Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

Even the most seasoned grill-masters can likely pick up a few new tricks from this recipe-driven guide, filled with the best of our test kitchen's grilling expertise. 

Darcy Lenz
May 25, 2018

Summertime means grilling time—this isn’t some new revelation. As the weather warms up, most of us love the idea of stepping away from the “preheat to 350°F” mentality and embracing the primal joy of eating simple meals prepared outdoors, over an open flame. However, the fact remains that roughly 2/3 of folks at the neighborhood cookout (not counting children, they get a pass on this one) are unwilling/unable to take charge of the grill. While it’s one thing to have legitimately zero desire to ever find yourself sweaty and cooking outside (nothing wrong with that—somebody has to be on top of the pasta salad and pies), intimidation should never be the thing that keeps you from being the grill master you secretly wish to be. 

Consider the following recipes your fundamental arsenal of grilling know-how. We’ve kept them simple in order to keep the focus on the task at hand: Demonstrating the basic principles you need to understand in order to grill just about anything you’re apt to throw onto the grates this summer. Of course, once you get the hang of things, adding your own flavor flourishes will come naturally. While this is certainly an excellent beginners’ guide to getting to know thy grill and building confidence along the way, I’m positive that even seasoned grilling pros can pick up a trick or two from our test kitchen’s wisdom. 

Work your way through the following recipes, and the grill can be your new favorite means of getting dinner on the table by the end of summer—simply commit to the basics and trust the process. 

Chicken 

 Ah yes, grilled chicken… done right, it’s a succulent, smoky treat that merits enjoying as-is, without any extraneous bells and whistles, alongside a couple of simple seasonal veggie sides. Leftovers are also the start to many an inspired summer supper—like vibrant leafy salads topped with grilled chicken for protein, light and lovely summer pastas, and creamy chicken salad that you’ll want to scoop onto every bread product within reach. To get your bearings with preparing chicken on the grill, you’ll want to start with two essential cuts: breasts and thighs.

Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: Marinated Grilled Chicken Breasts

This is, quite honestly, the only recipe for grilled chicken breasts you’ll ever need. The simple combination of olive oil, lemon, and fresh herbs creates a clean, summery flavor profile that brings out the best of lean, white meat. Fresh garlic and red pepper elevate the marinade, as well as the inherent flavor of the bird. Relative to the amount of oil and liquid going in, the amount of each aromatic called for in the marinade may seem like a lot—however, this marinade is deliberately intense by design. Using a marinade this flavor-forward allows for overall less marination, which is what you want when it comes to chicken breasts. You can read more on the general ins and outs of marinating here, with our Complete Guide to Marinating: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why.

A couple of other important things to keep in mind with this one—first, do take note of the weight of the chicken breasts called for in this recipe (6 ounces each). When shopping, aim to purchase breasts that are as close to this size as possible; if you end up with a few of those honkin’ 10-12 ouncers instead, your cook time will be thrown off. That said, regardless of the size of your chicken breasts, the absolute best way to determine the doneness of your dinner is with an instant read thermometer—in fact, just a few degrees can mean the difference between juicy and dry when it comes to lean meats like chicken breasts. You can find these handy tools for as little as $10-$11 on Amazon or at stores like Target and Walmart, and as pricey as the $80 ThermoWorks Thermapen (our test kitchen’s favorite). Should you opt invest in a quality meat thermometer (at whatever price point), know that it will serve you well through grilling season and far beyond. 

Ideal for: charcoal grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • An intensely flavored marinade is what you need for lean, white poultry. This allows you to achieve a lovely flavor level without compromising the quality of the protein by leaving it in the marinade for too long. 
  • A post-grilling brushing with reserved marinade is a pro’s finishing touch; this reignites the flavors that have soaked into the chicken.
  • A charcoal fire is also a big player in nailing an incredible grilled chicken breast. The char achieved with this heat source imparts a rustic look, deep flavor, and a distinct crispiness that can’t be beat.
  • Monitor your grill heat closely to avoid completely scorching (rather than gracefully charring) the chicken. If you see the breasts beginning to burn, move the breasts to a colder part of the grill to finish cooking. 
Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: Grilled Bone-In Chicken Thighs

The level of delectability that can be coaxed out of a skin-on, bone-in chicken thigh with nothing more than salt, pepper, a little time, and an open flame is both mind-boggling and strangely reassuring; ready yourself. 

Super-crispy skin that sheaths succulent dark meat, which has gradually developed flavor and tenderized with low and slow cooking, make these simplest of simple thighs some of the most delicious pieces of chicken you’re going to bite into this year. You may notice that, unlike the breasts above, we call for thighs on the larger side with this recipe. This makes it easier to ensure that the meat stays as moist and tender as possible. So if you accidentally drop your thermometer into the flames and find yourself unsure as to whether or not you’ve reached the perfect 165° internal temperature, play it safe and err on the side of overcooking with chicken thighs. It’s far more difficult to completely dry out a hearty, bone-in chicken thigh than it is a boneless breast. 

Ideal for: charcoal or gas grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • Salting and drying the thighs overnight guarantees the crispiest skin possible. Why? Crispy skin comes from thoroughly dry skin. The cold refrigerator air dries out the chicken skin while the salt soaks in, simultaneously flavoring the meat and drawing out surface-level moisture. 
  • Go direct heat, followed by indirect heat, for the best final product. When your dried and seasoned thighs hit the pre-heated, high-heat side of the grill, they immediately begin to crisp up and obtain a great char. Flip and move them over to the unlit, cooler side of the grill and close the lid to put the slow roasting into motion. This process is what guarantees that a tender interior awaits you beneath the crunch-tastic skin. 

Steak 

Some would argue that grilling season hasn’t officially begun until you’ve thrown a couple of thick, beefy steaks on the grates. And while I’ll be the first to second the idea that there are few pleasures more glorious than the aroma of beef cooking over an open flame, it's important to note that there are certain cuts which better lend themselves to grilling than others. Here are two we love. 

Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: Grilled New York Strip Steaks

For the absolute best of a classic, everything-you-expect grilled steak experience, you simply can’t beat the New York strip. Now, there are a couple of simple details in this recipe that I think are worth emphasizing, mostly because—if you're anything like myself and are oftentimes more of a recipe-skimmer—they’d be easy to gloss right over when it comes time to actually put your meat to the fire. However, it’s in these small details that perfection is found. 

First, remember that no matter how you’re cooking a steak, success starts at the market. When shopping, look for steaks that have a nice, even marbling of fat throughout, avoiding those that have a thick ribbon of fat going smack-down the center (you should only see that thick, white layer along the outside edge of your steak). You also want steaks that all look just about the same; in fact, asking the butcher to cut your steaks to the exact weight/size specification called for in the recipe is going to make your life easier overall. That said, if you don’t have access to a butcher who’s willing to accommodate your custom needs... well, that sucks, but no worries. Just keep that meat thermometer handy when grilling to make sure you’re spot-on with your timing. Second, even if it seems like a frilly, extraneous step, don’t skip out on making the garlic butter and tying up a bundle of herbs to serve as your basting brush. Trust me, the results are more than worth the five whole minutes accomplishing both will require. Neither of these bold flavor-infusing elements are exactly secret tricks, but they’re hugely underutilized.

Be smart, go the extra mile, make great steak. 

Ideal for: gas grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • We eat first with our eyes, so read the recipe instructions closely before stepping out to the patio in order to achieve flawless, signature crosshatch grill marks.
  • One of the most significant differentiating factor between an OK NY strip steak and a NY strip steak that brings tears to your eyes because it’s so damn good is basting. Do. Not. Skip. The. Basting. 
  • Consider the technique demonstrated in this recipe basting 2.0; not only does it make for a more succulent piece of beef, it seriously amps up the flavor. 
Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: Cola-Marinated Hanger Steak

Hanger steak, for reasons beyond most chefs and meat enthusiasts’ comprehension, is not a hugely popular cut. However, for a steak that promises massive flavor for a not-massive price tag, hanger is where it’s at. It’s something like a cross between ribeye and tenderloin in terms of flavor and texture, and a brief marinating session in an intense marinade further enhances these fine attributes. If you don’t see hanger steak in the meat case at your favorite grocery store or butcher shop, simply ask the butcher and they will likely be able to pull you some from the back. If not, they may suggest skirt steak as a similar alternative—which is all fine and well, just be aware that skirt steak is a significantly thinner cut compared to hanger, so you’ll need to adjust the recipe’s cooking time. 

Ideal for: gas grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • The times listed in this recipe are for achieving a perfect medium-rare, which is how hanger steak should be served… always. If you prefer your steak cooked to “well done,” this is not the steak for you, my friend. 
  • Be sure to cut this steak against the grain. Failing to do so is essentially trading your tender piece of meat for a tough, chewy one. Why would you do that? No, don't be that guy. 
  • In the marinade, we call for cola made with cane sugar—more commonly known as Mexican Coke—because the cane sugar works well for flavor and encourages a deep caramelization of the steak’s exterior. However, if you already have regular ol’ corn syrup Coca Cola in the fridge, you can certainly use that instead. 

Burgers

The quintessential cookout dish, a banging burger is something every grill-master should have in their repertoire. Here's yours, pal. 

Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: Perfect Grilled Burgers

Delightfully charred, juicy, and full of nuance, these burgers are the only ones you will ever want to make. That’s why we named them Perfect

I read once that when making hamburgers, one shouldn’t add anything to the ground beef—no Worcestershire, no egg, certainly no bread crumbs, no nothing. (According to this source, even salt and pepper shouldn’t be mixed in; rather, these basic seasonings should be sprinkled on the outside of the formed patties.) Reasoning being, the flavor of the meat should be allowed to shine through uninhibited. And you know, I always considered this to be a reasonable line of thinking… until I tasted one of these burgers. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but biting into this burger for the first time was, for me, like a rebirth of sorts. 

Incorporating the ingredients that we do into the patty blend in no way downplays the deliciousness of the beef; rather, these flavor components enhance it. The blend of chuck and sirloin provides a deep richness that is very well complemented by the shallot and thyme. And the mayo and Dijon deliver richness and a balanced fattiness to the meat, guaranteeing a succulence level unlike anything I’ve ever experienced from a grilled burger. I think you’d have to legitimately burn these burgers to ashes in order to end up with a dried-out final product. 

P.S. Speaking of burning things, if you encounter any flare ups while grilling, simply move the patties to a different spot on the grill or spritz the flare with water. You don’t want to overhandle the patties, as this will lead to more fat dripping out, causing toughness and more flaring. 

Ideal for: gas grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • The blend of ground sirloin and chuck is important to both the flavor and moisture level of these burgers; don’t deviate and go all-in on one ground meat. This isn't the time to put all of your eggs in one basket.
  • “Larding” the beef mixture with mayo is a foolproof way to avoid dry burgers.
  • Mixing your patty blend using two forks is a good technique to keep from overworking the meat.

Ribs

Ribs tend to be a smokehouse favorite that too many of us are intimidated to take on at home. That’s about to change with this foolproof method.

Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: The Best Grilled Ribs

The texture of these smoky beauties is everything you want from a slab of ribs. Cooking over an indirect heat gives them a crispy exterior bark, while the meat stays tender, but not completely falling-off-the-bone tender—you’re left with the perfect amount of chew. Baby back ribs are readily available at most any supermarket; when shopping, look for the smaller racks as these tend to have more tender meat. You can remove the membrane yourself at home easily enough, or go ahead and ask the butcher to take care of it at the store if you'd rather not mess with it. 

Now once you have your baby backs, repeat after me: My ribs deserve a great dry rub, and a great dry rub they shall have! Yeah, across the board, a dry rub is the way to go with ribs. We especially love the rub featured in this recipe because it's simple, but incredibly effective. The smoked paprika gives the ribs a familiar smoky flavor and deep color, while the dark brown sugar, garlic, and onion powder bring a sweet-savory balance to the party. That said, you’ll want to avoid leaving the ribs to rest with the rub for much longer than the recipe prescribes as the meat will actually begin to cure. 

Beyond dry rubbing, the major technique learning you’re gonna want to internalize from this recipe is the stacking method. Stacking the slabs of ribs on top of one another allows them to self-baste as they cook by indirect grill heat and the flavorful juices rendering from each rack of ribs drips onto the rack beneath. This bit of test kitchen genius makes for ribs your guests will hem and haw over until you make them again, but it does require that you rotate the slabs every 40 minutes—so don’t set ‘em and completely forget ‘em.  

Ideal for: gas grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • Dry rubs and ribs belong with one another.
  • Go for the babiest baby backs for the most tender meat.
  • The overnight resting period makes for well-seasoned ribs, but avoid edging your way into over-seasoned territory (i.e. cured pork).
  • Stacking and rotating your ribs on the grill assures that each slab is evenly cooked and properly basted for an incredible final product.

 

Fish

Seafood is arguably the most intimidating protein category to bring to the grill. And believe me, I get it… there’s the risk of over-cooking, there’s the fear of having everything fall apart on the flip, there’s the fact that fish is going to be comparatively more unforgiving when it comes to a grilling error. Fish is delicate, but I can almost guarantee that it’s easier to get right on the grill than someone who’s never attempted to grill fish would imagine. Especially if you use the following recipes as your building blocks; here, we cover examples of grilling a meaty/oily fish, a white/flakey fish, and a shellfish. 

Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: Grilled Salmon with Orange-Soy Glaze

While the grill is obviously the cooking method for casual, no-shoes-necessary, outdoor-centered meals, don’t forget that you can still bring a touch of sit-down-dinner-type sophistication to the patio table too. This buttery, smoky, and gloriously glaze-y salmon does just that. 

We call for individual fillets in this recipe, but you could also opt for going with a whole side of salmon (of roughly equivalent weight) for a truly impressive presentation. If you do stick with individual portions, which will be easier to work with on the grill, look for those that are evenly sized. Ideally, you’ll be able to get your fillets from the area closest to the head of the fish (these will be the thickest cuts). 

When it comes to flipping the salmon, grabbing the right tool is crucial; don’t attempt going at it with tongs—this is a job for your spatula. The other key that will allow you to flip with confidence is starting with a clean grill. This rings true for virtually anything you grill, but especially with fish, you have to make sure those grates are clean and well oiled.

Ideal for: charcoal or gas grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • There’s no need to fear grilling fish, it’s as simple as anything!
  • A sweet and umami-rich glaze pairs incredibly well with a fatty fish like salmon.
  • Greasing your fish as well as your CLEAN grill grates are critical to preventing sticking. 
  • For fish, you’ll want to bust out the cooking spray to grease your grates, as this brings a seasoned cast-iron affect to your grates. 
Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: Simple Grilled Halibut

Feeling good with salmon? Okay, you’re ready for slightly more delicate fin fish. Though simple, this recipe provides you with the tools you need to grill most any flakey fish. We happen to particularly love halibut because it’s an inherently flavorful fish that requires no more than salt, pepper, and a squeeze of fresh lemon to taste absolutely divine. 

When shopping for this fish, obviously, fresher is better. You’ll want fillets that are all about the same size; if your fillets are thicker than 1 1/2-inches, they’re going to take a bit longer to cook than the recipe calls for, so adjust the cook time accordingly. If the fish still has its skin on, ask to have it removed at the fish counter before going home. 

Similar to the salmon recipe above, the major success factor in taking a beautifully marked, delightfully supple piece of fish off of the grill is the prep work. Clean the grill grates thoroughly, hit them with the cooking spray, dry your fillets well, and don’t forget to oil them up. 

Ideal for: gas grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • Sometimes, it’s best to keep it simple. 
  • Seriously… Clean. Your. Grill. 
  • Grease the grates AND the food.
Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: Grilled Oysters with Garlic Butter

We felt a strong obligation to include grilled oysters in this guide—not because you’re going to make them every weekend, but because you absolutely should make them as many weekends as you can. There’s nothing better than having friends over and kicking off the cookout with a batch of these gems, eaten straight off of the grill. Please do me a solid, though—and promise to do everything in your power to keep these babies level while you transfer them to and from the grill, in order to prevent spilling the oysters' liquid. 

The briny goodness of oysters is further enhanced with the super-savory compound butter used in this recipe. Throw in the element of smokiness from the grill, and you’ve got yourself a little bite of heaven. Oysters are incredibly quick cooking, so allowing them to warm gently as the butter melts over the meat is the way to go. 

If you’ve never shucked an oyster before, watch a few videos first… You’ll want to have your oyster-holding hand covered with a towel to protect it and help you grip the shell better. And you’re best off only using an actual oyster knife instead of attempting to substitute a different tool. 

Ideal for: charcoal or gas grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • The compound butter is crucial. The dry heat of the grill can easily dry oysters out, but the added moisture and fat from the butter very much helps to prevent that. Not to mention, it’s straight-up delicious.
  • Don’t spill the oyster liquid—that stuff is gold.

Vegetables

What, you thought we were going to completely ignore the veggies? 

Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

The Recipe: Herb-Grilled Summer Squash

Grilled vegetables are as essential a part of the outdoor, open-flame cooking experience as anything else. And few vegetables say summer quite like zucchini and yellow summer squash. Dressed in olive oil and an abundance of fresh herbs, this versatile veggie recipe is perfect for just about any occasion. The trick to nailing grilled summer squash is to cut your vegetables evenly and at the right thickness—you want the squash to be able to char, but not overcook into a mushy mess. 

Look for squash and zucchini that are tubular and relatively even in thickness, this will make them much easier to cut and cook properly. You can prep the squash ahead of time with oil, herbs, and salt, and then toss them onto the grill right before you’re just about ready to eat. Once you have your squash planks on the grill, don’t be afraid to move them around on the grates to ensure that they cook evenly. 

Just FYI, I have a feeling that any leftovers of this smoky, herb-forward summer squash would be a more-than-welcome addition to any simple pasta dish. 

Ideal for: charcoal or gas grilling

Key Recipe Takeaways: 

  • Cut your squash thickly and consistently. Buying fairly evenly shaped vegetables make this easier. 
  • Cutting the vegetables into long planks reduces the risk of you losing your vegetables between the grates. 
  • Oiling the grill grates as well as the vegetables prevents the moist squash from sticking. 

A Note on Gas vs. Charcoal

In terms of cooking quality, the main difference comes down to this: Charcoal has a stronger appeal in terms of flavor, but gas allows for more precise temperature control. Depending on what your grilling, one of these desirable qualities may play a more important role than the other as far as producing the greatest possible final product (and in some cases, it truly doesn’t make all that much of a difference). That’s the idea behind the “ideal for” classification listed on each recipe above; that said, every recipe in this article can be prepared on both gas and charcoal grills. We’re not sitting here assuming that the average home cook/grilling novice has both options available to them right out back, so for anyone wondering if they can adapt a recipe listed as “ideal for gas grilling” to their charcoal grill (or vice versa), the answer is resoundingly YES. 

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