Grilling season is upon us at last, so we reached out to renowned chef Renee Erickson of The Walrus and the Carpenter—one of her several beloved Seattle restaurants—about how to grill smarter this summer (and every summer).
1. Use charcoal if you can
Every home grilling aficionado has a preference, and although gas can be easier, Erickson is not a fan. “Gas grills make food taste funny,” she says, and she can pick out a “noticeably gassy” flavor in meals cooked this way. She’d suggest you buy a cheap charcoal grill and a chimney instead. “Or if you’re desperate, put a steel pan between you and a gas grill so the fumes of the actual gas aren’t going into your food.”
2. Use lump charcoal and avoid chemicals
Along the same lines, use lump charcoal, which tends to be all wood, says Erickson, and avoid compressed charcoal containing chemicals. (For the same reason, skip the lighter fluid.)
3. Buy alder wood planks for salmon
Like grilled salmon? (Who doesn’t?!) Erickson suggests soaking a plank of alder wood, which is inexpensive to buy, wait till your coals get gray on the outside and red on the inside, plop your slab of fish on the soaked plank, and close the top of the grill for convection heat.
4. Consider the coals (for veggies!)
Grill the foods requiring the hottest heat—your steak or whole chicken—at the beginning when the coals are piping-hot, suggests Erickson. But try to use all the heat from one chimney’s worth of coals to cook side dishes or appetizers. She likes to bury vegetables—peppers, onions, leeks, eggplant, potatoes wrapped in foil—right in the coals as they’re cooling down. Eggplant turns creamy on the inside; onion skins can be discarded and their interiors tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper for a side dish. Inspired by a recent trip to Italy, Erickson is even using coal-cooked artichokes for an upcoming event.
5. Grill your salad
Don’t forget that grilled salads can be a delightful change of pace: Erickson likes to cut a whole head of romaine, lettuce or fennel in half, salt and oil the interior, and place them on the grates of the grill for a few minutes.
6. Don’t fuss with your steak
A faux pas Erickson sees frequently? Folks flipping their steak constantly. “If it’s steak… give it some time,” she suggests. “The more you move it or agitate it the less char you’ll get.”
7. Be generous with salt
And—unless sodium is a health concern—don’t skimp on salt! Salt in advance if you can, and keep in mind that a lot of it can “fall of or burn off” on the grill, notes Erickson.
Watch: How to Clean a Grill
8. Marinades such as chermoula are your friend
As is true of many chefs, Erickson has several go-to grilling sauces that work well on almost everything. One favorite is chermoula, a pungent Moroccan sauce she makes by buzzing garlic, toasted cumin, olive oil, vinegar, salt and chiles, together in a blender. She’ll marinate chicken in it, use it on lamb, and is generally a big fan. (Tip: Reserve some of the sauce you don’t use in the marinade to serve on the table with the cooked food.)
9. Oil the food, not the grates
Erickson prefers to oil the food, not the grates, except when cooking fish—a lesson she learned the hard way.
10. Use aluminum foil to clean the grates in a pinch
Don’t have a fancy brush? No problem. Crumple some aluminum foil and scrub that over the grates instead! Erickson has used this trick while camping.
11. Think about temperature
Don’t overheat your grill, bring food to room temperature before cooking so it cooks evenly, and no need to serve the finished product blazing-hot, says Erickson. “Unless it’s a hamburger,” she says, “steak, chicken, and vegetables oftentimes improve when they’re not ripping hot.” Definitely let meats rest to redistribute their juices before cutting them; a big steak can sit for 15 to 20 minutes. “I’d rather have it room temperature rather than thrown back on the grill [and overcooked],” says Erickson.
12. Shuck oysters so they don’t explode on the grill
Yes, you can plop clams and oysters on the grill as they are, but occasionally one will explode, says our oyster expert, “which is a little terrifying.” She shucks off the top, detaches the interior from the muscle so it’s easier to eat, and adds a tiny bit of chili butter or “snail butter” (a recipe from her forthcoming cookbook!) on top. Once you see that oyster butter start to boil and the meat inside “seizes slightly” and pulls away, she says—about two to three minutes—grab ‘em off the grill before they overcook.
13. In general, try new things
Parting words of advice? “I’d challenge people to try new stuff,” says Erickson. She’s proud of her own mom for making tortillas right on the grill recently. And although hamburgers and hot dogs are fine, “pieces of things aren’t as exciting as whole things.” (She’s a big fan of a good boneless leg of lamb, for instance.)
So think about it: Can you grill that? If so, give it a whirl.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.