more salt than you are used to. Of course, this is all a matter of taste. You know what you like; we’re simply suggesting that you try a slightly bolder approach and then see what you think. We’re pretty sure that your grilled food, particularly if it’s meat, is going to taste better. (Incidentally, if you are worried about the health effects of using more salt, remember that more than 75 percent of the sodium consumed by the average American comes from processed food. So if you cut down on foods like hot dogs, luncheon meats, chips, and frozen meals, you can add more salt to your cooking without worry.)
KNOWING WHEN FOOD IS DONE
Knowing when the food is a skill that separates a merely good cook from a great one. This is particularly true when grilling; since each fire is different, the cooking times given in recipes are only approximate. Testing for yourself is therefore crucially important.
Other than a meat thermometer (used when smoke-roasting large items) there are two basic options for testing doneness when grilling. The first is known as the “hand method”; the second is what we like to call “nick, peek, and cheat.”
The hand method, used by many professional chefs, rests on a rather simple scientific principle: When proteins, which are like little coils, are subjected to heat, they uncoil and bond with one another, squeezing closer together in a kind of lattice. The process is known as coagulation. The more the proteins coagulate, the firmer the texture of the food will be. Because of this, professional cooks can judge the degree of doneness of a piece of meat or fish simply by prodding it with a finger. Next time you go to a restaurant with an open kitchen, take a look and you’ll see that the chef is always poking at the food to see whether it’s ready to come off the heat.
This approach is called the hand method because, in teaching young cooks, chefs have come up with a system of comparing the texture of food at certain levels of doneness to the texture of various parts of your hand. The general idea is that well-done steak feels about the same as the ball of your thumb, while a rare steak is similar to the fleshy area midway between thumb and first knuckle, and so on. But the basic point is that the firmer the meat (or fowl or fish), the more done it is.
The only problem with this method is that it requires a good amount of experience. When you’re cooking 20 or 30 steaks every night, five or six nights a week, and you’re poking each one several times, it eventually becomes second nature to know when a steak is anything from rare to well-done. You don’t even have to think about it. But for home cooks, who may cook a steak once a month, it takes longer to get that feel into your fingers.
So we recommend that every time you grill, you practice the hand method. But we also suggest that you rely on our old tried and true method, “nick, peek, and cheat,” as a backup. As the name implies, you simply pick up one of whatever you are cooking, nick it slightly with a knife so you can look inside, then take a peek at the interior to check its state of doneness. It doesn’t get much easier—or more accurate.
Unfortunately, many cooks are reluctant to use this method because of an old-school culinary myth which holds that cutting into a piece of food lets all the juices run out. It’s true that when you cut into a piece of meat, some juices do escape. But it’s not like putting a hole in a balloon; losing a tiny amount of juice is insignificant when set against the prospect of serving raw or burned food.
Just remember that food continues to cook a bit even after it’s off the fire. To allow for this carryover cooking, take that steak off when it looks rare if you want it medium-rare.
And that’s enough technique. Simple but subtle, the flames await you; so get out there and grill.