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Grilling season is officially here, and more welcome than ever in a summer when being outside at all feels like a terrific luxury. If you’re a grilling pro (New England winter grillers, I salute you), then you may already feel like you know all the ins and outs of outdoor cooking, but for folks newer to the game, the great question persists:

When do I use the lid, and when don’t I?

This is no dumb question: This is THE question. The single most important thing to learn about grilling is when to have the lid closed and when to have it open. It does not matter if you have a gas grill or a propane grill or a charcoal grill or a duel-fuel grill. It doesn’t matter if your grill is a tiny $35 tabletop Weber Smoky Joe, or a giant five-figure Kalamazoo. If you don’t master the art of the open or closed lid, you are not going to have a terrific dinner. So let’s get to it.

When to Grill with the Lid Off:

Cooking on a grill with the lid open or off is designed for fast cooking over direct heat. The two types of food that were made for fast cooking over direct heat are either thin or fast-cooking by nature. In other words:

  • Skirt steaks
  • Chicken paillards
  • Planks of zucchini or eggplant
  • Smash-style burgers
  • Pre-cooked items like hot dogs or other sausages
  • Mushrooms and asparagus
  • Fish where you want a hard sear but a rare center, like tuna or salmon

You want to cook these items right over the flame to get a good crisp crust or sear and do them fast and hot to retain juices. Closing the lids on these will both steam them a bit, and cook them too quickly, so you’ll get either rubbery, overcooked foods with a sear, or well-cooked items with no color or crisp on them. Keep that lid open, friends.

When to Grill with the Lid On:

Closed-lid cooking does a couple of things. One, it traps smoke, which helps give that fabulous char-grilled flavor. And two, it radiates heat back down onto the food, so it is helping cook the food from both sides at once. This method is ideal for a two-zone fire (indirect cooking), where you have half of your grill either with flames or charcoal hot, and the other side with no flame or no charcoal to create a cool zone. In this case, you can cook with your food set over the cool zone, with the lid firmly closed, to get the smoke and flavor, but also to create almost a roasting effect. This is ideal for things that take longer to cook. Think of it for foods like:

The outcome with the lid down? Flavor, juiciness, and crisp skin without charring, burning, or uneven cooking.

When to Grill with the Lid On And Off:

You knew it couldn’t be that simple, right?

One of the best ways to use your grill is with a combination, lid on/lid off, two-zone cooking. You’ll work with a hot and cool zone, but instead of doing the whole cook in the cool zone with the lid closed, you start that way until the food is almost at temperature, then take the lid off and finish over the direct heat to get a nice sear and crisp and grill marks on the outside. This method is wonderful for:

  • Thick steaks and chops
  • Fat, pub-style burgers
  • Raw sausages like bratwurst or Italian links
  • Hardy vegetables like onions, potatoes, and carrots
  • Bone-in chicken parts or spatchcocked whole chickens
  • Fish steaks like swordfish or sea bass

This two-step method allows you to get the best of both worlds: a juicy well-cooked interior, the hint of smoke and char, and a nice crust on the outside.

And now, friends, here’s hats off to a great grilling season for all!