Ready, set, grill: A guide to outdoor cooking

I hear the siren call of the grill year-round, but in spring and summer it seems like everyone wants to get outside and cook. I love grilling for these reasons: The convection heat of an outdoor grill provides texture and flavor to vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. During cooking, extra fat renders and drips away from the food, so grilling can be healthful to boot. I say it's the best way to cook, bar none!

This guide from The Washington Post and America's Test Kitchen lays out the basic tools and techniques for success, including some of my favorite food-preparation tips. Chances are, you own or have access to a gas grill, so this guide is primarily geared toward that. But you'll find that much of the information applies for charcoal grillers, as well.

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Getting started

You don't have to spend a lot for a basic tool kit, whose items are widely available:

- Two pairs of long-handled, locking tongs (for raw and cooked foods). Use red tape to label one pair for raw foods and green tape to label the other pair for cooked foods. This helps prevent cross-contamination.

- Instant-read thermometer, to make sure the interior of the food is properly cooked.

- Oven/grill thermometer for grills that don't have an inset or working thermometer.

- Heavy-duty mitts (preferably long) to protect your hands and forearms as you baste and turn hot food on the hot grill.

- Long-handled lighter to ease fire ignition in hard-to-reach gas grills and for lighting fire starters.

- Heatproof tray, such as rimmed baking sheet, for carrying/gathering your supplies.

- Silicone bristle basting brush for sauces applied at the end of the cooking time.

- Resealable zip-top bags for oiling and pre-prepping your food.

- Heavy-duty aluminum foil for cleaning the grill (crumple up, hold by tongs).

For charcoal grillers:

- Chimney starter for lighting charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal.

- Fire starters: non-toxic, odorless cubes that make lighting charcoal a breeze.

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This is a must, and the first step in cleaning the grill. Think of it as a sterilization process. Turn all gas-grill burners on HIGH, so the grill reaches its maximum temperature for 10 minutes. Next, crumple up foil into a ball about the size of an orange, hold it with your long-handled tongs and use it to clean the grill grates; or use a special, sturdy metal-bristle brush you trust. Then, reduce the temperature you need for cooking.

For a charcoal grillers: You want to build a fire in a chimney starter and let the flames burn until all the briquettes or lump charcoal are covered with a white-gray ash. Pour them onto the charcoal grate and put the lid on the grill, making sure the air vents are open all the way. Keep the lid on the grill for five minutes, then clean the grill grates and start cooking. You may need to adjust the lid vents to reduce the temperature.

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Using direct vs. indirect heat

Use direct heat - the food is directly over the heat source - when the food takes less than 20 minutes to cook. Examples: sliced vegetables, shrimp, burgers, hot dogs, cooked sausage and boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

For charcoal grillers: Spread a layer of gray-ashed charcoal evenly across the charcoal grate.

Use indirect heat - the heat is on either side of the food, with the burners under the food turned off - when your food takes longer than 20 minutes to cook. Examples: bone-in chicken pieces, roasts, fresh sausages, whole chickens and turkeys.

For charcoal grillers: Build two piles of white-ash charcoal on either side of a disposable drip pan.

The exception to these rules is delicate foods such as fish fillets, which call for indirect-heat grilling because it is gentler and more forgiving.

Once you master these two methods, you can use a combination of them to up your game: Sear a large piece of food over direct heat before finishing it over indirect. This works well for most steaks, chops and roasts. It is also how you "reverse sear," starting with indirect heat and then searing a steak or chop over direct heat at the end of the cooking time.

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Season simply, with the trilogy

Extra-virgin olive oil prevents sticking, keeps foods juicy and promotes caramelization/grill marks. But note: Oil the food, not the grill grate. Why? Because the oil on a preheating grate will start to burn and become tacky. Your food won't stick when it is brushed all over with a thin coat of olive oil and placed on a clean cooking grate. Also, the coating will act as a barrier, preventing natural juices/water in the food from turning into steam and evaporating. That means your food won't dry out before it's done.

My bag trick will save time, coat your food sparingly and evenly, and keep your hands grease-free. It is also a handy and sanitary way to carry food to the grill. Here's what to do: Place your prepped food in a resealable zip-top bag and pour in a little olive oil. Seal and massage the food through the bag to give it a thin, all-over coating. Keep the bag refrigerated until you're ready to cook.

Salt brings out the flavor in just about anything. Season your food with salt after you have coated it with the oil and just before it goes on the grill, otherwise the salt will draw the juices to the surface. Start with a pinch; there is a fine line between just right and too much. It's easy to add but almost impossible to subtract.

Pepper is not quite as essential as the first two items in this trilogy, but I am a fan of black pepper for grilling. A coarse or flaky "butcher grind" is preferable, because it will not bring as much heat to your food as a finely ground pepper (dust).

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Prepping the favorites

Vegetables headed for the grill should be cleaned and cut in slices that won't fall through the grates, about ½-inch thick. Recommended for direct-heat grilling: asparagus, bell peppers, squash, zucchini, eggplant, corn in the husk, scallions and onions; also large strawberries, melon and bananas (in their peels).

To be grilled over indirect heat: firm, whole vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, heads of garlic, artichokes, large mushrooms such as portobellos. Prep them with the grilling trilogy; also, whole fruit including apples, pears, peaches, apricots, etc. Many of these will benefit by a short amount of time directly over the heat to get grill marks but will be primarily cooked with indirect heat. (Technically, that would be a next-level, combination method.) For great grill marks, place your (direct-heat) food across the grates from left to right. I cut squash and zucchini lengthwise and place them across the grates.

For fish and seafood, I almost always use indirect heat, and that includes grilling whole fish, large shellfish, lobster and crabs. Sticking to the grate is a common problem when you're cooking fish on the grill, so here are a couple ways to avoid it. Place your fish on cedar planks; I do almost every time I grill fish. It works exceptionally well and makes a rustic presentation.

You also can use the fish skin itself - detached. Ask your fishmonger to cut the skin from the fillet, or do it yourself. Cut the fillet into serving-size portions and season them. When you're ready to cook, place the skin, scaled side down, directly on the cooking grate. Place the fillet portions on the skin, as if you were reconstructing the fish. The portions won't stick, although they will slightly re-adhere to the skin; they can be removed easily by sliding a thin, heatproof spatula between the skin and the fish. You can leave the skin on the grill just long enough to crisp up, then serve it along with the fillets.

I don't use foil because fish can stick to it - and foil reduces the amount of "grilled" smoky flavor that is imparted to the fish.

Exceptions to my indirect-heat rule include firm seafood steaks such as tuna, swordfish and small shellfish and bivalves (in the shell) such as shrimp, oysters, clams and mussels that are best grilled over direct heat.

To make really good beef burgers, start with a custom blend. Cuts to choose from include brisket, chuck, sirloin, short rib, hanger steak, aged rib-eye trimmings. Keep the mix free of filler add-ins (bread crumbs, eggs), don't over-work the meat, use a light hand to shape the patties and season them lightly just before grilling. They may not look perfect, but don't worry, they'll taste perfect!

When you shape the patties, place your thumb at the center and press down; this divot will keep your burgers from mounding as they cook - I call it swollen-belly syndrome.

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Cleaning, the last word

Always brush hot cooking grates after you cook. Repeat that same step you used to preheat the grill: Crank up the heat to high and let it go for 10 minutes, then brush. These two steps will keep the cleaning easy. If you have a lot of residue left from your last grilling session, let it run for 30 to 40 minutes - or until everything on the grates has turned to a white-gray ash.

For charcoal grillers: Light the coals and let them burn with the lid on the grill until you can brush the grates clean.

Once a year, clean the inside of the grill with warm, soapy water - no abrasives. Make sure you rinse the grill well and let it preheat with all burners on high for 30 to 40 minutes to burn off any residue. And although most grill grates are dishwasher-safe, I don't go that route, because it strips the grates of all their seasoning - the "good stuff."

Now you are ready to get outside and get grilling.

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Chef Elizabeth Karmel earned her title of Original Grill Girl - opening Hill Country Barbecue Markets, launching and writing four cookbooks, most recently "Steak and Cake" (Workman, 2019). It should come as no surprise that her motto is, "If you can eat it, you can grill it."

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America's Test Kitchen Recommended

America's Test Kitchen uses a rigorous evaluation process. Its team puts tools and equipment to work, over and over, to see how well they perform, then takes them apart to figure out why they work - or don't. The team tries to damage them to assess durability, sends some for laboratory analysis, and even interviews engineers, designers and scientists about them. The ATK goal: to recommend well-made products that provide good, lasting value.

- OXO Good Grips 16" Locking Tongs

These tongs are the perfect combination of light but tough construction, with precise pincers that stay aligned and can pluck up the tiniest toothpick or hoist the heftiest slab of ribs. At 16 inches, they are just long enough to be safe from the heat but short enough to give great leverage and control.

- Thermoworks Thermapen Mk4

Our longtime favorite is still the best instant-read thermometer on the market. It's dead accurate, fast, and so streamlined and simple that it's a breeze to use. It does just what we want: "Tell me the temp; get out of my way," as one tester put it. Its long handle gave us plenty of room to maneuver, allowing for multiple grips, and a ring of slightly tacky silicone kept our hands confidently secured. The automatic backlight meant we never had to stop and adjust in low light, and the rotating screen is handy for lefties and righties needing different angles. The auto wake-up function is extremely useful; you don't have to stop and turn the thermometer on again midtask. The digits were large and legible, and it's waterproof in up to 39 inches of water for up to 30 minutes. It's also calibratable, promising years of accuracy.

- CDN Pro Accurate Oven Thermometer

In our test of 10 oven thermometers, only four met our expectations. And this one was the best. All copies of this model aced all of our accuracy tests. It sports a wide, sturdy base and clear temperature markings with large numbers and boldly visible dashes at 50- and 25-degree increments.

- Zippo Flexible Neck Utility Lighter

Both the easiest to light and the most comfortable to handle, this model offers a unique length-adjustable flame that stays lit even in the face of gusty wind.

- Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter

This two-time winner always feels comfortable and secure thanks to its two handles: a roomy, comfortable primary handle and a slim secondary handle that helps you lift heavy loads and guides your pouring. Its sturdy, cylindrical body is easy to load, lift and pour from in a controlled manner. It also has two generously sized chambers that hold a good amount of charcoal and loosely crumpled newspaper for quick and easy lighting.

- Weber Lighter Cubes

Resembling mini marshmallows, these starter cubes take less than 10 seconds to light. And because they're made entirely of paraffin wax, they're water-resistant. They're also individually packaged in foil and plastic, making it unlikely that they'll get wet in the first place.

- Weber Spirit II E-310 Gas Grill

Weber updated this grill after it won our testing, so we tested it again. Our verdict? Their updates made a good grill even better. This grill's design makes it easy to maintain steady heat and distribute smoke so you get a crisp, brown crust on burgers and steaks and can render tender pulled pork with real smoky flavor.

- Weber Performer Deluxe Charcoal Grill

The convenience of gas plus the flavor of charcoal make this grill a worthwhile upgrade from the basic model. Built around a 22.5-inch kettle is a roomy, easy-to-roll cart (much sturdier than the kettle's legs) with a pullout charcoal storage bin; a lid holder; and, most significant, a gas ignition system that lights coals with the push of a button - no chimney starter needed.

- Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill, 22-Inch

Weber's versatile, well-designed classic kettle is an expert griller that maintains heat well, and its well-positioned vents allowed for excellent air control. The sturdy ash catcher makes cleanup a breeze, and it's fast and easy to assemble and move.

- Weber Smokey Joe Premium

This smaller version of our favorite kettle grill shares many of its attributes. The ample cooking surface fits six to eight burgers at a time or a 1½-pound flank steak. The domed cover allows you to grill-roast a butterflied chicken perfectly. And adjustable vents on the cover and on opposite sides of the grill's body give you plenty of control over the fire.

- Steven Raichlen Ultimate Suede Grilling Gloves

Heat protection isn't the whole equation when evaluating grill gloves - and this glove has it all. The pliant leather gives you great control when manipulating tongs and grabbing hot grill grates. Long, wide cuffs protect your forearms and let air circulate to keep your hands cooler over a scorching hot grill.

- Nordic Ware Baker's Half Sheet

Everything prepared in this sturdy, warp-resistant sheet cooked appropriately and evenly. Best of all, our new favorite is a few bucks cheaper than our old winner.

- OXO Good Grips Large Silicone Basting Brush

This two-time winner has bristles with just the right level of flexibility, making for agile, precise and controlled maneuvering. Our testers also loved its light weight and perfectly sized handle, which is made of grippy plastic that make it extremely comfortable.

- Weber Original Stainless Steel Spatula

Testers of all sizes loved this spatula's slim, rounded, offset handle, remarking on the agility, sense of control and confidence that it inspired. As an added bonus, this spatula was among the least expensive of the grill spatulas in our testing.

- The Ultimate Burger Book

Achieve burger greatness with recipes for updated classics, exciting new craft burgers and homemade everything from meat blends to buns to condiments, fries and frosty (and boozy) drinks.

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