At the start of every grilling season the same questions always seem to arise: Is marinating really necessary? And if so, for how long? Is salt in the marinade a no-no or a must? What about acid? What kind of charcoal should I buy? Lump or briquettes? Do I grill covered or uncovered?
Last summer, in preparation for a charcoal grilling class I was teaching at the Hillsdale General Store, I brushed up on my grilling and marinating know-how and compiled everything I learned in a document, which is now included below.
Please add any grilling wisdom in the comments.
Marinade info mostly sourced from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab.
What Ingredients Should Be In A Marinade?
- Salt or Salty Liquid
- Aromatics, optional
- It emulsifies a marinade, making it tackier, which allows it to more effectively stick to the meat.
- Ingredients such as onions, garlic, and many spices are oil soluble, meaning their flavors release/disperse best when mixed with oil.
- Oil helps the meat cook evenly, providing a buffer between the heat of the grill and the surface of the meat.
- Acid is a tenderizer.
- Note, however, excessive acid can “cook” meat and cause it to firm up/turn chalky. When using acid in a marinade, use no more than equal parts acid and oil and limit exposure time to under 10 hours to prevent meat from turning chalky.
Why Salt or Salty Liquid?
- The muscle protein myosin will dissolve in a salty liquid, leaving the meat with a looser texture and a better ability to retain moisture. Soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, moreover, contain protease, an enzyme that breaks down proteins.
- Aromatics such as garlic, ginger, shallots, scallions, dried spices, herbs, and chilies are mostly for seasoning the surfaces of meat, but they still will provide significant flavor.
How & For How Long to Marinate?
- A ziplock bag with the air squeezed out, which maximizes contact between meat and marinade, is a great tool for marinating, but any vessel you have that will fit the meat snuggly will work. I like using glass bowls or baking dishes, too.
- Marinades do not penetrate very far—no more than a millimeter or two—into meat even over the course of many hours. So, a marinade’s effect is largely limited to the surface of the meat.
- Time-wise, shoot to marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 12 hours. More than 12 hours will cause the meat to get a bit too mushy and chalky around the edges, having a slightly cooked appearance.
Gear For Charcoal Grilling
- I own this charcoal Weber, which is a very basic model — zero bells and whistles — but it’s a nice size, and it does the job for the kind of grilling I like to do.
- Chimney starters remove the hassle from lighting coals. I suggest investing in a pair of chimney starters. I use 1 full sheet of newspaper per starter. The chimneys look large, but after 30 minutes of heating, the coals burning inside of them shrink, and even for a small amount of food, one chimney-full of coals is rarely enough.
- When the coals have turned white, dump them into the grill, replace the grate, and let the grate heat for at least five minutes before grilling — the hotter the grates, the lower the chances the food will stick.
- Look for Hardwood Lump Charcoal. I like the Cowboy brand (pictured above) — I buy it at Lowe’s. When you buy “hardwood lump charcoal” you know you’re buying real wood: chunks of charred hardwood. Charcoal briquettes also are made of wood, but also a number of other things. I grew up using Kingston; it’s fine; if I can’t make it to Lowe’s, I don’t hesitate to use it.
Tongs, Lighter, Brush, Gloves
- Tongs: A pair of long tongs is handy.
- Lighter, optional: These Bic lighters are nice to have on hand for lighting chimney starters.
- Brush: Something like this one is nice to have on hand for cleaning the grill grates.
- Gloves: Protect your arms! I just ordered a pair of these. I will keep you posted. There is nothing worse than sweating under a hot sun and above screaming hot coals.
Instant Read Thermometer
- Thermapen, optional. The Thermapen has been a welcomed addition to my toolbox, the pal standing by my side all summer long (winter, too!), ensuring me over and over again: The meat is done. Take it off the grill.
Charcoal Grilling 101
Note: I am no Meathead. I like grilling skewers of chicken thighs, cedar planks topped with salmon, whole fish, and thin cuts of beef like skirt or hanger. In other words, I don’t like standing at the grill for more than 8 minutes tops.
If you are able to, look for humanely raised or sustainably raised or grass-fed meats. If you cannot find it locally, Butcher Box may be a nice option for you. If you are interested in trying it out, now is a great time: new members receive the BBQ bundle for free in their first oder. The free bundle includes: 2 New York Strip Steaks, Baby Back Ribs, and 2 lbs. of Ground Beef — a $59/value. Read more about Butcher Box here and what you can expect when the meat arrives at your door. Read more about Grass-Fed meat here.
This is the simple method I employ when grilling meat: chicken, pork, beef, etc.
- Rub meat with aromatics and or seasonings (minced garlic, ginger, shallots, scallions, dried spices, herbs, and chiles).
- Dress with a mix of acid (citrus or vinegar) or salty liquid (Worcestershire or soy) or salt and olive oil.
- Marinate for at least an hour and no more than 12 hours (a little longer is fine).
- Pat dry, then season liberally with salt and pepper before grilling over burning hot coals.
- I am partial to dry-grilling, which calls for grilling vegetables without oil or any seasoning; then dressing them with oil and other seasonings post grilling. I find this technique prevents the vegetables from becoming oil-laden and soggy as well as from taking on an acrid, burnt-oil flavor.